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Gamification: It’s a science, it's an art… but is it sustainable?

31st Oct 2011
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As principal scientist of analytics at Lithium Technologies, Michael Wu is one of the leading thinkers on behaviour within online communities and social networks, and has spent years exploring the dynamics of social interaction. caught up with Michael on the London leg of Lithium’s Likes to Loves world tour to discuss the opportunities and dangers of gamification.

MyC: What is the distinction between gamification, game mechanics and gaming dynamics?

MW: Gamification is what I’d define as the use of game attributes to drive game-like behaviour in an ungame context. What are these gaming attributes? Some of those are the game mechanics and game dynamics. These are the building blocks, the nitty gritty things, the appointment dynamics, the level-up dynamics, all those sorts of things are pieces of tools that you can use to drive certain actions or certain behaviour in your players. And so the difference between game mechanics and game dynamics is that game mechanics is usually a static point of view, and game dynamics are more temporal. There is less of a distinction between these two. You can string a bunch of game mechanics together and turn them into a game dynamic because of how they roll out in time, for example points and badges are essentially a kind of game mechanic, so it’s a feedback system, but when you give the badge to people, that is a game dynamic, for example an appointment dynamic, that says at a certain time you do a certain thing at a certain place then you get certain rewards. That is an appointment dynamic, that Farmville leverages pretty well.

MyC: How can an understanding of these help organisations engage with their customer communities?

MW: It depends on the organisation. Different organisations have different agendas, different purposes for launching a community. Some launch a community to support calls, some launch it to drive word of mouth or marketing and sales, and some want a community to crowdsource for ideas and new product improvements. So there are different purposes. And for different purposes you want different actions. So a support type of community wants people to ask questions and you want people to answer questions. You have something you want to drive, so you gamify those actions.

I find it interesting. Gamification is a buzzword that people don’t think of it in a behavioural perspective. So when you want to see gamification you must first ask yourself what action, what behaviour, you are trying to gamify. So for example, in a sales and marketing community, the action that you want to gamify is perhaps word of mouth or sharing content or creation of viral content and things of that sort. So it is a different set of actions that you would gamify for a support community. And it is different if you have a community that is built, for example, to process ideas for product improvement, and co-development, co-creation of value. So for that kind of community you want to gamify ideation, you want to gamify the ranking or voting on the bubble up of good ideas in the community. So there are all different kinds of action for a different purpose that you can gamify. So it depends on the goal that you want in the first place.

MyC: So is viewing gamification as the end rather than the means a common misconception?

MW: Gamification is definitely not the end. A lot of people see that. People confuse it with building a game on top of some existing process and that is actually not true. Those are not gamifications. Gamification is really good at getting people to start doing something. I like to always say that gamifcation won’t solve your business problems, if your business or your product or service don’t provide value for customers. Gamification may begin to start trying to, and then they [customers] realise it is not valuable and then they quit. It is not going to work. So if your product and service indeed provides value for your customers then gamification is a good way to start them trying it and once they realise it has value they will continue to use this product and service.

And gamifaction becomes a secondary reinforcement system. It reassures the value that they are getting from the service and product they are using. So for example, in the community, some people may get excited about answering questions or helping other people create ideas because of the points initially, but after a while it won’t be the main reason anymore, they will say ‘oh wow I can make a difference, I get my idea implemented, my answer has been viewed 6,000 times and I solve this top problem that even the company engineers couldn’t solve’. So they create value while participating. So we gamify community participation so they start participating but while they participate they generate value and then that value can keep them continuing to build. And the point and values is essentially a reinforcement system.

MyC: Can you us an example of how in marketing, it can increase the likelihood that users will perform a target behaviour?

So the first question is what action do you want the user to do. So let’s say for example, sharing, or spreading word of mouth. If sharing is what you want to gamify, then you want to have three factors. You want them to have motivation to take that action, you want to give them the ability so they can take that action, and then you want to trigger them.

I would say the first step is to create some kind of ranking and reputation system around sharing so you can say that you are the maven once you share with certain friends. You also have to do a lot of analytics behind it because it is very easy with a gaming system to just share to the same person a thousand times, but that is not very good and it will be counterproductive. You want to track how many unique individuals that this person will share with. So that is a harder metric to gain. There are ways to design metrics and analytics around gamification that makes it less prone and more resistant to gaming or cheating behaviour. So providing points and badges around sharing, and then you track that with analytics behind, so you know how you reward them, so that provides a motivation for them to take the action.

Second, you want to give them the ability to do it. So make things very simple to do - one click and you can share, and you can see all the friends you can potentially share with and then you just go and click and it goes out. So make it simple for people to share. And then when you see a piece of great content, offer a trigger. And then off of that trigger there’s a call to action - ‘would you like to share this with your network’, something like that. The art is really how do you design the platform such that all the motivation and ability and trigger all converge at the same time. And when you have that people are very likely to take that action. And predictably so.

MyC: Can any business put these approaches into effect or do they really require expertise to deploy them?

MW: You are required to iterate to find out what works and what doesn’t work. Gamification is a heavily metric and data-driven methodology because you have to track everything. You have to track all the user behaviour. You need to see what works and what doesn’t work. What actually drives them to take action, what doesn't? Is this motivation enough? Is this motivation too much of a big gap between this level and the next level so that people get frustrated and stop participating, so that you need to adjust the gap so that it is closer and you get them the next badge or next level at the right time so they feel accomplished rather than feeling they will never get there or lose interest. Or maybe you give them too frequently, so that they think it is too easy and gets boring. They will leave too. So it is an iterated process. I don’t think it requires a PhD or anything to do this. But it certainly helps to have an experimental mindset.

MyC: What constitutes successful and unsuccessful gamification?

MW: There are lots of examples of gamification that doesn’t work. Just like Lyle [Fong, Lithium founder] mentioned, games are very hard to design. And one out of thousands of games become popular and successful. So there are definitely failures. I would say you require these ingredients. (Having them doesn’t guarantee that they are successful but without these it is most likely you won’t succeed).

One is a good understanding of the action you are trying to drive, and anticipation of unintended outcomes. Some examples I have seen is that some people have designed a game that is a kind of gamification of a little display on your driving dashboard that shows that if you drive in a more energy saving way, saving gas, then it grows into a beautiful flower, and if you drive by slamming on your brakes a lot and things like that then you use a lot of gas and you increase your carbon footprint and it kind of steps on the plant and the plant withers and dies. And so it is an interesting idea and it does change human behaviour and people start to drive more fuel efficiently. But then one of the unintended consequence is that people start skipping red lights because they feel like they sholdn’t step on the brakes! So you want to drive that action but you kind of drive it too much. So you have to understand the action that you are trying to drive and anticipate these unintended consequences. So that is one thing.

Two is data. Analytics... you have to track everything the user does and be able to reward people fairly. One of the things that make games great is their explicit rules, you play by the rules, and they are enforced. Life in some ways is a game. At work and at school, they are all kind of a game if you think about it, but they are a game that is poorly designed and the rules are not strictly enforced, they are opposed by people who game the system. That’s why Jane McGonigal said ‘reality is broken’. Whereas in the game world the rules are still in place. So that all comes from analytics and data. You have to track all the behaviour, understand the behaviour and reward people fairly for the behaviour that is desirable. And design a system that is not easily cheated or gamed by the user. It only requires a few people to game the system and cheat the system and then it destroys the experience. ‘How come this guy gets to the top, he didn’t do anything great’. It destroys the experience for everybody else and then a lot of people stop playing the game.

So that is another thing and then the third thing is to understand the player. That is one of the most important things in gaming design and gamification - understanding what motivates your user and what they perceive as simple. A lot of engineers or game designers spend a lot of time just understanding their user. I think that one of the early game research from Richard Bartle, who is a professor here in the UK, he identified four types of user, four types of gamer personalities. That is actually a very simplistic model but when you have no other information that is a good way to understand your player. There are four types - achievers, socialisers, explorers and killers. And each one of them are motivated by different things. Each one of them can be triggered by different things. You want to apply the trigger that is appropriate for the type of user that you are trying to get to do things. So understanding your user is very important. That’s a very simplistic model. A more sophisticated model is just to do a user study, to understand the user personas and want drives them.

MyC: You’ve been writing about gamification for a long time, but it’s now becoming a buzzword. What dangers does this create?

MW: The danger is that the consumer will be trained in a certain way to kind of have a certain association with these types of interactions. What you call it doesn’t matter. Consumers may not even know that you have gamified their activity. One of the things that we discussed almost two months ago at Wharton [Gamification Symposium] where they invited all the thought leaders in gamification and researchers and psychologists to discuss is whether gamification is sustainable, what is the danger and applicability in business and all that stuff.

So one of the dangers is that you could get people into this mode where they just don’t want to have anything to do with anything that is gamified. And when you give them badges they will say ‘I knew it, it’s one of those things again’. Eventually if for every action people take we give them badges or points, then eventually people will get tired and they will say ‘I know your trick’. Right now, it is the same thing with spam mail that you get, or a pop-up ad. If you see something pop-up you don’t even wait for it to load, you just close it immediately, you know what that is going to do. So once people get to that stage then it is a loss for everyone. And I think there is a danger for this thing to get to that point if people do gamification wrong, and people just blindly slap points and badges onto interactions that have no meaning for the user. Then when they take those actions and they say ‘this isn’t valuable to me and it is just wasting my time, and I’m not going to do that anymore, then next time I see that thing come up, I’m going to disassociate with any attempt at that’. So that will then make it very hard for people to gamify anything for them subsequently. So when that happens, you lose, I lose, everybody loses.

But you do it right, then once you gamify something, when people start participating and take the action, those actions in turn generate real value, and they say ‘this is a good thing’ and they will think that gamification has real value, and they will continue participating and gamifaction becomes a sustainable strategy. So there is a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that people think that gamification is just points and badges. And that is not true. If enough people do it wrong, then the consumer is going to be trained in a way to resist this kind of movement and that is bad.

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