6 Cheats for Gamification

By Matt Nesbitt

This is a follow-up to Stephanie’s post from earlier this year. In it she discussed how gamification was gaining acceptance from business executives and described how some of the mechanics work. Gamification isn’t about making the latest Facebook game, it is about taking the mechanics and qualities that make those games appealing to us and then applying them in a totally different context. It is seeing traction in marketing campaigns, employee engagement programs, social causes, and especially in software application design for user engagement.

In this series of posts I’ll review why this concept is so powerful, how it has been used, and where it is going. Here are the 6 basics to get it started:

1) The Big Picture

Gamification can already be found in things like airline and credit card rewards programs and the Ford Fusion’s eco leaf dashboard. It works by using the reward schema of a game when progress towards a goal has been made. The concept has recently made exponential progress since being combined with the electronic social networks that have become central to our lives.

2) Power (and pitfalls) of Rewards

The key to all of it is all tied to the “Reward Pathway” in our brains. This dopamine highway responds to all sorts of things that are perceived as good behaviors for our survival (like eating or sex). Fortunately for game designers, getting positive feedback from games can trigger the same response. Unfortunately though, this is such a powerful process that people can get addicted, or if the wrong things are rewarded, unintended consequences can result.

3) Reward Schema and Game Mechanics

Games and their physiological dynamics have been studied to extract a playbook of rules that designers are using to try and translate the kind of engagement a player has in a game to other areas. For example, in baseball, if you get a player over home plate, your team scores a point. With your credit card, every time you spend a dollar you get a point. Win enough points in baseball and you might get a pennant. Similarly, if you accrue enough points on your credit card and you might get a trip to Hawaii.

4) Social Connection

Most games, just like other aspects of our lives, involve interactions with people. We crave these interactions and look forward to the next opportunity to engage in them. Now, with the rise of electronic social networks like Facebook on mobile devices, our engagement is almost continuous; regardless of time or place. In addition to the increase in exposure, these digital tools also allow us to keep track of exponentially more people than before. Combined, this creates a double-whammy of interconnectivity to which designers have taken notice.

5) Setting the Challenge

Pundits in the field use terms like Flow, or zone, but the concept is that the player is constantly at the right level of challenge and all other concerns disappear. The concentration is intense the motivation and ability are in alignment and the right triggers are happening at the right time to enable the players to act. A simple concept, but like chess, it can be hard to master.

6) Persuasive Power

Followers of Gamification say we are at or approaching a tipping point. The secrets of how it works are out and understood by a growing and vocal set of people. It has set the stage for marketers to utilize it with new fervor, while also providing scientists and social activists a new avenue to affect change. Together they will use these game mechanics and rewards in our interconnected social sphere to create a range of futures from the most dystopic where any self control seems lost, to a utopia where all the world’s problems are solved. Either way, it is certain that a new age of gamification is here.

In the next post on this I’ll go into more detail about how we got here and what is next.