Gamification 101

Gamification is a term that has been tossed around to describe scenarios where game elements placed in tasks engage users and make things less boring. Well, there’s more to it than that. Gamification is often mistaken for game simulations. Game simulations are game-like applications that are built not for entertainment but for learning certain real-world skills. Flight simulators (to learn how to fly) and racing simulators (that racing drivers use to learn the layout of tracks) are some examples. Even though these platforms involve games, these should not be confused with gamification.

What is Gamification Anyway?

So let me restart with the simplest definition: Gamification is the application of game design elements and principles in a non-game context. Game design elements are avatars, points, badges, leaderboard, feedback, mystery, and competition. The non-game contexts could be schools, offices, factories, retail markets, web and mobile applications, or any other place you think it could perfectly fit in. There is a misconception that using PB & L (the game designer lingo for points, badges, and leaderboard) would magically create world-class user engagement. It’s not so easy though. Understanding what drives the user is the epicenter of gamification. That is where motivation and rewards kick in. Understanding motivation and how different rewards affect users is the key to achieving effective gamification.

The Psychology Behind Gamification

Motivation is anything that drives us to do something. Digging deeper, we can find motivation to be of two types—intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to perform an activity for no other reason but the love and joy of doing it—like a hobby. In the context of gamification, intrinsic motivation is the sweetest spot you can hit to make your platform engaging. To be entertained is an intrinsic motivation, and some devices and platforms are already in this sacred realm—TV and its younger cousins, YouTube and Netflix. You don’t need external motivation to watch a funny video on YouTube; you do it because of the ever-so-present inherent motivation to be entertained.

Extrinsic is the opposite of whatever I said about intrinsic. You do something to avoid a world of pain and punishment or receive a gift. You wear a seat belt to avoid getting hurt or a ticket (that is, to avoid pain and punishment.) A reward is an extrinsic motivation. A reward is what you get for doing something. Rewards are also of two types, intrinsic and extrinsic. An intrinsic reward is an intangible award such as recognition, sense of achievement, or the satisfaction you get by doing something. An extrinsic reward is a tangible award given to you for accomplishing something. For example, a certificate of accomplishment, a prize for winning a race, a badge or point for doing something right, or a monetary incentive for doing your job exceptionally well. Now since I have talked about both reward and motivation, take a minute and think about an action that you do that couldn’t be mapped to both.

Some Successful Gamification Examples

Nike+ FuelBand is a great example that shows how effective intrinsic and extrinsic rewards can be. There are plenty of fitness trackers in the market, but none of them makes you want to be so active like the FuelBand. The FuelBand comes with its own mobile app and has a display that shows fuel points, which is the numeric representation of how active you are. Higher the fuel point, the more active you are. This made people compare fuel points. The FuelBand mobile app lets you view the analytics behind your run and share them on social media. Nike has effectively used PB&L in their product. The app shows what you and your friends’ have accomplished, and the display in the band provides motivation to be active. The app relies on intrinsic rewards like accomplishments, self-development, social recognition, and social influence.

Another great example of gamification using extrinsic reward is Sweden’s Speed Camera Lottery. It gave commuters who drove within speed limits the opportunity to win a raffle funded by fines collected from speeders. Opower, a customer engagement platform for utilities, is best known for combining extrinsic and intrinsic awards. It gave customers information on how their energy consumption compares with their neighbors’. This brought a sense of competition to energy consumption and saved consumers over two terawatt hours of energy (enough to power a city of 500,000 people) and $220 million in costs as per reports. Opower simply incorporated the basics of game elements and implemented them in the right context. Research indicates that extrinsic rewards do work better but not for long. Intrinsic rewards have a more lasting effect on users and keep them engaged.

Gamification is a fairly new topic that is just reaching the peak of the hype cycle. The only rulebooks on it mostly promote subjective ideas. Thomas Edison’s words, “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work,” would sum up a guide book on gamification. Businesses that have effectively implemented gamification never followed a well-defined path to reach success. They invested a lot of effort in understanding their users and applying those insights on the platform they built.