People are complex, smart, and sometimes extremely stubborn, which may explain why in the last two thousand years, nobody has discovered an easy way to shape how people think and behave. Yet in the digital era, we're witnessing widespread claims, that the secret to winning friends and influencing people, is to reward them with points and badges.
A magic solution to engagement or a load of hype—in this article, I’m going to discuss gamification, describe it, judge it, address misconceptions, and advocate when it’s a good or bad idea.
The gamification bandwagon
My hunch on why gamification is getting so much play, is that it's widely misconceived to be a magic solution for engagement and influence. At present, there is no shortage of gamification advocates who claim badges, points, and competition will get everyone so hooked on your digital tech, that you had better re-engineer everything ASAP or get left behind.
However, jumping on the gamification bandwagon is a risky undertaking. Not because it doesn’t work, but rather, because it’s easy to get it wrong if you don’t understand the rules of the behavior change game. However, like all other behavior change design patterns, gamification does have merit. The trick is to understand it, know its limits, and make informed decisions on its application.
Gamification and its ingredients
Gamification is defined as the use of game elements in non-game contexts. The idea is this: If we can isolate the active ingredients that make games addictive, then we can put those ingredients into our digital technologies and make them addictive too. For instance, we can take a non-game context, such as tagging photos, and add game elements, such as earning points for matching other people's tags, thus making a dull routine, an exciting game that is fun and engaging.
To apply gamification, first, you need to identify these game elements, and then find a creative way to work them into your technology. However, the problem is that gamification researchers do not always agree on what these ingredients are, and a few researchers argue that the ingredients cannot even be isolated.
Within this debate, I take the view (founded on a field called evidence based behavioral medicine), that technology is only persuasive when it employs specific persuasive ingredients. These persuasive ingredients are the things that exert persuasive force on people, encouraging them to shift their beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Remove these ingredients, and the technology is no longer persuasive. In the sciences, these ingredients have different names, but I prefer to call them “behavior change strategies”, “persuasive strategies”, or simply, “strategies”.
In the case of gamification, to identify these specific ingredients, I reviewed a few popular gamification taxonomies (by Charles Coonradt, Reeves and Read, Gabe Zichermann, and Marc Prensky), identified the common strategies, and compared them to behavior change strategies used in the sciences, which I had spent years isolating, and blending into my Persuasive Communication Model (now under embargo while going through scientific peer review). During this process, I identified seven core ingredients of gamification that have clear linkages to proven behavior change strategies, with the exception of fun and playfulness, which has perhaps, been ignored somewhat.
My primary goal was to identify the psychological architecture of gamification. Put another way, the psychological architecture of gamification is the core collection of persuasive strategies that, when combined, produce an effect greater than the sum of their parts. Put yet another way, these are the ingredients of gamification that when combined, make an application fun and engaging. Take away one of these core ingredients, and the entire product becomes dull or annoying. Add it back, and the magic happens. A psychological architecture is the optimal blend of persuasive strategies for any given application.
The psychological architecture of gamification includes these core persuasive strategies:
- Goal setting: Committing to achieve a goal
- Capacity to overcome challenges: Growth, learning, and development
- Providing feedback on performance: Receiving constant feedback through the experience
- Reinforcement: Gaining rewards, avoiding punishments
- Compare progress: Monitoring progress with self and others
- Social connectivity: Interacting with other people
- Fun and playfulness: Paying out an alternative reality
What follows is a list of gamification mechanics (or tactics), as isolated by the paper “Does gamification work?”. These game tactics are the on-screen functions used to satisfy the persuasive strategies listed above. Here are some of the most popular gamification tactics:
- Providing clear goals
- Offering a challenge
- Using levels (incremental challenges)
- Allocating points
- Showing progress
- Providing feedback
- Giving rewards
- Providing badges for achievements
- Showing the game leaders
- Giving a story or theme
One of the chief misconceptions about gamification is that any technology that employs game tactics will be more engaging. The problem with this thinking is that it mistakes superficial game tactics for deeper psychological principles, the strategies. For instance, it is risky to believe that badges will motivate users, without considering the persuasive strategies that the game tactics must satisfy, where a badge’s value comes from a community that places value on that badge, and where the badge’s value is further dependent on whether it transfers anything of value to the person. Offering game tactics that don’t satisfy persuasive strategies, is like cooking dinner for someone with ingredients (game tactics) they don’t like (strategies). Cook to your users’ taste.
Does gamification work?
In order for gamification to be considered effective, gamified technology must outperform other design patterns, in terms of influencing people's beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. Moreover, to be considered effective, gamification must sustain these impacts over the long-term, and offer more than just a short-term novelty effect.
So the burning question is this: Is there any strong evidence that gamification works? There is no shortage of antidotal evidence that gamification works, such as ad hoc case studies and perhaps less reliable, industry claims. Antidotal evidence is a good start. But to really know if gamification works, we need credible, impartial research.
As research on gamification only started to appear just before 2010, we recently reached the point where there were enough quality academic studies, that a team of researchers (Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sara) conducted a systematic review of the scientific literature. In their publication, “Does Gamification Work?”, the research team found evidence across numerous studies, that gamification can influence psychological and physical outcomes, meaning gamification can make a site more fun and engaging.
However, not all studies showed positive effects, and the impact seemed to vary according to the community, users, and product, with some users complaining that gamification was annoying. Additionally, there were far more studies in particular contexts, such as online learning, intra-organizational systems, and work environments, with the lack of studies from other domains possibly signaling that gamification may only work in environments that already share a common psychological architecture. Finally, the researchers raised one red flag, as they couldn’t tell if the reported outcomes represented profound long-term impacts, or just short-term novelty effects.
Beyond the direct empirical evidence, there is some good theoretical support for gamification. The psychological architecture of gamification, listed above, shares many of the same ingredients as proven health behavior change technologies. I spent two years studying the science of online health behavior change websites (published in the JMIR paper: Online Interventions for Social Marketing Health Behavior Change Campaigns).
One of my chief discoveries was that the psychological architecture of websites that can change people's health behaviors, resembled a coach, with the strategies employed by digital coaching technology, sharing many of the common strategies used in gamification design. Since the psychological architecture of gamification is similar to the psychological architecture of digital coaching, and since the digital coaching architecture has strong scientific validation, we can find theoretical support for gamification, as a close cousin of the digital coaching architecture.
In summary, there is a lot of low credibility antidotal evidence that gamification works. There are a few dozen high credibility studies that show gamification works, but with mixed results, complications, uncertainty about context, and questions about whether it’s only a short-term novelty effect. Finally, the psychological architecture of gamification seems to be related to digital coaching, an evidence-based architecture. My reading of the evidence is that gamification can be effective when used with particular user groups and products, however, like all practices, it can fail or backfire when poorly implemented.
Picking the right psychological architecture for the job
Although there is evidence that suggests gamification works, there are some major risks associated with the current hype surrounding gamification. The chief risks are becoming overconfident in the ability of gamification to exert massive influence across all contexts, which can cause developers to form tunnel vision and fixate on just one of many motivational design patterns.
Locking into one motivational design patterns might cause developers to miss opportunities to identify the best psychological architecture for the job. Every psychological architecture has its own unique mix of ingredients, and suitability to particular contexts. For instance, a sales landing page, a temptation/barrier gateway, a social networking site, a motivation coaching site, a dialogue box, an e-commerce checkout, an unsubscribe page, all draw on different combinations of persuasive ingredients. Moreover, my research is showing that the world's most successful websites are so optimized, that they offer more persuasive strategies per square inch than many of the lower performing sites.
In general, applying gamification to a sales landing page is not a great idea. Likewise, neither is providing an aggressive sales landing page to fuel a social networking site. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules, with each audience-product mix requiring its own unique psychological architecture. The trick is knowing which psychological architecture is right for a particular application, and identifying when gamification, in whole or part, is suitable to a particular application.
When to use gamification
You should only use gamification when it's suitable to a given audience-product mix. However, it's not easy to know in advance, whether or not gamification makes sense for any audience-product mix. Nonetheless, here are some criteria you can use ahead of time, to help you judge if gamification makes sense for you.
You need to consider:
- Your users
- Your users’ social context
- The psychological and behavioral outcomes that you want to achieve
- The interactive product/platform that you are offering
- The compatibility of your interactive product, users, and community with the psychological architecture of gamification. In other words, if what you're doing/planning is close to the seven strategies, chances are, you'll have a good match.
- The compatibility of your product, users, and community with gamification tactics
Once you offer it to your users, they’ll either adopt your product, reject it, or if you have a good relationship with them, they may be kind enough to help you optimize it over time.
So if you do decide to gamify, I hope you enjoy the process. The act of innovating technology is always exciting, and shares all the same ingredients as gamification, such as aspiring to reach difficult goals, overcoming challenges, drawing on lots of feedback, tracking your progress over time, a huge amount of social interaction, and if you have fun, chances are, you'll be more engaged. Finally, if you fail to reach your goals, you might be punished; but if you reach your goals, there is a good chance that you will be rewarded. So enjoy the game while you are building it.
About the author, Brian Cugelman, PhD
Brian runs AlterSpark Corp., a digital agency that specializes in online research and the science of digital behavior change–offering specialism in optimization audits and research. He provides training on the science persuasive design, and offers great corporate workshops. Visit Brian's blog (www.cugelman.com) and company website (www.alterspark.com).