An app that makes life a game

From August 2010 until February 2011, I worked with some smart people on gamifying self-improvement. The idea was to create a mobile and social experience with game mechanics around life goals. I find self-help interesting and I think it’s a great business opportunity. Based on my experience with viral app design, I also thought the content would make a great social application.

In retrospect, our scope was way to broad. We opened more than one can of worms. We tried to stay close to our market (and build an app we could use ourselves) – but the problem space is very rich and broad.  Below are some reasons why the generic gamification of life is difficult.

We found many good solutions to these problems, and created two prototypes which were very interesting. For the purposes of this blog post, I just want to highlight what I learned about the problem. I think the solution will require focusing on a specific genre of life goal (weight loss, running, etc.) or methodology.

Content Problem

There are many different types of personal goals. Some are more suited to a mobile game than others.

  • Habits (eat better)
  • Goals (run a 5k)
  • Bucket list goals (visit the Grand Canyon)
  • Experiences (get a drink at ZigZag)
  • Learning (would be fun to gamify flash cards)
  • Happy moments (watching the sunrise)

Fractal Problem

There are many levels of detail to focus on. For example “Go to college.” Is that a single step we can give you credit for after the fact, or a goal that has thousands of sub-steps? What about the order of steps, they aren’t always important, but sometimes they are critical. What steps are the best for me?  See also the related semantic problem below.

  • Player’s level. How to accurately represent someones skills when they start the game?
  • Points. How much should the completion of an action be worth?
  • Desire for small steps. They’re great for getting things done, but require a lot of data entry!
  • Double accounting. Unless there is a sensor to collect data, entering it manually on a phone is difficult.
  • Turning an infinite game (life) into a finite (daily, monthly, weekly) game. Not a big deal, but requires defining the rules.

UGC vs Structured Game

  • Normal games have their own worlds. Content within that world is consistent and finite. If you are creating a game for life, it is impossible to represent the variation of activities found on planet earth.
  • If you limit the scope to “personal” goals, and fix the level of detail at what can be completed in a month, localized to the United States, and women 24-50 with smart phones (or those that read Oprah magazine) we found we can capture 80% of what women want to do in about 200 goals.
  • Chicken vs. egg: do I pick my first goal or type it in?
  • Metaphor: What is an analogy that will explain the game of achieving goals or establishing habits  that won’t alienate users? Mafia goals, Epic Win dungeon RPG, Oprah’s Best Life, HealthMonth. Is it fun? Is it better to create branded mini games or one over-arching game for life?

Game Mechanics

When implementing the game, there are an endless number of mechanics to choose from. Which will change behavior effectively (provide extrinsic reward)?

  • levels
  • collecting
  • appointment
  • streak
  • modifiers
  • gifts

Psychological Frameworks

Self-help is one of the largest sections at the book store. Which methodology offers an “app-able” workflow? Which is the most gamifiable? Which fits the genre of content best?

Social Dynamics

Should players have friends or followers? Or should they make new friends based on the goal?

  • Anonymous Seekers (43things)
  • Friends (Facebook, LinkedIn)
  • Teammates (Meetup, Twibes)
  • Followers (Twitter)

Semantic Problem

Computers don’t speak English yet.

  • “Run 2 miles” does not equal “Go for a jog”
  • Which sub-goals are the same across super-goals? Does “stand up” mean the same thing in the context of running a 5K as it does in the context of “writing a song?”

Implementation Details

  • Performant mobile prototyping (promising, but still emerging technology)
  • Support for multiple platforms vs. native device capabilities.
  • Should we support photos? GPS? What device capabilities are necessary?
  • Which social network should players sign in with?
  • How will we implement in app purchases?
  • Sending notifications

Launch Tactics

Many ideas and options…

  • Use a velvet rope to restrict access and increase demand.
  • Focus on the cool kids
  • Viral on-boarding process or mini-games.

Customer Development

  • Helps if you’re the target market
  • People will probably pay, but may need freemium version to make adoption easier
  • What brings ‘em back on day 2?

I’m a big proponent of “minimum viable products” – as you can see from this list, it was really difficult to narrow in on the right product. Clearly though, there are many in this space. We’re in for some interesting life-hacking in the next few years.

Gamification is not Game Design

Game designers hate gamification (taking something that is not a game and  turning it into one). They feel that it cheapens their craft to throw points and badges on something to get more people to do it. Gamification employs strong psychological effects to modify behavior. So, is adding a leader board to make your customers click a button good or evil?

I recently took a gig with BigDoor, a Seattle gamification provider that helps other companies gamify their web site. I wrote earlier about BigDoor’s WordPress plug-in and toolbar. I cited it as bad example of balancing intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been excited to refine my understanding of gamification and understand BigDoor’s longer term intentions.

 

The King's Game

There is good gamification and bad gamification. Bad gamification is slapping extrinsic rewards (or a contrived story) on top of an interaction. Good gamification amplifies the intrinsic rewards of a particular behavior – to increase the feeling of fun, flow, or accomplishment of the player. Players know bad gamification when they see it, because it doesn’t take their interests into consideration. Good gamification aligns the needs of both designer and player.

Gamification needn’t look like a game. If your application domain is movies (Netflix), auctions (eBay), or social connections (Facebook, LinkedIn) – simply highlighting the right numeric counters and lists is sufficient. Gamifying acknowledges your user’s inner drives, their ability to learn, and increases their receptiveness to your application’s benefits.

As a software developer, I’ve intentionally stayed away from game development. Tracking points, levels, and awards always seemed like unwanted complexity. I didn’t see the value of unnecessary obstacles for users. Application design is a difficult thing. Creating something that is easy to learn and use, and valuable enough to come back to every day is tricky. User acquisition and retention are huge and common business problems.

Good application design requires listening carefully to what users say and do. Empathetic design teaches (or advises) a user on what to do. Over time, I’ve also learned to pay attention to user’s hidden desires. Game mechanics utilize a subset of psychological drivers that determine why people do what they do. Chris Cunningham, author of the forthcoming O’Reilly gamification book even went so far as to say that bad gamification is simply that which ignores the player.

You cannot increase the intrinsic value of something by adding game mechanics. You CAN make the value more visible. You CAN change the paradigm and context of your site visitor from user to player – increasing their engagement.

Air miles programs are bad gamification. Do you play the air miles game? I didn’t until very recently, because it is a poorly designed game. Rewards (free flights) are only available to expert players. Most programs are hard to sign up for, track, and claim. It does not making flying more fun. So, until recently I’ve ignored them.

Why did I start caring about air miles? I read an online report on how to hack the rules. As I got older and accumulated more travel history, I got a feeling that I might be missing out. Money was slightly tighter, so the extrinsic rewards became more desirable.

The game itself is definitely not motivating me, it’s my cognitive awareness of the rules. Knowing the rules (primarily rotating credit cards and watching for bonus opportunities) increases my ability to play. Now I’m looking for more opportunities to win (spend money with an air miles card). It’s a horrible game, but I have the feeling that I can stick it to the man somehow, that “I can win this.” It is unfortunate that the game doesn’t provide this on it’s own.

Gamification is re-contextualization. It is possible to add fun by illustrating the rules. Good apps highlighting what is important and give you an excuse to do something. This converts a *user* into a *player*.

CityVille is brilliant (but bad) gamification masquerading as Game design. Zynga has perfected the gamification of inviting and buying (disguised as sharing and building). CityVille is certainly *not* optimized to be a fun virtual city planning game. It doesn’t maximize your creative building pleasure, though it does offer some intrinsic rewards:

  • guided creativity
  • feeling of building something (with friends)
  • blingyness, positive feedback

As you learn the rules, you build a mental strategy for winning, and get hooked based on the appointment dynamic of scheduling your crop harvesting. For me, the trap is easy to fall for. I’m competitive, I love to build stuff and show it off. If your friends play, that makes it OK. The more friends that play, the better your progress.

It doesn’t take long before you run into a wall where your fun ends and doing things that benefit Zynga become a requirement (you must pay or invite to continue). The sinking feeling you feel at that moment, is the line between good and bad gamification. It isn’t bad to expect players to pay (or send uncomfortable invitations), but at this point the rewards all swing in Zynga’s favor. You realize you aren’t playing a game, but participating in the gamification of inviting and buying – and it ceases to be fun.

Good gamification balances the desires of players with the needs of the application designer. If you need to rely on bad gamification (purely extrinsic rewards that create a game un-related to the intrinsic benefits), you’re admitting that you can’t squeeze any more intrinsic value out of your product.

Backlinks or Badges: Should you Gamify Your Blog?

I don’t think adding “experience points” and badges to your blog will increase readership for the average blogger. On popular blogs, game mechanics might cause frequent readers to try and leave more short comments just to appear on a leader board  – but I doubt it will bring new readers.

Game mechanics (the psychological triggers, design elements, and workflows used in games) are currently a hot area of research. New mobile and social games like Farmville and Foursquare have caught the attention of software developers because of their uncanny ability to incentivize user behaviors. Non-game application developers want to inspire their users with some of the great aspects games offer. Aspects like fun, a feeling of empowerment or escape, learning, and most of all – loyalty and addiction.

Recently, 47 examples of specific game mechanics were leaked from the company SCVNGR, creating an excellent resource. Some other key figures leading the research are Amy Jo Kim, Jane McGonigal, and Jesse Schell.

A new startup called BigDoor has even launched a service to let any Web site developer attach game mechanics to (or gamify) their Web site. And, to make it quick and easy to get started, they’ve launched a WordPress Gamification Plugin to, well, gamify your WordPress blog.

Once a blogger installs the plug-in, blog readers earn points by commenting and “checking in” by clicking a special button. BigDoor claims this will bring users back to your blog frequently, building traffic and participation. Collectively, a reader’s activity earns them “experience points” (XP). As a visitor’s points accumulate they level up and collect new badges.

gamify wordpress blog plugin

On the surface, this seems like a brilliant way to spread the BigDoor service around the web. But I have to question whether simply adding game mechanics to a blog will really encourage more long term readership and community.

As a software designer, you can incorporate game mechanics in your web site in a very explicit, obvious, and external way (as with the BigDoor WordPress plug-in). Or, you can integrate game mechanics in a more subtle and natural way. For example, the number of Twitter followers you have, or your Ebay rating could be considered scores and levels. As you collect Twitter followers or blog comments, the thumbnail images are themselves award badges in a way.

Another way to explain this is to understand what are intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards. A blog reader wants to read interesting content, perhaps participate in a discussion with the author and other visitors, and share the content. When they do those things, they feel an intrinsic reward. When they do those things in order to earn points, they are doing it for the extrinsic reward.

I made my blog “dofollow”  for a year or two and saw a huge (easily 10x) increase in blog comments. More people stopped by because they knew that by commenting they would receive a backlink to their own blog. The classic “Comment Luv” or other “top commenter” plugins also provide similar intrinsic (and I think more natural) rewards. These directly reward commenters with recognition on leader boards for how many times they’ve commented (not blog “experience points”).

Hopefully BigDoor’s WordPress badges correlate in some way with visiting, reading, and commenting. I’m not sure, I haven’t seen anything but the “newbie” badge so far. However, my overriding sense is that the experience points and badges will be too tangential to the reader’s goals. I think simple leader boards for top commenters, and rewarding good commenters with dofollow links are a much better way to go.