in Projects, Programming, Technology

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.

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  1. from on why Cityville isn’t optimized for fun.

    “Lastly, you are largely free to lay out your city as you choose. Unlike many classic sim-strategy games (or Restaurant City, arguably the grand-daddy of these types of games), optimal layout doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to maintain equitable balances of components in certain areas, efficient road networks or anything like that. All of the people wandering around, as well as the plants and trees are purely decorative. This means players are free to create whatever layout they desire, and many do.”

    A proper _game_ would make these things matter.

  2. I really like the idea that gamification needn’t look like a game. Back when Amazon required customers to spend $25 in order to get free shipping, it really felt like a game trying to find a $3.75 item that would put you over the top.

    Also, the idea of paying careful attention to what users naturally do and helping them unlock additional value is critical even for sites that don’t consider themselves to be “gamified”.

  3. When building a gamified website experience, for most companies it is likely impossible to have a v1 that has all of the possible extensibility the site will eventually have. So there are likely to be points at which the sitegame developers make a conscious decision to where the gamexperience swings in the developer’s favor and, as you say, users experience that sinking feeling. But as with all audiences, the hardcore fans will continue playing even when turning off the broader audience.

    I write this because as gamification expands, developers have to decide WHEN to care about the outer edges of the game and when to simply accept that they will have extracted the maximum customer lifetime value out of the user. I think this particular point will be the one most debated.

  4. I can’t call these xx-villes a game. At first it seems you are building something, but actually you are asked to do step 1-2-3 errands. No matter how bad your did you will only slowdown but never fail. Or in the other words, they will be fine with or without you, but you can put in some touches to make them looked like your creation. What a shame people spent countless hours on these worthless junks.

  5. I agree with the premise. But as for why so many people fall for thses game models, is the gamification is based on the skinner box model.

    In reality there is nothing fun about these games at all. But people play them anyway. Because fun or not, it keeps them from thinking about their life. So it only has to be more fun than going to work.

    • Bobz – That’s a great point. A bad game doesn’t have to be fun, only “distracting” or “engaging.” It is probably still “good gamification” to take something that is boring and at least make it “distracting.”

  6. Overall, this is a really informative article. One small point of contention: I am dubious about mentioning books that are forthcoming, books that are not available yet to the public, as a credible source just because some publisher is attempting to cash in on this hyped-up meme. I try to question what authors of books like these who often make sweeping claims have ever really (successfully) designed in terms of gamfication or any other front — what exactly is their track record that makes them a credible source?

    • Joeseph – good point. O’Reilly is a pretty reputable publisher, but the fact that they are writing a book only indicates the trend at this point.

  7. Mileage programs, or frequent fliers, or air miles programs, are indeed quite a successful example of gamification ante-litteram.

    Introduced by American Airlines in 1979/1980, have quickly spread to all major world airlines, incorporating hotel chains, and other travel/tourism services.

    More than 10 millions free flights a year are given away through these programs – the fact you never played because you never got the rules does not really means the system is bad or that the rules were particularly difficult to get…

    • Kurren – I’m not saying Mileage programs aren’t successful. The rules are not difficult to get. Starting a program, and in particular redeeming miles could be a lot easier. Why are you not automatically enrolled when you buy your first ticket? I actually have never tried to redeem air miles, but it sounds to me like a very tedious process (black out dates, restricted routes, must book via phone, etc.)

  8. In my opinion, beyond the gaming theory and gamification theory, the bottom line, is that an application should benefit all parties involved: The provider, the consumer, and the creator of the app. I see many opportunities in blue collar jobs.

  9. Hey Adam,
    Interesting stuff you’re writing here. I just thought about good vs. bad gamification on my blog. I’d be glad if you told me what you think about “the light side of gamification”.
    May the force be with you,


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