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Getting Gamification Right

“Gamification” is a relatively new term that refers to using video game mechanics – like points, scores, and levels – to build greater motivation for customers to stay engaged with a business. The idea is simple: Video games have a remarkable ability to draw players in and keep them engaged hour upon hour, week after week, and in some cases month after month. They are highly motivating. So much chin-scratching has begun on how those same strategies can be harnessed to create sustained engagement and “buzz” with non-entertainment websites, social networking hubs, and really any online business. That’s what this gamification thing is all about.

Back in the good old days (read: The 90’s) we started talking about the “stickiness” of websites as shorthand for keeping people engaged. But today’s world of constant connectivity, multiple platforms, and social networking has outgrown this term. Stickiness made sense when we just wanted folks to click a few more pages, and perhaps buy an extra lava lamp or two. Now we want to forge deeper relationships, where customers are not only loyalists, but evangelists – tweeting away about how great we are and getting their friends to sign up for what we’re cooking. Enter the magical mechanics of games as a means to that end.

Gamification 1.0

Because we are just past the starting line of the gamification movement (see Jesse’ Schell’s engaging presentation at DICE to get a flavor for it) there will be much stumbling about as we find the best solutions. What is it about games that really builds the sustained engagement that we’re looking for, and how can we best implement that? We’ll make wrong turns as we get started, but we’ll get to the best solutions faster if we start by acknowledging a few things:

1)      The core of gamification – the whole point really – is to deepen and sustain engagement. We want customers to be staying with us longer and coming back sooner and excitedly anticipating spending time with us. In other words, it’s fundamentally a question of motivation and satisfaction that is meaningful enough to stay in the relationship.

2)      It follows that before we do anything else we need to really understand the psychology of game motivation and satisfaction if we have any chance of leveraging its power to build this kind of deeper engagement.

3)      We may not understand (2) as well as we think we do.

Wait…go back. What was (3) again? C’mon, of course we understand game motivation! It’s right there on the screen. There are points and levels and flashy things and scores and badges and achievements and stars and...and…stuff! We love stuff! Stuff is fun. Stuff motivates and rewards. A tasty candy-shell of stuff around anything can’t fail. I wish I could dip my whole life into it. As a friend from college once said, “I’ll eat anything as long as you deep fry it first.” Yum.

Vegas knows this better than anyone. Vegas is all about stuff. Winning stuff, consuming stuff, and being brought to the edge of a grand mal seizure by the sheer wattage of it all. And of course, as any psych 101 student can tell you, we know how Vegas motivates quite successfully: Rewards and Reinforcement! Slot machines keep us pumping away through variable reinforcement schedules, and other principles of operant conditioning keep us rolling along until it’s time to go back to our real lives. And as we drive out of town, probably poorer but hopefully with a tired smile, we’re reminded by a huge billboard that “what happens here, stays here.”

Great slogan. It winkingly acknowledges that even Vegas knows that it’s an indulgence, and perhaps not a healthy one except in short, controlled bursts. But is it a model for sustained engagement? For building loyalty and commitment? Put another way, what’s your first impression of someone based on the description that “he spends every day of his life at the slot machines?” How would you guess that life is going? How truly satisfied do you think he is?

This is relevant to gamification because this same kind of “bauble-based” reward system is found quite often in video games, and as I look at the first round of gamification solutions it appears to be one of the first strategies being ported over. The problem is, when it comes to actually sustaining motivation and satisfaction, it doesn’t work. Not in games, and not outside of them.

We’ve completed several longitudinal studies of sustained engagement with video games, and we’ve looked at what happens to people’s relationships with products when they are focused on “bauble based” rewards. Gotta play to get more points. Need to do this thing every day to win that badge. We often call this kind of reward strategy “extrinsic” rewards, because the motivation to pursue something lies outside the activity itself. The activity is simply a means to an end.

What the data show is that players who are primarily focused on extrinsic rewards are less likely to continue playing the game. Research by my colleagues has shown this to be true in sports at many levels (even professional athletes). And the same effect occurs with video games. In one diary study that looked at the daily activity of gamers over thousands of sequential days, weeks and months, playing for extrinsic reasons did not keep players engaged over time. Just like Vegas, for most people it motivates us only for a short while. Then we want to move on to more truly satisfying things.

So what then are these “truly” satisfying things? Are games supplying those?

Yes, the good ones are. And the data we’ve been collecting for the last seven years show that’s a big reason why great games have so much staying power. In particular, games have a powerful ability to satisfy basic psychological needs that are the source of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation doesn’t need a bauble or a badge to get going – it naturally arises from several places:

1)      Our basic need for autonomy energizes us to seek out experiences in which we feel we are acting volitionally (and not being controlled by outside forces). Autonomy is satisfied when we feel we have meaningful options and choices from which we can choose, but is also satisfied simply by endorsing and valuing the activity we are engaging (i.e. what we call “volitional engagement”).

2)      Our basic need for competence (or mastery) energizes us to extend our abilities and grow, both in our moment to moment experiences and in our overall development as a person.

3)      Our basic need for relatedness energizes us to seek out relationships and interactions with others in which we feel that we matter. We want to be supported and feel that we are important and valued to those around us.

When we present these concepts in workshops with game developers, the reaction is uniformly positive. Not because these ideas are surprising, but because they clarify and more precisely define what lies at the heart of valued experiences for customers.  More importantly, because developers have heard every theory under the sun about what gamer’s value, they are relieved to hear that we have lots of data to back this model up as an applied approach: Across dozens of studies with thousands of gamers, no matter what genre or market segment we study these experiences of basic need satisfaction are the strongest and most consistent predictors of player value, enthusiasm, likelihood to recommend games to friends, and sustained engagement with games over weeks and months. In fact, assessing the “player experience of need satisfaction” (PENS) is a much better predictor of sustained engagement than bauble-collecting. And even better at predicting sustained engagement than asking players how much fun they are having. Because even fun can be fleeting when you think about it. Relationships require more substantive satisfaction.

Based on our study and research in this area so far, I believe that gamification folks who embrace this idea will be the most successful over time. Solutions that bring out the truly need satisfying elements of games, and leave the less nutritious mechanics behind, will be appreciated more strongly and will rise above bauble-based approaches. Greater fulfillment will lead customers to happily – and autonomously –  give their loyalty and endorsement to these organizations in return. Everybody wins, except maybe the bauble factories. But don’t worry…they’ll always have Vegas.


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