7 Gamification Myths, Debunked

Better faster product design isn’t about trinkets & silver bullets

I’m a game designer and startup coach who helps companies large and small create products with deep, game-like engagement.

When we kickoff a new client onboarding session, we’ll often start by debunking a few common Gamification myths — clearing the way to focus on the deeper aspects of games that actually drive long-term engagement.

Myth #1: Gamification = Competition

Many people assume that what makes games truly compelling is competition, rank-ordering and winning. That’s true if you’re talking about zero-sum games like Chess, Candyland, and Poker — where the participants are framed as opponents competing for a limited resource or prize.

Early gamification practitioners reinforced this “competition = gaming” idea by serving up familiar, early-to-implement zero-sum mechanics like leaderboards, tournament ladders and contests — and calling it a motivational “gaming solution.”

Now it’s true that competition CAN be a powerful motivator and source of fun — but it’s not for everyone, and backfires when not used thoughtfully. There’s another type of game called non-zero-sum — where players band together as partners, and work towards a goal they couldn’t reach themselves. Cooperative games like Left4Dead, Portal 2 and Minecraft deliver a different kind of fun — one that lets players “win together” and eschew the me-against-you vibe of competition.

Collaborative game mechanics are harder to design and implement than zero-sum mechanics — which is why you don’t see them in off-the-shelf gamification solutions. Dig deeper and you’ll see that collaborative game-like experiences can be rich and varied — and more powerful and effective for motivating people who don’t enjoy pummeling their opponents or proving their superiority.

Myth #2: Gamification = Magic Pixie Dust

I’m still surprised when people naively believe that sprinkling game mechanics into an website or app will magically make that experience more compelling. Don’t they realize that this is total bunk ? Designing a compelling experience that unfolds over time is the essence of great game design. Game mechanics are visible artifacts — NOT the experience itself. Points, badges, and levels can support the experience and give the player useful feedback on their journey towards mastery —but without a well-crafted and interesting experience to support, game mechanics just add clutter and confusion.

Myth #3: Gamification = Points, Badges, Leaderboards

The smart way to approach gamification — and ANY design challenge, for that matter — is to first understand who you’re designing for, then create a compelling experience that’s supported with the right design elements. Points, badges and leaderboards MIGHT be effective mechanics for your situation — but these elements are the low-hanging fruit of simple gamification. If you shove them into your application without thoughtful design, you may see a short-term lift — but you won’t get longterm engagement. There are many game design techniques you can consider using — such as missions, unlocks, and narrative storytelling — that might be more powerful and effective for solving the problem you’re tackling. Look beyond the obvious, and you’ll have a much better shot at successfully engaging your players.

Myth #4: Gamification should look like a Game

It’s easy to fall in love with the look and feel of game interfaces. The colors! The immersive visuals! The sophisticated HUD (heads-up display)! Many people kickoff their gamification project with sketches and ideas about creating a sexy game-like interface. Sometimes this makes sense — but oftentimes, the best interface is simple and flexible, with the game-like systems grinding away underneath, moving the player through the experience in a fun and effective way. Take Happify, for example — a service I helped bring to life. We started out with ambitious ideas for a rich, immersive game-like interface — but as we developed and tested our MVP, we discovered that early customers (busy, tech-savvy Moms) preferred a browseable, Pinterest-style experience. This type of UI is much easier to iterate and tweak than a gaming micro-world. The true power of games is embedded in the systems that propel your experience forward and help you learn new skills — not in the graphic layer on top.

Myth #5: Gamification is the devil

In response to the over-use and misunderstanding of game mechanics, many game designers (myself included) have come to see gamification as a dirty word. While simple-minded gamification can be destructive and ineffective, there are also many examples of well-done gamification (AKA applied game design). Consider Duolingo, the language learning app from Carnegie Mellon. Duolingo uses common gamification tropes like points, levels, badges, leaderboards, unlocks, and redeemable tokens — all in service of a well-designed experience based on short, engaging activities that ramp up in difficulty as you gain skill. Gamification isn’t the devil — it’s the mis-understanding and mis-application of game mechanics that causes trouble.

Myth #6: Gamification = Game Mechanics

This myth is rooted in the mistaken belief that the visible progress markers within a game contain the essence of the game, and will motivate people to keep playing. Any game designer would laugh at this notion — game mechanics are like the icing on a cake, completely unsatisfying when served up separately. Game mechanics are the visible “tip of the iceberg” within a great gaming experience; the true power comes from the underlying systems, content and storytelling that hold your interest and propels you through the experience.

Myth #7: Extrinsic rewards drive lasting motivation

This is perhaps the most destructive and pervasive gamification myth. Extrinsic rewards can sometimes drive short-term motivation — but it turns out that, in many situations, extrinsic rewards actually DECREASE intrinsic motivation. For example, a recent study showed that children who enjoyed drawing for pleasure actually STOPPED DRAWING when they were rewarded. Similar studies have demonstrated this effect on children’s reading behavior. Read Dan Pink’s Drive for exhaustive and eye-opening coverage of this issue.

Wanna learn Game Thinking from world-class experts?

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