Gamification and User Experience

In recent years, the practice of applying game-design elements in non-game contexts (Gamification) has become a heated topic. It attracts many scholars and designers because the gaming industry possesses an extremely engaged audience. While gamification benefits some products’ marketing performance, the problems of its implementation are gradually appearing.

Gamification is nothing new. The term was coined early in 2002 by Nick Pelling, a computer programmer, but did not gain its popularity until the 2010s. The rise of gamification is a slow accelerating process, involving various theories and studies of games. Thanks to Thomas M.Maline, gamification became popular after his publication “What Makes Things fun to Learn: A Study of Intrinsically Motivating Computer Games” in 1980. It proposed the intrinsic motivation concept which is applied in the gamification field till now.

The reason why gamification works, is the answer to ‘Why games attract people’. It can be explained from different perspectives and angles. The most popular explanation is the easy entry of ‘Flow’. ‘Flow’ a term in positive psychology. It is a mental state of operation that is not supposed to get in easy. By entering this state, the person will be fully immersed in the current activity with high focus and extreme enjoyment. High efficiency and productivity then is brought by ‘Flow’. And people love the effect because it makes them feel that they are “developing their personal resources”. And when they see their capability through what they have done, they build the sense of self-worth. The psychological activities during the whole process create shots of dopamine, making people feel happy. And game mechanisms allow players to have such experience quickly and easily. (McGonigal, 2011)

Gamification has already become a marketing fad, used for user engagement. It is grandly used by many big companies for not only building up customer base but also enhancing their service and user experience. And it has been proven to be usable and useful. “And it’s not just engagement — gamification’s revenue effects are equally astounding. Autodesk raised its trial usage by 40 percent and conversion rates by 15 percent while Extraco Bank raised their customer acquisitions by 700 percent, and IBM’s gamified Innov8 platform has become the company’s biggest lead generator.” (Nielson, 2013)

Nevertheless, critiques always come along with increasing popularity. In a debate-style session discussing the pros and cons of gamification in 2011, panelists including game designers and developers agreed that, in some cases, the disappearance of gamification will be a good thing. Based on my personal experience, I agree that gamification is poorly implemented or overused in some cases, which negatively affects the user’s experience.

Sometimes, the game-design elements can lead to unintended behaviors. The app ‘Forest’ (Figure 1) claimed to help people stay away from their phones and stay focused on their work. The user ‘plants a tree’ in this app each time he wants to work. If he tries to use other apps and quit the ‘Forest’ app, the tree dies. But I could not focus on my work. Instead, I stared at the little virtual tree for almost the whole session because I was so distracted by it.

(Figure 1 Forest app interface)

Worse still, gamification can even result in unethical behaviors. ‘Keep’ (Figure 2) is a popular fitness app in China. It is gamified using badges system and a leaderboard to encourage users to compete with each other. The rule is very simple: the more you train, the higher your rank is. My friend’s brother, however, does not want to spend that much effort. So, he cheated by tying his phone to his dog during the running session!

(Figure 2 Keep app interface)

Some gamification practices stay at a superficial level. They over focused on the peripheral elements but neglected the main experience which then is not affected by the gamification. Although McGonigal distanced her work from gamification claiming herself is doing games, she is good at using gamification to package events, and her projects are gamified NGO activities in fact. From her book, all her practices can be concluded as an equation:

gamification = an event + background story + rules + point system.

The equation brings certain convenience for people to understand and apply gamification, while it also brings a delusion that anyone can use the method to create a revolutionized and innovative product. The equation is not an ideal practice, because the activities gamified in this way can hardly keep users. McGonigal’s projects are good to illustrate the problem. The World Without Oil website aims to change people’s life style through putting them into a virtual world that has no oil; social network Superstruct allows people to put forward solutions to continuing human species if there is only 23 years left; Evoke, a project partnered with World Bank Institute, intends to empower people all over the world come up solutions to urgent social problems using cartoon, blog posts and other types of media. These projects all sound fantastic, but their performances were relatively poor. The World Without Oil had approximately 2000 players in 32 weeks (Buzz World Without Oil, n.d.). Superstruct attracted 8297 participants till now (Superstruct, n.d.). Evoke website had stopped updating since 2015. Neither the number of participants nor the steadiness of her projects can exceed those of a common video game.

Many professionals and scholars specialized in game design pointed out that gamification has nothing to do with games. They believe that the lack of understanding of game mechanism is the reason why gamification is not working as expected. But it is not easy to comprehend game mechanisms. Even McGonigal as a game designer did not notice that the rules in games are telling people how to do things, instead of limiting their actions. Gamers are given rights, space, and freedom. Thus, her projects are not games as she claimed.

Besides the strategies and practices, the concept and definition of gamification have been criticized for so long a time. Game designers such as Margaret Robertson opined that gamification strategies are mostly replying on simple rewards system and excluding other important elements such as storytelling, which actually does not turn things in to games. She also redefined the concept by giving it a new name — ‘poinstification’ (Robertson, 2010). The criticism actually is more judging the misleading title. But if gamification really mean making a non-game activity a game, providing super fun experience in a non-game context as in a game, it would be a thoughtless and unreasonable idea. Games are originally fun and served to generate fun while non-game apps are not ‘fun-oriented’. Instead, they are focusing on productivity which should be the intended goal. It is impossible to really combine two things if they are not sharing the same purpose and concept.

How to do gamification right? I do not have a correct answer. But there are certain issues that designers should pay attentions to when apply gamification.

1. The setting of reward/incentive system is critical.

Most of the time, the effect and efficiency of gamification largely depends on the implementation of rewards/incentives system. One of the keys to success of gamification is that the rewards are meaningful to users. The ‘Forest’ app I mentioned above is using a virtual growing tree as the reward, which is creative. But such reward is neither what the users need, nor what they would like to show off. Thus, it fails to provide good user experience to keep its users. ‘Forest’ is not the only case. Most gamified softwares and apps seldom consider the meaning of the rewards to users, or how the rewards can bring positive changes to the users.

A good rewards system, according to Foxman (Fuchs, 2014), “is appropriate toward competitive ends, bestowing bragging rights and promoting a kind of glory.” The reward needs to be directly related to the core experience as well as the user needs. The point system of English learning app ‘Shanbay’ is a positive example. The points earned through completing learning tasks and passing little quizzes everyday are used to buy digital vocabulary books and add-on features that helps learning. The reward is trying to reinforce people’s original intension — English enhancement, instead of giving them extra motivations. As a matter of fact, the point system of ‘Shanbay’ turns the learning experience and outcomes into rewards, which is the best kind of rewards. The users, including me, are proud of the learning outcomes and motivated by it.

2. Sometimes, less is more.

Some applications and activities achieved better user experience design through only one or two ‘fragmental’ pieces of an element. In the video ‘Gamifying Education’ by Extra Credits group (2012), the gamification designer talked about how they better the learning experience. They did not modify the original class administration. Teaching and examinations were kept as the same as they were. What they did was a subtle change to the grading system. The original grading system is essentially de-motivated. Every student possesses a mental model that they should have an A. But by making mistakes, they can only go down. Such feedback loop of failure limits their creativity and positivity. Therefore, the gamification designer ‘reversed’ the system by making the assignments worth points. Hence students have the feeling of ‘gaining’ instead of ‘losing’ during the process. They become more confident because they see their capabilities instead of deficiencies.

The other change the designer made was introducing ‘class-wide achievements’. If one student get a higher grade, the class will have a higher grade and more rewards. The point is that the system encouraged cooperation and collaboration. Students were more willing to help each other. Meanwhile, it also cultivates their teamwork spirit.

A habit building and productivity app called Habitica (Figure 3) well illustrates the misuse of game-design elements. From system to visual design, Habitica’s interfaces are overwhelmed by design elements of video games. But experience of using this app is exactly the same as the one of using a to-do-list. Such gamification practice does not help the boring task become interesting. But it definitely okay if Habitica just intend to make a creative look.

(Figure 3 Interfaces of ‘Habitica’ app)

3. There are situations that should not be gamified or do not need gamification.

Despite gamification is a very powerful tool, it is not effective in all cases. It can be applied to all fields, which does not mean it should be applied to everything. It is unnecessary for those who have already had a good system to gamify their systems. If the system works well, why should change it? For instance, on the aspect of human resource management, a rigid hierarchy system might work better than enterprise gamification in a big company to better work relationship and productivity because gamification encourages cheating behavior and the workers might stab co-workers in the back (Eyal, 2015). Moreover, the influence brought to reputation also should be put into consideration. Websites for law firms and bank might not be appropriate to be gamified if they want to be taken seriously.

4. Fun is not the focus, but the core service is.

It is important to bring fun and friendly user experience, but before which, the service or product is essential to be well developed. Many producers are trying to using gamification to make up the shortages of their products and services. But the truth is, when the users are lured in by the gamification and find the service is not satisfactory, they leave immediately. Only can a practical service that creates value keeps users. The negative examples listed above have the same problem — lack of an effective supervisory mechanism. Those who downloaded these apps are not lack of motivations, on the contrary, they are highly motivated to start cultivating a habit or completing a task, otherwise they will not seek ways to achieve their goals. What they need is feedback showing them the progress and quality, and guiding them to the next step to better their work. Hence, giving them extrinsic motivations — points and badges, might not be the correct solution to the problem.

In conclusion, gamification is a powerful yet not well-developed concept. It needs further exploration and improvement. Here, I sincerely invite you, dear readers, to join the discussion of gamification, to think how to better the practice, and ultimately use it to benefit our users.

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