D. Jameson
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D. Jameson

Gamification 101

The 3 indispensable elements of successful Gamification

Insights from gamification projects done for a product based tech startup (TravelTriangle.com) combined with my learnings from 10+years of audio-visual storytelling experiences.

Cover image with GAMIFICATION 101 written on it. (A picture of human hand rolling some dies on the table)
Photograph by hidde schalm

Adding frisky elements and introducing reward points to a product is not gamification. The idea of gamification is to introduce the core elements of actual games into non-game environments to inspire users towards higher engagement, instigate loyalty and thereby drive predefined business goals. Reward points, badges, campaigns, and stories are just a few among the many modalities used for game mechanics.

There is a rise in using gamification in products and service communication as many businesses have recognized the need to move beyond two-dimensional communication for driving a better user experience. In this article, I have summarised my understanding of gamification in three basic parts.

‘Meaningfulness, Conditioning, and Communication’ Written on a white handmade paper. Its looks like a hand written note.
Meaningfulness, Conditioning, and Communication. These 3 aspects are essential for any gamification project to be successful.

I. Meaningfulness: Users need a compelling reason to play.

Photo: A little boy is looking at the first step of a long flight of stairs in front of him.
Photograph by Jukan Tateisi

If users do not find any meaning in the proposed activity, it would be impossible to drive their sincere participation- no matter how hard you try or how amazing it may look. Identifying the core intrinsic motivations of the users is the single most important step towards designing and evaluating any gamification efforts, everything else comes second to this. But one can’t afford to miss this. Players’ decision making is influenced by their several personal factors such as needs, fears, goals and motives, and also by situational factors such as incentives, potential new opportunities from the game, etc.

In many startup ecosystems today, it is often difficult to do extensive primary research for every other project. Learning from persona exercises is a good starting point for this one(and for any) for building the basic understanding of your userbase(see how to build effective personas). Once familiar with the userbase, one can move faster by learning from what has been done already. The aim is to find the core motivations that are most appropriate to the userbase.

Here are some core motivations commonly found across various games.

A list of 24 common motivations from popular games listed here
A list of 24 core-motivations found in various games.
Shows the screen capture of two computer games for reference
Age of Empires (left) and Counter-Strike (Right)

For example, games like Age of Empires, Warcraft, Kerbal Space, Civilization Series use players' motivation for Strategy (Planning&Thinking), and games like League of Legends, Monster Hunter, World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike is based on community and Social interaction and Teamwork.

Plotting motivations to draw optimum gamification experience

‘Time’ is an inevitable dimension of any gamification. Understanding how time can influence users’ decision making is essential for mapping their motivations to deliver an optimum game experience. Not knowing ‘When and How’ to position the baits of motivations can crush all the efforts put in. A shallow or inappropriate use of motivations to design activities can never deliver a positive outcome.

“We assume that people can be seduced to certain activities if the design incorporates playful features, such as appealing to curiosity and providing challenges.” — Tilde Bekker (Researcher of Digital Technologies for Playfulness and Motivation)

According to Tilde Bekker, all successful games progress through two basic stages.

  1. The initial use
  2. The extended use

The initial use must be easy to learn, and the extended use should be harder to master. Understanding this simple concept was no sweat but it was truly a revelation for me. It seems so fundamental to any game we can think of; it could not have been any simpler.

A large gap between the skills of a player and the difficulty of the challenge can lead to frustration for the beginners who think it is too difficult, and boredom for the experts who think it is too easy. This can immediately kill gamification efforts. It is one of the primary reasons why games usually design for multiple levels. Plotting the perceived challenges a bit lower to the perceived skills of a player would help in keeping him/her hooked. Having said that, a good project would also plan for upskilling its users.

Showing a graph
A popular way of mapping difficulty levels in games. It also shows the payer’s perceived challenge a bit lower to their perceived skill to keep them encouraged and hooked until they reach their goals.

The above image shows one of the popular ways to design a difficulty curve (levels) in gamification. It has a somewhat flat progression(less challenging) in the initial levels and more have gentle slopes in the middle and much steeper ones (highly challenging) towards the final levels. Every game defines its difficulty curve differently to make it more dynamic as the players mature with levels. However, a linear difficulty curve (progression) may discourage players at both initial and extended stages just like how too much gap in the skill creates frustration and boredom.

If challenges and difficulty levels look ‘all work and no play’ would end the players’ enthusiasm to continue. There should be a healthy balance between ‘enjoyment and competence’. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book-‘Flow: The Psychology of Happiness’ explains a similar concept called the Flow State — a zone between boredom and anxiety. It says people are intrinsically motivated to place themselves in situations that increase their pleasure and an optimal experience.

Showing a graph
The diagram describes unique criteria for success in a game by maintaining a balance between challenge and skill- It recommends the range to be between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’.

This leads us to the next important area in finding meaningfulness, that is — Designing challenges. Players grow with the game and show various interests as they progress. Here I have combined ‘game progression’ with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to form a framework to plot the motivations and thereafter to define rules(challenges) for each level. Relying on Maslow’s to get started cannot go that wrong especially when there is little primary research data is available. The idea is to have a strong base logic in mapping player motivations. One can go for any framework that gives great confidence.

Illustrated view of Maslow’s Pyramid
Combining Game progression with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for plotting motivations to define game Challenges, Levels, and Rules.
An example of how themes were created to guide the gamification efforts at each level. Themes were used to further explore the core motivations to drive user actions and progress.

In the above scenario, the Travel Consultants working at travel agencies in India are mostly young people between 19–26 years old, with low barriers to entry, not all candidates are with degrees in travel and tourism or passionate travellers. With no standard scale for their salaries(usually low), they are motivated by sales incentives, material gifts, and career certificates.

II. Conditioning: The psychology of habit building.

An image of a traffic signal with green light on
Photograph by Paweł Czerwiński

Considering the players are progressing through new virtual and reactive circumstances within the game, the response we design to their actions needs to follow a consistent pattern of language. Such consistency is usually brought through conscious ‘conditioning’ and they alter players’ decision making based on their behaviour and its consequences. This is when game challenges are used to condition their behaviours.

Designing the right permutation and a combination of challenges becomes another important aspect of a successful gamification project. The success and failure of the challenges are then used to reinforce certain behaviours to drive desired [business] outcomes.

Here are some of the common types of challenges that are used in various gamification efforts.

  1. Time: Players are given a limited amount of time to complete tasks.
  2. Dexterity: Players are required to make quick decisions that may challenge them physically or/and mentally.
  3. Endurance: Players’ ability is measured based on how he/she can endure a continuous stream of obstacles before they falter.
  4. Memory/knowledge/ expertise: Players are made to learn certain facts and measured their ability to remember them to progress
  5. Cleverness/ logic: The intelligence of the players are tested with puzzles
  6. Resource control: Players are measured on their ability to control the resources(given or earned)wisely to achieve their goals.

Conditioning can be best understood with the concept of Operant Conditioning proposed by B.F. Skinner- an American psychologist and behaviourist. He says an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence. It introduces an idea of Reinforcement and Punishment (also called the law of effect). Skinner says a behaviour that is reinforced (using pleasant consequences)tends to be repeated, (i.e., strengthened) and behaviour that is not reinforced or punished (using unpleasant consequences)tends to die out, (i.e., weakened).

concept illustration of Operant conditioning
Operant Conditioning proposed by B.F. Skinner(1948): Explains the basic concept of how behaviour & Consequences influence each other and how to control them.

However, the downside of such a model is, the learned behaviour would die out once the reinforcement or the punishment is removed. When the reinforcement response is given at each instance, it is called continuous Reinforcement. Eventually, this can get monotonous and users’ interest in participation may die out or weakens eventually. Skinner then devised an additional 4 schedules(patterns) called partial reinforcement to tackle this problem. This is said to have slower adoptions in the beginning but promises a higher response in the long run.

Illustration of 4 schedules of partial reinforcement
Different schedules of reinforcement proposed by B.F. Skinner (1957): This enhances user’s participation in more dynamic ways. Find the examples below.

The expected impact from various schedules of reinforcement on gamification with examples.

  1. Fixed Ratio (Reinforced after a defined number of responses): The Interest in participation slows down immediately after a reinforcement, but picks up later. e.g. Travel consultants are given a virtual Diamond on every 5th sales lead they convert.
  2. Variable Ratio(Reinforced after an irregular number of responses): A greater interest in participation throughout. e.g. Travel consultants have a chance to win up to 3(or more) virtual Silver coins every day when they respond to the new leads within 30 min, but the number is unpredictable to them.
  3. Fixed Interval(Reinforced after a defined duration of time): Interest in participation increases as the deadline approaches. e.g. Travel consultants will receive a virtual black coin(negative score) if they aren’t logged in for x amount in a week/month.
  4. Variable Interval(Reinforced after an irregular duration of time): A higher interest in participation throughout. e.g. Travel consultants have chances to collect a virtual Gold coin of immunity (protection against downgrading ) that randomly pops up on the dashboard for only a few seconds. The more they collect the more benefit they have.
Examples shows images of Google pay gamification screen
Google’s Local Guide sends gifts to its participants.

For example, Google’s Local Guide program uses users’ motivation for recognition and rewards by giving points. Those points lead to higher levels and exclusive benefits and special perks. It tries to build a habit of sharing reviews, photos, and knowledge on Google Maps. GooglePay in India had also introduced very attractive cashback rewards at an unpredictable amount of transactions made, or by collecting digital stamps on transactions. This had given a huge penetration of the GooglePay app even in towns and villages across India when Paytm was already an established player in the market.

III. Communication: The lingo of games and the art of storytelling.

A photo of many road signboards creating a chaotic message
Photograph by Levi Lei

Clear communication plays a key role as gamification focuses on the virtual world. To make progress, it demands the players to think, learn, interact, react in different ways than how he/she is familiar with their real-world. Hence giving a very clear understanding of the goals, and immediate feedback is more of an obligation. Not only players need to know what it takes to win the game, but also their action, success, and failures must give them the right message so that a player believes in the activity that he/she is engaged in. It also helps in subtly enforce the correlation with their core motivations. These communication touchpoints can be delivered in various playful ways of using leaderboards, rule book, scoreboards, warnings, suggestions, etc.

A strong narrative strategy can lead the players towards the right[business] goal. Usually, there is a single thread of a connecting storyline, supporting props( audio/visual properties like Coins, Badges, The sound of success, warnings and failures, etc.) and a consistent voice in its verbal communication. It is important to have a detailed plan around what, how and when messages are delivered. Stronger the narrative strategies, better the suspension of disbelief in the art of storytelling of any kind. A story is an indispensable element for the audience to appreciate a work of literature, movie or theatre that is exploring unusual ideas; gamification of digital products and services are not any different.

Tips to boost your gamification-storytelling

Here are some ideas to boost up your storytelling standards. Communicating through various narrative strategies come naturally to me with ten plus years being an animation filmmaker. Humans are naturally wired for stories and there is enough material on this for anyone to get a good grip on how to tell better stories. Here are some basics; All stories have a central plot and several subplots revealed over a period of time through a narrative and the characters involved in it. A classical narrative follows a three-act structure with a Beginning, Middle and End, usually in this order but the chronology can be decided by the creator. So to being with, one must identify these portions correctly for plotting a story for gamification. Towards the end of Act-1, the central character is introduced with the conflict that gives him/her a compelling reason to participate. Act-2 is usually the longest and ends with the climax after passing through many ups and downs. Act-3 is where the storyteller concludes the story well so that the viewers go back with a much-articulated closure. That's how stories are written in a typical scenario.

If you want to dive deeper and understand the finer nuances of storytelling, get hold of The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. Meanwhile, let me break down the essence of the concept into eight steps for you to get started.

Illustration of Hero’s journey in 8 steps
Hero’s Journey describes how a hero( player) typically pass through various stages before reaching the final resolution of the story(game).
  1. The ordinary world: A new game is introduced
  2. A compelling reason: The game’s goal resonates with the user’s intrinsic motivation to participate.
  3. The journey begins: The player decides to act on the compelling call to action to test the waters.
  4. Face challenges: The player crosses the threshold and gains higher confidence in the game.
  5. Covering milestone/s: The player makes allies, enemies and reaches real close to the irresistible final goal through motivating reward/s.
  6. Completes final goal: The player takes up the hardest challenge and wins the game.
  7. The Return: The winner finds fulfilment/pride from the hurdles he/she overcome and returns to their ordinary world.
  8. Transformation: The player finds a new self(better habits) with the knowledge gathered in the journey.
concept illustration
Shows how to plot a game progression to the 8 steps of the Hero’s Journey and the classical 3 act structure of storytelling.
Image of Super Mario
From the Game Super Mario Bros.

A popular example would be the game of Super Mario Bros. A Japanese platform video game series and media franchise created by Nintendo and featuring their mascot, Mario. The premise of the game starts with the kidnapping of the princess toadstool of the mushroom kingdom by the notorious King Koopa and the toads of the mushroom kingdom. She is held captive in the many castles of King Koopa. Now a plumber named Mario and his brother travel through the Mushroom Kingdom to save the princess and defeat King Koopa and his minions.

Marketers are the early adopters of gamification in business. ‘Unlock the 007 in you’ is one of the very memorable marketing campaigns by Coca-Cola. Using the context of the James Bond stories, they encouraged the visitors at a shopping mall to participate in a challenge to get free tickets. This memorable experience was made for increasing brand loyalty among not only the participants but also anyone who is watching it.

‘Unlock the 007 in you’ a gamified marketing campaign by Coca-Cola.

What I have shared here is the broader but the most basic framework to get anyone started with gamification projects in the right direction. I would like to stress a few things; firstly, the most important one is to understand the users better especially their core motivations. Secondly, Product gamification is certainly an iterative process and takes time to reach the optimum experience through multiple tests and feedbacks (It takes a village to create a good game, and in many startups, the product team strength is less than that of a soccer team with some key skillsets missing). It is better to start with something easier, and faster to execute, rather than waiting for everything to be perfect. Depending on the needs, resources and time one can eventually cover all aspects of gamification.

When you are ready to explore even higher levels of creating challenges and more minute aspects of motivations, do consider the Octalysis framework proposed by Yu-kai Chou. He has added much deeper nuances of behaviour science and psychology into gamification. The framework explains 8 core drives that can be very helpful in designing challenges through so many combinations to drive [business] results.

Cheers,
Dhaneesh Jameson | LinkedIn | Twitter
(Experience Design Producer, Filmmaker)

Awful to Awesome & All in-betweens in pursuit of better Experiences, Solutions, & Stories…

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Dhaneesh Jameson

Dhaneesh Jameson

Experience Design Producer

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