getting »gamification« right
Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets)
Google Tech Talk, January 24, 2011
Gamification Getting it right
All grumpy German scholar, I sometimes get invited as the odd contrarian to spice up a gamification debate. On one such occasion, a
friend of mine approached me afterwards and asked: Your critique is all nice and fine, but is there anything that you do like? Do you
think gamification can be done well at all? Which got me thinking. And resulted in the thoughts in this talk. (Short answer: Yes, I do.)
1 Getting it right
So today, I‘d like to do three things: First, give a brief introduction into »gamification« for those unfamiliar with the topic. For the
second and largest part, I will cover three »ingredients« that I find missing in the current debate and implementations – and how to
address them. I will close with suggestions how to translate that into practice as a designer.
… they were rifts from which hot lava bubbled. In order not to burn to death immediately, I was not allowed to touch any crack with my
soles. To make this even more challenging, I would sometimes run and imagine an avalanche of hot lava in my back. Thus, a
combination of some make-believe and a self-created rule turned a boring walk home into an exciting challenge.
A second story: Again, this is not me, but to my big misfortune, my parents did have a big backyard lawn that I had to mow in the
summer. When I looked at the huge green surface in front of me, it always seemed like an insurmountable task. To make the task a little
less insurmountable, in my imagination, I would split the big lawn up into smaller parts, and decide to mow each part differently:
The first part, horizontally, the second, vertically, the third one diagonally, etc. Thanks to the difference between mown and unmown
lawn, I could always tell how much I had already mowed, and thanks to splitting the lawn up in my mind, I always had a more
achievable goal ahead of me. Goal-setting, variation, progress feedback – they made that daunting backyard surmountable to me.
… we indulged in all kinds of mischief with Lego and Playmobil figures that our morbid minds could conjure: Train crashes, suicide
attempts with dynamite/firecrackers – you name it. What made this sandbox special? A free space for ourselves, and something to toy
with, to explore and express ourselves beyond the intentions of our parents.
Free, safe play space
Shared toy objects
Zooming out, I believe that these three little stories already contain many of the principles that – done well – make games, or gameified
applications, fun and engaging. And if you probe your own memory, I am sure you will remember how you as well have already used
some or all of these principles to »gameify« something in your own life.
But on to the present and this »gamification« thing in the digital industries today. What is that about? A common definition comes
from one of the major service vendors, Bunchball. In short, »gamification« describes the use of design elements from video games in
non-game contexts to make a product, service, or application more fun, engaging, motivating.
Let‘s have a look at some examples. »Nike+« has been a poster child for way too many things, but by adding scores, challenges,
trophies, and competitions to what would otherwise be »just« a running self-tracker, it definitely counts as a case study for
Buster Benson‘s web application »Health Month« let‘s you set up rules for your own health behavior for one month, and then win our
loose points and badges (and cheer and be cheered by others) based on those rules.
In the area of sustainability, Nissan‘s »MyLeaf« allows you to compete with other drivers regionally as well as globally on how energy
efficient you are driving your car.
In the media industry, companies try to make their online properties more sticky and engaging by adding minigames, challenges,
(redeemable) points and leaderboards to them, as in the case of the USA Network show »psych«.
In retail shopping, companies like »BarcodeHero« bring the concept of »checking in« from Foursquare or Gowalla to stores or
products in stores, again complete with points, leaderboards and other game elements.
And even in the productivity space, several companies have set up services to add game elements to work tasks, as in the case of »Play
Nice.ly«, which »gameifies« software debugging with points and badges earned for the number and quality of bugs you report.
Service Vendors and Agencies
Finally, a couple of service vendors and agencies have sprung up that offer game elements (points, badges, …) as a service layer to
integrate into your site, as well as gamification design.
Points Badges Leaderboards
tracking, feedback goals, rewards competition
However, if you take a step back, the blueprint all current implementations follow is still defined by location-based service Foursquare.
You have an activity you wish your users to do and therefore give points for it. You have badges or levels users get for certain points or
activities. And to create some competition between users, you throw in a leaderboard for good measure.
Ga b e
Z ic h e r m a n A my J o Kim
By ro n Re eve s
Jane Je s se S c h e ll
Depending on who you ask, these features will be framed in a vastly different manner: As a »super-charged, super-cheap« form of
loyalty programs, as a new field of (meta)game design and community engagement, as the future of work as a perfect information
market, as the future of advertising and advergames, or as alternate reality games to change the world for the better.
»At SCVNGR we like to joke
that with any seven game
dynamics you can get anyone
to do anything.«
welcome to the decade of games (2010)
Broadly speaking, the debate debate is split into two camps: Between mostly enthusiastic marketers and startups (like Seth Priebatsch)
who present gamification as the next big thing after »social« – essentially, a key to outright mind control ...
»Gamification is an inadvertent con. It
tricks people into believing that there’s a
simple way to imbue their thing ... with
the psychological, emotional and social
power of a great game.«
can‘t play, won‘t play (2010)
… and mostly game designers (like Margaret Robertson) on the other side, who consider gamification the next oversold social media
snake oil, falsely promising to distill the qualities of a carefully crafted video game into a small set of turnkey features.
So is there a secret ingredient?
I‘d like to take Margaret Robertson‘s objection as the starting point for my argument: What exactly is it that most current gamification
proponents are missing? Are there some »secret ingredients«, or is it all just snake oil 2.0?
Gamification Getting it right
As I already said, I find three such »secret ingredients« missing in most current implementations and discussions of gamification:
The first one is meaning. To be effective, gameified applications have to connect to something that is already meaningful to the user –
or wrap themselves in a story that makes them meaningful, as in the case of the walk home from school.
The second missing ingredient is mastery: The experience of being competent, of achieving something – like mowing a lawn. It turns
out that this experience is at the core of what makes any good game fun and engaging.
The final missing ingredient is autonomy: Just like the sandbox and Playmobil figures in my childhood backyard, a free space to play in,
and something to play with.
Compare this with software development Q&A platform Stack Overflow, often named as a key case study for gamification because of its
points and badges given for posting on the platform. However, if you were to take away those »gamy« elements, the platform would
still be hugely valuable to its users.
The general lesson here is that to be successful, a gameified application must provide something that is already meaningful to the user
on its own right. Game elements are like an amplifier: There has to be a genuine sound first – a value, an interest, a motivation – for the
amplifier to do any good.
»What we have learned from our users is that any
game aspect has to be, at least for finance, more
oriented toward some specific thing that you are
working toward: I want to buy a house or a car, take a
vacation, get out of debt ... Otherwise you have a
system of points with no levels or no end game.«
founder, mint.com (2010)
This is nicely reflected in a recent statement by the founder of aforementioned financial platform Mint.com. They observed that for any
game element to work, it has to connect to some personal goal the user already brings to the platform.
To condense this into a design principle: Especially if you build a gameified application that support users in pursuing their own ends
(e.g. health, fitness, finance, sustainable behavior), ensure that you connect to and support the personal goals of your users.
One practical way to do this is to allow users to set and customize their own goals within the platform. The design challenge here is to
support and guide the user in setting long- and short-term goals such that they become achievable and provide experiences of mastery
on the way (see below).
Now not all gameified applications support users in their goals; often, they try to enlist users for their own ends (think crowdsourcing
or ad-driven entertainment sites). But again, the broader principle »provide something that‘s alredy meaningful to the user« applies.
This might be tapping into their professional passions – like Book Oven, a crowdsourcing platform for book editing:
»One editor told me: Your
bite-sized edits is Crack
Cocaine for proof readers.«
Book Oven has some minimal game elements (points and leaderboards) for the task of copy-editing small chunks of text. Who would
do such a menial task, you ask? It turns out professional proof readers who do it for a living during daytime. Why? Well, I‘d argue
because the platform connects to something they are already good at and they passionately care about – well-edited books.
Broader social interests can also lend meaning. Take the many games today that use gameplay to crowdsource some task for scientific
data processing, like matching DNA sequences with Phylo. Why would people do this (instead of e.g. playing a full-fledged free online
game), if not because it connects to a general care for science?
… vs. Quality and Variety
Many gamification proponents argue that status, »bragging rights« is a central motivation their apps tap into. But for something to be
worth bragging about, it better be (a) a real achievement that (b) I and people I care about care about. So a second tactic for a
meaningful application is to ensure it connects to and enrolls the existing community of interest around its core activity or content.
The pop entertainment recommendation platform GetGlue offers users stickers for activities – like a »Movie Buff« sticker for liking 50
movies. However, neither I nor my friends care about pop entertainment that much, so earning a »movie buff« sticker or receiving a
random »thumbs up« on it from some unknown girl in Tucson, Arizona, is nothing that would excite or motivate me.
I am, however, a big board game geek, and therefore care for feedback from and status within the community of board game geeks.
Hence when I earn a microbadge on Boardgamegeek.com that states that I support the platform with a donation for hosting expenses
– that signals something meaningful to me and the other board game geeks whose opinion I care about.
Likewise, when I earn a badge that says I am a fan of the game »Hornet Leader 2«, or when some other community member thumbs
up a review I posted on a game – all of that is very meaningful to me and the other board game geeks.
One practical way to achieve this is to have the community itself create challenges and/or badges or similar, as on
Boardgamegeek.com. This almost automatically ensures that the community itself understands and values them.
But what about video games? Their fictional worlds usually stand apart from our real-life concerns and communities – and intentionally
so. The short answer is: story. Video games wrap their goals and activities into a large story that lends them meaning. And not being
shy kids, in 95% of all cases, that story is: Only You Can Save Mankind!
»Keep red from reaching blue«
On an abstract game mechanics level (and the graphics are also pretty abstract), the game is about small green points tracing red
trajectories on the screen, and you have to position and time blue trajectories such that they intercept the red ones. If I put it in this
abstract fashion, the game sounds not that exciting, right?
»Defend cities from nuclear bombs«
If I wrap that game mechanic into the game‘s narrative, however – »only you can save mankind«, in this case: »only you can defend
cities from nuclear bombs by intercepting them with missiles« –, now that is quite a different story.
And I believe this is easily translated into non-game contexts, and something that hasn‘t been made much use of yet. Take the many
crowdsourcing efforts that exist today to increase government transparency, like filing earmarks for washingtonwatch.com. Now you
would have to be a true policy/transparency wonk (connection to personal passion) to care about this, wouldn‘t you?
However, what if the same activity were presented in a »The Untouchables«/Watergate narrative of »be a citizen journalist, end
corruption« that lends purpose and meaning to it? Suddenly, the menial task seems much more exciting and motivating. (Bonus
question: Consider how political campaigns muster support by connecting supporters‘ actions to a bigger narrative.)
Supporting visuals and copy
Now story doesn‘t necessarily mean you have to tell a full-fledged narrative with heroes and villains, conflict and resolution and all.
Think »Missile Command« again: The visuals of the box and screen were enough to cue a coherent imagination. Similarly, gameified
applications should consider how to cue their narrative with consistent visuals and copy – e.g. for »citizen detective«.
Visuals and the fiction they cue do play a big role. Imagine the popular facebook game »Mafia Wars« would be strapped from all visual
and narrative cues of the underlying mafia fiction.
The result would be the bare »fill progress bar to progress« mechanic shining through. Not only do the game elements become less
comprehensible if we have no unifying conceptual metaphor to map them to. They also become far less exciting.
Messing with social meanings
There is also a specific danger connected to meaning: Any activity in the application has a social meaning in a broader context. My
favorite illustration to this is akoha, a platform that wants to encourage prosocial behavior by turning it into missions you earn points
for, like the »treat a friend to your favorite dessert« mission. Which a friend of mine did with a friend of his.
Who got curios and asked why he was taken out. To which my friend took out his mobile phone and explained akoha. Which made his
friend quite irate, asking »Do you he have any idea how degrading it is to be invited not because you like me, but because of some
s****y game?« Beware of the way game rules and activities can mess with existing social norms and meanings.
Test with your non-geeky friends
Brian Reynolds tells the story how when they added spouses to FrontierVille and a colleague created his, the next day the colleague‘ wife
called Brian up asking whether her husband really created that spouse randomly (as he claimed) or on purpose. That story contains
practical advice: Test your applications with your real, non-geeky friends to see whether they produce any awkward social effect.
• Tap personal goals, interests and
• Tap the existing community of interest
around your core activity/content
• Wrap your activity in a visually
• Beware of messing with social context
Let‘s move on to the second missing ingredient: the experience of mastery. Mastery, it turns out, is a core piece of the puzzle why
games are fun and engaging.
However, if we look at the home pages and advertising material of most gamification vendors, they paint a very different picture: To
them, rewards is what makes games fun, and points, levels, and badges are basically all rewards in their understanding (and virtual,
read: cheap ones, too).
Which means that they engage in a very flawed pop behaviorism: They consider games as Skinner boxes that doll out rewarding points
like sugar pellets every time we hit the right lever (usually comparing dropping loot in »World of Warcraft« with reinforcement
schedules). But if that reasoning would be correct, ...
Earn 1,000,000,000,000 points
... this should be the funnest game ever, earning you a whopping trillion points every time you press the button.
Thankfully, Jakob Stjerning took that idea to the test and built that precise game: »Progress Wars«. Oh, watch how those lovely bars
progress as you click! Isn‘t it fun? Isn‘t it engaging? Well, in fact, no, not so much.
»Fun is just another word
a theory of fun for game design (2005)
For all empirical studies on the motivational psychology of video games that I know of make this point articulated by Raph Koster: The
fun in video games is learning. That might sound counter-intuitive: Usually, we associate learning with school, and school with anything
but fun. So let‘s unpack Koster‘s statement. What does he mean with learning?
»Fun from games arises out of mastery.
It arises out of comprehension. It is the
act of solving puzzles that makes games
fun. With games, learning is the drug.«
a theory of fun for game design (2005)
According to Koster, games pose challenges to us: patterns to recognize, rules to grock, puzzles to solve, hand-eye coordinations to
grasp. Fun is the good feeling we get when we finally succeed in mastering the challenge, when we experience that we learned to
competently control a part of our environment.
… and the release upon our successful resolution of that challenge. Again, in other words, playing video games is intrinsically
motivating, not extrinsically rewarded. And if you misunderstand this crucial motivational psychology of games, you are likely to build
some version of »Progress Wars« that quickly loses its appeal. (Source, Source, Source)
Not fun Fun
Returning to learning and school, you may object: School also poses challenges to you (like mathematical equations to solve). Why is
that not fun, while playing a trading card game like »Magic: The Gathering« is, whose mastery arguably requires a deep understanding
of the mathematics of the different cards and card decks?
»Fun is just another word
under optimal conditions
a theory of fun for game design (2005)
This is an important addition to Koster‘s statement: Fun is learning – under optimal conditions. That‘s what makes good games fun
and marks the core of game design: crafting precisely such optimal conditions.
Games do this by creating interesting challenges that provide said experiences of mastery. Thus, it becomes obvious why game designers
criticise most gameified applications as shallow: They offer challenges as bland as »leaving the house«, like »read a blog post«, »revisit
our site 5 times«, or »fill out a profile«, and overcompensate that blandness with the amount of feedback/rewards they give.
How do games create interesting challenges? Allow me to nick the example of golf given by Bernard Suits in his beautiful book The
Grasshopper: First, games set goals – like »put the ball into the hole«. If that was all, however, golf would be a pretty boring game – you
could just pick up the ball, walk over to the hole, and put it in.
… plus rules ...
Enter rules. The rules of golf state you cannot »just walk over«. You have to start from a specific point on the course, and you have to hit
the ball with specific weird sticks in specific weird ways. And you have to play the ball where-ever it lands. (Suits therefore calls games a
»voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles«. Ask any golfer.)
… create interesting challenges
Taken together with the design of the various golf courses around the world and daily weather conditions, these goals and rules creates
an infinite amount of varied, interesting challenges. Sounds still abstract? Let‘s dissect the different parts in more detail to see whether
we can cull some more practical design principles from this.
Clear, visually present goals
The first principle is that your users should know their goals. So present them visually in a clear, easy-to-find fashion. GetGlue actually
stands apart by doing a decent job here. Upon returning to the site, the user is greeted with a clear recommendation which next sticker
to strife for, and suggestions what to do if one is bored.
Structured flow of goals
Now video games don‘t just present goals. They ensure that a structured flow of nested goals pulls you through, from the long-term
goal (safe world, rescue princess), to medium-term (kill level boss-monster) and short-term goals (collect five level coins). Wherever
you are in and whenever you return to a good game, there will always be one next goal that is just within reach.
Zynga‘s »CityVille« can serve as a good design example for gameified applications: On the left side of the interface, the game always
presents fresh »missions« to fulfill. The missions are optional – you needn‘t complete them to play the game –, but they lend guidance
to momentarily overwhelmed, uncreative, or bored players.
If you click on one of the mission icons, you will find they are structured just as described: Each mission consists of a set of even
smaller, even more achievable sub-goals.
Video games also structure goals in relation to their degree of challenge. The recent gameified crowdsourcing of twitter‘s translation
gives a handy example: Players could earn points for each piece of interface text they translated, and they would level up based on their
overall point score, which then got displayed on their profile pages.
If you look closely at the leveling structure, you will see that with each level, translators needed to earn a little more points than before
to reach the next level. Each level got more difficult to achieve. Put differently: The challenge is scaffolded.
flow: the psychology of optimal experience
And this matches nicely with one central model for the appeal of video games: the concept of flow. According to psychologist Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi, people feel best when they are neither underchallenged (boredom) nor overchallenged (anxiety and frustration), but
right at the level of their skills. And as people learn with time and repetition, challenges have to increase to keep up with growing skills.
Varied pacing provides ...
However, if you look at the actual difficulty curve of a good commercial video game, it is no straight line. Rather, it fluctuates up and
down along a general upward trend.
Failures to learn from...
On the one hand, with sudden spikes in difficulty, this creates valuable experiences of failure: Failures that lead the player to examine
his performance and explore new, alternative strategies, but also make eventual success so much sweeter and more satisfying.
… and experiences of mastery
On the other hand, frequent easy challenges allow players to really experience and savor that they master the game. (View Scott Rigby‘s
GDC 2009 presentation on the importance of such moments of PWND! or, put more academically, expressions of mastery).
Not just more of the same ...
There is a weakness in the design of twitter‘s crowdsourcing game, however: It‘s challenge increases just in quantity, which can quickly
turn into a boring grind of »can I persist?« instead of an interesting »can I learn how to do this?«. Similarly, if you earned a sticker for
liking 50 movies on GetGlue, the question whether you can like 50 more is not a real challenge.
Super Mario Bros.
As game designer Daniel Cook outlines, video games keep their learning challenges interesting by varying them and increasing their
complexity. In »Super Mario Bros.«, the first challenge is: Can you jump? Then a different challenge awaits: Can you shoot monsters
with fireballs? When you mastered that, the next, more complex challenge is: Can you jump and shoot at the same time? And so on.
Provide variety, depth, complexity
Gameified applications should likewise see that they provide their users with a rich set of diverse, varied challenges that slowly increase
in complexity with users proficiency and investment, e.g. from liking items to writing comments to becoming the moderator of a page.
Capture the core challenge
Another thing that makes the challenges of a game interesting is if they match structure of the slice of reality they are supposed to
model. In the game »Diner Dash«, for instance, the challenge is sequencing under time pressure, rapidly figuring out what to do in
which order: Seat new customer? Serve meals? Just table 2 or table 1, 2, and 3? Take orders at table 4?
Capture the core challenge
Anyone who ever served tables will realize that this is actually a pretty good replication of the core challenge of being a waiter or
waitress. In contrast, imagine »Diner Dash« had depicted waiting tables as a trivia quiz game, or as a shooter. The game mechanic
would not fit the modeled activity and feel rather forced and less engaging.
The core challenge of e-mail?
• Maximum output/time?
• Error-free, polite, actionable?
• Order of priority?
• Timely replies?
• Checking less often?
Along those lines, an application that supports users in achieving their goals with game elements should fare best when those
elements directly address the core challenge keeping the user from following through on his intentions. Take e-mail: What, to you, is
the core challenge of good e-mail management? (Example courtesy of Stephen Anderson)
Order of priority?
Depending on what you consider it to be, you will want to employ different game elements. Seriosity‘s application »Attent« considers
getting the order of priority right the core challenge, and hence adds a virtual currency to mails to communicate priorities better. If you
consider checking e-mail too often your core challenge, you‘d likely pick another game element.
Excessive positive feedback
Now to the final tactic for providing experiences of mastery: When you succeed in a challenge, games provide excessive positive
feedback to make it abundantly clear to you that you did. My favourite example is the Pachinko-like game »Peggle«. The goal is to shoot
all orange pellets from a screen with a bouncing metal ball. Here‘s what happens if you clear the last orange pellet of a level:
Game designers call this »juicy« feedback or the »juiciness« of a game (source, source). The Microsoft Office tutorial game »Ribbon
Hero« is another good case in point: For each small challenge like »clear formatting«, you get this big nice »congratulations« splash.
Encouraging unintended behaviors
… vs. Quality and Variety
As with meaning, there is also a danger in adding goals, rules, and feedback: They may encourage unintended behaviors like cheating,
exploiting, or gaming your system. Consider the following story: In May 2009, tumblr introduced a new activity dashboard for users
with an overall tumblr popularity score, »tumblarity«, hoping it would encourage people to engage more with the platform.
And engage they did – although in an unintended fashion. Since the easiest way to raise tumblarity was to just post as much as
possible, the community previously characterized by careful curation of web curiosities got drowned in dribble – or so the community
felt, and reacted with a huge backlash. In January 2010, tumblr took tumblarity down and replaced it with a directory of tumblr users.
Another story: Consumating.com was an early web 2.0 dating site for geeks, with tags and with a point system and leaderboard where
users could vote posts of people up or down. The creators hoped that these game elements would encourage people to post more
»Members without any pre-existing friends on the site
had little chance to earn points unless they literally
campaigned for them in the comments, encouraging
point whoring. Members with lots of friends... sat in
unimpeachable positions on the scoreboards,
encouraging elitism. ... Even worse was our decision to
allow negative votes. Members could gang up and
"thumb bomb" other members. The best way to "win"
at Consumating was to not participate at all!«
i love my chicken wire mommy (2009)
Ben Brown, co-founder of Consumating, recently retold their experience of what havoc a badly executed point system can wreck,
encouraging all kinds of unintended user behavior.
Similarly, there are now quite a number of apps out that allow Foursquare users to auto-check in to places, like Mayor Maker, rendering
the competition for mayorship or leadership on a leaderboard moot.
Game Your Own System
So when you playtest your system, I recommend that you instruct some testers to try and game your system in every way possible to
surface exploits early on. Also, monitor user comments and analytics constantly for signs of possible exploits (like sudden point
• Provide interesting challenges
• Provide goals that are clear, scaffolded,
paced, and varied
• Provide juicy feedback
• Beware of encouraging unintended
We have arrived at the final missing ingredient: autonomy. The freedom of a sandbox to have a space to play in and something that can
be played with. Where rules and mastery are a core aspect of what games are (and why they are fun), autonomy is core aspect of what it
means to play, and why playing is fun.
I like to call this the »Tom Sawyer phenomenon«: In the famous novel by Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer has to paint a fence and is derided
by friends who pass by on their way to the fishing pond. By insisting that he‘d rather paint the fence than go fishing, Tom is able to
persuade his friends that he paints voluntarily, painting is actually fun – and has them pay for the privilege of painting the fence for him.
»If he had been a great and wise
philosopher, like the writer of this
book, he would now have
comprehended that Work consists
of whatever a body is obliged to do,
and that Play consists of whatever
a body is not obliged to do.«
the adventures of tom sawyer (1876)
Great and wise philosopher (and psychologist) that he was, Mark Twain rightly observed that autonomy is what makes the difference
between work an play: We usually experience as work what we are forced to do, whereas to experience something as play, we must feel
that we have chosen to do it voluntarily.
This explains why one and the same activity – analysing spreadsheets – can be experienced as work (and people demand payment for
it) in one case, and in another case (like in the Online Roleplaying Game »Eve Online«), it is experienced as fun (and people pay for it).
In the game, analysing spreadsheets is done voluntarily; at work, not so much.
The Perils of and Variety
… vs. QualityExtrinsic Rewards
And this leads us right away to the danger connected to autonomy: the danger in giving out rewards for activities. Dozens of
psychological studies have consistently shown that giving expected extrinsic rewards for an activity (e.g. »if you do x, I will give you y
amount of cash/points/...«) reduces the intrinsic motivation of people to do it (source). Why? Two reasons.
Curbing autonomy through control
The first reason is that people feel controlled by the person giving the rewards, reducing their sense of autonomy. This is especially
relevant to gameifying work, like the leaderboard above for salesforce.com. Depending on how your supervisor handles it, this board
can feel like yet another form of control and pressure, or as merely informational and supportive (»I should ask Brian how he does it«).
Devaluing the activity
Secondly, giving a reward for an activity sends a strong social signal that you don‘t consider the activity worth doing for its own sake. If
you pay people to become facebook friends of your app or to retweet a link to your app for the chance of entering a sweepstake, that
essentially says: »Our app is so bad, we have to reward people to say they like it. They would never do it spontaneously.«
No strings attached
How to avoid those side effects? The first trick is not to attach real-world consequences to in-game activities: no quarterly evaluations,
salary bonuses, sweepstakes, etc. Sabre Town is a successful enterprise Q&A platform that achieved high platform activity by using
game elements (users who answer often can customize more elements of their profile) without attaching any such further strings.
Shared goals, individual pursuit
Apologies if you‘re tired of hearing about Zappos‘ customer service, but it showcases a second strategy: Ensure that you and your
employees share the same goals and the intentions behind those goals (here: good customer service), so that they feel they pursue
their own goals. Then make them even more autonomous by leaving it up to them how they reach those goals.
The third strategy is to ensure that system feedback feels informational rather than controlling, supporting users in reaching their goals.
Mint.com again is a good example: It shows you how much progress you made on your own financial goals, and suggests next steps
how to make even more progress (rather than e.g. scolding you).
A fourth strategy is to make rewards unexpected – like easter eggs in video games. When you don‘t expect a reward, you don‘t feel you
did something because of the reward – hence it doesn‘t feel controlling or devaluing.
Something to toy with together
So much for the first part of autonomy – a free space to play in. The second part is the freedom inherent in the objects within that
space, that sandbox. Does your application provide objects whose uses are not fully predefined by the designer? Do they offer
possibilities to explore that spark curiosity and allow for self-exploration, recombination, and the pleasures of mischief?
Game designers usually speak of »sandbox games« in this context, and their current poster child is »Minecraft«. In Minecraft, players
find themselves in a randomly generated world consisting of pixely cubes, which they can combine and process to all kinds of material.
… and the occasional full-scale model of the USS Enterprise.
Another obvious case are simulation games, with »Spore« and its Creature Creator being the maybe most well-known successful
example, whose users have more creatures that known species on Earth. (I spare you the pleasures of mischief of a thousand and one
dildo creatures, but if you must, do a google image search.)
However, even games that appear far less »open« on the surface have been explored for their expressive potential, like »FarmVille«.
Never intended by the designers themselves, players quickly found they could use their farm and crops and pixel and canvas (check
Freedom, with rails
Yet many people are frightened by too much open possibility with nowhere to start, like a blank page. Good »toy objects« are like
climbing walls: To experts, they offer all opportunities to craft their very own path. For beginners and the momentarily-less-creative, they
offer handles and pre-designed paths to follow and then explore from (more thoughts on this).
Lofty and hard to apply? Here‘s a practical example, again from Boardgamegeek.com. A core social object of the platform are user-
created lists of games. The intended use is to create useful topical collections like »pirate-themed games« or »the best new games from
convention XYZ«. However, technically, the lists were of course not confined to these uses.
Users quickly realized the creative, expressive, and most importantly, comic potential of this object. Hence, the most popular lists of
the site tend to be of the kind of »comments of my grandma, mom and wife on my games« ….
• In producvity contexts: Beware of
• In consumer contexts: Beware of
devaluing your product
• Provide a shared digital toy object open
for exploration and expression, with
Getting it right
3 Missing Things
So meaning, mastery, and autonomy are three key ingredients to good games – and gameified applications. How do you ensure that
you get them right when you design such an application? What practical steps should you take?
Process, not features
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that any good design – game or software – hinges on good designers and design
process, not on features. If you look at the big gamification vendors, however, what they advertise on is features (understandably,
because that‘s always an easier sell to executives). Yet what truly differentiates them, I‘d argue, is their design experience.
Just think about Web 2.0 and »social«. Whether a site builds a community or not has nothing to do with having a certain feature – a tag
cloud, blog, wiki –, or not. It depends on whether the team behind the site understood their users, spoke with them, designed and
redesigned over and over to get all the little details right and ensure that what they build actually speaks to the needs of those users.
Know Your Users
So the first thing to do – again, as with any good design – is to know your users. What motivates them? What is meaningful to them?
What keeps them from following through on their intentions? What kinds of games do they like? What kind of community to they
prefer? Without user research to figure these things out, you will miss your target audience.
The now-defunct community site fanlib.com delivers a good cautionary tale. Fanlib.com tried to encourage fan fiction writers to submit
their work with competitions and sweepstakes. From the above ad, can you tell their mistake? Turns out, the fan fiction community is
99% female – and driven by help and collaboration, not competition. Their game elements didn‘t fit the community they were targeting.
Read the Rules
… vs. Quality and Variety
Secondly, you should learn the basics of game design – how goals and rules create interesting challenges. There are good books on the
subject, like Game Design Workshop or The Art of Game Design, but arguably the easiest, best, and most hands-on way is to start playing
board games and then tinker with them and discuss how different rules create different dynamics and experiences.
Prototype, Playtest, Iterate
… vs. Quality and Variety
Again nonsurprising to any good designer, if you read any of the mentioned books, you will learn that the core of game design is to
build a functional prototype (paper is fine) of your rule system as early as possible to test whether it is any fun, tweak it based on the
test results, test it again, etc., to iterate your way toward something that is fun and engaging. In the words of designer Rainer Knizia:
»The life blood of game design is
testing. ... Why are we playing games?
Because it‘s fun. You cannot calculate
this. You cannot test this out in an
abstract manner. You have to play it.«
famous board game designer (2010)
Take the best-selling casual game of 2009, »Plants vs. Zombies«, with more than 15 mio. downloads and 1,5 mio. copies sold, over 1
mio. US$ in iPhone app sales on its first week in the iTunes store, and more industry prizes than there are Oscars. The secret? Three
years of iteration and refinement ...
… to the final product (read their excellent postmortem). Now I don‘t want to say you need to invest three years to make your gameified
application shine. What I do say is that the only way to ensure it shines is to prototype, playtest, and iterate as early and often as
Bring in the data
And that includes qualitative as well as quantitative testing. The »Plants vs. Zombies« creators not only played endless iterations. They
also tracked and analysed the game play to ensure they got the balance just right – is that level too long? too short? too easy? too
Have we curbed exploits?
Similarly, with gameified applications, only quantitative analytics will tell you whether your point systems don‘t have loopholes or
How Much is »Just Right«?
… or whether you balanced the difficulty of the goals and missions you present your players.
A huge part of gameified applications is basically a reputation system, so read Randell Farmer‘s and Bryce Glass‘s excellent Building
Web Reputation Systems. For a hands-on introduction to game design and prototyping, work through Tracy Fullerton‘s Game Design
Workshop. And once it‘s out, Scott Rigby‘s and Richard Ryan‘s Glued to Games will be the best popular 101 on video game motivation.