Gamification Needs to Level Up — Here’s How

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Gamification has been a buzzword for 2010, and now we’re seeing the inevitable backlash. For every company trying to add points, badges, challenges and leaderboards to their apps, websites and products, there’s a critic complaining about the trend. It’s not just haters looking to squash the next big thing; there are many underlying issues plaguing gamification, also known as funware. I still think game mechanics can be a force for good and positive outcomes for things like aiding people’s health or improving the environment, but for that to happen, gamification needs to take the next step.

Let’s first look at some of the problems facing gamification:

  • Game mechanics are being tacked on without regard to their relevance or appropriateness. The trend has spawned copycats who haven’t really thought out how they want to use gamification features. It’s like a box that’s being checked off. Just because I wrote a review on Yelp, why does that get me a badge? What’s the connection? Yes, it denotes repeated visits but the link to a badge seems tenuous.
  • Gamification proponents are assuming that points and badges are fun. Just because you apply points to an act doesn’t make it interesting or engaging. It’s what game designer Margaret Robertson called “pointsification.” She said points can denote progress, but they can often be the least interesting thing about a game.
  • Gamification is too focused on changing behaviors. Often, game mechanics are applied to get people to do something. That’s fine, and obviously the point for many companies. But many are just obvious attempts at getting users to do an act that helps a company and are not deeply engaging for users. Deals are helping soften the blow, but even those, if they’re irrelevant, just underscore that you’re not a player; you’re a pawn.
  • Gamification is seldom well-implemented overall. Some gamification attempts are aimed at attracting new users, but don’t offer engagement for experienced players or opportunities to level up. Others over-emphasize achievements or dangle singular honors like a mayorship for one act, which can turn off or intimidate less competitive users. Many attempts haven’t undergone through the serious testing that a traditional video game undergoes.

But all is not lost. Gamification can work, but it needs to do more than dole out points. It needs to get to the heart of what games are and tap into their power. Here’s what companies employing game mechanics should remember:

  • Funware needs to be fun. It’s pretty obvious, but games have to be intrinsically fun. There’s a big difference between getting points and doing something interesting. Points are the outcome, but good games focus on what you put into it and how you play. A good gamification implementation ?taps interesting inputs and makes that part of the fun?.
  • Gamification should tap emotions and deeper motivations. Tim Chang, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners and a proponent of gamification, says game mechanics need to leverage more emotions. He said the seven deadly sins are great motivators but game mechanics only rely on a couple of them like greed or pride. Robertson says good games are also about being “interestingly hard” with the fear of failure a real motivator.
  • Game mechanics need to work with your product. A gaming mechanic needs to be in sync with a product to be powerful. A decent example is Foursquare’s partnership with Pepsi. Now, earning a “Gym Rat” badge can get you an offer for SoBe Lifewater.
  • Games need to offer choices, strategy, mastery. Right now, game mechanics are often about just collecting points or achievements with the only variable being how often you do something. But real games offer choices that produce different rewards. You can play riskier but get more rewards. That kind of strategy can also help deepen the experience. Also great games are easy to learn, difficult to master. Good uses of gamification must not only bring in new users but give more committed customers a way to grind it out and gain a sense of accomplishment. For many gamers, it’s that quest for mastery that motivates them, not their gamer score.
  • Spend time working out your gamification strategy. Companies need to spend a lot of time thinking about how they want to deploy funware. A strategy needs to make sense and identify what the company is trying to accomplish and how game mechanics done well can accomplish that. Then they need to test it out with users to make sure it resonates.

Gamification is bound to hit a wall as detractors declare it a fading trend. But there’s still a future in leveraging game mechanics. It just needs its practitioners to step up their game.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user methyl_lives.

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