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Demystifying Gamification: Five Guiding Principles that Activate Engagement

Demystifying Gamification: Five Guiding Principles that Activate Engagement

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How Play and Purpose can Help People (and Organizations) Solve Problems

While “Gamification” may never rival “Innovation” as the digital industry’s metaphoric top hit-single, it’s quickly climbing Billboard’s Buzzword Top 40. Sure that’s a chart I made up. But in my mind, the Buzzword Top 40 of digital design not only tracks what’s trending, it highlights all those words and phrases that get bandied about, often without any deep understanding of what the language means.

Interestingly, in the case of gamification, meaning is what it’s all about.

Before we get there, let’s first talk about what gamification is not. For one, it’s not a game. And when it comes to business strategy, it’s definitely not a game built for a business purpose. It’s also not a way to motivate people. The idea that gamification is a wand that can magically create motivation is a common misconception. B.J. Fogg, a humble giant in the field of behavior science, frequently points out that technology can’t magically change behavior … but it can be a powerful conduit and influence for behavioral change.

That’s another way of saying: gamification can enable innovation. (No wonder it’s in the Top 40.) But the only way it can do that is if we understand how it works. Only then will we know how to use it to powerful effect.

Designing for Human Behavior

In its simplest definition, gamification is the art of facilitating play.

As human beings, we’re wired for play. Biochemically and physiologically, its benefits include happiness, joy, relaxation, re-creation. When we play, we become more facile. More open. More available to insights and epiphanies. The brain and body work collaboratively, entertaining new perspectives, practicing new skills, subtly building and rebuilding our internal structures. With play, we learn and change.

We also engage.

That, too, is a Buzzword hit-single, so let’s loop back to what gamification is not. Gamification isn’t a silver bullet that can automatically engage your audience. Dr. Fogg makes the case that motivation fluctuates within us all the time. We experience peaks and troughs of motivation throughout the day, week, month, etc. He calls this the motivation wave, and he’s devoted his work at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab to studying how to surf it. His findings prove that behavior can be influenced only when the exertion or task required matches a person’s motivation in the moment. Meaning, when motivation is low, the proscribed activity to introduce a new behavior has to be extremely simple. As fluctuations happen and successes mount, motivation increases. As motivation increases, the difficulty of the task can increase to match.

As digital designers, we know that motivation and engagement are subtly intertwined. That deeper level of connection can only happen when we authentically align an experience with our customers’ contextual internal and external needs. When designing for behavior, Fogg lays it out this way:

  • Harness the motivation that exists in the moment.
  • Guide people in creating new, structured behaviors (help them know how or what to do).
  • Focus on baby steps for long-term change. Trust that tiny habits grow naturally (success leads to success). And,
  • Be wary of the phrase “motivate behavior change”. Remember: we really can’t effectively motivate anyone. Instead, we can facilitate and enable motivation.

Five Guiding Principles

But how? How do we facilitate and enable motivation? Better, how can a gamified experience help people and companies solve problems? At Emerge, we boil it down to this: experiences influence attitudes, attitudes drive behaviors, behaviors create more experiences, and together, they produce results. This is why a client’s overarching business strategy is as important to us as the contextual needs and desires of that client’s customers. They must work together to drive human-centered design.

When the following five principles are understood and fused with human-centered design, something cool happens: the digital platform, which supports an intuitive user experience that’s infused with smartly deployed game mechanics, gains the power to not only help people increase their capability to do progressively harder things, it also has the power to enable people (or companies) to achieve their goals.

Here are the five guiding principles that help make that happen.

1. Purpose | Epic Meaning

The likelihood of engagement is measurably increased when users know they’re working to achieve something great, something meaningful, something bigger than themselves. Don’t be afraid to champion epic meaning that aligns with your brand and authentically aligns with your customers’ contextual needs.

2. Context | Progression | Transparency

Like any good map, a transparent context allows users to know exactly where they stand — in this case, where they are in relation to metrics that matter to the brand, customer, client, and/or user. Progress can be shown in real time or historically. Successes can be granularly displayed and measured through the process of completing motivationally appropriate tasks. Users can progress individually or as part a team. Team-based metrics and leaderboards can be used to show overall rankings.

3. Feedback

Encourage users to continue, or enable them to adjust their activities and performance, based on immediate, real-time feedback. Utilize onscreen notifications, text messages, or emails. Congratulate users for reaching goals, then queue-up / encourage the next milestone of the journey. Hints, teasers, and secrets can pique curiosity and increase attention and persuasion.

4. Chunking | Progressive Onboarding

Users are more likely to take action when complex activities are broken into smaller, more manageable tasks. Chunking creates low barriers for success, which has a positive effect on motivation. In the same vein, intuitive games teach by doing, allowing users to learn how to play while actively playing the game. Simple missions help new users become engaged immediately as they master basic tasks.

5. Reward | Status

Letting players advance level to level encourages progression within the experience and becomes an indication of long-term or sustained achievement. Unlock new missions, badges, activities, and rewards as users advance. (Even a witty, well-placed Easter Egg can add word-of-mouth buzz, while bumping up exploration and delight.)

When it all comes together, the whole becomes far more than the sum of its parts. When behavior design blends with game mechanics in a best-in-class offering built on human-centered design, the result is a holistic experience that embraces desire, behavior, and meaning. It’s a high bar that’s achievable once you know how to get there. It’ll also put you ahead of the competition next time you’re bellied up to the bar, talking shop while the jukebox spins the latest from the Buzzword Top 40. When it happens, you’ll be armed with meaning.


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