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Gamification is a bit of a buzz-word at the moment. It seems like if you’re not already practicing it, you should be. But what actually is gamification, and can we learn anything from it?

Well, it’s nothing really new, and as Kevin Werbach1 highlights, the whole phenomenon can be pretty much summed up by Mary Poppins [1964]:

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and ‘snap’, the job’s a game” 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, in a paper written by Sebastian Deterding et al2, gamification has been defined by:

the use (rather than the extension)

of design (rather than game-based technology or other game-related practices)

elements (rather than full-fledged games)

characteristic for games (rather than play or playfulness)

in non-game contexts (regardless of specific usage intentions, contexts, or media of implementation).

So let’s look at a somewhat extreme or obvious example:

In this video, a pretty standard bottle bank has been turned into an arcade machine. By introducing elements characteristic for games like music, lights and scoring, the public were encouraged to use the bottle bank much more.

So what’s actually happening here? Why are we more likely to engage with something if it shares characteristics with games? Here we’ve taken a set of principals of gamification3, and added few examples of how we think they’re used day to day.

1. Feedback

A natural human trait is to respond to feedback in someway — whether positive or negative. When we do something and receive positive feedback (be it a reward, a smile, a point or a verbal well done), we are encouraged to do it again. An example of this principal being used is the idea of ‘up-voting4‘ on comments boards or forums: if you like what someone has written you can vote for it to be moved up the board. Here, not only are we receiving feedback in real-time, we’re given the power to feedback to others.

2. Choices

Classic games, at a fundamental level, give players a choice; whether to turn left or right, to jump or to crawl, buy a hotel on Mayfair or house on Old Kent Road. In real life, we’re given choices all the time: Waitrose uses a scheme5 of giving money to charity, and customers are given the power to choose who receives the money: With each transaction, customers are given a green token (with an equivalent monetary value), which they can then deposit in a ‘bank’ of their choice — there’s a separate slot for each charity in the scheme. It’s likely that every charity will end up with more or less the same amount of money, so why does Waitrose bother with all this? Because it’s a way of actively engaging their customers, who feel (at a somewhat unconscious level) empowered and good about what they’ve done. Having to go through the process, especially the final choice, is very game-like, so is therefore an essentially ‘fun’ experience.

3. Progression

A lot of money is invested by businesses to test when users stop engaging with their service or product: the drop-off point. The result is elements being introduced to stop the drop-off and encourage engagement (sometimes referred to as loop engagement). So in a game like Monopoly we’re given £100 every time we pass go. It encourages us to spend and it keeps us in the game. Lots of websites and apps feature some sort of progress bar: a visual reminder that we’ve got more to do: to finish a tutorial, to finish our profiles or to complete our transaction at the checkout. As all of these six principals are interlinked, and feedback encourages our progression: Badges are used to reward us on websites like Codeacademy and eBay, and stamps are used on loyalty cards at cafés and restaurants.

4. Levels

A huge proportion of games use levels as a major element of engagement: Once you’ve completed a level, you’re faced with an even more challenging level. It’s this notion of challenging ourselves that engages us. Most supermarket customers get money-off vouchers if they shop at supermarkets and use loyalty cards. A common type of voucher is ‘when you spend £X you’ll get £Y off’. And more often than not, if you manage to spend say £60 to get £6 off your bill, one of the next vouchers you get will be £7 off a £70 shop. And so it goes on, almost turning into levels in a game. Once the challenge has started, if you’re able to achieve the first goal, there’s always another level to tackle.

5. Social

Games are intrinsically social: we tend to either play games with others, or share our successes on league tables, forums and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And businesses need to be social too: on the web we’re often encouraged to ‘like’ something on Facebok, and to share what we’ve just bought or completed on Twitter. Shops hold open-evenings and events to encourage social gathering and peer interaction. Popular brands create a social environment (on and offline) to generate a buzz and encourage engagement.

6. Habit 

The most successful games are ones that have users who play more than once; when playing the game becomes habit. And the same goes for business too: the most successful organisations are the ones that have users engage with them repeatedly. And one way you can ensure people do that is to make the process fun, to use all these six principals. A great number of games take advantage of our natural habits, like hunter/gather techniques in games that are used to acquire badges or weapons or points. And shops do this too; we love getting points and points on our supermarket loyalty cards. We become obsessional with using the same product and the same service providers over and over again. It’s not always because they’re the best, it just means sometimes they’re the best at understanding our behaviours.

A great example of a business that uses all six principles of gamification is Nandos: The ever-popular restaurant runs a stellar loyalty card scheme6, where you get one stamp per visit. After three stamps you are rewarded with a free 1/4 chicken (or vegetarian meal). After six stamps (three more visits) it’s even better and you’re rewarded with 1/2 a chicken. If you manage to get four more stamps (ten in total), you’ve won the game: A free whole chicken is yours. That’s progression encouraged through feedback, a huge number of choices split into levels, motivated by social competition and rivalry between peers, and the whole process becomes habit: A recent survey7 showed that the average restaurant in it’s ‘fast casual sector’ has an average ‘revisit intent’ (definitely or will probably visit again) of 69%. Nando’s score is over 80%. Nandos is so popular in the UK that during the London riots of 2011, there was a Nandos Defence League set up to protect the restaurants from rioters. That’s loyalty that most businesses can only dream of.

So, gamification is important in business, and it does seem like it’s something we can all introduce, if only in a small way, into our own businesses and organisations. It’s about understanding human behaviour and our psychology.