Friday, May 30, 2014

Gamification: Adding Mastery

This is my third post on gamification and motivational strategy (see Adding Purpose and Adding Autonomy). A successful strategy can use some form of gamification, as well as other tools, to develop and enhance motivation from within.

In this post I present how to provide opportunities for mastery, the third of the three pillars of sustainable motivation according to Dan Pink.

Competence vs Mastery

Interestingly, the equivalent pillar in self-determination theory is "competence", which is on the same scale as mastery but not necessarily at the same level (competence only implies that one has basic control). A lack of competence in your work can be de-motivational, but this is frequently overcome by other motivational elements, such as status, power, and perks. All other things being equal, people are happier when they can perform tasks at which they are competent, or can practice tasks in order to gain competence.

Performing with, or gaining, mastery can also be motivational, but I don't think it is as ubiquitous. Many people I know are happy to avoid the problems and challenges that come from attaining mastery. Gaining mastery involves an opportunity cost of non-challenging activities such as watching television or posting flames on YouTube. Still, if a person must anyway devote time to something (school, work, etc), the opportunity to obtain mastery can provide a unique happiness.

Mastery of What?

Adding an opportunity for mastery requires you to identify the aspects of the task people will want to master. No one is dying to master buying things; giving out points for each purchase is not going to trigger a quest for mastery (it may trigger purpose, depending on what is being purchased). Similarly, no one is interested in mastering clicking on your sales brochure, tweeting your praises, or commenting more frequently. If you try to sell these as challenges to be mastered, you will invoke only contempt from your audience (or shame, at best). Mastery is for intrinsically interesting tasks that must be learned or performed.

To return to a previous example, if you want to sell the task "memorize bible verses", the mastery component will focus on a) memorization ability, b) textual understanding, or c) final grade. While these may look the same on the outside, they are all different skills. For memorization, the student is mastering the skill of memorization. For understanding, the skill is knowledge and understanding. The final grade is likely going to test either memorization or understanding. However, if the student is motivated by a grade, and not because of the desire to be a better memorizer or learn the material; this is not mastery, but purpose.

Gamification vs Playification

When you add points, levels, etc to a task, each point can provide quick, progressive, and positive feedback about a level of accomplishment. This "rewards" the brain on some level, not as some external award given to incentivize but by providing a milestone that reflects what you have accomplished (Nils Pihl and others). The hope is that the frequency, clarity, and immediacy of the feedback encourages you to complete tasks, or to perform additional tasks just like them.

When you add play elements to tasks, you make them more fun and more free. For creative tasks, this provides a less intimidating space to master a task; people given play and/or freedom (autonomy) will have space and time to do more than what is simply sufficient, allowing or encouraging them to pursue mastery. For work that is enjoyable intrinsically, this kind of playification is generally not required.

A well-designed gamification system requires you to complete a task within a certain time frame, or at least to check into the system on a regular basis, in order to provide a continuous stream of feedback.

Challenge Types

There are four types of challenges. Challenges are the obstacles to a task that require mastery.
  1. You versus yourself: speed, stamina, strength, calculation, courage. As your body and mind tackle challenges, they strengthen, making future versions of the same challenges easier.
  2. You versus a system: solving puzzles, finding solutions in complex situations, creating or fixing mechanical objects.
  3. You versus other players: competition, politics, relationships.
  4. You versus luck: spectating, gambling or risk taking.
Consider each of these types when designing for mastery.

You should already know the important research on flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. To summarize very briefly, too much challenge is frustrating and too little is boring. Flow is experienced in the happy middle.

And you should already know player type research, such as the ten player motivations [PDF] proposed by Nick Yee. To summarize very briefly: what drives one person doesn't drive another, and what drives one person today doesn't drive that person tomorrow. You may want to achieve a high score in a well-designed game, relax, learn, hack, beat or compete with other players, socialize, or whatever. A game that wants to appeal to more than a narrow segment must provide something for multiple types of motivations, some of which are not mastery.

Competition and Winning

If a player is competing against someone obviously better or worse than them, there is little competitive motivation. If there is a leader board, but a player will never, ever be on it, it usually provides no motivation. An exception to this is, for example, a group challenge to move your company from near the bottom of a heap to somewhere more respectable, whether in math literacy or recycling.

The very concept of "winner" can be problematic. It makes everyone else a loser, for one. If someone is really good at many things, but not the best at any one thing, that doesn't make him a loser. Certain people are particularly good at risk taking and looking flashy, but not as good at providing constant day to day quality service.

There are many ways to address these problems: Multiple winners that are based on anyone achieving a certain amount. For example, instead of "the person with the most points wins", use "anyone over 50 points wins". Multiple levels or types of wins: "50 point win", "100 point win", or "green win" and "blue win". This turns the single activity into multiple activities that occur in sequence or parallel, giving everyone continual motivation. Reset leaderboards at regular intervals, and make systemic winners ineligible to compete on them (give them other mastery tasks to perform).

The above is just a small sampling.

Can you think of other ways to provide a space for mastery in non-game environments? Comments are welcome.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gamification: Adding Autonomy

This is my second post on gamification and motivational strategy (see Adding Purpose). A successful strategy can use some form of gamification, as well as other tools, to develop and enhance motivation from within.

Let’s consider autonomy, the second of the three pillars of sustainable motivation according to Dan Pink. Autonomy means giving people freedom to make meaningful choices.

Goals vs Processes

Granting others autonomy does not come easy to people who want to motivate, whether they are teachers, parents, clergy, or managers. Setting a goal is not the same thing as defining the process of achieving the goal, yet goal-setters often fall prey to the temptation to control every aspect of how the settee achieves the goal.

You may believe that your process is the coolest thing in workforce management, or the most efficient means of producing results, but the stricter and less leeway you provide for a person to achieve a goal, the more dehumanized and demotivated they feel. An imposed process tells the actor that he or she is a cog in a machine that, if at all possible, should be replaced by a robot.

Furthermore, the goal that you set is often not really the goal you want! For example, the teacher whose goal is to have her students memorize a list of bible verses should consider carefully if that is really her goal. Perhaps her goal is really for her students to understand the verses' meaning and to have the ability and motivation to learn bible. I’m not arguing for or against memorization, but a teacher would do well to remember that memorization is a methodology, not a goal.

You will not harm your children, students, or employees if you discuss the reasoning behind your process, asking them what they think about it, and considering alternative methods to reach their goals. When people are engaged in what they are doing and have a say as to why or how, they will be more engaged. This is the first step toward creating autonomy.

Gamification vs Playification

Straight gamification's aim is to inspire a specific behavior. Gamification attempts to motivate a person to choose to perform a specific task by adding a small amount of reward to this choice. Simultaneously, they punish NOT choosing the desired task by virtue of not providing a reward for it. In this way, gamification attempts to narrow the desire for choices outside of any pre-defined ones [1]. As such, it is poorly suited for fostering autonomy.

Playification's aim is to promote autonomy within a specific context. The word "play" is equivalent to the word "freedom"; for example, a latch that "has play" moves around freely in its socket. Similarly, a person who can play is free to explore. There may be no extrinsic reward, but there is also no punishment for playing. If the required goal is incorporated into the play process, playification can increase motivation towards that goal by providing a more enjoyable process.

Gamification can motivate simple procedural, non-autonomous behavior, while playification can motivate creative, autonomous behavior. But turning simple, procedural tasks into creative, autonomous tasks also increases motivation, and often you can design for both.

Game Design

Not all choices are meaningful. Game design has a lot to say about meaningful choices. Here are a few examples.

Number of choices

Choices that have only one good option are not meaningful choices. For example, a multiple choice test offers choices, but typically all but one of the choices is wrong.

Obscuring the right choice by making it complicated also does not provide a meaningful choice. In many games, a single option is best, but it takes a lot of math to figure out which one. This simply serves to bog down play while the player works out the solution (or the player gives up and chooses randomly).

Providing too many options produces the opposite problem but the same frustration, since the player must spend a lot of time before he or she can make an informed decision.

The correct number of choices is between 2 and 7 (give or take), depending on how hard the choices are to evaluate. More than 7 choices tends to overwhelm [2]. The depth of the choices and the time spent evaluating them should be commensurate with their importance.

Order / subset of choices

Choices about the order in which to perform a series of mandatory actions are mildly meaningful. It’s nice to be allowed to choose the order in which to perform certain tasks, allowing you to tackle the difficult ones when it suits your schedule. However, autonomy becomes constrained as tasks are completed and fewer choices remain.

A choice that allows you to select only a subset of available tasks – allowing you to skip certain tasks or entire categories - is often a meaningful choice, especially if it opens the door for negotiation (either with the task-setter or with the other students or workers). Dividing housework chores is a classic example of this.

Informed choices

The information available when making a choice determines the skills required to make that choice. With no information, your choice amounts to luck. A little information provides odds calculation, aka gambling. A lot of information provides room for tactics and strategy. Complete information requires calculation.

Choices made by luck are not meaningful. For example, if you can choose to work on project A or B, but you can’t know what the projects are until you decide, the choice is not meaningful.

Choices made by gambling are marginally meaningful, though they may be entertaining. For example, if you’re offered a choice of a new teammate, and all you know is that one is a Java programmer named Sue who comes from New York and the other is an app developer named Ted from El Paso, you know only enough to take a gamble.

Tactical and strategic choices are generally meaningful, though they may not always work out.

Choices made using complete information are always meaningful if you are really free to make the choice. The choice “work or get fired” is not a free or meaningful choice (that’s a choice with only one good option); the choice “either write this specification or program an installation script” is.

Note that information that exists, but is too unwieldy or too time-consuming to obtain, has the same effect as information that does not exist.

Opportunity cost and value

Most choices involve an opportunity cost: if you choose one thing, you lose out on all of the options that you didn't choose, unless these options are saved for you for later. Opportunity costs present meaningful choices of assessing value.

Some of the best choices involve assessing value, for example: learning; discovering workable solutions from seemingly equal options; managing resources, such as time, money, equipment, or people; or managing risk.


Real autonomy is the freedom to customize, personalize, self-distract, and develop your own plan. Of course, too much play can lead to nothing getting done; that's why games, as opposed to free play, have rules and goals. The goal-setter and settee can work together to provide as much autonomy as possible while remaining focused through a shared sense of purpose.

Straight gamfication tools are not specifically suited for adding autonomy, but will come in handy when I discuss adding mastery in the next post.

Comments are welcome.

[1] Gamification can provide brief moments of autonomy, such as allowing you to choose how to redeem points you have collected. These kinds of choices do not substantively affect the tasks you must perform.

[2] This is slightly different with regards to creative freedom. Creative freedom thrives best on an infinite palette limited by a few guidelines. For example, "do anything" is hard to deal with; "draw a tree" is empowering.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Gamification: Adding Purpose

Early success stories in gamification have created a gold rush, which in turn has prompted bold claims about how important and how easy gamification is. This in turn has and will lead to the usual backlash, when gamification implementations don’t deliver. Gartner asserts that 80% of up-and-coming gamification systems will fail, either due to misconception, misapplication, or misuse.

How can you ensure that your gamification system will succeed? By building motivation, not tools, into the core of your strategy. A successful motivational strategy uses gamification, as well as other tools to develop and enhance motivation from within.

Let’s consider purpose [1], one of the three pillars of sustainable motivation according to Dan Pink.

Some tasks can feel like they have no intrinsic purpose, such as tasks performed within the context of a system that someone else controls but doesn't explain, or repetitive manual tasks performed day after day. For example, a teacher may have trouble motivating students to memorize bible verses. Factory line assembly workers may find no meaning in packing boxes eight hours a day. The students or workers in these situations may think that their tasks are meaningless, because they were never told, or can’t remember, the task’s purpose.

In these cases, don’t just reach for gamification. First instill, or re-instill, intrinsic purpose.

Some proponents of straight gamification maintain that game elements alone create purpose: the students and the worker will be more motivated to fulfill their tasks when they receive points and badges for completing the tasks, or because they can rise on a leaderboard. Their argument is that games motivate, so making a task more game-like motivates. In some cases, and with some people, this may work (for a short time). But be wary.

Many people do not find points added to a boring or hated task to be motivating. It is better to inspire purpose from within the task and then use the gamification elements to enhance the participants’ experience. This work may have to come from outside of the gamification system. The gamification system can then add reminders about purpose using well-designed texts and images that inspire during the process.

The teacher understands the benefits of what she is teaching, whether it is a benefit for her students specifically or for society in general. She should communicate this purpose to her students. She can give them inspirational talks and achieve buy-in. She should explain what the point of learning the verses is; in fact, she can ask them to come up with their own reasons. She can provide good cases studies, examples of people who know this information and the good results that came out of it. She can provide fun, involving activities such as role play. The students should come to internalize the lessons as something from which they will benefit. Gamification can then build on that purpose to help the students measure their progress.

The manager can create meaning by reminding the worker on a regular basis the importance of his task: for example, that the box will protect valuable equipment and make happy customers. The manager can reaffirm the assembler’s importance to the product and the company and the benefit that the product serves in the world. Where possible, the manager can add autonomous or playful elements to the work flow (more on that later). Salary and benefits are also meaningful, of course, albeit external. A worker instilled with some purpose will be receptive to a gamification system that adds additional motivation to his job.

Gamification works best when it boosts and clarifies what is already meaningful. Gamification that properly builds on purpose provides feedback about progress; it does not simply reward progress. When gamification only adds an external reward, it had better be damn rewarding, because the player is not going to simply forget if the actual work is meaningless.

[1] Or relatedness in self-determination theory, although relatedness also includes social connections and working for a noble cause.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gamification Pros and Cons

Note: This post assumes that you already know what gamification is, how it is usually implemented, and basic theories of motivation.

The arguments for and against gamification are aimed at all three gamification philosophies; and it's often hard to distinguish for or against which philosophy the argument is directed. The proponents of one philosophy may join outsider deriders of gamification to argue that the other two philosophies are irrelevant, counterproductive, or bad.

Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against gamification.


Leader boards, badges, points, and missions are proven motivators, in and of themselves. You don’t need – in fact, you don’t want – a game designer. "If anyone tries to sell you a game designer to design your Loyalty 3.0 program [gamification + data crunching], you should run away screaming." – Rajat Paharia, Founder and CPO of Bunchball Inc.

If there is a task that you have to do anyway, wouldn't you rather do it and have fun at the same time? If there is a product or message with which you might be tempted to engage, wouldn't engaging with a game system be an additional motivation to do so? Furthermore, once you have engaged with a game system and the other players who use it, you have invested in earning non-transferable rewards and formed a social group, which induces loyalty and encourages repeat visits and engagement.

Case after case demonstrates that game reward systems work: Warner Bros, Chiquita, SAP, Foursquare, Nike, Starbucks, Bluewolf, LiveOps, Ford, Microsoft, Verizon Wireless, and so on.

People love fast, immediate feedback from systems that have historically been silent. People love conquerable challenges and goals, and they love displaying badges. These kinds of indicators provide intrinsic motivation, such as feelings of accomplishment and success, competition, and interaction with a community.

Yes, there is a problem with a leader board in that only the people who are near the top are really motivated to keep competing. To address this, you can have your leader board display only the area around the current player, so that players are only in competition with others who are doing about the same as them: a localized leader board effect.

Points are a way of feeling proud about the task you have accomplished. Badges are a way of sharing your accomplishment with others to receive social status and support. Games help you do what you want to do anyway, but are having trouble doing because the task is too big, or you’re too isolated, or you can’t see the results immediately. Well-designed games focus you in the right direction and give you the immediate feedback you need to motivate you to succeed.

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer was on the right track: Work is what you’re obliged to do. Play is what you want to do (actually, "what you're not obliged to do"). Making everyday tasks more fun turns work into play. By fun, I mean the type of fun that motivates people to play games for hours at a time: progress, challenge, competition, problem solving, instant feedback, and so on.

Adding play to things that are not already play, like filling out tax forms or waiting in line at the DMV can and should make life more enjoyable. Furthermore, for play tasks, people spend more time and talent and are far less likely to give up when faced with obstacles. Thousands of people freely solve complex tasks in a playful environment, while paid tasks that feel like work lead to less output and worse results.


At best, gamification that serves a corporate interest doesn't serve your interest. At best, it treats you like a mouse in a Skinner box. There is only so long that people are willing to push a lever to get a pellet. In gamification's case, it’s not even a pellet, it’s a virtual pellet. If companies replace good service, lower prices, real value, and attention to quality with virtual rewards, customers will eventually figure out that they are getting less for their money.

Gamification cons customers with illusions, essentially tapping into people’s gambling mentality. Gamification is tempting and engaging to players in the same way that lotteries are; for players, it’s a pyramid scheme. The best people get to the top the leader board, and earn real prizes, but 99% have no hope of getting anything out of the system. Examples given by classic gamification proponents always focus on the people who are winning or topping the leader boards. Sure, pyramid schemes work for a while, but eventually everyone not at the top gets frustrated.

For the companies that want to implement gamification, it’s also an empty hyped up gold rush fad with promises of big rewards based on the few companies that succeeded with it. The first companies succeeded because of the element of surprise; people were excited to find games in unexpected places. As more and more companies offer similar programs, players will tire of it. Who needs 50 points on 50 leader boards at 50 different stores? Social networks were a big rush too, and now only a handful remain.

Points and rewards handed out in a gamification framework are not integrated into the task. In games, you get points for actually doing something, not just for clicking or signing in. Points in video games are tied to in-game bonuses that help you play more and accomplish more (xp => levels and skills, bucks => equipment). This is a positive feedback loop. Points that are earned externally to this loop simply motivate people to game the system to get points, not to do the tasks.

Tasks should be fun and motivating all by themselves. Points are not motivators. External rewards such as points are actually de-motivators. People want to do fun activities; when you add points or other rewards to these tasks, people become de-motivated to do the activities unless they get the points.

Gamification proponents claim that their systems have universal appeal, and give lip-service to the idea that one can’t simply slap points onto activities, but that’s just so they can sell themselves as experts. If you look at their implementations, all they offer, in the end, is points slapped onto activities. They instruct implementers to tailor the system to be fun, but they never explain how to do that. They can’t insist that points are fun, in and of themselves, and then tell you to implement points in a fun way (and then wave their hands when you ask how to you do this). Fun is designed into a system by a game designer.

If you look at the supposed case studies brought as proof of gamification success, they all a) offer real rewards, like cash prizes, which is old school, or b) gained customers quickly only to lose them just as quickly, or c) use playification as their prime motivation, not gamification.

Adding games or play to a non play system is distracting. You're either focused on the task or you’re focused on play, not both. In theory you can do both, but in practice people end up wasting time. Many systems are simply not appropriate for play, and in other systems you just want to get in and out as soon as possible, and not be bothered with added distractions that clutter up the work flow. Not everyone wants to play games; many gamification systems assume you are a video gamer and don’t explain what their systems do or why you would want to use them.


The proponents of the three gamification philosophies don't spend much time answering these criticisms; when they do, they answer them in different ways. Straight gamification proponents argue that the system simply works, and they point again to the case studies. Gameful design proponents argue that their systems are built around activities with their own intrinsic motivation; the points they add are therefore meaningful. Playification proponents argue that play can be tightly bound to an activity, and therefore not distracting.

I design games, and I know that games motivate. For me the questions are: How can you best utilize them in ways that motivate long term? What is the ROI of using games and/or play versus traditional methods of motivation? Which approach, if any, is right for which activities?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gamification, Gameful Design, and Playification

Note: This post assumes that you have already read an introductory article on gamification: you know the definition of gamification and the basic theories of motivation (such as self-determination theory and its derivatives).

The prospect of increased interest, brand awareness, understanding, desired behavior, or loyalty for your process or message is tempting, and within the reach of a properly designed gamification system.

There are three main approaches to gamification: straight "gamification", "gameful design", and "playification".

Straight gamification is importing video game trappings into non-game contexts. Gamification nearly always uses some combination of points (or some other name for points, like "bucks"), badges, leader boards, levels, missions, and so on. This direct approach is based on the fact that a great number of millennials play and enjoy video games. These game elements provide opportunities for mastery, achievement, social comparison, and so on. in non-game contexts, as well.

Opponents of straight gamification argue that most of the fun in games does not come from these elements, so the result is not going to be truly motivating. These kinds of imaginary rewards are only meaningful when they are the result of challenging game play, so they won't hold a player's long term attention. Furthermore, people focused on gaining points are not focused on the message (for example, gamification that promotes recycling may result in a temporary increase in recycling, but won't truly change people's behavior once they get bored with the game.

While these criticisms are valid, proponents of straight gamification are not unaware of the need to make gamification fun and challenging; it's the CEOs and clueless marketers who ask for meaningless point systems who are to blame for poor implementations. Also, the interface is simple to produce, instantly recognizable to many people, and has a proven track record of providing motivation, especially when the content is enjoyable anyway or the players already know each other.

Gameful design, a term popularized by Jane McGonigal, is about adding rewards selectively to challenges that are important and intrinsically rewarding. For example, you know you have to diet, and you feel great when you do, but it's hard; adding gameful design – badges, levels, and so on - to the process of dieting provides an added incentive to make you feel proud and accomplished.

The proponents of gameful design stress achievement and purpose, and believe in adding game elements to important tasks that will help guide us to do what is best for us and the world.

Essentially, gameful design restricts applying gamification to tasks that are purely beneficial to the player (or others), as opposed to straight gamficiation that is used primarily to benefit the designer. Gameful design uses many of the same trappings as gamification; there is no fine line between the two approaches, except with regards to who is designing the system and why.

Playification focuses on bringing the other aspects of play into non-game activities: competition (but not necessarily scores), cooperation, puzzles, physical activity, and so on. Points and badges might be used, but they are not the focus. Instead, the aim is to make non-game activities more fun, in general.

Playification asserts that the play elements contain most of the fun - the most universally enjoyed fun. Even if no one assigns ranks at the end of a 100 meter dash, the play elements (physical challenge, excerise, and competition) contain all of the motivation necessary for people to participate. Even animals enjoy play activities; play spans the entire animal kingdom. It is biological, and the fun is intrinsic to the activity.

In contrast, points elements make no sense without play elements. "You win!" and other imaginary rewards add an additional layer of fun to play, but only to some people, some of the time. "Winning" is a title added to an already achieved success, and a seemingly irrelevant one, unless your enjoyment of success is incomplete without this title.

Play elements are the intrinsic elements that involve autonomy, mastery, and connectedness, whereas points are focused on achievement and rankings (the latter of which is of no motivation to anybody but the winner).

All of the above philosophies have some validity, more or less, and represent different paths that can be taken to add motivation and benefit to everyday tasks.