Sunday, June 22, 2014

Save or Enslave the World: Takeaways from #gsummit 2014, the Gamification Conference

GSummit SF 2014 was a gamification conference organized and run by Gabe Zicherman and his cohorts at Dopamine,, and Livecube.

Why I Went

I went to the conference to a) understand the disconnect between what the theorists write, what gamification companies present, and what real companies implement, and b) find out what I could contribute to the gamification world, either as a writer, an employee, or a consultant.

Gamification companies present basic, or even bad, game mechanics as implementation examples and in their turnkey products. Often there is no relation between their implementations and the motivational psychology that they espouse. The papers, articles, websites, case studies, and books on gamification present some good information about psychology and motivation, but they present gamification systems with only basic game mechanics. Simply adding points, badges, missions, and leaderboards to a process doesn't make a good game, let alone a more motivational process. Some case studies mention more complex mechanics but leave out the complex implementation details.

A small number of gamification critics who present more comprehensive motivation models are entering the gamification business. Their gamification implementations are allegedly constructed to match their motivational principles, but these implementations still lack the rich potential of complex game mechanics developed in the last forty years. Their systems are still built around an endless parade of points, badges, missions, and leaderboards abstracted from games like World of Warcraft, Farmville, and Second Life. This is akin to watching publisher after publisher espouse the rich potential of board games and then release an endless stream of games based on Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.

What I Found (Overview)

The con was held in downtown San Francisco in a sketchy, treeless neighborhood that hosts Zynga and other trendy companies in posh buildings half a block from drug dealers and the ramshackle homeless. I estimate that around 300 people attended. Except for some audio problems, it went smoothly.

Every company with a remote connection to any definition of gamification thinks that theirs is the only correct one: they define what gamification is, they present an implementation that conforms to the definition, and then they mention case studies that have little to do with their definition. Companies that promote straight gamification were present together with those who promote play gamification, each one presenting evidence that the other ones didn't know what they were talking about.

When you carefully look at the numbers presented by these companies, few point to a challenge that was properly defined and solved using gamification. They throw out percentage increases in a metric that has little to do with the actual problem. For instance, they might say that a particular system was used by 98% of a group of people. Were these people forced to use the system? What was the net effect in those participants compared to those who didn't use the system? What was the net ROI for the company or the participants? Also, they don't present the implementations that didn't work.

Researchers on standard motivational theory, as well as companies that had nothing to do with gamification, such as purveyors of rewards, gift cards, and loyalty programs, were there. The new gamification companies presented evidence that old-school methodologies don’t work or never worked, while the old loyalty companies trotted out case studies and evidence proving that they work perfectly.

Loyalty programs, customer management, data collection, location tracking, rewards, and manipulation techniques are black hat motivation techniques (getting consumers to do what you want, or playing on consumers’ fears) and these sessions were depressing. Many sessions were sales pitches for services or books; their claims and evidence presented were directly contradictory: loyalty programs worked; loyalty programs didn't work. Don’t design for games or fun, design for engagement; you can’t design for engagement without games and fun. Rewards work amazingly well; rewards actually demotivate.

Sessions from companies or organizations that had implemented systems (straight gamification, play gamification, gameful design, or playification) described how they achieved buy-in from their organization, what were the results, and what they plan to do next. These sessions were the most helpful; they tended to be more honest than the vendors who sell gamification platforms, and in some cases they described the implementations that didn't work.

What I Heard (Details)

Rather than present the contents of each session, I will present what I learned by topic [with my comments].


While gamification tokens (points, etc) are extrinsic “rewards” awarded after completing a task, an argument was presented that gamification increases intrinsic motivation by orienting you to do tasks that you will find rewarding. Some said that there is no fine line between the two, and most motivation is a complex combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Intrinsic motivation can trump rewards or threats of punishment. For example, if you are threatened about submitting a report late, you might still submit it late because you want it to be just right. Threats (an external demotivator) actually increase intrinsic motivation that can remain after the threat is removed.

One robust theory on motivation (Octalysis) includes eight parameters: 1) meaning (purpose), 2) accomplishment (mastery, competence), 3) empowerment (autonomy), 4) ownership (acquisition), 5) social influence (relatedness), 6) scarcity (limited awards, rankings), 7) unpredictability (random awards, exploration), and 8) avoidance (loss, opportunity cost). Some of these parameters are extrinsic and some are intrinsic; some are white hat (positive) and some are black hat (negative).

As the ease of performing a task increases, the required motivation to do it decreases. If a trigger to do a task falls under this curve, the act is not performed; above the curve, the act is performed. In any case, a trigger is needed (you may be motivated and able to exercise but forget to set your alarm). Every action is measured independently: the same action may require more or less motivation as it becomes easier or harder (or the motivation changes in some way). So you have to decide between managing the motivation, making the task easier, or providing a trigger.

The methods you use should depend on whether you want the task done once, over a period of time, or long term, and whether you are asking the person to perform a new action, repeat an action done before, change an action, do an action less, or stop doing an action.

Different gamification techniques are more effective at different points; this makes sense due to flow theory. Points are easy to acquire, so they are short term; reputation is more challenging to acquire, so it is long term, and it is also harder to game. Ramp up the processes and switch people to long term focused systems as they gain familiarity.

Happiness is short term and transient. Purpose, which may include short term unhappiness (struggle, challenge), is long term and sustained. The chemicals dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphin make us happy, but they each have a different trigger. Dopamine: anticipating rewards. Oxytocin: bonding socially. Serotonin: feeling pride.

There are different types of fun, including hard fun (challenges), easy fun (exploration), people fun (social), and serious fun (purpose). [This correlates – kind of – to Bartle's four gamer types.]

A special note about Rajat Paharia on BunchBalls' philosophy: there is no place for game deign or fun in gamification; it is all about engagement. His philosophy makes zero sense [it's engaging because it is fun and designed well!], but it's (I hope) mostly a matter of terminology and the fact that he presents his product as black hat gamification. Several companies are using BunchBall's turnkey system.

Black Hat Motivation

Rewards: A big prize (like the XPrize) focuses effort and legitimizes the time spent working towards that goal. It motivates disparate teams to accomplish things outside of companies. The cash value, above a certain amount, is not relevant, since the research results, interesting nature of the challenge, and community built during the process is rewarding to the participants. This allows you to get people to do more while spending less.

People also love lotteries and unearned coupons, which are prizes offered for no challenge.

However, rewards signify the end of a process, while business motivation must remain indefinitely.

Tracking: The Internet of Things will enable locators in billions of objects that can track people by their smartphones (or other devices). You can use exact data about people’s movements throughout a store – you can even use hidden cameras that capture their facial expressions while they interact with certain products – to gain insight on how to sell to them.

Subversion: People are entrenched against persuasion from people they oppose. You can influence their behavior more readily by using people in their own camp or people whose opinion they respect. Exploit social behavior: tell people stories while pitching to them, and use human interest and their friends.
Channeling: People are less likely to opt out than to opt in. Provide wizards. Show empty areas that need filling or populate things by default. Consider page scanning on websites and thumb reach on devices for elements you want clicked. Reduce choices, chunk, block options, block sites with popups, guilt people to not choose undesired options or make them unattractive, hide escape links, and disclose only what is necessary. People think that presented choices are valid choices: this makes them feel smart and valued, which is more effective than rewards. Make your site look credible.

White Hat Motivation

Companies that focus on making virtual things more real (like the big game companies) are ignoring the market for making real things more virtual. [The speaker ignored companies that do ARGs and other pervasive gaming. However, gamification needs more and better game designers creating better gamification techniques.]

Gamification provides a means for people to reach their goals; your company’s goals should align with people’s goals. Collaboration is better than competition. Have people compete with a system, not each other, win or lose together, interact with shared but different responsibilities and resources, and allow for user-generated and emergent features.

Gamification fights boredom. Companies in the entertainment and food industries have been attacking consumer boredom for ages, and there is no reason why we shouldn't do so in the business world for employee boredom. Motivated workers are more productive and their work is better quality. Games can provide holistic experiences that model complex systems. Emergent behavior can produce viable solutions [like in Ender's Game]. Gamification systems must include ROI, understand the learning and pain points, and consider the genre and platform.

Most disruptive technologies provide people with better means of communication. MyFitnessPal has trounced Weight Watchers in a short time because it uses effortless peer-to-peer communication. Education can be similarly disrupted. [I’m not sure that this is absolute, since apps require self-motivation without a trigger, as opposed to coaches and teachers. Not everyone is motivated by their peers!]

Case Studies

IBM created a rich and complex series of gamification processes that includes training and brainstorming. They consider it to be very successful. See Serious Games for Business.

T-Mobile is gamifying 38,000 call center workers, but balancing the rewards is very tricky, since people do what gives them a reward regardless of whether it is the best thing for the customer. If you reward quickness, customers get hung up on. If you reward no return calls within X time (a short time), workers give “solutions” that delay the return call. Etc. Groups in different locations and cultures respond to different rewards, mechanics, and structures.

Applebee's (RMH Franchise Corp) introduced a straight gamification system with no rewards. It reduced a 130% employee turnover rate by about 20% in a year. They plan to add status rewards, such as a special colored jacket for best performing employees.

Wikipedia and Delta Airlines presented gamified training programs, but it was difficult to see if these made any real substantive difference to their bottom line. The people who took the gamified training programs liked them and were trained.

The Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy gamified its scrum (agile software development) program. All of its participants were student game designers. The gamification included a full D&D-like experience played on a whiteboard with moving Post-It Note characters, earned equipment, etc. One goal was to increase the accuracy of time estimations; this also had the side effect of making people more familiar with teammates' work items. Another goal was to reward showing up for scrum meetings. The system worked for one group that had a supportive leader, but not for another whose participants saw it as additional busy work.

Gabe Zicherman led us in a workshop. We had to come up with ideas to solve a problem, including voting on the best solutions. It was "gamified" because a) we voted on the best solution, so there were points awarded (kind of), and b) he gave a prize, a t-shirt, to the winning team's solution. [In my book, it was an example of a non-gamified task nearly destroyed by an incredibly sucky game. We were already motivated to come up with a solution; the "award" of a t-shirt was actually demotivating.]


Jane McGonigal said that a controlled study now proves the efficacy of Superbetter. Superbetter's effects can change your life even if you stop playing it after six weeks. Games of any kind help with real world problems; for example, playing Tetris for 10 minutes within 6 hours of a trauma can help reduce PTSD. People find this weird, though they wouldn't find it weird if the activity was meditation or prayer; games still make people uneasy. 10 minutes of games also help push out other drives, like overeating or the desire for alcohol.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk was interrupted frequently by microphone problems. He is a dynamic and funny speaker. He talked about how science is becoming mainstream, with examples from pop culture. He also briefly mentioned gamifying science using crowdsourcing.

Adopting Gamification in Your Company

Here are some steps that you can use to bring gamification to your company:

  • Create a business case. Find other companies in your sector who use gamification, especially competitors.
  • Shamelessly promote the idea of gamification until people are used to the idea and agree to a pilot project to see if it works.
  • Identify the specific problems you want to solve. Take the time to do a proper survey.
  • Ensure that gamification is the right solution. For example, gamification is great at providing immediate and progressive feedback, and at clarifying complicated procedures, making them less threatening and more likely to be completed.
  • Estimate the ROI. Define the metrics that define success or progress.
  • Find a champion for the pilot. Find coworkers willing to give time to the project, especially gamers who believe in the idea. For future projects, ensure that you’re not the only champion, or you will become a bottleneck and it will fall apart when you’re not around.
  • Ensure that there is someone leading the process, so that people don’t become lost.
  • Use outside solutions if they make sense and it simplifies things.
  • Define desired actions and how they report the metrics.
  • Design for different types of players.
  • Create seamless, non-intrusive flow for discovery (finding out about the system) and onboarding (first steps to use the system), habit building (becoming comfortable with the system in the short term) and mastery (continued relevance in the long term).
  • Reward people for using the system, since it is saving time and money elsewhere.
  • Integrate gamification into many parts of the company (the whole flow, if possible). It should become a natural part of business.
  • Keep the system fresh; games become stale so a gamification system requires constant input of fresh ideas. It may not be suitable for all people.
  • [I will add: Provide autonomy so that people don’t feel like they are forced to do things they don’t want to do. Provide purpose: the reason they’re doing this, and the benefits for the company or for the world, whichever is relevant.]


Before, during, and after the conference, I also met or talked to professionals who didn't attend the conference but who work in motivation, games, or both. They say that gamification is a meaningless buzzword, a con, or nonsense (they used less polite phrases). I think that their complaints were aimed at straight gamification and the companies that sell it.

When you consider play gamification, the gamification is a tiny part of it. In the same way that Dan Pink didn't really add much to self-determination theory, but his simplifying and popularizing it added a great deal of value, gamification simplifies and popularizes playification, which may not be too bad.

Gamification proponents call points "rewards", and critics rightly point out that points are not rewards. A game where you click a button and get a million points isn't rewarding. Minesweeper gives you a point every second, but your object is to get the least amount of points; are these points rewards? People don’t run a 100 meter dash for the points, but for the intrinsic value of the race. But not so fast. The critics are not entirely correct. When a person runs all out and sees the numbers, the numbers matter; they focus the runner and provide a goal to achieve. I admit that, despite the inanity of the conference's gamified chat system (Livecube; see below), whenever my points closed in on a round hundred (500, 600, etc), I was motivated to post a few more times just to see the number roll over that hundred mark. After it did, I no longer cared one whit about my number if it was not attached to a real reward, and the additional posts I wrote to increase my score were valueless. Still, point-driven motivation does exist, at least in the very short term.

I went to the conference to a) understand the disconnect between what the theorists write, what gamification companies present, and what companies implement, and b) find out what I could contribute to the gamification world, either as a writer, an employee, or a consultant.

A) The disconnect exists because there is no clear definition of gamification, companies are still carving out a space, and as a result they disagree on what works. The long term results are inconclusive, but they are also promising for certain types of goals, especially for training and cooperation.

B) A game designer has experience with the application of hundreds of mechanics that could be used in gamification systems but currently are not. To give you an idea, consider what a game designer could do with “points” (this is off the top of my head):

  • Points that are positive, negative (used sparingly!), themed, tradeable, or assigned only collectively
  • Multiple point tracks, for example green points, blue points, and red points. The biggest problem with black hat gamification is that it reduces autonomy (by incentivizing some tasks and deincentivizing others); by allowing participants to select among multiple point options, you add autonomy back into the process. In any case, different point structures are required for different positions in the company (you can’t use the same point structure for call center workers and IT personnel).
  • Goals based on different point tracks and levels, with badges earned either by concentrating more on one track or diversifying between tracks.
  • Participant created goals and levels, thus establishing point goals that work for each participant (see flow theory)
  • Additional factors to earning points. For example, if tasks are completed in a certain time, in a certain order, or with a certain buy-in, they scale upwards or include residual effects.
  • Limited replenishing points that can only be assigned to others.
  • A rich set of point redemption packets that utilize different point combinations, as well as a series of redemption missions (redeem A to acquire B or C, redeem C or D to acquire F).
  • Ensuring that play and mastery is part of the system, and not just more work for virtual rewards.
  • Most importantly, ensuring that points encourage people to do things that they already want to do, not things they will regret, feel tricked into, or come to regard as busy work.


A final word about Livecube, the conference chat system designed by the guys who ran the conference.

Livecube presents chat rooms for sessions and lists of speakers and sessions, and also integrates with Twitter. It includes a gamification system that awards points for posting (more for posting pictures), reposting, favoriting, getting reposted, and checking into and rating sessions. I appreciate the chat rooms, though a real chat system works just as well. As it stands, its gamification system is a disaster. Leaderboards kill the motivation of anyone but the leaders to post anything, and demotivate reposts (since it gives leaders more points than it gives you). The badges are worthless and repetitive. The points don’t reward any accomplishment, but inspire inane post after inane post; the result are chat sessions filled with noise instead of signal. Worst of all, encouraging people to tweet when they should be listening to a speaker is a Really Bad Idea. On the technical side, conversations are hard to follow. Limiting posts to twitter length makes many types of conversations and useful information impossible to communicate. In short, the system encapsulates everything that is criticized about gamification.

A few ideas to fix it: Remove the points and badges for things that are not actually accomplishments, such as hitting the send button. Reward a random participant each day for each session; this keeps people checked in, but not posting too frequently. Deincentivize multiple posts that are not favorited or reposted. Deincentivize posting during a lecture; incentivize for posting after the lecture (or maybe lecturers should give two minute tweet breaks during lectures). Create group incentives for teams. Remove the leaderboards; leaderboards are only appropriate for when you want only a few people to do something, not when you want everyone to do something. Create achievable missions. Create rewards for tagging people physically to foster real world social interaction. Etc.

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