The Axonify Blog

A Perspective on Gamification

Mitch Dickinson

Working with Axonify for about 2 months now, I’ve been immersed in the world of “gamification” and the joys that come along with it. Before this job I had come to see gamification as a short term fad to sell a few products, a highly overused industry buzzword, and even a little bit silly. However, since working on Axonify’s product and performing a good deal of research on the topic, I have come to see some significant benefits that can come from applying game mechanics to (non-game) software products.

For those who may still view gamification as a silly buzzword, it may help to think of it in terms of a few concrete things. Think of it as the application of a few specific game mechanics to an existing software system. These game mechanics can include:

Points/Credits: Awarding points when users exhibit desired behaviour and (optionally) allowing points to be traded for other perks.

Leaderboards: Being able to see how your performance compares to that of other users or your friends.

Badges/Achievements: Awarding specific badges when a user completes a certain action or series of actions.

Switching gears a bit. Some of the best content on human motivation (that I’ve read at least) comes from Daniel Pink, most notably his book Drive. He touches on three elements that can drive intrinsic human motivation (think about natural and internal motivation versus rewards and punishments). To briefly summarize:

Autonomy: Feeling like you control your own destiny, having the freedom to advance yourself and your work, open ended over closed problems, etc.

Mastery: Developing skills in something you care about, the reward associated with self improvement in a domain that feels meaningful, etc.

Purpose: Doing work in service of something greater than ourselves.

I recently stumbled upon the slideshow by Sebastian Deterding called Meaningful Play, in which he very clearly maps the concepts of Daniel Pink’s work to common game mechanics. Deterding walks through many examples illustrating how game mechanics, like points and leaderboards, relate directly to the motivational theories developed by Pink. I wanted to summarize some of the points since I think they’re tremendously valuable to those thinking about gamifying their products.

The first key learning was simple and consistent with the theories on intrinsic motivation. Game mechanics will not help your software become more sticky, fun or rewarding unless the content being gamified serves some value to end users. This is why adding points and achievements to an exercise-tracker app might make tracking personal fitness goals more fun and rewarding for those who actually want to enhance their fitness. However, this will serve no added benefit for people who have no desire to enhance their fitness in the first place. When designing a gamified software product, make sure your software will still be useful without the game mechanics. Only use the game mechanics to further enhance the experience.

I’ll leave the gory details for those who want to checkout Deterding’s slideshow, but the mapping of intrinsic motivators to specific game mechanics should be something everybody thinks about when designing gamified software. Some basic examples that I found enlightening:

Autonomy: Consider that people are inherently self-motivated and be sure to accommodate that in your game design. Allow users to set their own goals and have your software assist them in achieving their goals instead of having the software give them the goals directly. Don’t attach concrete negative consequences to poor performance and make sure the feedback appears informational instead of implying blatant success or failure. Users want to feel they are in control of their progress and will recognize when they need to improve. This assumes your users are motivated by the content of the software in the first place.

Mastery: If you introduce mechanics like level-ups, points or achievements, make sure that the game mechanics correlate to the user’s performance in the software so that the user has to work hard to achieve certain things. Progress should be challenging but not overly challenging. There is a fine balance here and great value to unlock, if you can find it. One of the key ingredients to Flow is the proper balance of ability level and challenge.

Purpose: Use game mechanics to give your users the feeling that they are part of some greater good. Perhaps introduce a feature where users can compete in groups so that individuals feel their performance is tied to performance of a greater entity. Look at what problem you’re trying to solve with your software in the first place. Assuming there is some sort of collective value that can be achieved by having many users performing well in the software, try to make your game mechanics portray that value so that end users feel that their performance is tied to something bigger than themselves.

Without going into too many specifics, I hope this will help some of you acknowledge that gamification, perhaps sounding silly at first, is actually a real thing that can be integrated into a variety of products to enhance the value proposition to your customers in an engaging and fun way!

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