Gamification Part 1

jkane By John Kane

22 August 2017 // Design and UX

In this two part series we will first explore what gamification is, what it isn’t and how it helps. Then in the second part we will take a deeper dive into the design, mechanics and thinking behind gamification.


Mary Poppins was a game designer 

Most of us know what gamification is, even if we don't realise it. We all learnt it as kids.

"In every job that must be done,
there is an element of fun.
You find the fun, and... snap!
The job's a game."



What gamification isn't

There's a lot of terrible advice floating around when you look for gamification. Let’s take a minute to break down a few false assumptions before we dive in.


It's not "adding a leaderboard"

In an episode of The Simpsons, Principal Skinner describes making a game when he's trapped in his garage. "I made a game of seeing how many times I could bounce the ball, and breaking that record."

Skinner is a dull character. Anyone listening should think: "That's the most boring thing I've ever heard. That's a terrible game." And yet, when gamification comes up in the web sphere, people's first idea is, "we'll add scores to it!"

Great gamification is much more than adding leaderboards to an otherwise dull system. Assigning a score to a task doesn't make that task any more fun. Badges, achievements and scores usually associated with gamification don't change the task itself - these are what we call extrinsic motivations. They can work, but only to reinforce a system that is already playful.


It's not all about competition

All games are about competition in one way or another. Competition with other players. Competing against the game itself. Pitting your users against each other for the highest score isn't the only way to encourage interaction. In fact, for many people, being in direct competition can be downright demotivating. It can be even worse if they're not on equal footing with other players.


It's not putting your content behind a wall

Build bridges, not walls. Your users are impatient, and have lives to live. There are times to interrupt them and engage them, but be careful. You'll get more and better engagement when you invite your users, not harass them.


It's not strong-arming your users into recruiting their friends

A huge misstep in early gamification was the "recruit your friends tactic" used by Farmville et all. It worked in the short term, but the spam generated by this approach reached farcical levels. It soured many people on ever interacting with anything to do with online games. Users don't like being treated as a stepping stone, and unsolicited email will likely earn you a polite deletion at best and scorn at worst.


Finally, gamification is not a one way street

The best way to get good data is to have people feel invested in giving you that data. The best way to get people invested is to show them the effect that their data is having.

The best data acquisition in the world isn't happening through bland questionnaires. It's through "personality quizzes" and the hundreds of similar quizzes on social media. Why do they work? Because they give users something to take away and show their friends.


What IS gamification?

What IS gamification all about then? Gamification is the incorporation of the mechanics of play into a system. It's that spoonful of sugar that makes the system FUN.


Rules, Stories and Resolution - the three components of play


Rules are the easiest thing to adapt to a modern web context. We've all come across a form with validation: you enter information that matches the pattern, and the form submits. If not, the form displays some kind of message to alert you to what is incorrect.

The best games are ones where the rules are simple. If they can't be simple, have the rules explained in clear terms, and at hand when users need them. That password field with very specific requirements? Put the requirements right next to it, and give users a sign when their password matches.



But what's a story, when it comes to a web form? We're not rescuing princesses here! Of course we're not - so let’s think through what happens when that user hits the submit button, and some of the information is wrong.

First, imagine the form only having the text, "There is some information missing" appear next to the submit button. It's up to the user to scroll around the page, and figure out for themselves which of their answers is in error. Let's hope it's highlighted!

Now imagine that instead, the form says directly, "sorry, there's something not right with one of your answers", and a button that says "Show me". The user clicks the button, and the page scrolls to show that field. The field is highlighted, and its label displays some explanation about why it’s wrong. The user changes their answer, and the error highlight goes away.

User stories like this are a critical part in crafting engaging UIs. Storytelling reaches into every aspect of media. Even little touches go a long way to making a better experience.



"Your information has been submitted. Thank you.Click here to go to the home page."

That's a little underwhelming, isn't it?

This is doing somersaults and failing to stick the landing. This is the point in the process for rewards. THIS is the time for the badge of honour.

Even the quiet satisfaction of reviewing all those answers you typed goes a long way. It's the difference between climbing the mountain, and looking back at the trail from the top. Making sure your users have a positive resolution is key if you want them to tell people about it - no one likes telling a story with a lacklustre ending!


Don't talk in the theatre

Reducing interruptions may seem obvious. It's at the centre of almost every game you can think of. You know that feeling, when you're doing something and the world falls away, and you're "in the zone"?

That feeling's called "flow" and it's important that we don't burst that bubble once users are in it. When a user is playing and in flow, they're not thinking about the world outside your website.

Yet, huge sections of the internet rely on interruption to gain new users. Being interrupted and pulled out of the moment is an awful experience. It may be so jarring they leave entirely! So that pop-up asking for someone's email address? Think carefully about the state of mind of the user, how and when you want to interrupt someone.


How gamification helps

It breaks up the monotony of a task

Mary Poppins knew how to get people moving. She made it fun. She also knew the point of breaking up monotony with diversions:

The honey bees that fetch the nectar
From the flowers to the comb
Never tire of ever buzzing to and fro
Because they take a little nip
From every flower that they sip
And hence, they find
Their task is not a grind.

Gamification breaks up the monotony of a big task. A little reward or diversion now and then encourages perseverance and alleviates boredom. When you break up the monotony of a system, and reduce the friction people hit using it, you make it fun!

Making sure users know their actions have meaning is key in reducing friction. Look at the design of Google's "material" form components. Subtle, satisfying animations add meaning to the act of entering data. This creates a satisfying feedback loop between the form and the user.


It encourages active participation and learning

When users engage in play, they're much more likely to retain information. This is why gamification is becoming a larger part of modern education. If your goal is to encourage users to take information away and share it, engaging them in play is your best way to do it.


Users are more likely to come back to a thing they've enjoyed

Users are much more likely to come back to an experience they've enjoyed. Of course they do. So why not make their experience as enjoyable as possible?


Keep an eye out for Gamification Part Two in the coming weeks. 

jkane By John Kane

Tagged: gamification

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