Among the many definitions of gamification, one of the most cited is the one proposed by Sebastian Deterding: “The use of design elements characteristic of games in non-game contexts“. When game design elements are added to any non-gaming context, the expectation is that a game-like level of engagement will be generated among those involved in that context.
But this might not be the end of the story. What is the purpose of achieving a game-like level of engagement? Leaving aside for a moment the discussion about what a game-like environment actually is, and why it might be a good thing, what a designer of a gamified system really wants is to promote certain desired behaviours – or, as he case may be, reduce undesired ones – among the players who are the target users of the gamified application.
This idea can be expressed as a simple formula:
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Game Design Elements + Non-Game Contexts = Game-like Engagement within said contexts[/quote]
The result is that certain desired behaviours can be encouraged.
Understanding gamification just in terms of the first part of this formula is a highly restrictive view of the whole idea and in reality creating a successful game-like environment isn’t only about rewarding users with points and badges.
The power of gamification really lies in its capacity to influence behaviour. Indeed, the major concern of designers of gamified systems should be defining target behaviours, setting goals for those behaviours and measuring and analysing changes in those target behaviours.
Most current gamified systems rely on providing some form of rewards for activities carried out by the player. These systems use all the common game mechanics such as badges, levels, leaderboards, achievements and points. This is what Scott Nicholson calls BLAP gamification, which is along the same lines as the PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboards) triad, set out by Kevin Werbach. Others have called this restrictive view of gamification “pointsification”, due to the tendency to assume that merely adding points to a system equates to creating an engaging user experience.
These kinds of mechanics added to non-gaming contexts certainly go towards creating a game-like environment on some level, and they also contribute to driving behavioural change among the players. Such mechanics are important for providing feedback, reinforcing desired behaviours and discouraging undesired ones. But these elements really only play on the user’s extrinsic motivation. In these cases the user is only motivated to complete a task if he or she is given a reward for it. And if the reward’s taken away it follows that they then lose the motivation they had. In reality, rewards only work as a motivating factor for unpleasant or boring tasks. Worse still, if a reward is given for completing a task that the user already loves doing, their willingness to complete that task decreases. Alfie Kohn presented several fascinating examples of how incentives can actually reduce motivation.
However, this isn’t to say that gamification designers shouldn’t use mechanics like the PBL triad. Extrinsic rewards must be used for tasks and activities which users aren’t intrinsically motivated to complete. But as a long term strategy to improve performance and influence behaviour, BLAP gamification is perhaps not the best choice.
So there must be more to gamification than just adding BLAP gamification and PBL mechanics to a non-game context. A good gamified system should also play on the intrinsic motivation of the players. If a user performs a task for the task’s own sake, it means he or she is intrinsically motivated to perform that task. And this is what happens when people play games. Gamification, in its quest to generate a game-like level engagement in non-gaming contexts, must create a meaningful experience and not only rely on commonplace extrinsic rewards. Scott Nicholson interestingly calls this approach “Meaningful Gamification”.
This more profound understanding about gamification is inspired by several theories and pieces of research: the “Self-Determination Theory” and the notion of “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose” from Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, to name but a few. It is also worth mentioning Fogg’s Behaviour Model, a framework that affords remarkable insight into what drives human behaviour. Closer to our gamification home ground, Gabe Zichermann has proposed a rewards framework that deals with the way players value rewards. He calls it “SAPS” (Status, Access, Power, Stuff).
In summary, to create effective gamified systems, the designers of those systems must not only think about changing behaviour just by playing on the users’ extrinsic motivation. They should also focus on how to create a meaningful user experience, provide a sense of connectedness among players, improve their social status and give their actions autonomy and purpose.
And finally, they should never forget that the experience is actually meant to be fun!