“Gamification” is a buzzword that’s been thrown around by marketing gurus and would-be experts a lot in recent years although its techniques have been in place for decades. Essentially, the term is used to describe the process of applying mechanics used in games (computer games, board games, sports games) to non-game environments (such as marketing and advertising situations). Gamification is basically making a game out of something that is not, inherently, a game. It is not, however, the use of a game within a non-game environment (such as a Facebook tab created game).
The idea is that the mechanics which make games engaging will encourage active participation from users in the non-game environment.
Why use gamification techniques?
The process of gamification takes advantage of the human psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. It’s a fantastic way to get people to do things they would ordinarily think of as boring, tedious and repetitive, such as the chores of completing surveys, filling out tax forms or shopping.
But why does it work?
Why is it that people will gladly perform what can only be described as mindless and repetitive tasks in a game, such as clicking on an image on a screen over and over again? John Hopson, head of User Research at Bungie, explains that behavioural psychologist, B. F. Skinner, accidentally landed on the answer when trying to solve the very simple problem of feeding his lab-rats on dwindling supplies of pellets. To ensure he didn’t run out of the pellets, he started providing them every tenth time the rats pressed a lever (instead of every time) and from there he began investigating different regimens of reward.
The keyword here is reward. Skinner found that the rats would press the lever repetitively to gain their food reward. However, when the rats became confident that they would receive a pellet every tenth press they did not engage with the mechanism as much. Adjusting the reward schedule from every tenth press to a random interval changed this and actually made the ‘game’ of pressing the lever more interesting for the rats.
But why? Well, according to Industrial Psychologist Jamie Madigan, receiving a reward produces a release of the chemical dopamine (the feel-good neutron-transmitter) in the brain. Receiving an unexpected reward (or a reward you couldn’t predict exactly) results in a much bigger rush of the same chemical. This is the exact mechanic that slot machines in casinos cash in on.
Of course, when a reward is not tangible (unlike cash or food) there is another dynamic driving the behaviour: social status. Humans not only have an inherent drive to be recognised by their peers for their achievements, but are also constantly measuring ourselves against our peers to figure out where we stand on the social ladder. Being able to move up the ladder is a strong driver for behaviour and games that make use of leader boards and sharing of achievements or badges are capitalising on this.
Read more about the Psychology of Achievements here.
Where has gamification been used successfully?
Foursquare, the location based social networking tool, with 10 million users is a great case study for the driving force of these two gamification techniques. The mechanics Foursquare employ are simple: Users are rewarded with badges and points for completing the task of “checking in” and are given mayoral titles if they check in the most at any given location. Some badges are rewarded as surprises at special events or locations or through users completing a series of tasks. All of these achievements can then be shared by the user through their other social networks, furthering the impact of the social status driver of behaviour.
Read part 2 of our post on gamification here