The science of gamification (@mich8elwu at #digitalsurrey)

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Based on the number of analysts and “people who work in digital” I’ve seen commenting on the topics this year, “gamification” has to be the buzzword of 2011. So when I saw that Digital Surrey (#digitalsurrey) were running an event on “The Science of Gamification”, I was very interested to make the journey down to Farnham and see what it’s all about.

The speaker was Michael Wu (@mich8elwu) and I was pleased to see that the emphasis was very much on science, rather than the “marketing fluff” that is threatening to hijack the term.  Michael’s slides are embedded below but I’ll elaborate on some of his points in this post.

  • Starting off with the terminology, Michael talked about how people love to play games and hate to work – but by taking gameplay elements and applying them to work, education, or exercise, we can make them more rewarding.
  • Game mechanics are about a system of principles/mechanisms/rules that govern a system of reward with a predictable outcome.
  • The trouble is that people adapt, and game mechanics become less effective – so we look to game dynamics – the temporal evolution and patterns of both the game and the players that make a gamified activity more enjoyable.
  • These game dynamics are created by joining game mechanics (combining ands cascading).
  • Game theory is a branch of mathematics and is nothing to do with gamification!
  • The Fogg Behaviour Modellooks at those factors that influence human behaviour:
    • Motivation – what we want to do.
    • Ability – what we can do.
    • Trigger – what we’re told to do.
  • When all three of these converge, we have action – they key is to increase the motivation and ability, then trigger at an appropriate point. There are many trajectories to reach the trigger (some have motivation but need to develop ability – more often we have some ability but need to develop motivation – but there is always an activation threshold over which we must be driven before the trigger takes effect).
  • Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an often-quoted piece of research and Michael Wu draws comparisons between Maslow’s deficiency needs (physical, safety, social/belonging and esteem) and game mechanics/dynamics. At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualisation, with many meta-motivators for people to act.
  • Dan Pink’s Drive discusses intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose leading to better performance and personal satisfaction.  The RSA video featuring Dan Pink talking about what motivates us wasn’t used in Michael Wu’s talk, but it’s worthy of inclusion here anyway:

  • In their research, John Watson and BF Skinner looked at how humans learn and are conditioned.  A point system can act as a motivator but the points themselves are not inherently rewarding – their proper use (a reward schedule) is critical.
  • Reward schedules include fixed interval; fixed interval and fixed ratio; variable interval; and variable ratio – each can be applied differently for different types of behaviour (i.e. driving activity towards a deadline; training; re-enforcing established behaviours; and maintaining behaviour).
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for his theories on flow: an optimal state of intrinsic motivation where one forgets about their physical feelings (e.g. hunger), the passage of time, and ego; balancing skills with the complexity of a challenge.
  • People love control, hate boredom, are aroused by new challenges but get anxious if a task is too difficult (or too easy) and work is necessary to balance challenges with skills to achieve a state of flow. In reality, this is a tricky balance.
  • Having looked at motivation, Michael Wu spoke of the two perspectives of ability: the user perspective of ability (reality) and the task perspective of simplicity (perceptual).
  • To push a “user” beyond their activation threshold there is a hard way (increase ability by motivating them to train and practice) or an easy way (increase the task’s perceived simplicity or the user’s perceived ability).
  • Simplicity relies on resources and simple tasks cannot use resources that we don’t have.  Simplicity is a measure of access to three categories of resource at the time when a task is to be performed: effort (physical or mental); scarce resources (time, money, authority/permission, attention) and adaptability (capacity to break norms such as personal routines, social, behavioural or cultural norms).
  • Simplicity is dependant upon the access that individuals have to resources as well as time and context – i.e. resources can become inaccessible (e.g. if someone is busy doing something else). Resources are traded off to achieve simplicity (motivation and ability can also be traded).
  • A task is perceived to be simple if it can be completed it with fewer resources than we expect (i.e. we expect it to be harder) and some game mechanics are designed to simplify tasks.
  • Triggers are prompts that tell a user to carry out the target behaviour right now. The user must be aware of the trigger and understand what it means. Triggers are necessary because we may not be aware of our abilities, may be hesitant (questioning motivation) or may be distracted (engaged in another activity).
  • Different types of triggers may be used depending on behaviour. For example, a spark trigger is built in to the motivational mechanism; a facilitator highlights simplicity or progress; and signals are used as reminders when there is sufficient motivation and no requirement to simplify as task.
  • Triggers are all about timing, and Richard Bartle‘s personality types show which are the most effective triggers. Killers are highly competitive and need to be challenged; socialisers are triggered by seeing something that their friends are doing; achievers may be sparked by a status increase; and explorers are triggered by calls on their unique skills, without any time pressure. Examples of poorly timed triggers include pop-up adverts and spam email.
  • So gamification is about design to drive action: providing feedback (positive, or less effectively, negative); increasing true or perceived ability; and placing triggers in the behavioural trajectory of motivated players where they feel able to react.
  • If the desired behaviour is not performed, we need to check: are they triggered? Do they have the ability (is the action simple enough)? Are they motivated?
  • There is a moral hazard to avoid though – what happens if points (rather than desired behaviour) become the motivator and then the points/perks are withdrawn?  A case study of this is Gap’s attempt to gamify store check-ins on Facebook Places with a free jeans giveaway. Once the reward had gone, people stopped checking in.
  • More effective was a Fun Theory experiment to reduce road speeds by associating it with a lottery (in conjunction with Volkswagen). People driving below the speed limit were photographed and entered into a lottery to win money from those who were caught speeding (and fined).

  • Michael Wu warns that gamification shouldn’t be taken too literally though: in another example, a company tried incentivising sales executives to record leads with an iPad/iPhone golf game. They thought it would be fun, and therefore motivational but it actually reduced the ability to perform (playing a game to record a lead) and there was no true convergence of the three factors to influence behaviour.
  • In summary:
    • Gamification is about driving players above the activation threshold by motivating them (with positive feedback), increasing their ability (or perceived ability) and then applying the roper trigger at the right time.
    • The temporal convergence of motivation, ability and trigger is why gamification is able to manipulate human behaviour.
    • There are moral hazards to avoid (good games must adapt and evolve with players to bring them into a state of flow).

I really enjoyed my evening at Digital Surrey – I met some great people and Michael Wu’s talk was fascinating. And then, just to prove that this really is a hot topic, The Fantastic Tavern (#tftlondon) announced today that their next meeting will also be taking a look at gamification

Further reading/information

[Update 23:12 – added further links in the text]


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