Gamification is the method of implementing various elements of game design in contexts outside of gaming. The implementation’s purpose is to provide motivation to take a desired action. Online marketing is one common context in which gamification is incorporated.
Answering “what is gamification” isn’t as important as answering “why gamification works.” The process means nothing unless it earns brands the desired result. And understanding how gamification does just that means understanding basic human psychology.
Kevin Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, urges his students not to focus on mental state so much as behavior. How people think, he claims, isn’t as important as what people actually do. People have natural cognitive biases – certain instincts – that dictate their behavior without much thought. One of those instincts is an adverse reaction to loss.
For example, the Professional Baseball League gives badges to viewers who watch streams of covered baseball games. Viewers receive these badges when certain events occur during the games. The reception of badges gives viewers a sense of inclusion. That inclusion creates a community of sorts among the viewers who earn badges. As a result, the “game” of watching streams to receive badges takes on an addictive quality.
At the same time, the badges create a situation of potential loss. Viewers who don’t watch when an event occurs can’t receive a badge for that event. Not only do they miss the badge, they don’t feel included with the viewers who did receive it.
Gamification also generates feedback. One type of feedback is behavior-based. Whether or not people take part in the “game” indicates its success. Take speed detectors, for example. Speed detectors are digital boards that are set along roads and calculate the speed of passing vehicles. Speed detectors remind drivers how fast they should be driving – in other words, how they should be “playing the game.” On average, drivers who pass speed detectors slow down 10%.
Another type of feedback is progress-based. We see examples of progress-based gamification in numerous contexts, from video games to online surveys to self-improvement apps. In video games, players constantly receive feedback on their playing style. Chapter and level summaries display items gathered, accuracy rates, and the time it took players to complete the chapter or level. That way, players don’t have to wait until the end of the game to know how well they played.
Online surveys and social media profiles often include progress bars. These bars indicate the number of steps that users have left to complete the survey or profile. Self-improvement apps, such as the ones for fitness or learning languages, give users a task, cheer them on upon completion, and display both their progress and the steps left until total goal completion.
Thanks to the feedback mechanism, consequences are also part of gamification. Feedback creates an appointment-based mechanism that requires consumers to take a specific action regularly in order to participate.
One example is the popular ‘90s toy Tamagotchi. Tamagotchi were a brand of digital pets that players must care for via feeding, playing, and putting to bed much like real pets. Because the digital pets could need food, playtime, or a nap at any time, serious players carried their Tamagotchi at all times. If they didn’t, they risked losing their pet and having to start the game all over.
Another example is FanLogic. We reward entrants who take certain actions and successfully refer friends to our contests with additional ballots, thus increasing those entrants’ chances of winning. The entrant who continuously takes actions and makes referrals might not win, but the entrant who doesn’t act or refer at all almost definitely will not win.In the end, gamification works based on inherent instincts rather than thought patterns. The instinct to succeed. The instinct to feel included. The instinct to avoid losses and not miss out. Online marketing strategies that stimulate these instincts are the strategies most likely to succeed.