Tag Archives: gamification

Is Gamification an Insult to our Humanity?

by Scott Ward

A number of inquisitive colleagues and I have been debating the pros and cons of Gamification. Some, like me, see gamification as a valuable toolset to build and direct online-offline behaviors. Other colleagues remain yet to be convinced that the practice has merit – and this surprises me.

For me gamification offers significant advantages that make sense at a fundamental level. One example of this is as a method of providing real-time feedback:

Most people are aware, but few consciously realize (unless prompted) that the world around us contains an infinite amount feedback loops, aimed at simulating behaviors that keep us alive and multiplying.

Feedback loops are everywhere, our brains are hardwired to seek them out and they form the substratum of our learning ie if we touch something sharp, it hurts and we learn to avoid sharp things; that’s a feedback loop. If we use wet wood for a fire, it is hard to burn and smokes excessively, so we learn to choose the dry wood; that’s a feedback loop.

We use them to teach our children to speak, to teach accepted behaviours (i.e. manners) and to teach the methods in which we can successfully interact with each other and the world around us.

So what has this got to do with Gamification?

At its simplest level, gamification is about building the feedback loops that surround us in our physical world, into our virtual worlds.

The natural systems that have surrounded us for hundreds of thousands of years have used feedback loops to guide our behavior, so why not build them into our virtual worlds? Our minds and bodies are hardwired to receive feedback so why not orientate our technology to plug into our deepest physiology? And our learning processes are based on feedback from trial and error, so why not make them virtual?

Gamification is nothing new… it’s a subset of design that uses preexisting principles in a new and different context (admittedly under a crappy name, ie “Gamification”).

For any gamified strategy to be effective it must align to the motivational wiring that sits at our core. Slapping together a leaderboard, or scattering points around like birdseed without anchoring it to a deeper human motivator is naive at best and more than just a little offensive – it is also the reason why most initiatives fail.

Motivators keep us curious, keep us exploring and keep us applied to the task that dominates our thought space; in fact, hardwired human motivators are THE fuel source of gamification.

By stimulating and directing our most basic, hardwired motivators to inspire or avoid, Gamification seeks to stack behaviors one after the other, toward specific outcomes.

There is a lot of great writing into what motivates us, from Maslow’s hierarchy to Daniel Pink’s journey to mastery, all of which have relevance. However one of the most usable models I’ve found is the one Steve Sims of Badgeville uses in his own work.

Steve Sims’s model, like many others, is broken into intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. According to his model we have an intrinsic need to feel smart, successful, socially valued and to be progressing in a way that is structured and purposeful; whilst the extrinsic perspective, its all about physical rewards and “Getting stuff”.

This model is certainly open to debate but stop and think about how it could apply to you… on the whole it’s a pretty good summary.

What’s interesting about intrinsic motivators is that to be successful they must be genuine. If intrinsic rewards fail to connect with our deeper humanity they lack value and are more about lip-service than individual affirmation. Without this connection the initiative will surely fail.

What’s also really interesting is that generally speaking intrinsic motivators are more effective than extrinsic motivators. It turns out that people will do more to feel socially valued than they will for “stuff”, which is ironic as intrinsic motivators are usually free eg being nominated as “Employee of the month”.

That’s not to say that extrinsic motivators should be ignored. They have their place too and are a great boost to motivational levels when intrinsic motivators are inherently lacking in the task at hand i.e. in highly repetitive tasks – Daniel Pink has done some amazing work in terms of when to apply intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators.

From my experience the best motivators are the ones that combine both intrinsic and extrinsic elements. “VIP concert tickets” combine both the sense of being socially valued along with Stuff, and are an infinitely more attractive prospect than just “concert tickets” alone.

Interestingly motivators take on a whole new importance when progress is socialized. There is something about making visible progress amongst a group of peers that inspires heightened accountability and adds a greater sense of importance that keeps people engaged enough to come back.

In corporate environments these motivators play out as the desire for recognition, the need to build a professional profile, and the satisfaction that comes with the affirmation that our work holds value. Have a think about how people compete for that corner office, a car park close to the elevator, a better job title, even a bigger team, newer laptop or to receive an industry awards…

Hardwired motivators are very real indeed, and gamification seeks to reconcile our day-to-day activity with this energetic fuel source.

So if we accept that feedback loops provide value, and that human motivators are able to fuel directed behavior, the question becomes: How do we use this knowledge to incentivize and reinforce preferred behaviors in the virtual space?

It’s a good question, so when we look for examples of where this is done well, gamification becomes relevant.

For years game builders have sought to increase the “stickability” of the products they build. These game builders have spent many years and huge research budgets watching people interact with their products and distilling the techniques to make their games as successful as possible.

They have discovered amazing things: Did you know that game makers aim to make their games as frustrating as possible? (ie as frustrating as possible without loosing people) The reason behind this is that users who are initially frustrated by a task before breaking through to success, release greater amounts dopamine which is the chemical that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centre.

To be effective gamers have had to pick apart exactly how to use virtual triggers to target and stimulate some of our most primitive physical wiring, and these are what are known as “Game Mechanics”.

At their most basic Game mechanics are an intuitive, visual and experiential communication tool that can be understood by children and adults of all ages and across all cultures.

Game mechanics marry human motivators, to progress, over time, and there is an infinite array of game mechanics that people can choose from.

The most common most know about are points, levels, badges and leaderboards, but really those are really only the tip of the iceberg. Other types include status bars, quest queues, reward schedules, advanced user paths, social feedback, gated trails, throttles, unlocks and on it goes.

Generally speaking though game mechanics seek to allocate one of four things:

1. Status
2. Access to resources or knowledge
3. Power of self determination
4. Stuff

Each mechanism provides opportunities to communicate different behaviors and stimulate different motivators depending on the context of its use. They can be used either singularly or combined to communicate a path toward mastery.

Again, what’s really interesting is to look at the world around us and see where game mechanics are already at play.

Leaderboards have long been used in sport, but are also used by sales teams, and employee of the month programs. Company organization charts or hierarchies are leaderboards of sorts that tap into particular motivators. Again this is nothing new as gamification is about taking the existing thoughts and methods that work well elsewhere and applying them to the digital space.

Levels are probably the most endemic, with academics using them to denote levels of education; martial artists using them to denote skill; and loyalty programs using them to train customers to become better customers. Levels generally denote a demonstrated amount of experience or expertise over a defined body of knowledge, and again they’ve been used successfully for thousands of years.

Points or virtual currencies are another common game mechanic. Aside from the money we use every day, we see these mechanics are used in frequent flyer programs, coffee cards and even Facebooks’ ‘like’ button is a form of social currency. Virtual currencies provide a powerful tool to incrementally recognize key behaviors along the engagement path.

There are a myriad of potential game mechanics waiting to be utilized. They are a simplified form of language that can be used to guide and direct people in the digital world.


Gamification has been positioned as something new but it’s not. Its methods tap into some of our deepest wiring as people and offer points of guidance in an often-unintuitive and disorientating digital world.

Most when they jump into this space start and end with game mechanics, under the assumption that peoples motivators will magically align by default or that its all purely about fun… they won’t and its not, this is a deeper practice.

Peoples motivations shift over time, so gamification requires continued effort and analysis to ensure people remain engaged either toward something of value or away from something undesirable.

The exciting part in all this is the opportunity to uncover commonalities in our thought processes. By learning how to tap into these motivators on a larger scale we uncover the parts of us that are similar and the parts that are different, as well as gaining insight into how each contributes value in different ways.

So for me the argument for gamification is quite compelling and conclusive. The fact that my colleagues and I have reached a point of disagreement on anything is rare and truly exciting as it gives us the opportunity to explore and exchange perspectives, to learn more and develop our understanding.

So what do you think? What have I missed? Is gamification a practice that has worth or an insult to our humanity?

This post originally appeared here.