Why and How Gamification Works


Gamification has been defined as “The process of using game mechanics and game thinking in non-gaming businesses to engage users and solve problems.

Many companies are turning to gamification as a means of grabbing user attention in an increasingly busy and information-heavy society. Critics of this discipline point to the all too often used example of slapping badges or leaderboards onto a website and believing that this alone can encourage engagement. Industry thought leader Gabe Zichermann preaches a very different kind of methodology that advocates a more tailored gamification design.

Gamification Ethics (by Gabe Zichermann)

Gamification  (Photo credit: Adam Crowe

I recently attended his webinar entitled “Why and How Gamification Works: The Science of Consumer Engagement.” Gabe is the Conference Chair of the Gamification Summit, Founder and CEO of the gamification news site Gamification.Co, Founder and CEO of the gamification agency Dopamine (full disclosure I’ve done some freelance work for Dopamine but never met Gabe), and author of several books on the subject.

Zichermann began the talk by telling his assembled audience listening in over headsets and telephones that we are in the middle of an “engagement crisis” in which “it’s become increasingly challenging to get and maintain the attention of people.” He cited a Microsoft Research statistic that people spend about ten seconds on average looking at a website. He also mentioned that the desire in young people to learn to drive is in decline for the first time since the advent of the automobile. He attributed this to the fact that you cannot browse a smartphone while behind the wheel of a car.

Zichermann pointed to gamification as a method for combatting this “engagement crisis” by helping brands to create experiences around their products. “It’s not enough anymore just to build a great product,” he contended. “You need to be able to cut through the noise to capture and maintain users. If you drive your engagement with consumers using gamification, you should see at least a thirty percent increase in some of your metrics.” Metrics that Zichermann lists as the most relevant to gamification include: recency, frequency, duration, virality, and ratings.

McIlhenny Company logo

McIlhenny Tabasco Company logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Examples of brands that have successfully leveraged gamification include: Dominoes (their Pizza Hero app presents users with a game about building pizzas that offers them the option to purchase their finished product), Nike (Nike + is a collection of Nike products and apps that track your exercise activities and offer positive encouragement), Mint.com (a personal finance management site that securely accesses information from all your financial accounts and offers advice on saving and investing money, and Tabasco (Tabasco Nation is a Facebook app that gives users food and trivia challenges tied to Tabasco sauce and then tracks and rewards engagement with points, leaderboards and badges).

Zichermann explained that gamification is able to stimulate these levels of user engagement because “in the regular world, the dopamine rush doesn’t happen that often. But in the gamification world, we engineer challenge and achievement to happen continuously to drive engagement forward.” He also addressed a common misconception surrounding user engagement campaigns, that giving away “stuff” is an effective method for creating brand engagement. He gave the example of Bath and Body Works coupons. Users that sign up for the coupons receive them on such a regular basis that instead of viewing them as a treat, they regard this discount as an inherent part of the product. Far better generators of user engagement are status, access and power.

An example of status at work in gamified design would include Gilt Noir, a program of the flash-sale site that only .01 percent of its users achieve whereby they are granted a fifteen minute head start to browse the sales. Access includes rewards of items or experiences that cannot be purchased. Power is a reward that grants abilities to users that others do not have, like being a moderator on a forum.

The design principles that Zichermann advocated directly tackle one of the largest critiques of gamification: that it does not engage deeply enough with user motivation and instead copies and pastes common elements of game design, like badges and leaderboards, onto websites and products. The type of design that he described requires a brand to consider what their users will find interesting and what elements of their product can be best leveraged to this type of design. Gamification is a “process rather than a product.” The largest barrier to brands utilizing this model will be having the patience to explore design, rather than looking for a quick fix. There may be some best practices for gamified design, but to achieve desired results you’ll have to study your audience and create your own unique formula.

About the author: Caitlin L. Conner

Caitlin L. Conner is an experienced project manager with roots in the games industry. She’s earned credits in production management, game design and quality assurance testing for ten published titles spanning the casual and MMORPG genres.

At AlleyWatch, Caitlin focuses on editorial content, writer coordination, and time and resource management. She also contributes writing on gaming and women in tech.

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