Originally posted on MediaPost – just republishing it here.
It’s time to stop making out with game mechanics
Gamification is happening and for the record … I love it. It has huge potential, but only if we stop trying to make out with it and work to understand it.
When it comes to gamification, if we stay our current course of throwing badges and leaderboards at people, we will be left with poor user experiences, jaded consumers, diluted brands and overall devaluation of strategic thinking. Instead, we should seek to understand the physiological drivers behind game mechanics, to identify our target and to leverage that information to create systems that reward people for specific achievements that they care about.
Many of us promoted social media without understanding it. Some of us understood it, but did a poor job of turning down the volume. The result? Clients regularly ask for Facebook pages, not strategic thinking. Unless we educate ourselves and get vocal about gamification, we can expect more of the same: clients asking for leaderboards instead of a strategic game plan.
It is problematic when we’re just as enamored by new technology as our clients are – and I’m just as guilty as anyone. Let’s keep the excitement but start asking and answering the right questions. For starters, the right question isn’t: “How do we add a leaderboard to this?” The right question is: “What is it about leaderboards that engages people?”
For better or worse, much of human behavior is driven by the desire for achievement and reward. There are, of course, other drivers, but our brains are hardwired for those two in particular.
I’d like to introduce you to our little friend, dopamine. As opposed to opioids that control pleasure (think opium), dopamine is a neurotransmitter that governs our rewards. When we expect to be rewarded, our dopamine levels are raised. Raised dopamine equates to positivity and fulfillment. Conversely, when we feel deprived, our dopamine levels drop.
Here’s the thing: In real life, aside from immediate rewards like eating or sex, achieving rewards usually requires a longer process with an unclear path. For example, getting a promotion takes time and the path is rarely clear. So (unfortunately), people turn to shortcuts that offer instant gratification: chocolate, money, TV, sex, etc. They want more dopamine more often. The renowned psychologist Jaak Panksepp refers to this process as “seeking.” We’re fed with dopamine as we seek to achieve what we perceive to be a reward.
Enter gaming: Games are packed with frequent rewards and good games make the path to achieving those rewards clear – much more so than achieving the next promotion. In games you level up, master the button combo that literally rips your opponent in half and then you unlock new characters, achieve badges, acquire a badass weapon … you get the picture.
In other words, gaming provides frequent paths to achievement, thus providing people with the chemical rewards their brains love. So if dopamine is in high demand and achieving rewards provides it, our next question should be: “How do we create something that rewards people through achievements they care about?”
When we start with that question, we are forced to ask a few more questions – questions we should always be asking. “What would this target care about? What do they want to achieve? What would be rewarding to them might not be rewarding to others?”
For example, does a teenage boy really care about being No. 1 on an acne-cream leaderboard? “Yes! I’ve been trying to date this girl to no avail. But now that I’ve got 1,000 Acne Points and I’m the Acne Cream Tribal Leader, I can publish that to my Facebook wall. I’ll be totally irresistible.”
Those are the kind of experiences we can expect when the first question is, “How can we add a leaderboard to an acne-cream Web site?” Instead, we should start by asking, “What do teenage boys with acne care about? What do they want to achieve? How might we inspire brand engagement through facilitating those achievements? What do meaningful rewards look like? How can we make their experience with our brand fun?” This naturally leads us to, “How do we create something that rewards teenage boys through achievements they care about?”
Here’s a more uplifting example using grocery stores. Plenty of people hate grocery shopping (myself included). Let’s answer these questions:
Q: “What do they care about?” A: Not being at the grocery store.
Q: “What do they want to achieve?” A: To get out of there ASAP, not forget anything, and to save some money if possible.
Q: “How might we inspire brand engagement through facilitating those achievements?” A: Use a branded mobile app that provides shopping-list and mapping functionality while timing shoppers’ trips to the grocery so they can compete with themselves/others.
Q: “How can we make their experience with our brand more fun?” A: In addition to competition, the app could reward shoppers for buying sale items, unlocking coupons and inserting booby traps throughout the store that the shopper can avoid by moving fast.
A bit of an oversimplification, but hopefully you get the gist. Don’t build something boring and then try to make it fun with “game mechanics.” Instead, build something inherently more game-like and it will be fun. How? Set out to understand your target and then create things that reward them for definite achievements that they really value.