// Insights

Everything you ever wanted to know about Gamification

Sean Johnson
Founding Partner

Gamification suffers from vagueness ––ask 100 people what they think it means and you get 100 different answers.

We think the best definition of game mechanics is from Gartner - they describe it as “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people 
to achieve their goals.”

"Gamification is the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals."

An even simpler way of thinking about it is "nonfiction gaming". You’re using the tools of game design to create environments and experiences that people - consumers, internal team members, etc - want to engage with.

What Gamification is NOT

Gamification isn’t badges.

When you say gamification, people often immediately associate it with badges, points, and levels. While those are game mechanics you can certainly leverage inside of an experience, that’s a very simplistic definition.

Gamification isn’t the solution to a bad experience.

Part of why gamification has become so popular is that it seems to offer the promise of magically increasing engagement in anything it’s applied to. And while there are many examples of where gamification has been used effectively (which we’ll discuss), it’s not a magic pill. If your product or service is fundamentally flawed, incorporating game mechanics won’t make enough of a difference to turn failure into success. As we often say at Manifold, the best growth hack is a great product.

Gamification does not mean "games."

Gamification borrows from games using tools and techniques to make non-game experiences more game-like. But it does not mean your objective is to create a game where one doesn’t exist.

You can think of gamification on a spectrum. On the one end, you have micro-gamification. This is the use of individual game mechanics in a very tactical fashion to influence a specific metric. You can think of it as a subset of the larger discipline of conversion optimization. Conversion optimization can include elements of gamification, but not all conversion strategies leverage game mechanics.

SproutSocial is leveraging micro-gamification on this registration form to increase motivation.

SproutSocial is leveraging micro-gamification on this registration form to increase motivation. In the middle you have “gamified experiences”, where you are taking either a new or existing application and baking in multiple game mechanics across the entire user journey to create a much more engaging experience.

And on the far end you have full scale games. Here, the entire experience is a game, but it’s still designed to accomplish a business objective of some kind.

All three can be leveraged inside companies, and all we’ve implemented all three for clients.

What Can I Do With Gamification?

The use cases for gamification are vast, but we generally put them into one of three buckets.

The first is to increase top line awareness and engagement with a brand. Game mechanics can incentivize users to participate and increase their exposure to your brand, and to get their friends to do the same.

There are many examples of this in action. Some of our favorite examples:

  • MTV’s My Chart lets users create their video chart based on various game dynamics, and obtained 500,000 votes and 150,000 videos viewed within 3 months
  • Buffalo Wild Wings ran a gamified campaign that generated more than 100 million social impressions as well as a 500% increase in participation rate.
  • Manifold has worked with a company called Billow that leverages game mechanics for social promotions. Eight O’Clock coffee used a campaign we helped create generated 55,265 likes and 227k plays in a little more than a month. Another campaign they did for Chapstick got them over 1 million story impressions and increased their fans by over 400%.

The second is to improve the onboarding, retention and use of new or existing applications. At Manifold, we talk all the time about the customer funnel, which is basically the 5 phases of a customer’s journey with your product. Game mechanics can help improve metrics in the activation, retention, revenue and referral phases.

A few examples:

  • Autodesk gamified their free trial, increasing trial usage by 54% and channel revenue by 29%.
  • The SAP Community Network gamified its community platform, increasing usage by 400% and community feedback by 96%.
  • Domino’s Pizza increased sales revenue by 30% using game mechanics in its app.
  • Nike drives over 5,000,000 users to beat their personal fitness goals every day of the year with their Nike+ experience.
  • Manifold worked with a community management platform called SocialQnect. They used game mechanics to create communities with hundreds of thousands of users with millions of threads in each.

The third use case is to increase compliance with internal systems and improve sales and support effectiveness. Some examples:

  • Spotify replaced annual reviews with a mobile, gamified solution with over 90% of employees participating voluntarily.
  • Google designed a Travel Expense System resulting in close to 100% of employee compliance for travel expenses.
  • Engine Yard increased the response rate for its customer service representatives by 40%.

There are other use cases for gamification as well - you can leverage gamification to increase user happiness when interacting with an interface - what we call “delighters”. Easter eggs are an example. Effective use of delights can spur word of mouth, and particularly effective implementations can increase customer satisfaction.

The essential components of a gamification model.

A well-thought-out gamification model has the following pieces:

  • Players - your prospective users or customers. When designing gamification loops we talk about them as players.
  • Win State - your goal with the gamification loop. Your win state is where business objectives and player goals align.
  • Actions - the series of steps necessary to reach the win state. Game mechanics are applied to actions to increase their effectiveness.
  • Analytics and Feedback Systems - in order to know if your efforts are working you need both qualitative feedback from players and quantitative analytics.

Without these elements you either won’t have a complete loop, or your loop won’t be effective, or it will but you won’t know it.

So how do you build the model? The process is very similar to any other development project. Manifold’s process for gamification includes the following steps:

  • Understand the mission from the business perspective and the player’s perspective.
  • Identify the behavior change that accomplishes that mission, ideate around possible tools for making that happen, and design potential approaches.
  • Prototype the solution, roll it out and test for efficacy.
  • Iterate on the solution, making sure to monitor its effectiveness with each iteration.

Step 1: Understand

During the first phase, we are seeking to understand three primary things:

  • The key business objectives we’re trying to improve.
  • The players involved in driving that change.
  • The motivations that drive those players, so we know how to create an experience that accomplishes their goals and the business objectives.

Identify the business objective.

Gamification can represent a big waste of time if you’re unclear what it is you’re trying to accomplish. So clarity on business objective is imperative. Each step in the customer funnel has concrete objectives that can be optimized leveraging gamification.

  • Activation: If you’re an e-commerce company or an app that has a registration component, you might be trying to increase the percentage of people who complete their checkout process or who successfully sign up.
  • Retention: Most applications don’t spend enough time measuring and optimizing their engagement and retention metrics. Gamification represents a great mechanism to help users build habits.
  • Revenue: SaaS businesses often operate on a “free to paid” model, where they give users a free trial and upgrade them after some duration or level of usage. Optimizing the % of people who upgrade through game mechanics is a huge opportunity.
  • Referral: referral loops are a critical component of any application looking to have a positive viral coefficient. Game mechanics are one of the best ways to improve the effectiveness of your referral loop.

Note that these same principles apply for internal applications - you want to make sure as many team members as possible adopt, and continue use over an extended period of time. Otherwise, your investments in new technology initiatives are doomed to fail.

An important note: often the business objective you’re trying to improve is NOT the business objective you’re going to design your gamified experience around. To figure what experience you need to create, it’s essential to dig into the root causes behind a problem instead of simply accepting it as a given.

For example, lets say your CRM tells you sales are sluggish. Rather than implementing a campaign to increase call or meeting volume, you first ask a couple questions and you discover the following:

  • It turns out the CRM is reporting that data because your sales team isn’t accurately or expeditiously tracking their activity.
  • Your team isn’t tracking their activity because they’re on the road all the time.
  • They aren’t using the mobile app your CRM has because it’s frustrating to use.
  • It’s frustrating to use because they haven’t participated in the training.

So we move from an activity issue to a tracking issue to a training issue. And perhaps the best step is to implement and gamify an initiative to increase the number of salespeople taking the training program on the CRM.

Identify the players.

Once you’ve identified the business objective, you need to figure out who the players are. In the above example, the obvious answer is your sales team. There are certain situations where you’ll actually have multiple players:

  • Most online communities are subject to what’s known as the 90:9:1 rule. It states that 90% of your users will mostly be lurkers, with 10% of your users contributing the most content and 1% being your power users who are on the community constantly.
  • Marketplace businesses have at least two types of users, often in the form of buyers and sellers or a “supply” and “demand” side. Those users have very different motivations.
  • Many apps have a consumer or end-user facing side and an administrative side. Both types of users are important - the software world is full of admin backends that never get used.

In each of these cases you have multiple types of players, and they’re all important. You’ll want to identify how you can create experiences for each of them that in aggregate help accomplish your business objective.

Identify the player’s goals.

The last step is understanding the player’s win state. We need to know what they’re trying to do, and what motivates them so the solution we create can compel them to take action.

BJ Fogg runs the Stanford Persuasion Lab. And he has developed a model for what he believes drives behavior change.There are three elements to it - Motivation, Ability and Triggers. If a user is sufficiently motivated to complete an action, it’s sufficiently easy to do, and you show the appropriate trigger at the appropriate time, a user is likely to complete the action you want.

Gamification is about uncovering the behavior change you’re after that accomplishes your business objective and the player’s win state, then using game mechanics to increase a user’s motivation.

Behavior Change = Motivation + Ability + Triggers

So how do you increase their motivation? The goal of your experience should be to make the player feel awesome in some way. Awesome can take several forms.

  • You can try to make your players feel smart, which means achieving mastery of some kind. Learning new things. Solving puzzles. Accumulating knowledge.
  • You can make them feel successful, that they’ve overcome a challenge, they won, they achieved something.
  • You can make them feel structure, which means that they understand their purpose, the larger mission, the goals and the rules are all clear.
  • You can make them feel more socially connected. This could be friendly competition, collaboration, or even just bonding.

Inside an internal organization, salespeople are often motivated by success and social rewards. Customer support teams are often motivated by structure and success. Engineers are motivated by looking smart and socially rewarded. Customer personas will have similar leanings. Identifying them and understanding them are essential.

The danger of using money as a motivator.

Often companies will try to motivate players by bribing them. While this sounds like an easy way to avoid doing the hard work of understanding their other motivations, it can often backfire. When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity. The introduction of an extrinsic reward has a permanently altering effect on the intrinsic interest. It does not matter how often or rarely you use an extrinsic reward, just the fact that the reward is introduced changes the game forever.

This mistake is commonly made in loyalty programs or apps with a store of value. Even here, redemption is not the core motivator of loyalty programs. Status is. Foursquare proves this, as does FarmVille. Money goes in. Nothing comes out. In fact, FarmVille did a promotion with 7-Eleven, but it wasn’t redeeming your credits for Slurpees. Rather players bought Slurpees in order to get FarmVille credits.

Step 2: Ideate

With your objectives defined, your actors named and their motivations uncovered, you’re ready to start identifying the behavior changes that accomplish that mission - the series of actions that will lead to the confluence of your business objectives and the player’s goals. We call this the win state.

There is no silver bullet to gamification. It’s common to hear people starting out in gamification say “Let’s just add some points, and a leaderboard, and the natural desire for people to be at the top of the leaderboard will do the rest.” This is called PBL (points, badges and leaderboards). And it’s wrong.

This is wrong for two reasons. First, there are usually a series of steps that have to take place, or micro behaviors that have to change to lead up to a larger change that accomplishes your business objective. It’s essential to break each step down and identify solutions for each.

Secondly, badges, leaderboards and other gamification elements whose primary motivation is competition actually only appeal to a subset of your players.

The importance of a gamer’s type.

Professor Richard Bartle has classified humans as gamers into four types: Killers, Achievers, Explorers and Socializers.

  • Killers want to beat other people. I want to win, and for you to lose. This might sound bad, but often is a good thing. Killers are often the most engaged players inside of your community. You don’t necessarily want to discourage them, but you do want to shape their behavior. For example, a community app could implement an incentive system that specifically rewards positive comments with points.
  • Achievers look similar to killers, but there is an important distinction. They want to win, but they don’t care or desire it to be at the expense of other people. These are people who are motivated by mastery for its own sake rather than the comparison of themselves to others.
  • Explorers want to go places and find out stuff. These are the people who love to find Easter eggs in applications, like the kids who knew all the secret levels in Super Mario Brothers. They will be the ones who kick the tires on all your features, who look for cracks in the system to exploit (not for the competition but for the joy of discovering the loophole), and who create wikis sharing their discoveries with others.
  • Socializers don’t care what they do as long as they are doing it with their friends. They want lightweight, non-confrontational, interactions with other people. FarmVille players were usually Socializers.

Perhaps the most surprising thing people find when we discuss gamification is the breakdown of each type of player. Many people assume that most players are either Killers or Achievers - that is how most gamification initiatives are designed. But in reality, Killers only make up about 1% of players. The most common player type by a huge margin are Socializers, who represent as much as 80% of the player universe.

These percentages obviously change depending on the type of players you are targeting - it’s likely your target players skew in certain ways. But at a minimum it’s wise to avoid the assumption that they will primarily be motivated by competition. In fact, cooperative games out-ratio in popularity competitive games by a factor of 3:1 according to Jane McGonigal.

Cooperative games out-ratio competitive games in popularity by a factor of 3:1. - Jane McGonigal

The importance of a player’s stage

In addition to the type of players you’re targeting, it’s important to keep in mind the stage of the experience the user is in. Their goals and expectations are different depending on how long they’ve been a user.

A good game gives players the feeling that they can master it. But as soon as a player masters it, the game cranks the difficulty up. This keeps them in a state of “flow.” Compare that to any non-game. Business applications, complex image manipulation software, CAD programs, and even a simple banking website tend to offer the first time user a lot of complexity. The level of difficulty the system is exposing to the user is far above the skills that the user has at that moment. The system pushes the user into the “frustration zone,” the zone where the user feels overwhelmed and doesn't know where to begin.

On the other hand, when a user becomes very familiar with the system, the system complexity tends to remain at the same level as at the beginning, thus moving the user in the “boredom-zone”. The question that arises for a gamification designer is how to design business applications that balance the skills of the user with the exposed complexity of the system to keep players in the flow state as long as possible.

preserving flow state

The importance of frequency.

Lastly, you need to keep in mind the nature of the application itself, and specifically the frequency of the behavior you’re trying to create. There are no right answers here, although certain types of experiences lend themselves to certain frequency patterns:

  • Several times a day (email, FB, CRM, etc.)
  • One to several times a week (banking systems, time sheets).
  • Once a month (mortgage companies, utility billing systems, etc.)
  • Only once (polls, quizzes, etc.)

Gamification has the power to actually increase frequency. But whether you should is a different question - if increased frequency doesn’t accomplish a business objective or a user goal, and simply represents a vanity metric, the answer is probably not.

So which game mechanics should I use?

We’re commonly asked which game mechanics work the best. But as you can probably guess by now, different mechanics work better for different players, with different dispositions, at different stages in an experience. This is why PBL doesn’t work - you need to be more nuanced, and pick the right tools for the job.

Some sample game mechanics are below. Any of these can be effective when used in the right context. But understanding the business objective, player, and the desired win state are imperative first steps.

Game mechanics

Given that understanding, how do you decide which game mechanics to use? Different mechanics lend themselves to particular types of actions. The best approach is to ideate around potential mechanics that will suit the given action you’re trying to get players to take, and test each approach through prototyping.

Let’s say you’ve built a question and answer platform, and you’re trying to improve retention (your business objective). The “lightbulb moment” when players truly understand the app and its value might be when they’ve received a fast helpful answer to their first question (your user goal). The series of actions might look something like this:

  • Players register for the application.
  • Players ask their first question.
  • Players receive their first response.

Let’s also assume that you’ve done the work to understand your player types. You’ve learned most of your new players aren’t killers or achievers, so appealing to status (or implementing game mechanics around that like PBL) might not be the primary mechanism for achieving this win state. However, you have a second set of players -the folks who will answer questions asked by your new players. Your data indicates they skew higher on Achiever.

An ideation process might result in hypotheses like the following:

game mechanics brainstorming

The hope will be that some combination of these actions creates the most likely scenario to achieve your win state. Armed with your hypotheses, you begin to prototype.

Step 3: Prototyping

Prototyping gamification isn’t too different from other uses of prototyping. Your goal, as always, is to identify a viable approach as quickly and cost effectively as possible, using a deliverable that is high enough fidelity to communicate the final implementation with no additional waste.

At Manifold, prototyping consists of a series of steps, in increasing fidelity.

Start with sketches.

Starting out your goal is to get as many ideas down as possible, as cheaply as possible. And for this purpose it’s hard to be paper and pencil. Sketching allows you to rapidly ideate around potential implementations of each game mechanic for the action in question. Your focus is on quantity, not quality at this point.

There are a variety of exercises you can conduct to make this process more effective, many of which we fold into our Manifold Design Sprint process. Below are some basic guidelines:

  • Go for volume. We will often conduct time boxed exercises (10-20 minutes or so) where the goal is to get as many ideas down as possible. The forced constraint and the emphasis on volume forces you to avoid perfectionism. Drawings are crude, with just enough detail to communicate the point. We’ve found going for volume can actually increase the likelihood of novel solutions - your first ideas are likely to be rehashes of what you’ve done in the past, and new ideas tend to emerge once those ideas are exhausted.
  • Leverage design patterns. This might sound a bit contradictory, but when designing solutions leveraging game mechanics it’s usually wise to have the team be aware of what the various mechanics are, and how they are best used. Just as knowing how the play the classics usually precedes being able to effectively improvise, so too does understanding the tools in your toolbox improve the likelihood of identifying novel implementations of those tools.
  • Make it collaborative. Sort of. Sketching exercises can be effectively done in a group setting, but we don’t believe in collaborative sketching. Rather, the team engages in a series of miniature sprints, where everyone sketches solutions by themselves. You then come together as a group to discuss, combine and co-create the best implementation based on the individual solutions. To the previous point, it’s often wise to start with a session to train the team on the various game mechanics you can leverage - giving them their toolbox.

Move to mockups. Don’t worry about wireframes.

Once you’ve identified potential solutions through a collaborative sketching process, we advocate for moving directly to high fidelity designs, forgoing the traditional wire framing process.

Remember the goal of prototyping - you want to get something in the hands of customers with the least amount of waste. While mockups take a bit more time than wireframes do, in our experience wireframes are usually insufficient to communicate your intent to players. They simply don’t understand what wireframes are. Your sketching process likely provides your team with a “good enough” version of a wireframe for the purposes of prototyping - you don’t have to have all the details worked out yet, until you know if you’re directionally on the right track.

Get out of the building and in front of customers.

At Manifold we often say customer feedback is oxygen. It’s how we keep ourselves honest, how we know whether our solutions are accomplishing their intended objective, and minimizes waste.

Customer feedback is oxygen.

Customer feedback is oxygen. It’s constantly a surprise how rarely organizations show intermediate deliverables to customers. Too many decisions at the tactical level are made inside of conference rooms, with people who are simply too close to the problem and who have baked-in incentives to see the solution work.

Customers, even loyal ones, don’t care about any of that. They will be much more likely to tell you what works and what doesn’t with your implementation, saving you considerable cost that would be incurred by waiting until the solution is live in the world.

Don’t be surprised to find it taking multiple loops to arrive at a viable solution. Humble yourself before engaging in a customer feedback process, and remember that any work spent iterating now is much cheaper than it will be to change later.

Do some math.

The last point relates to specific types of game mechanics. If you do end up implementing some form of a points system or have levels or other forms of social currency, you want to make sure the system has “balance.”

Good point systems have a concept of progressive engagement. They start out easy, giving players points for doing seemingly trivial activities in order to get them engaged and to help them build up an initial store of value (which increases their incentive to continue playing.) As they continue to play, points either become harder to come by, or more likely the number of points required to “level up” become larger. This is one way to keep players in the “flow state” as discussed previously.

You want to make sure your points system doesn’t have any obvious flaws in it. There are several things to look out for:

  • Points are too hard to acquire early on.
  • Points are too easy later.
  • A certain level deviates from player expectations by either being disproportionately easy or hard relative to it’s neighbor levels.
  • Certain actions have disproportionate effects - for example a certain type of action having too much weight in the point system relative to its difficulty, creating a situation where players “game the system.”
  • Incentivizing actions in a way that players are too incentivized to engage in behavior that doesn’t address your primary business objectives.

The way you solve for this is by modeling your system out. You run it through a simulation to see how the decisions you make impact the game over time.

If you have an existing application, you can leverage your historical data to implement such a model. While your game mechanics will (hopefully) alter future behavior, it can still be helpful to see how your system would have rewarded past behavior - for example, seeing how many of your players would have reached certain levels in certain periods of time.

Step 4: Iterate

Once you’ve prototyped your solution and have customer validation that your implementation might be on the right track, it’s time to implement version one.

The complexity of your development will depend on the mechanics you decide to use - implementing a progress bar is much easier than implementing a full points system, for example.

What’s essential is to make sure the development team understands the system will likely change over time, and to plan for that change by creating a flexible system.

The importance of analytics and feedback.

In order for you to know whether the system works or not, it’s imperative you have two feedback mechanisms in place. The first is an analytics framework.

The most important consideration when evaluating potential analytics solutions is to capture event-based data, not simply transactional data. Transactional data are things like a successful purchase on your commerce site, or a registration for your SaaS app. Event data, on the other hand, are the series of actions the user takes leading up to a transaction - the pages they click on, the links they click, how long they spend on a page, the flow through your app, etc.

The reason this is important should be evident - since your gamification loop is leveraging game mechanics to influence a series of player actions in support of a win state, you need to know whether the actions work. And the actions will be captured most of the time with event based data.

Event-based data doesn’t just happen - it’s important when discussing gamification implementation with your development team that the logging of any event based data relative to the gamification loop be captured as well. Make sure these requirements are incorporated into the larger requirements or sprint documentation.

The second important piece is a qualitative feedback system. Analytics is critical, in that it tells you what happens. But it can often be hard to figure out the why. Rather than creating a bunch of hypotheses for how to improve a step in your loop that isn’t working, you can save considerable time by asking customers directly, using that information to inform your iteration work.

A feedback system doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be coded into the app itself. All you need is a mechanism to reach out to players who interacted with your loop, to understand why they took the actions they took. You can do some of this work up front before deploying in the form of user tests. User tests are great at uncovering usability issues (or “ability issues” in the Fogg Persuasion Model) that you can address before deployment. They aren’t accurate representations of reality in that they completely neglect the motivation component. But by conducting them you can eliminate some barriers to adoption and get to a successful win state much faster.

Look out for unintended consequences.

One final thing to pay attention to are unintended consequences of the model you developed. While you will have addressed potential balance issues by running the models in the previous step, you might still miss aspects of the loop that make it easier to manipulate.It’s important to assume that players will try to game the system. For example, lets say your app has a review mechanism to suggest vendors to users in a marketplace app. You implement a game mechanic that gives players an extra point in your points system for leaving reviews.

Not long after implementing the loop, you find that you have thousands of reviews. But on closer inspection, the reviews have one word statements like “Great!” or even “I haven’t tried them but I get points for leaving reviews.”

So you try to remedy this by building a rating system for the reviews themselves, giving people points for highly rated reviews. Problem solved! Not so fast. Now you have people giving each other positive ratings on their reviews regardless of their actual content, creating “voting rings.”

Assume the system is going to be gamed, and look out for ways people use the app in unintended ways to exploit a loophole. Remember that you want to avoid upsetting these people, as they are most likely your Achievers or Killers and can represent a disproportionate amount of activity relate to their size. Close the loophole in future iterations, announce the changing of the terms and explain the rationale behind it.

Build Version One Now. Learn What Works. Repeat.

You won’t nail the loop on your first pass - some aspect of it won’t work as well as you intended, or the system will disproportionate reward the wrong behavior. The solution is to get the system up faster, see how people use it, and use the analytics and feedback systems to improve it. Rinse and repeat.

It’s important to not get discouraged, and to make sure the team understands that big wins can take time. We once implemented a referral loop for a client, and it took 7 iterations to nail it. But once we arrived at the solution that worked, they reaped the rewards of more registrations and much less average cost per customer for years.

The sooner you begin working on your loop, the sooner you’ll see results.

We'd love to help

If you think you’d like to dip your toes into the gamification space and start trying some things, we’d love to help you make that happen.

Manifold has a full service team that can help you execute from start to finish. We can help identify the players and their motivations, identify the actions necessary to reach the win state, ideate around potential game mechanics to leverage throughout the process, even design and build the solutions. And we love to work inside of an iterative process to maximize the likelihood of success.

Gamification is a lot more involved than most people think. But a well-architected system can dramatically improve retention, referral and virality. To take your system to the next level, don't hesitate to reach out.