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The Six Rules of Gamification

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Since the dawn of the blockbuster gamification industry, I’ve been compiling, distilling and summarizing design patterns and systems. The objective has always been to help people across diverse industries such as marketing, healthcare, education, consumer tech, CPG and others find common entry points to this exciting new design approach. Over the course of the last two years in my strategic and creative consulting practice (called Dopamine) I’ve worked with dozens of startups, non-profits and Fortune 500s to bring gamification to life.

While every experience is (and should be) experientially different, there are six new rules that I’ve distilled from my work. We can use these as an excellent jumping off point for the gamification design process:

  1. Understand what constitutes a “win” for the organization/sponsor
  2. Unpack the player’s intrinsic motivation and progress to mastery
  3. Design for the emotional human, not the rational human.
  4. Develop scalable, meaningful intrinsic and extrinsic rewards
  5. Use one of the leading platform vendors to scale your project (don’t roll your own)
  6. Most interactions are boring: make everything a little more fun

Most designers who work directly on gamified systems understand these rules innately. They form the foundation of the process in Gamification by Design, our industry workshops and videos, and the practical way in which we help companies leverage these powerful techniques at Dopamine. When they are understood in context of other systems such as SAPS, player types, the stages and process of mastery, etc – they form the foundations of a broadly-accepted view of how to design for optimal outcomes. Here then is a little additional detail about each rule:

Defining and designing for the win requires you to identify the key metrics that move the organization’s needle. In many cases you can use the five core E metrics – recency, frequency, duration, virality and ratings as a starting point. Take care to avoid over promising (do you really need to raise engagement by 100% for this to be a win?) and attaching your Gamification project to conversion/revenue metrics. While it may be tempting to say that you can raise revenues directly through Gamification, you should focus on designing an effective funnel that moves users from casual to hard core players to drive revenues. This can form a core part of a thoughtful Gamification strategy, but should come first.

The player motivations and progression to mastery are core concepts that can be understood at almost limitless depth. In a nutshell, in order to design a meaningful and engaging system, we need to know what drives our users and how our application moves them along a path of mastery in their lives. Generally, we want to understand this well beyond just the context of their interaction with our products. One of the catalyzing questions we ask in our consulting practice is “what are our players hopes and fears, anxieties and aspirations?” By understanding the consumer in their whole, emotional context we can build better experiences (and sell more products/services).

To that end, it’s critical to understand that the gamification design framework really speaks more to the emotional (and playful) human, rather than the rational one. This doesn’t mean that we should build irrational and counter-productive experiences, but rather that we should speak to their desires and fears, and give them the tools to learn and grow in that hemisphere. There is increasing science (elucidated well in books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell) that we make many of our decisions instantaneously – so called “thin slicing”. This suggests a more emotional persona lives within each of us, and if we can use gamification to speak to this homo sensus – we will have accomplished something very powerful.

Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards – and their concomitant motivations – are critical elements of gamified design. I’ve written about this subject at length elsewhere on this blog, but to summarize: a good system of gamified design relies on both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to drive short and long-term behavior. Human motivation exists on a continuum that is only served – in practice – by both kinds of rewards. We can use cash and non-cash systems (see SAPS) to provide these benefits – and we need not always focus on the tangible.

One of the most exciting advances in the gamification industry has been the robust, dynamic growth of its platform vendors. Companies like Bunchball, Badgeville, BigDoor, Rypple, DueProps, SCVNGR, CrowdTwist and others have made it trivially easy (and sometimes free) to implement gamification in your consumer or employee-facing environment. The ecosystem’s health is largely driven by the success of client implementations, and so the need to build gamification tech in-house has been eliminated. This frees your organization to focus on design and iterative testing/improvement instead of core tech development which is a real boon to our field.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly – strive to make everything a little more fun. This doesn’t mean that we need to trivialize work, or introduce game concepts that aren’t consistent with our brand’s narrative or needs. Rather, we must remember that the average player lives in a world devoid of daily positive reinforcement, surprise/delight and meaningful sociability. By aligning our experience with their desires, and striving to make every encounter more meaningful, we can bring fun to every grey, dull corner of the world.

These six rules seem simple, but each one is a great jumping off point for further research and understanding. As a distillation of patterns I’ve seen in my consulting practice over the past years, they form an excellent foundation that every organization – regardless of industry – can use to begin the process of gamification. When we combine these with a deeper understanding of human motivation, engagement and fun we can build experiences that leverage the best elements of games to build extraordinary behavior change, consumer engagement and a better world.

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  • http://www.bunchball.com Barry Kirk

    Hey, Gabe — really like your list, but wondering if #2 is essentially supposed to parallel #1? That is, could you as easily have said “Understand what constitutes a win for the user/player”? If not, I think it needs to be considered — serious gamification should take into account player/user wins as much as it does brand/company wins. Understanding a player’s motivation doesn’t seem to be exactly the same thing, since I could be motivated to engage with something given a high enough reward, yet really not care about the activity itself at all. Far better to create engagement where the behaviors being gamified are as valued by the players as by the brand.

  • http://www.facebook.com/appasionatta Claudia Correia de Araujo

    You are at truly a visionary. Enjoyed reading this post immensely!
    Thank you.

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  • http://www.getacheevit.com Mike

    I have to agree with Barry. I recently read the book Game Frame, and it really emphasized trying to find what is already fun/rewarding in the activity that you want to gamify, then using that core to create the game structure. This intuitively seems like it would lead to much more sustainable and rich game experiences than by looking only at “what constitutes a win for the organization/sponsor.”

    Of course, the ideal would be to find a core that naturally aligns the players with the organization. I wonder how often this is naturally possible.

    What do you think, Gabe?

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