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Getting Three Fs in Gamification

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Over the last 3 years, I’ve had the privilege of analyzing, deconstructing and helping design gamification for many companies and non-profits. Since the publication of my first book, Game-Based Marketing (now available in audiobook format), there has been an ever-increasing clamor for process, methodology and systems that can be used to make gamification more repeatable and predictable.

Identifying patterns and summarizing them is a key piece of helping people understand the exciting power of game mechanics to change employee and consumer behavior. As we’ve worked and looked at so many projects, there is a commonly-repeated theme of three concepts that seem to recur in every gamified system with traction:

Fun
Friends
Feedback

The Three F’s of Gamification – as we can comfortably call them – cut to the core of what makes the concept (and games themselves, I daresay) so powerful. If we can bring Fun, Friends and Feedback to an experience – preferably one with none of those to begin with – we can summon the power to change behavior. Let’s consider all three in reverse order.

Feedback is the process of giving users information on how they’re doing. This feedback is almost always designed as part of the gamified system you’ve built, but ideally should speak to their larger-scale journey to mastery. That is – good feedback will help the user see themselves as part of a bigger picture struggle/effort to get where they want to go. Feedback mechanisms can take many forms, including the display of points, a progress bar, popup notifications, etc – but they all have something in common: they break a long term system into small, generally positive messages that reinforce the user’s sense of progress. In some cases, the application of progress mechanics is so revolutionary that it accounts for a disproportionate amount of the initial impact of gamification (e.g. in Enterprise settings).

Friends make up the social context for our gamified system. Today, incorporating and leveraging the power of the social graph is relatively trivial – but creating meaningful interactions that feed a game-like system is not. Users want the opportunity to engage with and make new friends in almost every context, and bringing sociability to a gamified experience serves all player types. Even in the evolution of the leaderboard (nominally an achiever-killer mechanic), we can see the power of socializing to change behavior: today’s leaderboards often present users as compared to their social graph. The addition of team play, collaboration/cooperation and altruism only serve to enhance the power of friends in gamified systems. Unexpected/non-traditional socializing – such as that found in Turntable.fm or Zamzee – also helps drive new behaviors.

Fun, lastly, is the most elusive of the three Fs. It means vastly different things to different people, and only works as an objective if we can segment our audience and understand their needs/desires. While many designers, authors and philosophers have weighed in on the value and meaning of fun, a gamification designer needs to principally consider two elements: how we add delight (and possibly levity) to everyday life, and how we facilitate discovery and progress across the long-arc of a user-centric system. Put another way, our designs balance a bit of unexpected delight (can I get an “amen”?) with long-term, results-oriented fun e.g. the excitement of completion, discovery, mastery. This is especially important when we explain the need for “fun” to partners or superiors in serious contexts: it need not always be trivial or lightweight. Much of what makes something fun is quite intense, although people generally gravitate to sunshine over darkness.

If we put the three Fs of gamification together, there’s no telling how much we can achieve in terms of behavior change and engagement. After all, the vast majority of our day to day lives (and certainly our user-system interactions) are banal and devoid of feedback, friends or fun. In most cases, as designers, we need only strive to make things a little better – by incorporating the 3 Fs – to uncork our users’ desires for more engagement. And while it’s essential that we incorporate all three to have maximum impact, we need not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The smart money continues to be on gamified designers that learn to leverage all the tools, in the right way, with a long-term outlook for success.

This might just be the only time you’ll really want to earn those three Fs.

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