Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Gamification: snap the job's a game

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and 'snap', the job's a game" -
- Mary Poppins


Ahh, wise old Mary: you knew the principles of gamification long before it was ever a buzz word. I've been blogging on and off about the Coursera module on gamification that I just finished, and now for some takeaways.

Before I do though, I need to say again how impressed I was with the whole experience on Coursera. As my first ever MOOC, I'd say the entire package, from the course content, to Kevin Werbach's relaxed and watchable lecture style, to the multiple choice and written exercises, peer feedback and course support, it was all well designed and well executed. I enjoyed the learning experience immensely.Whilst MOOCs are being met with some (valid) trepidation from the academic community right now, there is a lot we can learn from why this works, I would say. But more on that another time. So now to the takeaways...

Gamification: For The Win
What I liked most about the principles of gamification was the simplicity of the message as quoted from Mary Poppins above. What makes gamification work is finding the fun in any task. So we're not talking about 'playing' per se (and the course goes some way to explaining the difference between games and play, and between serious games (e.g. simulations) and applying gamification techniques). We are talking about applying game principles to any activity that you either have to do or really want to do but don't have the motivation to do (exercise, or keeping to the speed limit for example). In other words, gamification gives you the tools to make participants (or talking like a game designer, 'players') feel motivated to do a task. And once you achieve that motivation? Yep, you guessed it: everyone wins. When applied correctly, gamification can help a business achieve its objectives in a way that is enjoyable and motivational for the players.

It's not that simple
Ok, so I know I said that I love the simplicity of the message. But the other key takeaway for me is that this isn't just a simple case of 'stick some points, badges and leaderboards onto your activity and there's gamification, job done'. The course builds up to a six-step design framework that encompasses:

  • Defining business objectives: like every good strategy, starting by considering what it is you want to achieve is critical.
  • Delineating target behaviours: this again isn't a new idea, it is something often done at the start of web design projects for example: what is it you want your players to do that meets those business objectives?
  • Describing players: again, applied to other good business projects, this just means working through who your target stakeholders are: what will they be motivated by? On the course we were taken through a good range of different ways to explore players, including looking at game research models such as Bartle's player types but also looking at basic demographics and market knowledge.
  • Devising activity loops: in other words, coming up with the structure that will move players through the game, and motivate them to keep playing. The course covers a lot of basic information from psychology, exploring how you can engage people straight away and then how to keep players motivated. Techniques such as scaffolding are obvious in many online games: for example keeping the range of options available to players limited to begin with, and making it easy to progress through the first few levels. The course also talks about how to build up from there, to keep players challenged. Motivation to play comes in many guises, and this was probably the biggest learning point for me, one which I'll want to do some more reading around. 
  • Finding the fun: one thing Prof. Werbach stresses many times is how easy it is to forget about this, and just think about game elements without thinking, 'is this really fun for my players'? I think this is one I've been guilty of without ever really knowing gamification is what we were trying to do. Why would players want to do what we're asking of them? Working through what makes it fun is key.
  • Deploying appropriate tools: as above, points, badges and leaderboards might be common game design elements but they are not the only ones. And in fact what was interesting was learning that leaderboards can in fact be de-motivating for some, where it feels like the target is just too far out of reach compared to their own performance. The course sets out so many different options. There's a vast toolkit available for those looking to explore applying gamification for themselves.
Motivation matters
The biggest takeaway is one I have already mentioned: motivation differs for every person and it's thinking through how to keep players motivated that I want to spend more time reading on now that the Coursera module has finished. It was a great introduction to what some of the issues with gamification can be: such as the introduction of points or other rewards de-motivating players to do something that they might have otherwise done because they were just driven to do it anyway (intrinsic motivation). Or manipulation: one example used on the course is where workers are given what on the surface appears gamification (e.g. leaderboard showing times taken to do an activity) but is in reality creating a negative environment to force workers to compete with each other. There are other examples of extreme manipulation (see this creepy film), where game systems are applied in what feel inappropriate settings. And there are examples shown where virtual rewards are substituted for genuine benefits (such as points instead of better pay). All these are areas that need further exploration.

Final certification still to come, but I think I've passed! Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about this growth area within marketing and it's something I'll be continuing to think about for publishing and education over the coming months.