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Where's the Game in Gamification?

An attempt to shed additional light on the differences between a game and gamification, and to emphasize that gamification mechanics are often very simple.

Question: “Hey Gary, what are some proven gamification mechanics that already work well in the marketplace?”

Answer: “On Twitter everyone likes to see their number of followers grow each day. Nike+ gives you a cheer each time a Facebook friend clicks the Like button on your run post. LinkedIn uses a progress bar to motivate users to complete their profile. Everyone on Instagram likes to see their new likes, comments, and followers grow via that incredibly compelling small metrics box that automatically appears and then disappears in the lower right of a page.”

Next Question: “Is that it? I mean, where’s the game?”

Consequently, I hoped it might be useful to post more detailed thoughts on the often confusing (even for professionals) concept of gamification verses gaming. First and foremost it’s important to recognize that gamification is not a game. Designing a game, which is an entertainment-centric activity, is different from creating a game-like system designed to produce a set of specific behaviors, which is gamification. There is some Venn-diagram-circle overlap between the two but, unlike a game, gamification is the creation of a game-like system focused on satisfying the intrinsic needs and desires of its users in a non-game setting. A non-game setting could be human resources, sales, civic engagement, or health and fitness, for example.

In a game-like system, there is no game and the mechanics that work really well are surprisingly and profoundly simple as in the examples I mentioned above. It’s really hard especially at first when you’re climbing the learning curve, but try not to think of what you’re doing as building a game, and especially try hard not to overthink it. Your final solution could be something as simple as a system of unlocks, a single number that goes up, or a progress bar. Complication (aka “feature creep”) can be the gamification designer’s Siren call.

Most sound gamification mechanics are simple rules or actions that help you achieve a
defined outcome. In order to build a gamified application, try to think in terms of small simple units of design that can stand on their own, or that are layered to produce an engaging experience. For example, as mentioned above, LinkedIn uses a prominent progress bar (gamification mechanic) so that users complete their profiles (defined outcome). It’s that simple and that profound.

After a lot of confusion during its early days, what gamification is really evolving into is just great website UI/UX design. In the future, the spectrum of proven gamification mechanics, which includes tools such as unlocks, voting, clearing, following, and levels are going to permeate the world of website design and become a standard set of tools to test in order to achieve desired outcomes. And thankfully, at that point, no one will even think of it as gamification, which will be a relief since one thing everyone can agree on is that’s one
terrible word!

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