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How to motivate and engage users through gamification design?— Ant Forest as an example

Gamification design helps engage users better. But how does it work? Let's take a look at Ant Forest as an example to explore more.

Yongcheng Liu

March 17, 2022

8 Min Read

Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts, to help those who are engaged in solving their problems and enhance their influences. The core of it is to motivate and engage users when they play games. In this article, I will take Ant Forest as an example and briefly analyze how Ant Forest has elicited significant behavioral change through gamification, especially in encouraging people to live a greener lifestyle.

Whether the education about environmental protection we receive or the environmental awareness advocated by society, the concept of sustainable development has always been an important social topic. It is easy to reduce carbon emission at a time, but difficult to keep it consistently because the results of our personal environmental protection behavior can hardly be seen in a short time.

However, Ant Forest applies the design of gamification to split environmental behavior into several clear game tasks, giving users positive feedback through collecting 'virtual green energy', growing 'virtual trees' and receiving certificates, as well as the service to interact with friends, so that it provides social support for users, which not only promotes low-carbon behaviors but also enhances the possibility of keeping sustainable low-carbon lifestyle. The series of designs has cleverly solved the difficulties that may be encountered in participating in environmental behaviors at the individual level, consequently, small acts of kindness add up and can finally achieve significant results. This article will analyze Ant Forest from three aspects: task design, reward design, and social interaction, and briefly explain how gamification promotes low-carbon behaviors in this system.

1. Task Design

Clear guidance for right action

When we want to participate in environmental protection, one of the great difficulties is that we don't really know what we can do. Maybe people know they can reduce carbon emission by saving water, traveling on public transportation, and so on, but the effect of such measures seems limited, as there are still many other behaviors we are not that clear about. For example, registering for online medical services leads to a reduction in traveling time, emissions, and congestion. There are guides in Ant Forest to clearly show which behaviors can gain virtual green energy, and with such support, users then know for sure how to reach their goals (raising big trees).


Fixed time for harvesting

Ant Forest fans must all be familiar with the '7 am' timing, as there are so many users who will be watching to steal or collect green energy at this time. In Ant Forest, the daily green energy should be collected in batches from 7 am, and the energy determined by the number of steps that people walked is at around 7 am. The fixed harvesting time allows users to develop a habit of collecting green energy every day, thus improving user long-term engagement. In addition to green energy getting through walking, users are able to collect the energy created by some low-carbon activities 24 hours after the behavior. In order to prevent their energy from being stolen by others at midnight, users have to schedule their low-carbon activities reasonably, which also promotes users to arrange daily low-carbon behaviors and thus develop better habits.

The additional bonus of tasks

In addition to the daily low-carbon activities to get energy, users can also collect green energy or items by completing the mission's bonus objective. The tasks vary in form and content. For example, Energy Rain allows users to get green energy by clicking on fast-falling energy balls, which is an interesting game for users to win their lost energy back; Collecting energy for 3 days in a row or collecting from the forests of friends, which takes the form of punching the card every day, helps users establish daily behavioral goals at the beginning. In addition, there are also many tasks that require players to read and share. Although the contents of the tasks vary, the ultimate goal keeps the same, which is to improve the user's stickiness.


2. Reward Design

The introduction of the energy concept

In Ant Forest, when we take low-carbon activities, the system rewards us with green energy, instead of showing how many liters of water saved or how much harmful gas emission reduced. Because the effect of a single action is actually very small, even if we see the specific numbers, we may feel that our actions do not seem to bring any big actual effect, or it does not matter if we stop doing these things. However, by taking 'green energy' as an intermediate displacement, for example, knowing that taking public transport trip each time produces 80g of green energy, we can have a visible and clear understanding of the figure. Moreover, different low-carbon activities produce different amounts of energy, and it allows us to clearly perceive the various effects on environmental protection. For example, if asked to compare these two behaviors (take trains or buy tickets online) directly, it would be difficult to determine which one is 'greener', but through the energy we obtain, we can clearly tell the differences in the effects of different activities.


Visible Results

As mentioned above, Ant Forest rewards users with a certain amount of green energy for each low-carbon behavior. However, is that enough? It's just like gold coins in a game, if they don't yield value, you will feel that it's just meaningless numbers. In Ant Forest, when you get enough energy, your small virtual sapling will grow into a big one. What's more, in reality, public welfare organizations will plant a real sapling in the desert in your name. From green energy to a real sapling, the impact of low-carbon activities of the user is no longer a nebulous number but is transformed into a physical object, and the player's perception of such a reward is very obvious. In addition, Ant Forest also provides a rich variety of trees for users to choose from, different saplings require different amounts of energy, and some tree types are limited. These designs create differentiation in rewards and various goal levels for players.


Designing achievements

In addition to in-kind incentives, Ant Forest also offers environmental protection certificates, tree planting certificates, and other achievement rewards, which are shown as badges on the 'My Achievements' page. These badges represent the user's achievements in reducing carbon emission and work as a visible indication of the achievement of the user's goals. These badges influence users' behavior and encourage them to earn more energy to obtain the badges. In addition, the earning and showing of badges can also have an effect on the social recognition of users, such as when users earn a rare badge or collect a complete set of badges, others may recognize and praise their efforts.


3. Social Interaction

The perceived social support

Ant Forest combines with Alipay's friend system, which allows friends to interact with others in planting virtual trees, such as helping friends to water the trees, helping friends to collect energy, and so on. The seemingly simple interaction actually improves the user's perception of social support. In this way, users can be aware of their efforts and feel the support of others. In addition, planting together brings the effect of different individual behaviors, allowing users to feel not only the effect of their own activities but also their impact on other members of the social group.

The motivation of competition

The ranking list is an important part of gamification, as competition can be a good incentive for users to improve their behaviors. In the weekly and overall ranking list in Ant Forest, users are able to see how much energy others have gained. For the top users, if they want to keep up with the ranking, they have to keep low-carbon lifestyle to gain more energy. It works well in increasing user engagement to a great degree.

Group norms for promoting behaviors

In the friend system of Ant Forest, the majority of our online friends are those we will connect with in real daily life. So people's behaviors in Ant Forest will form a kind of group norms in a subtle way, and under the influence of group norms, their willingness to participate will be accordingly strengthened.

4. Summary

Although we have carefully analyzed the gamification design of Ant Forest in three aspects earlier, the reason why Ant Forest can be so effective is certainly not limited to one single point, but these designs altogether form a virtuous cycle to motivate users to take low-carbon activities to gain green energy. The gamification design is also widely applied in many cases, such as learning, marketing and promoting, scheduling and planning, etc. The application of gamification, connects our virtual life and real life together more effectively.

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