Actionable Gamification
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Actionable Gamification

Yu-kai Chou

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eBook - ePub

Actionable Gamification

Yu-kai Chou

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Learn all about implementing a good gamification design into your products, workplace, and lifestyleKey Features• Explore what makes a game fun and engaging• Gain insight into the Octalysis Framework and its applications• Discover the potential of the Core Drives of gamification through real-world scenariosBook DescriptionEffective gamification is a combination of game design, game dynamics, user experience, and ROI-driving business implementations. This book explores the interplay between these disciplines and captures the core principles that contribute to a good gamification design.The book starts with an overview of the Octalysis Framework and the 8 Core Drives that can be used to build strategies around the various systems that make games engaging. As the book progresses, each chapter delves deep into a Core Drive, explaining its design and how it should be used. Finally, to apply all the concepts and techniques that you learn throughout, the book contains a brief showcase of using the Octalysis Framework to design a project experience from scratch.After reading this book, you'll have the knowledge and skills to enable the widespread adoption of good gamification and human-focused design in all types of industries.What you will learn• Discover ways to use gamification techniques in real-world situations• Design fun, engaging, and rewarding experiences with Octalysis• Understand what gamification means and how to categorize it• Leverage the power of different Core Drives in your applications• Explore how Left Brain and Right Brain Core Drives differ in motivation and design methodologies• Examine the fascinating intricacies of White Hat and Black Hat Core DrivesWho this book is forAnyone who wants to implement gamification principles and techniques into their products, workplace, and lifestyle will find this book useful.

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Computer Science
Programming Games

Chapter 1: When the Surreal Blends into our World

How a Game changed my Life

On a seemingly regular morning in 2003, I woke up feeling different. I felt utterly unenthusiastic about the new day. There was nothing to look forward to – no demons to slay, no gears to perfect, no drops to loot and no Excel spreadsheets to strategize on. That was the first morning after I decided to quit Diablo II, a computer based role-play-game (RPG) developed by Blizzard Entertainment.
And I felt extremely empty.
Little did I know that I was going through one of the most treacherous effects stemming from black hat game design. Something I now call the “Sunk Cost Prison.”
But it was that morning, that I also had the most impactful epiphany in my life, something that propelled me from a slightly-above-average student, to go on to start my first business during my first year of college at UCLA; to become a guest lecturer at Stanford University by twenty-three, raise over $1 million a year later, and finally become an international keynote speaker and recognized consultant in the field of gamification by my late twenties. By thirty two, I also made my first million dollars through consulting, and my designs have influenced over a billion users’ experiences. 1
More importantly, this deep revelation from Diablo II ensured that I would become passionate and excited about my work every single day since.
I am sharing this with you not to sound conceited (after all, you are already reading my book), but because I truly believe if anyone was to take what I have learned during this epiphany to heart, they would likely do even better in a shorter amount of time, without all the fumbling and stumbling I went through. 2 I often think about how my life would be at a radically different level if I had just learned the contents of this book just a year earlier.

Diablo II: my Epiphany

In 2003, like many students of my generation, I was a heavy gamer. In each game I played, I was very competitive and always strived to obtain the highest score. I was almost incapable of playing a game casually. It was either all or nothing.
As part of my obsession, I would generate complex spreadsheets to help me determine the exact combos I would need for playing optimally. (In Chapter 7 we will explore how many gamers do this.) I would read strategy guides while in the restroom and post regularly on forums, becoming a known leader within various gaming communities. Once I even broke into my college buddy, Jun Loayza’s apartment while he was still in class, entering through the window after removing the screen, just to practice a game he owned called “Super Smash Bros Melee.” (Eventually, Jun and I became Co-Founders of many exciting projects in the years to come). As you can see, I was fairly obsessed with gaming.
Back then however, most of my time was heavily invested in playing Diablo II. My friends and I would spend hours every day leveling up. I had more than 5 characters above Level 90 and a couple above level 96. In the game world this means I’ve likely logged over a thousand hours on this one game. If I played for two hours every single day for two straight years, it would still just barely exceed fourteen hundred hours. Quite intense, I know.
But at one point, as most gamers do, my friends began to quit playing Diablo II and moved on to other new games. Eventually I decided to quit as well since I didn’t want to play alone. It was during this transition that a sudden sense of ennui (or weariness) caught me by surprise.
I felt depressingly empty. I thought to myself, “I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours getting more experience, leveling up, accumulating more gold, collecting better gear…and now I end up with nothing.” Was there really no meaning to all the hours I had spent playing in the past few years? What if I had spent all this time learning a new language, or playing the violin instead? I would be “high level” in real life, instead of in some digital world of escapism.
This emptiness brought a rude, but important awakening. How could I instead, play a game that everyone is playing but the outcomes would actually mean something in the real world?

The First Game I Designed

I realized the game I was looking for was simply life itself.
If I were my own role-playing game character, I would never just stay in town, be idle and do nothing – the real life equivalent of watching TV, “hanging out” and leaving dreams unfulfilled. Of course not! I would go out into the wilderness, defeat monsters, gain experience, learn new skills, accumulate resources, ally myself with those who have complementary skills, learn from those who were of a higher level than I, and seek to conquer exciting quests.
The only problem is, unlike most games with a computer interface, life does not have clear objectives, visual cues to tell me what to do, or feedback mechanics to show me how I have advanced in it. I had to design my own game, along with clear goals, meaningful quests, and creative feedback systems. Effectively, I had to transform life into an entire adventure where I, the player, could advance and grow in.
This realization started my journey of personal growth and entrepreneurial pursuits. My life became my game and I was determined to become a high-level player in it. Despite being young, I felt my years as a competitive gamer had taught me how to master this new game of life.
Designing my life then became a decade long journey of addressing two intriguing design questions:
  1. How to make games more meaningful?
  2. How to make life more fun?
Little did I know back then that this lonely passion from 2003 would become one of the hottest new industries and buzzwords that people now commonly throw around as the term “Gamification.”

Why Gamification?

Gamification, or the act of making something game-like, is certainly not something new. Throughout history, humans have tried to make existing tasks more intriguing, motivating, and even “fun.” When a small group of people casually decide to compete against each other in hunting and gathering, or simply start keeping score of their activities and comparing it to their past records, they are adopting principles that are prevalent in modern games to make tasks more engaging.
One of the earlier works done on adapting gameplay practices within the workplace can be traced back to 1984, when Charles Coonradt explored the value of adding game-play elements at work through his book The Game of Work. 3
Coonradt addressed the question, “Why would people pay for the privilege of working harder at their chosen sport or recreational pursuit than they would work at a job where they were being paid?” He then boiled it down to five conclusions that led to hobbies being more preferable to work.
  • Clearly defined goals
  • Better scorekeeping and scorecards
  • More frequent feedback
  • A higher degree of personal choice of methods
  • Consistent coaching
As we dive deeper into our journey together, we will learn about how these factors boil down to specific motivation Core Drives that can be intently designed for.
On the other hand, some early forms of marketing gamification can also be seen in the form of (regrettably) “shoot the duck” banner ads on websites, where an image ad tempts users to click on it by displaying a duck flying around. These tactics have probably tricked many people, myself included, into clicking on them once or twice upon seeing them. Later on, eCommerce sites like eBay and all adapted sound gamification principles to become hugely popular examples of how game mechanics and dynamics can really make a process fun and engaging (in later chapters, we will examine how both eBay and utilize great gamification design to make purchases exciting and urgent).
Of course, as “games” evolved throughout the centuries, the art of “making things game-like” naturally evolved too. Through the advent of the Internet, Big Data, pluggable frameworks, and stronger graphics, our ability to design and implement better gamification experiences has drastically improved to the point where we can now bring sophisticated and subtle game-like experiences into every aspect of our lives.
In recent years, the term “gamification” became a buzzword because the gaming industry shifted from making simple games that only target young boys, to social and mobile games like Farmville and Angry Birds that also appeal to middle-aged executives as well as senior retirees alike.
As people discover that everyone from their nieces to their grandmas are playing games, while companies like Zynga, King, and Glu Mobile are having impressive Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), they begin to see the social power of gamification. At the same time, gamification has also been damaged by the lack of sustaining success from companies like Zynga, largely due to bad design, which we will examine closely in Chapter 14 on White Hat vs Black Hat Gamification.
The term “gamification” rose to prominence when organizations such as Bunchball and branded their services with the exotic word, which spurred a whole new industry: one that gives managers, marketers, and product designers tools for creating engagement and loyalty in their experiences.

Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification

In my own view, gamification is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities. This process is what I call “Human-Focused Design,” in opposition to what we normally find in society as “Function-Focused Design.” Human-Focused Design optimizes for human motivation in a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the system.
Most systems are inherently “function-focused,” that is, designed to get the job done quickly. This is like a factory that assumes its workers will do their jobs because they are required to, not because they necessarily want to perform the associated tasks. However, at its core, Human-Focused Design emphasizes that people aren’t rudimentary cogs in a system.
We have feelings, ambitions, insecurities, and reasons for whether or not we want to do certain things. Human-Focused Design optimizes for these feelings, motivations, and engagement as the basic foundation for designing the overall system as well as its functions. (Note: I originally created the term “Human-Focused Design” to contrast with “Function-Focused Design” in 2012, but it should not be confused with “Human Centered Design4,” or “User-Centric Design” by IDEO5.)
The reason we call this design discipline “Gamification” is because the gaming industry was the first to master Human-Focused Design.
Games have no other purpose than to please the humans playing them. Yes, there are often “objectives” in games, such as killing a dragon or saving the princess. But those are all excuses to simply keep the player happily entertained inside the system, further engaging them enough to stay committed to the game.
The harsh reality of game designers is that, no one ever has to play a game. They have to go to work, do their taxes, and pay medical bills, but they don’t have to play a game. The moment a game is no longer fun, users leave the game and play another game or find other things to do.
Since game designers have spent decades learning how to keep people consistently engaged with repetitive activity loops towards “purposeless” goals, games are a great source of insight and understanding into Human-Focused Design. Indeed, depending on how you qualify a game (think of chess, hide-and-seek, and Monopoly), you could stretch back centuries to learn what game designers can teach us on creating compelling, playful experiences.
Through gamification, we can look through the lens of games to understand how to combine different game mechanics and techniques to form desired and joyful experiences for everyone.

The Conquests of Gamification

Games have the amazing ability to keep people engaged for long periods of time, build meaningful relationships between people, and develop their creative potential. Unfortunately, most games these days are simply focused on escapism – wasting your life away on something that does not improve your own life nor the lives of others - besides the game makers of course.
Now imagine if there is a truly addictive game, where the more time you spend on it, the more productive you become. You would be playing and enjoying it all day. Your career would improve as your income increased, you would experience better relationships with your family, create value for your community, and solve the world’s most challenging problems. That is the promise I believe Gamification can fulfill, and it is the vision I continuously strive for throughout my life.
In a few short years, gamification has reached a social tipping point and is starting to creep into every aspect of our lives - from education, work, marketing, parenting, sustainability, all the way to healthcare and scientific research:
  • The U.S. Armed Forces now spends more money on recruitment games than any other marketing platform.
  • Volkswagen generated 33 million web visits and 119,000 new ideas through its People’s Car Project to design the “perfect car”.
  • Nike used gamified feedback to drive over 5,000,000 users to beat their personal fitness goals every day of the year.
  • With Beat the GMAT, students increased the time they spent on the website improving their test scores by 370% through a gamified platform.
  • In 10 days, Foldit gamers solved an AIDS virus protein problem that had confounded researchers for 15-years.
  • According to the Entertainment Software Association, 70% of major employers are already using gamification to enhance performance and training at their companies.
  • In a similar report, the market research firm Gartner predicted that 70% of Fortune 500 firms would use Gamification by the end of 2014.
The list goes on and on. In fact, I have compiled a list of over “90 Gamification Case Studies with ROI Stats” from reputable and “serious” firms like SAP and Cisco on my blog This list has been one of my most viewed pages to date because enthusiasts and practitioners are constantly looking for actual metrics that prove that gamification can create a return beyond simple aesthetics. The page can be accessed at
In my own experience, I also see the trend on the rise too. Just a few years ago, only a handful of people approached me to talk about gamification. Nowadays, I am starting to get invitations to speak or consult in a variety of verticals and industries from every continent except Antarctica.
Unfortunately, in the same report, Gartner also predicted that 80% of those gamified efforts will fail due to bad design, which we will also explore in depth in this book.
So the question still remains: what exactly can gamification do? Does it actually create value and return measurable results, or is it just a new gimmicky fad without lasting impact? More importantly, how can my own company improve our metrics just like all those case studies mentioned above, instead of failing miserably like the 80% predicted by Gartner?
As stated in the Introduction, this book is not about explaining why gamification is valuable and why you should use it. I won’t be devoting much time in explaining its validity because there are enough books out there that already do that quite well. My goal is to explain exactly how to be successful in applying gamification principles and techniques to real world situations. I aim to address these pressing questions and help you design experiences that actually motivate behavior, instead of simply adding some “game shells” on top of a failed idea in the hopes of a miracle. Life is too short to waste on playing bad games.
On that fateful day in 2003 when I decided to quit playing computer games, I never would have guessed that I would end up devoting my life’s work to studying it so many years later. The value games can provide us far exceeds simply killing time. Now is the time to harness that value and make the most out of our time.
The journey begins here.

Chapter 2: The PBL Fallacy

A Story about Social Media

The landscape of gamification development must be viewed within a historical context to see why gamification mechanics themselves don’t ultimately lead to effective design. Let’s start by taking a look at social media6.
Google Trends search for
Google Trends search for “Social Media”
Due to the proliferation of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, the versatile term “social media” overtook “social networking” in 2007 and became a new buzzword. When enough interest and excitement in an industry hits critical mass, there will always be people and agencies proclaiming themselves as experts, to capitalize on the trending buzz. It real...