How Gamification ‘Taps into What Makes Us Human’

In their new book The Gamification Toolkit: Dynamics Mechanics, and Components for the Win, Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, dean of Australia’s Swinburne Law School, offer new tools for taking gamification to the next level.

In this interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Werbach discusses how to avoid the pitfalls of gamification, when gamification can be most effectively used to solve business problems and which companies are using gamification successfully.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows. 

A Deep Dive on the Game Elements in Gamification:

The Gamification Toolkit is a follow-up to the book For the Win, which I also wrote with Dan Hunter. For the Win introduced the concept of gamification: how to use game design elements and techniques to motivate people in business. We heard from lots of people and companies that they were intrigued by this idea. They got the idea about how they could use game design principles. But they wanted to dive deeper. They wanted to understand, in practical terms, what are these game elements, these pieces of games or design patterns that we talked about? How do you apply them? And what are some more specific examples of companies that have taken these tools and used them successfully for motivation? That’s fundamentally what The Gamification Toolkit tries to do.

Key Takeaways:

One of the key takeaways in this book, and in all of the work that I’ve done on gamification, is that it’s not as easy as it looks. These are powerful techniques. We are seeing lots of examples of the learning — in marketing, in management, in innovation, all these contexts of companies using game design principles and game elements. But you can’t just take some [game elements] and sprinkle them onto a process. You need to think in a systematic way about the tools that you have available. Twitter  Then [ask], how can you apply them in the right way to achieve your goals?

“[Gamification] is not as easy as it looks…. You need to think in a systematic way about the tools that you have available.”

One of the key aspects of this book, The Gamification Toolkit, is to lay out a palette, to show people just some of the range of different items and design patterns that you can take from games and get some inspiration of different ways that you can apply them to whatever your business need is.

What Successful Gamification Looks Like:

One of the examples we talk about in the book is Duolingo, which is a language learning site. Duolingo has very quickly become the most successful language learning site on the Internet. In fact, they have something like 60 million users. They are teaching languages to more people than the entire United States public school system. Look at what they are doing compared with other sites. There are plenty of other things out there that will teach you languages. The key differentiator is gamification. They have a virtual currency. They have achievements in the game. They have missions. They have little rewards and so forth — all sorts of systems that are implemented in an integrated way to reinforce your engagement, to reinforce your sense of excitement about the learning experience.

Even though you wouldn’t call it a gamified service per se — it’s a language learning service — gamification is really the differentiator that’s helped them succeed.

How to Make Gamification Work:

Gamification can help to transform a business. But fundamentally, gamification involves understanding psychology, understanding design principles and understanding how we can leverage data. It’s not that gamification is some new thing that’s going to cause us to do business in a totally different way. The reality is gamification taps into what makes us human.

We’re engaged by games. We respond to some of these game elements not because it’s some cool new idea that someone came up with, but because it relates to our basic human drives — our motivation for mastery, our desire to be connected to something broader than ourselves, our response to a desire for achievement and so forth.

“Fundamentally, gamification involves understanding psychology, understanding design principles and understanding how we can leverage data.”

Fundamentally, gamification is a tool like lots of business tools. If you have a goal and you can define that goal really well and you can understand the population of people that you’re working with — whether that’s your customers, your employees or some other group — then [you can] think creatively about how to tie in ways to achieve that goal going beyond the very traditional mechanisms that we have. It’s not just saying we want to motivate you to do this job by paying you more. It’s thinking very broadly — being informed by psychology and being informed by data about how we can excite and engage people in very powerful ways.

That’s really how it can ultimately be transformative. But I always caution people because there’s a tendency to think, oh, this is some great new technique that will take something that people hate to do and make them love it. No. If you hate to do something, you still hate to do it. But even in activities that … in some cases seem boring or uninteresting, you can find ways to make them seem engaging and find ways to actually make them engaging if you tie them into something that motivates people.

Common Pitfalls:

The biggest pitfall in using gamification is thinking that all you have to do is drop in some game elements. [For example, saying], “We will give people points for something , and they will get really excited just because the points are there.”

What we’ve seen time and time again is the services that just do that will maybe get some initial engagement. [S]ome people will get excited, but then it dissipates very quickly. That’s not necessarily the end of the world if what you’re trying to do is just stimulate some initial adoption and then you have some great value proposition down the road. But most of the time, what companies want is ongoing engagement.

What you need to do first of all is to step back and take a broader look at what the tools are. And that’s really what The Gamification Toolkit adds. It gives you a perspective on 30 different game elements, which aren’t even all the ones that are out there, but they give you a sense of possibility so you’re not just using the same elements over and over again.

Then what you need to do is have a process. In our first book, For the Win, we go through a six-step process to identify the goals, identify the processes, identify the people involved and ensure that when you’re deploying gamification you’re doing it in a thoughtful way, in a way that generates data that you can use to improve the system and in a way that you can have some confidence will give you some sustained engagement.

Where Gamification Works:

I think of gamification as a fairly horizontal technique. It can work any place you have people and there’s a desire to motivate or engage them. That’s just about anything you can think of. We’re seeing examples of gamification everywhere, from entertainment type sites to supply chain and logistics in very established industrial companies. In virtually all parts of the world there is adoption of gamification.

It’s a misnomer to think that there is one perfect place for it. Again, the question is identifying the goal and then using the right tools for that objective in the context of your organization.

“The question is identifying the goal and then using the right tools for that objective in the context of your organization. There’s not going to be one right way to do gamification in every case.”

There’s not going to be one right way to do gamification in every case. Some gamification examples look very game-like. They have bright colors. They seem kind of fun. There are things that show up on screen and pop and so forth. Some gamification is very understated. It’s very operational because that’s right for that context.

I think pretty much any time you have something where motivation makes a difference there’s an opportunity to look at gamification as a technique. The question is figuring out whether it is it right for this particular problem. What are the right ways to do it? And how do I systematically think about ensuring that this is the best technique for the problem I have at hand?

What’s Next for Gamification:

We’re in an interesting phase right now with gamification. About three or four years ago, there was a lot of excitement. You had all of these consultants showing up and saying, ‘This is this great new thing. It’s amazing. It will change all of business.’ But there was not a lot of actual adoption at that point. There were just a handful of examples that everyone would point to.

Dan Hunter and I wrote our first book, For the Win, partly to give people a broader perspective, to organize this space and say, all right, what is really going on here? And what are serious ways to apply gamification?

What we’re seeing now is most of those consultants who were hyping this have gone away because, again, lots of companies have found that if you just throw some game elements on somewhere, it’s not going to have sustained engagement. So, we’re seeing now article after article saying gamification is dead. Oh, that was an old fad. Oh, it’s failed.

That’s not at all what I’m seeing when I go out and talk to companies, and when I go out and look at the market. Actually, there has never been more adoption and never been broader adoption. I’m seeing examples in gamification in companies in every industry and all over the world.

What we need now is more data. We need more research from people like me and other academics to help identify best practices. So, when you get the organizations that say, “OK, I get it. I am sold on the concept but I want to see the evidence. I want to see numbers that say this is the right solution for my situation, this is not.” We’ve got bits and pieces of that. But we need to do more.

A lot of what I’m focused on now is partly trying to do that research, but partly trying to pull it together because the challenge of gamification is that it’s at the border of a lot of different fields. So, you have people looking at gamification from the standpoint of marketing. You have gamification researchers in human computer interaction. You have gamification researchers in management, in all these different fields.

Part of the role that I see myself playing is trying to bring those people together and bring that research together and help to translate it for organizations who are just trying to make sense of all this.

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