Introduction to Gamification

By our very nature human beings engage in games of all types. We like games. We may not all like the same type or style of game but we as a species like games. Early archaeology has unearthed rudimentary dice as old as 3000BC in the Americas and elegantly carved board game pieces in Turkey from 2900BC, so clearly this penchant for games was alive and well many moons ago. More recently games were used by military tacticians to develop the skills of officer recruits from 1780 onward with Helwig then Von Reisswitz and the introduction of Kreigsspiel in the 19th century. Stepping forward in time, by 1956 businesses and the US Airforce utilised programmes such as Top Management Decision Simulation and the US military started to use a modified version of the computer game Doom in 1998. To this day both are stalwart supporters of the efficacy of computer games and gaming as part of military training.

In education by the 1960s the concept of Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) was coined and this drill and practice approach matured over subsequent decades to become adventure formatted games with titles from Lucas Learning and The Learning Company. Research and revenues point to a decline in the Edutainment industry during the 1990s, perhaps in part due to the word “game” having and continuing to have a negative connotation. Nevertheless this is now to a degree rebounding, not least influenced by the ubiquity of handheld devices and is likely to see significant growth. An introduction to the more recent inculcations of gaming and in particular, from an IT perspective, the rise of the Massively Massively Multi-user Online Gaming (MMOG) is provided on the MMOG pages of this website.


So What is Gamification?

The best evidence suggests that the term “gamification” joined our vernacular some time during 2004 but did not become popular as a word to describe the underlying concept until 2010. Clearly this section of the website is aligned to the study and investigation of “gamification” and if you’ve navigated to this area then there is a high probability that you are also interested in this concept. As one of the four areas of convergence it is contended that this concept is, and will continue, to drive a revolutionary shift in perception for businesspersons, politicians, educators, scholars, researchers, scientists and just about everyone over the coming decade.

In short, it is about harnessing the hugely powerful human emotions and psychological phenomena evidenced in game playing to drive increased engagement, performance and productivity. In length, it is the application of game design, game methodologies, game approaches, and game mechanics to non-game situations for a multiplicity of purposes of, including but not limited to:

  • Customer engagement, development and retention;
  • Employee & student behaviour modification, development and productivity/performance improvement;
  • Brand building, enhancement, recognition, consistency and loyalty;
  • Channel & Partner commitment, incentivising and experience enrichment;
  • Government publicity, outreach and population re-enfranchisement.

While the end goals for those who integrate gamification into their technological and operational processes differ, for instance in:

  • business terms, the underlying goal is often driven by the need to build longer-term lasting relationships, to achieve ‘fanversion’ (the conversion of customers into fans and evangelists) thereby achieving higher revenues through a maximised Lifetime Customer Value (LCV); and
  • government terms, the goal at a local level is often to build a deeper sense of community, to unify disparate groups through encouraging the more social aspects of technological interaction with the offices of county, state or central government and through this to address significant socially divisive issues, such as democratic deficit and population disillusion

the mechanisms for realisation remain ostensibly the same. Clearly the breadth of audience for how and where gamification can be used is enormous. The core point though is that embarking on a gamification initiative means carefully determining the specific “success measure” and understanding the particular “use cases” which are applicable. From the evidence to date, nothing is surer than if used in the wrong context gamification is far from a panacea and may have unfortunate negative consequences.

Where to begin? By Understanding Motivation!

It was identified earlier that gamification is about harnessing the hugely powerful human emotions and psychological phenomena evidenced in game playing to drive increased engagement, performance and productivity. At the outset of a gamification programme the question arises as to what are these powerful emotions and why are they significant? This point goes to the heart of the matter and underpins every aspect of the design effort. The greater the emotional involvement elicited in the player the greater the enjoyment factor of the player and, in theory, the greater the outcome for the programme.

This area of research is founded in psychology and in particular in our (as yet nascent) understanding of motivation. There have been many research projects in academia to investigate the underlying motivators of behaviour, whether they are by nature or by nurture, with often surprising and unexpected results:

  • starting with the famous William Blake and his 1890 instinct theory which identified a number of physical and mental instincts which by nature are embedded within us from nature;
  • then to the drive reduction theory of motivation which sought to link biological ‘needs’ to behaviour instigators;
  • the studies of Kurt Lewin on nature vs. nurture and his famed equation of B=f(P,E), behaviour is a function of the person and their environment;
  • the research of B F Skinner who followed on from the work of Edward Thorndike and incentive theory which proposes to explain motivation through the prism of promised outcomes – his famous experiments (1948) with operant conditioning highlighted ‘proof’ of a kind for some of the incentive based behaviours
  • in parallel though Skinner’s experiments though were eclipsed (certainly in psychological circles notoriety, arguably with hindsight in infamy) by those of John Broadus Watson whose famous conditioning of a 9-month old child also yielded behavioural modifications – in this case the inducement of a rat phobia;
  • to the almost ubiquitously famous (particularly in business schools) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, named after its creator Abraham Maslow and presented in a seminal paper in 1943 entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” and expressed again including curiosity in his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality”;
  • there are also the lesser renowned experiments of Harry Harlow in the 1940s whose rhesus monkeys appear to have displayed a ‘curiosity’ motivator rather than any underlying biological or instinctual motivator (i.e. food, sex, etc.) delivered a new term to behavioural psychology – that of intrinsic motivation;
  • the interesting behaviour experiments of Stanley Milgram whose experiments on obedience with (pretended) electric shocks delivered under instruction by participating students to those failing to answer queries correctly resulted in a 65% acceptance rate of delivering a notional fatal shock, highlighted to Milgram that it is less the kind of person you are as it is the situation you find yourself in that drives a certain behaviour;
  • the studies of Victor Vroom and the Expectancy Theory of motivation which proposes that an individual will decide to behave in a particular way founded on a preference of one behaviour over another on the basis of an expectation of greater gain in the outcome. This is summarised as M=ExIxV (motivation = expectancy x instrumentality x valence);
  • to the studies of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 1969 whose surprising findings revealed that in certain circumstances extrinsic motivators or outside influencers, for instance monetary rewards, could have negative consequences for motivation and that humans also had an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges”. Their Self-Determination Theory provides a basis of motivation formulated on autonomy, relatedness and competence;
  • the chilling, arguably extreme outcomes, from the famous experiments of Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University which laid bare the some astounding insights into both the fragility and nastiness of human behaviours under certain circumstances – often called the “Lucifer Effect”; and
  • finally to the work of B F Fogg on creating habits, automating behaviour change and the Motivation Wave which provides a framework approach to understand and influence online behaviours.

This learning (and much more) over many decades delivers insights in the nature of human motivation and its linkage to behaviour. Fostering as much of a grounding as possible in these psychological sciences is critical for both game and gamification designers. At a minimum, designers should be well versed in:

  • Intrinsic motivation – refers to a class of motivators that are exhibited through native interest, curiosity or enjoyment of the (in our case) game itself. This type of motivation is extant within the player and does not require recourse to external influences It can be considered a natural motivational tendency within players who will likely engage in gameplay willingly either for its own sake, for learning reasons, for curiosity reasons or for reasons which the player perceives as a benefit to them;
  • Extrinsic motivation - refers to the playing of a game in order to achieve or attain an external outcome. This motivation class is externally influenced by money, rewards, badges, grade enhancement, punishments, competition, etc. and can occur in conjunction with intrinsic motivation.

For much more on developing an understanding Gamification use the download links below. The papers go through in much more detail:

  • Bartles Player Types;
  • The Motivation Wave;
  • The Concept of Flow;
  • Structural & Content Gamification; and
  • Game Analytics;

Further readings

Gamification Briefing

This short paper broadens the introduction above to outline in more detail the essential characteristics of Gamification.

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Gamification 2.0 - A Concept?

This document provides a full scale deep dive into the domain of Gamification. In addition, this document outlines a concept based on the convergence of game analytics with gamification to deliver a potential mechanism for monetizing motivation.

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