Gameful Design

X-posted from the SuperBetter Blog

Two years ago I attended a conference on the emerging field of gamification – or adding game elements to services and applications. Just by giving people a bit of reward, you could incentivize any behavior you wanted — navigating to another page, leaving a comment, learning multiplication.

Others celebrated this silver bullet, but I, as a game designer, wasn’t so enthusiastic. The medium I’d dedicated my life to was reduced to basic behavioral response to stimulus, to operant conditioning, to dolphin training. Click. Cookie. Repeat.

These gamification experts extolled all the superficial, short-term psychological hooks from games and none of the meaningful, metaphysical joy and satisfaction produced from playing. They forgot that players are people.

As we designed SuperBetter, we wanted to prove that games are more than just dopamine injections, that players are more than chemical machines.

SuperBetter offers an alternative to gamification. Instead of taking the psychological hooks and operant conditioning from games, we use their deeply satisfying properties – things like agency, emotion, and immediate feedback – to help people do what they really want to do: feel better, reach their goals, connect with others, and live with meaning. We call this a gameful approach to design.

So, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few key differences in how we approach design. Of course, not everyone who calls themselves a gamification company hits all of these points, but too many do.

We can do better.

PURPOSE

GAMIFICATION

Makes you do what companies want you to do

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Helps you do what YOU want to do

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

You play games because it’s what you want to do. No one is telling you to play, no one is giving you money to play, no one is holding a gun to your head making you play. You’re intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation means you take pleasure in the activity itself.

If you don’t want to do something, no amount of awards, badges, leaderboards, or points is going to make you do it – not long term, not sustainably.

MOTIVATING USERS

GAMIFICATION

Relies on operant conditioning (reward, punishment)

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Harnesses the good of games (feedback, agency, emotion)

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

You don’t actually play games for points or badges– those are just progress indicators that help you contextualize your improvements/skill (which is exciting). People love games because they are in control and can affect the world (this is called agency), because they can make meaningful choices and interesting decisions. They play because games are delightful, challenging, and filled with clear goals. Operant conditioning ignores all of those things, and tries to motivate using our most basic human instincts instead of the complex depth that makes us human.

SEE IT IN SUPERBETTER

SuperBetter’s core elements — quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies — help people feel more in control of their lives and capable of changing them (this is agency). Instead of setting goals for you, we let you choose goals that challenge you, and we make sure you’re creating a toolbox of ways to spark positive emotions in your life while identifying and gaining control over those things that hold you back.

INTEGRATION

GAMIFICATION

Added to an existing platform, curriculum, or service

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Integrated into design from the ground up

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

All games teach. All play and all fun is learning. If the entirety of a system is “Leave Comment, Get Badge” people will learn that very quickly, and once a system is learned, it loses its charm, its fun, its pleasure. Tack on something like badges or leaderboards, and after an initial engagement spike, the system suddenly becomes a transparently irrelevant annoyance – or worse, an unavoidable reason to leave the site/service altogether.

THE REWARDS

GAMIFICATION

Uses extrinsic rewards

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Uses intrinsic rewards

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

Rewards only motivate people to get rewards. Here’s a true story about extrinsic rewards: A child with a love for music starts playing the piano. Her mother, wanting to encourage her interest, begins rewarding her every time she plays. When the mother stops rewarding, the child stops playing, her initial curiosity and intrinsic desire to play diminished by the reward system.

Lasting behavior change comes from within. Giving someone cash to do something taints the nature of whatever they do. Even if it’s something they wanted to do, getting a reward for it decreases intrinsic motivation, and actually makes people less likely to perform the behavior without reward. The moment you give someone a reward, you’re decreasing the likelihood of lasting, sustainable change for them.

SEE IT IN SUPERBETTER

Intrinsic reward is a fine line and hugely nuanced. In SuperBetter, when players report actions, we increase their Resilience score. But Resilience isn’t a made up thing – it’s not just magical, virtual “points” – it’s a reflection of a very real, validated principle of psychology. You’re rewarded by seeing your progress in an immediate, tangible way, but not by the points themselves. SuperBetter also lets you track changes to your well-being, so over time seeing the difference is its own reward. Most importantly, players are rewarded because as they do these actions, they really do start to feel better and reach their goals.

BADGES/ACHIEVEMENTS/AWARDS

GAMIFICATION

Limited meaning/social context

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Meaningful/customized awards

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

But wait – didn’t I just say rewards can be bad? There’s a difference between celebrating accomplishment (“award”) and incentivizing actions (“reward”). This is about the former!

Getting an award is a great feeling – when you’ve worked for it. When it feels relevant and special to you. When it represents success at something appropriately challenging. There’s nothing wrong about celebrating accomplishment; it feels great to be recognized for what you’ve done, as long as what you’ve done is actually something worthwhile.

If you go to certain sites you’ll find yourself with random badges for seemingly no reason at all, after just clicking through a few pages (and of course, you have to sign up to keep them). Is that satisfying? (No.)

SEE IT IN SUPERBETTER

While we do have a few automatically awarded achievements in SuperBetter, we found the best way to make awards meaningful was to ensure it wasn’t a machine giving them to you. Allies have the option to give achievements to their heroes: to create a title and customize the icon and provide a reason/description for the award. When players get awards from friends, it means something unique to them, their relationship, and their actions. It matters.

SOCIAL CONNECTIONS

GAMIFICATION

Tokenizes social relationships

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Creates & strengthens social relationships

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

In many social games and social services, gates are put onto mechanics that force you to be viral and connect with other players before you’re allowed to continue (for example, you need 3 friends to expand your land in FarmVille). This is tokenizing – or only considering how many connections you have, and not the type, depth, duration, or any number of other facets that make each human relationship unique. Almost every social network game is like this. Even Twitter is like this.

Tokenizing is not actually social. For something to be truly social, the experience of playing has to be different depending on who I’m playing with. Mechanically, social means other people impact the game meaningfully; they’re making interesting decisions and expressive choices too, and my game is unique because of their unique contribution to it.

Again, this comes down to remembering that people are people and not numbers in a DAU or CTR graph or mindless click-machines.

SEE IT IN SUPERBETTER

When you invite allies to join you, we ask you to give them a mission – something unique that you need and would be grateful for and something specifically suited to that person’s talents. We also ask that you check in – that is, have a heart to heart or face to face conversation with them – at least once every two weeks. These aren’t just numbers helping you towards some other purpose; the strength of your relationships matters and has a real and measurable effect on your well being. Each friend is a unique ally.

CHALLENGE AND SKILL

GAMIFICATION

Requires little to no skill

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Trains up skills of players’ choosing

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

This is closely linked to learning a system – when developing skills is seen as learning and mastery can be either knowledge-based or skill-based. Most services that employ gamification aren’t challenging or fun to do. They require no skill. In the tired example of frequent flyer miles, for instance: is it fun to click on a flight scheduler? It is challenging to pick Virgin over Delta? No, of course not.

And believe it or not, we love a good challenge – 80% of the time we’re playing, we’re failing. And we love it! We like failing, struggling, and utilizing our skills to succeed. We play games because they challenge us. And when they don’t? We just stop caring altogether.

SEE IT IN SUPERBETTER

In SuperBetter, YOU choose how you want to improve, and the whole game is about getting stronger. Power Packs are custom tailored to challenges, and focus on different skills across the board: social, physical, emotional, mental. Not challenging enough? Add another Power Pack. Overwhelmed? Take a break, or just do a single move (3 quests, 1 battle, 3 power-ups) a day.

VIRALITY

GAMIFICATION

Promote sharing indiscriminately, constantly, to everyone

GAMEFUL DESIGN

Promote sharing meaningfully, at major moments, to whom it matters

THE GAME DESIGN BEHIND THE SCENES

Gamers are great at tuning out irrelevant information, and if they’re constantly spammed with the same canned messages, they’re not going to get engaged. Novelty is a huge component of engagement (it’s something new to figure out, to learn, to master) and unique content adds value. As much as you can, let players add their own messages, and prompt virality when it matters: when the player has accomplished something difficult, when they’ve expressed something unique, when they’ve really made a difference. And don’t blast it to everyone if it doesn’t apply to them: send it to the people to whom it matters most.

THE BIG IDEAS

Phew! Long post! Those were just a few examples, but I hope they helped clarify the difference between what most people call gamification and what we consider the “right” way to borrow from games (gameful design). Looking over the list, here are the three key bullets I’d pull out next time you go out and try to design a great experience:

  • Keep it intrinsic
  • Players are people
  • Agency, agency, agency

Now go make it gameful :)

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