GWC15 - Good gamification is about your core activity

There was an apparent paradox in the presentations at GWC15. On the one hand there were speakers denouncing PBL (Points, Badges and Leaderboards), putting on an air of disgust when talking about them. On the other hand there were people proudly presenting projects which happily made use of these tools.

To make sense of this apparent paradox I want to look at two of the slides that I found most compelling. The first one is of Yu-Kai Chou's octalysis framework, the other of Michael Wu's short-term vs. long-term mechanics. Then I want to relate them to my personal development as a gamification designer and teacher.

Yu-Kai Chou: move towards evergreen engagement

Yu-Kai Chou used his Octalysis framework to make an important point about the best possible future of gamification. To understand his point we need:

A quick and dirty introduction to Octalysis

Octalysis is a gamification method which makes use of 8 core drives. These are neatly arranged in an octagon (Get it? It's wordplay!). Besides being fun and slightly cheesy, this is also very useful, since you can overlay two axes over the octagon.

The vertical axis divides the core drives into those focused on the 'left brain' on the left (rational, leaning more towards extrinsic motivation) and the 'right brain' on the right (emotional and creative, leaning more towards intrinsic motivation). 

The horizontal axis divides the core dives into white hat practices on the top side, and black hat practices on the bottom side. These black hat practices focus on short-term behaviour, often (ab)using our human tendencies towards loss aversion. While these may not feel like fun, they are great in inspiring a sense of urgency. White hat practices focus more on long term behaviour, employing drives like empowerment and meaning. Sadly, while laudable and very effective if used well, they often aren't as good in encouraging people to do stuff right now.

For more information on Octalysis, check out Yu-Kai Chou's website, his gwc 15 slides or buy his book.

Slide one: Yu-Kai Chou - focus on meaning, empowerment and social aspects for long-term engagement

The nice thing about creating two axes is that you get four quadrants as a free bonus. And it is these quadrants that Yu-Kai used to make his point. Points, badges and leaderboards are very much focused on the left brain part of the core drives. Bad PBL mostly operates in the lower bottom quadrant, inspiring obsessive short-term behaviour, but nothing more. Good implementation of PBL is able to make progress visible, and creates a sense of ownership and accomplishment to whatever task the player is doing - it (also) operates in the upper left quadrant. This is what many of the current gamification efforts are aiming at. The problem here is that the player is prone to the over-justification effect: extrinsic rewards such as badges first replace the intrinsic motivation that the player has for doing something. Then they slowly become less valuable due to reward inflation, deteriorating the motivation that they were meant to enhance.

This is why Yu-Kai makes the case that gamification should redirect its attention towards the upper-right quadrant - the quadrant of evergreen engagement. In this quadrant are the drives of meaning, empowerment and social influence. Powerful motivators that keep their value in the long term. Keep this in mind as we go visit our second slide of the congress.

Michael Wu: gamification on different timescales

Image source: the Lithium blog

Michael Wu of Lithium presented his gamification spectrum: a spectrum in which he puts several commonly used gamification mechanics on a feedback timescale ranging from immediate to over a year. Not surprisingly, the aforementioned points, badges and leaderboards are on the far left of this. As soon as you start talking about longer timescales, intrinsic motivation and the social aspects of gamification become more and more important.

Resolving the paradox

So why are some people so snubby about using PBL? One reason is because they represent only the first step in gamification. They can still be very useful as a tool both in the short term and the long term, but if you leave it at that, you will fail engaging the players in the long term. You will need to design better systems to continue to engage the player.

A second reason is the infamous 'chocolate covered broccoli' effect. If the core activity wasn't any good, it still won't be any good with a PBL system tacked on. You need to imbue your core activity with fun and meaning. Most importantly, this has to do with general good design, which can be done with or without gamification mechanics. But when you look at the core drives of Octalysis, the ones that are closest to the core activity are in the quadrant of evergreen engagement: meaning, empowerment and social influence.

Coming back to education

When talking about gamification in the classroom, I usually divide it up in two parts. The gamification you do lesson to lesson, and the gamification structures you install in a chapter or a course (for an example, see my last post). These gamification structures can be awesome, providing structure, a sense of progress and a whole lot of autonomy for your students. It is in these structures that you can include PBL, and at GWC I've seen some amazing examples of systems letting you do just that. But, these structures should be the chocolate covering the ice cream of your individual lessons. 

Good classroom gamification is about making your lessons - your core activity - more engaging. To do this there are many many tools at your disposal. You can use games in your classroom, (online) quizzes, direct feedback, creative exercises, storytelling and much more. Or one of the most effective ways to engage: making learning a social experience through co-operation and competition. But whatever you choose to do, in the end it is about making delicious ice-cream, one lesson at a time.

Why Gamification “Doesn’t Exist”

I can imagine this isn’t a post you would expect to see on a gamification blog, let alone a post written by one of the organizers of a gamification networking group, a professional who has worked on “gamification” projects with clients, or a researcher who at one point even provided her own definition for the term.

But it’s true, I, as “gamification” associated as I am, am telling you today that gamification doesn’t exist. At least not in the way we’re using it now. Currently we’re using gamification as a term for a practice. Many definitions refer to it as a “process”, something you “apply”, or a concept you “use”. But no one can really seem to agree on what exactly this practice is. Is it about adding feedback systems? Is about identifying and expanding upon intrinsic and extrinsic motivations? Is it about picking and choosing from a magical set of mechanics games use to fuel engagement? Is it even more about play than about games?

The more I’ve thought about this the more I’ve come to the conclusion that a “best practice” of gamification should be to let go of the thought that gamification exists as a practice and embrace gamification as an observation. Yes, I’m saying that the best way you can use gamification is to understand that you can’t use it at all!

We need to start seeing gamification as a conclusion our industry has come to that games do an amazing job at engaging their players. Based on this observation, we believe it is important to delve deeper into the way games are designed so that we can create stronger designs ourselves in other situations. Basically, what we’re all saying when we talk about gamification, is that games have helped us realize exactly how important the design of an experience is.

Before gamification is completely dismissed, I want to mention that this use of gamification is powerful within itself. It has led to observations and discussions and rapid innovations in the past few years. It brings together a wide mix of people - who otherwise wouldn’t have met - to events like Gamification World. It’s still going to be a useful term in bringing together ideas and people, but to continue to innovate and grow we need to stop trying to advance the practice, and instead delve deeper into design as a whole. We should pay more attention to structure - which games are well known for - not just the extras, the shiny lights, the badges. We need to let go of the idea that “gamifying” something will lead to better engagement instead of just creating a strong, well structured, design for it.

Whether the term will last or not, it’s anybody’s guess. What I do know is the movement around it, the focus on design, the emphasis on experience, will continue.

Pay what you want! - using gamification to decide how much it will be

Anyone that thinks that gamification is something that made an appearance in the last few years is very wrong. Gamification has been around for a very long time indeed, though we've been using different names to describe it. I won’t go into detail about this matter in this article, but what I’m getting at is that you can find gamification in many different places and in many different ways. So, I usually keep my eyes open for interesting applications and last week I found something worth writing about.

A friend of mine studies IT and posts some interesting things from time to time. He recently he posted on Facebook a link to an ‘Incredible iOS 9 developer bundle’. The best part about this bundle? Pay what you want. ‘So no fixed price?’, you might wonder? Indeed! You can pay anything you like. At least, that is what they have you think. With clever use of gamification, UX/UI and marketing techniques they continually drive up the price with every single sale they do! I’ll break it down step by step with references to Yu-Kai Chou’s Octalysis. (I consider this model the easiest one to make gamification ‘visible’).

Lets start with some marketing (for fun). The title and tagline: ‘Pay what you want: Incredible iOS 9 Developer Bundle’ - Master all things iOS 9, Swift, Xcode & tvOS with 96+ Hours of Training and 100+ App Templates. This sounds amazing right? It’s a bundle, and an incredible one at that, that let’s you ‘master’ all things iOS9. They make it sound easy, they make it sound affordable and they make it sound comprehensive. Below that is the list of all the products contained in the bundle. They add up the value to $2044,-. Thats a lot of value! And you can get it for as little as a single dollar! Great marketing ;)

Now on to gamification. First of, we see a counter at the top right of the page telling you how many people have gone to this site before you. Not only does this give the product credibility (because so many people have already bought it), but it also gives you the feeling it would be silly not to buy. Both of these relate to ‘Social Influence’. (Note though that this can also work against you, if no one actually buys your product and the counter stays at 0!)

Below the counter we see the option to buy the bundle and you are given the options to ‘beat the average price’ or to ‘pay what you want’. Now this is where it gets interesting. If you choose to pay what you want, you can start as low as 1$, but you find out you only get 2 out of the 8 apps for this price! So, in truth you can only get the full bundle when you pay more than the average payer before you. This is combined with great UX/UI. If you suggest a payment lower than the average, 6 out of the 8 apps get locked and grey out. This visual cue immediately shows you that you are missing out. Here, they make use of something called the ‘FOMO punch’, basically aimed to make you feel like you would be missing out if you don’t beat the average. This is something you feel you want to ‘avoid’. Furthermore, by indicating that you’d be willing to pay ‘less’ than all these other people for such a great deal, they once again leverage social influence. If you combine these elements you get a system that slowly drives up the price, even though you can ‘choose what to pay’. When I myself bought the package the average was about $7 and I was buyer number 92. Now they are up to nearly 2000 buyers and the average price has gone up to nearly $10.

They utilize another great way to drive up the average price by using a leaderboard. In sales? Yes! This is how they do it: The leaderboard shows the 8 people who paid the most for the bundle. If you get into the top 8, at any point during the sale/offer, you get 1 entry to win a special giveaway. If by the time the sale ends, you are still in the top 8, you get 5 entries to the giveaway! This giveaway is presented as a great product to have, and only one person can win it. So, they make the reward scarce, and make it a competition. People who are interested in this will pay more for their bundle, far above the average price, and this really drives up the average price for all other buyers. (The current highest buyer paid $50) 

As a last push they use a countdown showing you how many days are left before the offer ends. It’s the same element used by sites as Kickstarter. By placing a time-limit you increase the strength of the FOMO-punch. No time to think. You either buy the bundle now or you’re out of time and have missed out on this great offer!

Most of these techniques are considered to be on the bottom of the Octalysis framework. They are aimed at marketing and at making you want to buy. These type of techniques are considered ‘black hat’ gamification, which in some cases can leave a bad taste in your mouth afterwards. They compensate this by adding a game element close to ‘humanity hero’. Though it could be argued that besides a sense of ‘meaning’ it also gives a sense of ‘accomplishment’. For every sale they make 10% is donated to charity. What better way to make someone feel good than to help others? Up till now nearly $2000 has been raised.

This type of gamification goes beyond simple ‘badges and points’ and taps into core human drives and motivations. The leaderboard is easy to call out, but the other elements are harder to place a ‘label’ on. In my personal opinion, however, this is what it’s all about. Gamification is a lens through which to view your product and service. If combined with things such as great marketing and UX/UI you create a great cocktail to improve what you offer!

Iterating designs in classroom gamification: a case study

The nice thing about using gamification in a classroom setting is that you have a comparatively short feedback loop. Most concepts you want to try take a lesson or so to execute and evaluate, or, if you gamify a chapter, a couple of weeks at most. At the same time, the drawback about using gamification in a classroom is that it is difficult to prototype and iterate.

You take an idea and prepare the materials, and off you go into the classroom. If it works: great! If it doesn’t work: the same subject comes back around the same time next year. Hope you still remember what went wrong and what went right when you revisit your materials ;)

But then again, it isn’t all that bad. Usually, you can generalize knowledge gained from a lesson design for one subject, and apply it to the next design. In line with this, in this article I will take a certain design and look at the effect on the students. From this I will distill the lessons learned and show how they affected the next iterations. 

The initial design: an exercise in autonomy
This design was for a chapter on magnetism, given for a group of vwo 5 students (about 16 years old). It was designed to be the backbone of the chapter, to which I would then add the individual lessons. The main idea was to offer students a structured choice in how to engage with the subject matter, and recognize them for it. This way, the students could approach the topic on their level and work on it using their particular strengths.

The design consisted of two elements, which I handed out at the beginning of the chapter:
1. The skilltree
2. The list of quests

The skilltree is something I have worked with for a long time, and the ideas behind it are described in this article (available in Dutch). So here, I mainly want to focus on the list of quests. There were fourteen quests in total, each belonging to a different specialty: curator, scientist, engineer, educator or expert. Students could choose which and how many of these quests they wanted to do, and received Quest Points (QP) for completing them. Completing tasks really well also yielded specialty points, such as Engineer Points. I kept track of these points and regularly updated the leaderboard. At the end of the chapter, the students with the most QP and the students with the most specialty points in their specialty received small prizes.

Results and lessons learned
This was for me a specific experiment in giving the students a large amount of freedom, combined with incentives for effort. These were my findings: 1. For a fair number of students this worked really well. They both appreciated the chance to do things their way, and they were motivated by the competition and the recognition for effort. Some did up to six quests in addition to the regular work.
2. A sizeable group of students decided that the ideal amount of quests to do was none at all. While this wasn’t exactly unforeseen, this group was too large to leave the rules unchanged in a further iteration.
3. All quests were chosen at least once. This indicates to me that there is indeed quite a diversity in students and the ways in which they like to engage with the subject matter. Students also indicated they liked the ability to choose.
4. The administration of the quests and the different types of points was a bit of a hassle. I didn’t like it, and when I had to do it in class it took valuable time which I could have spent engaging with the students.

Iterating on the design
A year after first using the quests, I had the opportunity to iterate on the design. I updated the skilltree to match the new textbook, and changed some of the rules of the quests. First, I removed all points and leaderboards, and just asked all students to do at least two of the quests. Because I couldn’t make more difficult quests give more points anymore, I had to change and combine some quests to make them roughly equal in size. These changes removed a large part of the administration, and made sure no one could get away with doing nothing. Students appreciated the choice given, and different quests were chosen. However, there was a negative effect of no one going beyond the call of duty by doing more than two quests.

In a week I will again start the chapter of magnetism for the new vwo 5. Here I will keep the rules of the previous year mostly intact, with one addition. I would like for students to go beyond the minimum requirements. And while I have become way more judicious with rewards and prizes, this is a place where I find it actually fitting.
Students who finish at least 4 of the quests will receive a joker at their final test. This is a sticker they can put on their answer sheet at one of the questions. Doing so means they will receive at least half of the points of that particular question. This will never add more than a couple of tenths to their grade (on a scale of 1 to 10), and really good students won’t even need it. Still, the certainty it provides is something students actually value.
I hope this will solve most of the main issues I encountered when first doing this chapter, while keeping the benefits of autonomy and differentiation.

So what can you take away from this article? First and foremost: if your first design doesn’t work as intended, you don’t necessarily have to throw it away. Especially in education, with long times between uses, designs are too often seen as "fire-and-forget".

Secondly, I want to stress the importance of evaluating your design. That means of course observing the classroom and the behavior your design evokes in both your students and yourself. But also talking with the students about how they experienced the lessons. In addition to this, I recommend handing out the occasional questionnaire or even asking some students to sit down with you in a focus group. Students, even quite young ones, can usually tell you a lot about what they need and want.

Finally, I hope you can learn from the designs themselves, as well as from the motivations behind some of the decisions.

Good luck with gamifying your own environment!

The Power of systems

In a previous post, I discussed the question of game mechanics and how they can be used to support certain design intentions. Today I would like to share some thoughts about systems, the underlying and often invisible structure behind interactive experiences.

In the current context I am referring to "systems" in a broad sense, as a flow of interactions happening within boundaries and following certain rules. Note that when we are interacting with a system, we don't have to know the rules to abide by them – think of the laws of physics for instance. For a game designer, however, the trick is to create rules knowingly to encourage certain interactions.

Constraints make us feel free
If you look at a game, what you will see is a well-engineered system where the designer intentionally added restrictions in order to create a sensation of control. Take a famous video game like Tetris: It is comprised of a very limited set of shapes, with which you can only interact through a small amount of pre-defined actions – rotating the shapes, putting them down faster. Yet this game in extremely fun because you know exactly what you can control in this confined environment.

It makes us comfortable to think that we have control over things; having too much freedom can actually be a daunting experience. Research on consumer behaviours shows for instance that having access to too much information or too many products can create an uncomfortable choice overload (1).

“We don’t always have to give the player true freedom — we only have to give the player the feeling of freedom. For (..) all that’s real is what you feel.” -Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design

The agency that we have in the micro-world of a game makes us feel in control, often compensating for the frustration of our everyday lives. However, agency is not liberty.

I would like to suggest a little activity that I enjoy playing myself: Next time you see a game or gamified experience, try and guess the intention of the designer that can be traced in the "methods of indirect control", as Schell would put it (constraints, goals, interfaces, etc.). Like every system, the teleology of game systems can be perceived, when we take a close look at the rules that guide interactions.


(1) See for example the work of Sheena Iyengar on the notion of choice.

GWN Fall Congress

Saturday, 3 October at the Impact Hub in Amsterdam, we welcomed five speakers and a room full of attendees to our second Gamification World Netherlands Congress. The talks ranged from behavior change through gamification to the gamification in entrepreneurship.

We began shortly after 10:45, and Adam Lobel from Radboud University was the first to take the stage. He shared his insights from both his studies and work regarding the psychological benefits of gaming, and how these can be utilized when designing games for mental health. His presentation included clips from Mindlight, a full-fledged biofeedback game he helped develop, which encourages children to face their fears and manage the feelings of anxiety these evoke.

Following Adam, was Jordin van Deyl of Next Level Gamification. Because he is experienced in both gamification and entrepreneurship, he was able to share the benefits of gamifying business. Jordin shared his experience with designing a gamified platform aimed at battling youth unemployment, and highlighted one of his new projects, which focuses on helping startups in setting up their business through a gamified system. Even though he took no claim to being an expert in a room of experts, he was certainly knowledgeable on his topic.

Christine Fountain with began her presentation with a… game! The audience was asked to write down the key words and/or phrases that they associate with play, and then deliver the answers to her in the form of paper planes. With these answers as a starting point, Christine discussed the major aspects she sees defining games and gamification. Her talk also included a glimpse into an app she had been working on and was designed to bring romantic partners together and communicate their feelings (the app was inspired by research presented in the book Hold me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson).

Melion van Abs took the stage after lunch and shared his experience of working on gamification projects for contact business centers. Using his work experience as a starting point, Melion engaged the audience in open discussion about the use of gamification internally in businesses and organizations. He showcased examples of his work with companies such as Knab and Webhelp to talked about how you can use gamification practices in engaging employees and helping companies meet their goals of increasing efficiency.

Closing the talks for the day, Egbert Boertien stood up to talk about children, education and gamification. After the recent success of his collaboration in the Game Jam at the UPRISE Festival, he brought a series of photos to showcase how a group of kids worked together with industry experts to develop their own game. Egbert also represented pi-Dock, a school concept about using play in learning and creating a more dynamic learning environment.

The event was, as expected, a success. We had a great time and appreciated the support of the audience and the speakers who took time out of their weekend to participate in our event. Thank you to the speakers, the attendees, Van Ness Cupcake for the tasty cupcakes, Cora for the delicious sandwiches, and Lazy Shutter for his amazing photos!

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Are video games the drugs of the new generation?

I would like to give a heads-up that this is an opinion piece. I wrote this based on my own experiences and background in psychology. I will leave it up to you, the reader, to choose your own view on the matter.

On the 3rd of august I came across a newspaper article in "AD - Utrechts Dagblad". The headline read: "Addiction - hundreds of game addicted youths end up in rehabilitation-clinic", and my first thought was: "This is ****shit"...

Let me start with a quick summary of the article. It tells the story of Daniël. His situation at home is described as "not always the best", and he would be often hiding in his room playing games. The article quotes Daniël explaining that games made him feel at ease and allowed him to leave his worries behind, so more and more he took this way out when things got hard. At first everything was well, as he could combine his gaming with school, friends and he even played in a band. But then matters took a turn, and as the author states his "hobby" became his "addiction".

Now what interests me are the problems he had at home. His girlfriend had an unplanned pregnancy; soon after he started showing up late to work, came up with excuses not to meet friends and stopped studying. Then, the way I see it this boy did not need help with his addiction, he needed help in his personal life! I find again and again that healthcare focusses on treating symptoms instead of the root cause. Gaming was not the problem for Daniël, his troubles at home were. If he had not had games to turn to, he would have found another way to vent or escape. Maybe drugs. Maybe alcohol.  In my opinion, there is no difference to taking a bottle of whisky and getting wasted, the goal is the same: escape.

Media often puts video games in a bad light, and there are many articles like this that rub me the wrong way. Who has not heard about the controversy concerning violence in video games and how they supposedly make kids more violent? The potential of games in general is often misunderstood. Let me give you one great example... God games are games where the actions of the player impact a virtual world - think of ecosystems, economies or the lives of generations of NPCs (non-player characters). These games are a great way to learn and experiment, and give players a new way of looking at their own behaviour and its influence on everyone’s future.

It is my hope that people will see the truth behind games and their hidden potential to better the lives of everyone, instead of simply blaming this (relatively new) and for many unknown concept to grab readers attention with catchy headlines.