The Points, Badges, and Leaderboards Fallacy

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Buy a copy here or listen on Audible.

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 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 really doesn’t matter what the new buzzword is — SEO, SaaS, Cloud, Big Data, you name it — the terms are so new that while no one can truly be an expert, everyone is in the running to be considered as one.

And so these “experts” saw the growth in “social media” platforms and services as heralding the dawn of a new era in technology, business, and culture. They made sure to demonstrate the importance of its influence through viral growth models and by collecting case studies that show companies obtaining huge successes due to their social media savviness. “Everyone is now a publisher” became the motto, and how companies leveraged the phenomenon became the focus. The pitch was very inspiring and logical.

Unfortunately, being an “expert” only went so far. When companies actually hired these social media services to run their marketing campaigns, they found that all these “experts” could do was create Twitter profiles and Facebook Fan Pages (I’ve even seen services that charge thousands of dollars just to create these accounts).

However, the real question wasn’t how to publish but what to publish. Content strategy was still a mystery in the early days of the social media revolution. For content, the “experts” would simply ask their companies to send them worthy updates for posting. Every once in a while they might even provide some customer support using the companies’ Twitter accounts or share pictures on their Facebook Fan Pages. But overall, the industry felt a little disillusioned by this new “fad,” as the miracle they were expecting in ROI (Return on Investments) just wasn’t being realized.

What most people didn’t recognize then was that social media is much deeper than simply possessing and posting on profile ac- counts. That’s just the outer shell of its influence and impact. Today, we know that great social media campaigns focus on how to create value for the audience by sharing information that is insightful and engaging, has a personal voice, engages and sincerely interacts with each potential customer, and much, much more. In essence, the beauty of social media was in how you designed and implemented a campaign, not in the bells and whistles you used. It was the informal and formal dialogue you had with your community that ultimately taps into the platform’s unique possibilities.

Having knowledge of good social media principles does not necessarily mean someone can execute them correctly. Take popularity for example. Most people know the principles of being a“popular” person — be outgoing, funny, confident, in some cases compassionate, etc. But when you look around your community or network, you find that there are still only a few people who are truly “popular,” while some may even appear to be sleazy as they try. Helping a brand become popular is exactly what true social media experts would be doing if both principles and execution were aligned.

Fortunately, social media does have the power to make a company radically successful and the trend stuck around. (There are still dozens of successful social media case studies appearing on a monthly basis.) Today, most companies now subscribe to the belief of, “If your company doesn’t have a social strategy, it will become irrelevant.”

What connection does this have with gamification? We will soon see that the early days of social media almost completely mirror the gamification industry today.

An Obsession with Grunt Work

As I mentioned in the last chapter, games have the amazing ability to keep people engaged for a long time, build relationships and communities among players, and cultivate their creative potential. Still people often ask, “Do games really have the power to motivate people?” Consider this: many feel that children today do not have strong work ethics. They complain that kids nowadays don’t have discipline, are easily distracted, and don’t show persistence when encountering challenges.

But when it comes to playing games, these same kids have what most people would consider amazing work ethics. Many of them wake up secretly behind their parents’ back at 3AM in the morning, just to play a game and level up their fictional characters.

What’s the motivation behind this? If you have ever played RPGs (Role-Playing Games) before, you would know that the act of “leveling up” often requires defeating the same monsters over and over again in the same stage for hours on end. Even mobile games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds require the same repetitive action (bird-throwing and gem-matching) for weeks or months in order to level up and progress. In the gaming world, this is appropriately called “grinding,” and it is fun and addictive for children and adults alike.

In the real world, this is often defined as “grunt work.” Generally, no one likes to do grunt work, and it requires strong work ethic and will power to complete it. But kids, who again are assumed to have no discipline or work ethic, are somehow sacrificing sleep and risking punishment to complete seemingly pointless grunt work for fun.

Why? Because they are excited about leveling their character up. They want to get that extra +5 strength and gain a new game skill to beat a challenging boss that they couldn’t defeat until they reached a high enough level. They do it because they see the big picture, the “why” they are doing it. They like that sense of accomplishment, as well as the use of their creativity in developing and optimizing certain strategies. They desire these feelings so much that anything that stands in the way, be it grunt work or otherwise, is worth doing and doing urgently.

Now, imagine a world where there is no longer a divide between what you need to do and what you want to do. Where everything is fun and engaging, and you actually want to wake up each morning to tackle the challenges ahead. Grunt work takes on a new meaning when understood as an affect of powerful motivational factors. This is the promise and vision that good gamification design can create.

Secondhand Sushi Making

Despite the many case studies on gamification that demonstrate the potential and promise of its great impact in the world, there are still many more examples of poor practices, failed attempts, and misconceptions. When I started my gamification career in 2003, it was a topic that no one really understood or believed in. People thought I was just creating more excuses to play video games

Fast-forward twelve years and gamification is now a leading de- sign methodology for industries across the globe. Though it gives me great pleasure to see that my once lonely passion became mainstream, it troubled me that experts who were working in gamification didn’t seem to understand games very much. Yes, they might have played Candy Crush a little, or even Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. But if you ask them what games have they been completely immersed in and obsessed with for long periods of time, you get very short answers.

As with social media, once gamification became a buzzword, it attracted many who saw it as an opportunity to corner an emerging industry. I’m a firm believer that you should immerse yourself in an experience in order to best understand it. Yes, you can derive insight by closely observing those who are going through the experience. But that is like watching someone eat sushi and asking them to take a survey about it, rather than eating the sushi yourself. You’re not going to get the same findings, and if you try to replicate that experience simply based on the survey, you’re going to impart a “superficial sushi taste” to the product you’re designing.

As a result, many gamification professionals focus only on developing the superficial layer of games. I call this the shell of a game experience. This is most often manifested in the form of what we call the PBLs: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Many gamification professionals seem to believe that if you put points on something boring, add some badges, and provide a competitive leaderboard, that once boring product will automatically become exciting.

Of course that’s also what a lot of gamification platforms specialize in: adding PBLs into various products in a scalable manner. And as a result, many people who are less informed but curious about gamification start to believe that the sum total of gamification methodology and philosophy is merely the process of adding points, badges, and leaderboards to products. Justifiably, this leads them to believe that gamification is a shallow fad and not very impactful.

This has also generated a backlash from the game development community, as they claim that gamification is a bastardization of the true essence intrinsic to good gaming. And who can blame them? Foursquare seems to be nothing more than points, badges, and leaderboards based on going to places, while Nike+ seems to be the same thing based on running. Is this as deep as gamification goes?

Of course, points, badges, and leaderboards do have a place in game design. That’s why you see them in so many different games. They have the ability to motivate behavior and push people towards certain actions. But gamification is so much more than PBLs. Many gamification professionals are only familiar with how to implement PBL mechanics and even though these do create value, most of them completely miss the point of engaging the user. It is not unusual for users to feel insulted by shallow shell mechanics.

If you ask any gamer what makes a game fun, they will not tell you that it is because of the PBLs. They play it because there are elements of strategy and great ways to spend time with friends, or they want to challenge themselves to overcome difficult obstacles. The points and badges are often an added bonus that’s nice to have depending on the context. This is the difference between extrinsic motivation, where you are engaged because of a goal or reward, and intrinsic motivation, where the activity itself is fun and exciting, with or without a reward. We’ll dive deeper into these distinctions in Chapter 13 on Left Brain vs Right Brain Motivations.

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Buy a copy here or listen on Audible.

Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy here or listen on Audible.

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. 1

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 gamifica- tion 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 ad- vent 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.

Continue reading Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification

How Diablo II Changed My Life: An Introduction to Actionable Gamification

This is an excerpt from the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy here or listen on Audible.

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 treacher- ous 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.

More importantly, this deep revelation 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.


Continue reading How Diablo II Changed My Life: An Introduction to Actionable Gamification

Readalong: Reality is Broken, Chapter 2 – The Rise of the Happiness Engineers

This continues the Readalong by Erik van Mechelen of Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’ with insights from Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysis framework.

tl;dr Autotelic activity is the most intrinsically motivating, giving satisfying work, a hope of being successful, social connections, and meaning.

Summary of Chapter 2 – The Rise of the Happiness Engineers

In this chapter, McGonigal makes the case that autotelic activity could be re-engineered into reality. The reason self-chosen activity is good is because it works within Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow theory to product intrinsic rewards like satisfying work, the hope of being successful, social connections, and meaning.

By marrying the science of happiness with emotional evolution of the gaming industry, we can engineer happiness.

This futurist vision stands in large contrast to the current American Dream story, which largely makes people more unhappy.

Continue reading Readalong: Reality is Broken, Chapter 2 – The Rise of the Happiness Engineers

OP Book Insights: Ch 1, The Characters in the Story (Thinking, Fast and Slow)

As part of Octalysis Prime, Yu-kai provides OP Insights on important research and books in the field of, in this case, Behavior Economics. 
Author asks readers to look at a woman’s photo and states that the reader, without trying, immediately knows the woman is angry. Then he shows a math problem 17 x 24 and asks us to calculate it. He states that the first one is based on System 1 (we immediately know intuitively), and the second one is System 2 (we deliberately have to think about it). Our System 1 immediately knows it is a multiplication problem and that we could likely solve it. Our system 1 would also know what is probably too high or too low. But we wouldn’t know for sure if 568 is correct or not. We have to CHOOSE to engage our System 2 to start solving the problem.
System 1 and System 2 terminology come from psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West.
Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind to anything else. When we are focusing on a difficult task of tracking people wearing white shirts from black shirts, we miss a gorilla costume person walking in front of the screen. This is demonstrated in Chabris and Simons’ book The invisible gorilla and demonstrated by Netflix Brain Game.
The counting task and the instruction to ignore the other team causes this. 50% of the people don’t see it, and would not believe at all they would miss something so obvious.
When a lot of resources are allocated to system 2, our system 1 becomes less effective.
“We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”
System 1 usually makes suggestions to System 2, and System 2 is in low effort mode and agrees to the intuition or impression. This then becomes belief.
When System 1 cannot solve and issue, System 2 then becomes highly engaged.
System 2 keeps up polite when angry, and focused when driving at night. System 1 makes way more decisions but usually System 2 has the final say if it bothers.
System 1 usually works quite well, and it cannot be turned off. It is working all the time.
Sometimes System 1 and 2 have a conflict, such as saying the text “right” is on the left. We may still identify those correctly, but we need to slow down to properly do it.
The famous Muller-Lyer illusion shows 2 lines, one with fins pointing outwards and one with find pointing inwards. If we have seen it, our system 2 knows as a fact that the lines are equal length, but our system 1 will continue to let us see that one line is longer than the other. We cannot unsee the longer line, but we have learned to mistrust it.
Sometimes there are cognitive illusions (instead of just visual). If a patient tells a doctor that every doctor in the past has screwed them over, but you are different. Run away from this patient, even though system 1 wants to help him. The strong sympathetic attraction to the patient is like the lines with fin – it is an illusion and our system 2 should learn to distrust it.
Yu-kai’a note: the patient actually effectively used CD5: Social Influence, CD7: Curiosity on this disease, CD3 for the doctor to see if he can solve the problem that no one else can, CD 4: Identity in the sense of “I am that uniquely good doctor that cares about patience” and even CD1: Calling, “it’s my life mission to cure people, especially those who are mistreated by others”. No wonder even doctors cannot resist this!
We cannot turn system 1 off, but it is impractical to always be vigilant of these cognitive illusions. The best we can do it recognize situations that these errors are more prone to happen, especially when stakes are high.
The reason why we name systems 1 & 2 as characters is because it is more memorable to the Brain than abstract academic terms. Character and personalities are more memorable.
Yu-kai notes: this is adding CD5 to create more relatedness with the concept.
Author gives some ways to use his concepts in everyday conversation at the end of each chapter, such as, “This is your System 1 talking. Slow down and let your System 2 take control.”
Yu-kai notes: While it is a bit geeky and only helpful among people who have this studied, this is a good example of CD3: Empowerment. The author immediately allows users to see how they can strategically USE these concepts in everyday conversations, perhaps sounding smarter and grasping the concepts better as a result.
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