Gamification: What Makes Game of Thrones Addicting

Game of Thrones Gamification

This is a guest post by Steven Laird. Steven is currently a Systems Integration Consultant at Accenture and is interested in the intersection of technology and psychology. He believes a gamified culture may be the answer to a countless array of world problems afflicting the human condition. Feel free to contact me if you would like to post a guest post here too.

Gamification of Thrones

Having had the wind knocked out of me from the heart-wrenching conclusion of Season 3 of Game of Thrones, I began to think of what else I could do in the meantime while I waited another eternity for my beloved show to come back.

Given how much time I sit around thinking about two topics: Gamification and Game of Thrones (Game of Thrones), I found it fitting to unravel the show that has taken the world by storm and offer some semblance of an explanation as to why I and many others feel just as addicted to this show as any popular video game.

In a nutshell, this show has every addicting element beautifully woven together into an epic masterpiece that is able to appeal to anyone…and here’s why – from a screenwriting, gamification, and avid fan perspective.

Game of Thrones through the Lens of Gamification and Octalysis

To start with, this show naturally has plenty of violence and sex to appeal to our baser appetites and fulfill that Hollywood formula. This is of course the 9th, or “hidden” Core Drive in the Gamification Framework Octalysis – Sensation.

While this is a crucial element, it really is just a miniscule ingredient as the script and story itself stem from the creepy genius of George Martin who has already done the heavy lifting of crafting an elegant and fantastical world containing a gamut of interconnected characters vying for a claim to the throne.

With the groundwork laid out, Game of Thrones is already ahead of its peers as it does not have to suffer from tight deadlines stifling the quality of creativity necessary for a story to unravel with the right amount of tension, unpredictability, character development, and the answer to those “so what” questions. (Remember how Lost unfolded?…me neither)

While I can make the argument that Game of Thrones is well done from a screenwriting perspective, how exactly does this relate to gamification? Although we have typically thought of gamification as only relating to the addicting elements of games, Yu-kai Chou likes to refer to it as “Human-Focused Design,” and can actually be thought of much more broadly given those same elements of great screenwriting touch upon the same core drives outlined in the Octalysis Framework.

By providing an Octalysis Score of how Game of Thrones fares among each one of the Core Drives, it is my intent to exemplify how fundamental screenwriting principles increases an Octalysis score from a viewer and Game of Thrones character’s perspective.

(Warning..Spoiler Alert!)

Core Drive 7: Curiosity & Unpredictability

With over 34 characters in the background of the world of Westeros – the fictional world where the action takes place – Game of Thrones has captivated audiences by featuring unpredictable plot twists that invoke a multitude of emotions.

Just as one story ends, the genesis of a new plotline carries on concurrently to progress the story in a fashion where a constant tension always exists between what the audience believes to happen, what the characters intend to happen, and what actually happens.

As main characters are killed off in realistic brutality usually reserved for the “bad” guy, viewers can’t help but wonder and debate with their friends what will happen next. In an age where TV shows and movies are incredibly formulaic, and hence, predictable, watching a show where I have no idea what is going to happen until right before the moment is a welcomed surprise.

In the spirit of welcomed surprises, the cunning and ambivalent Varys frequently demonstrates the core drive of Curiosity & Unpredictability as he commands an army of “birdies” across all lands to constantly keep him updated on gossip and critical war info. Having no real loyalty to any faction, Varys is an interesting conundrum who proves to be quite unpredictable himself as viewers have to wonder what ploy he will hatch next. Given how much this core drive jibes with both viewers and characters alike, I have to rate this as the strongest core drive for Game of Thrones, especially in the early Onboarding phases.

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

Continue reading Gamification: What Makes Game of Thrones Addicting

The 8 Core Drives of Gamification (#4): Ownership and Possession

Gamification Ownership

The 4th Core Drive of Octalysis Gamification Design

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book. For a video walk-through, check out: Episode 12, Ownership and Possession #1 and Episode 13, Ownership and Possession #2).

Ownership and Possession, the fourth Core Drive in Octalysis Gamification, is based on the principle that because you own something, you want to improve it, protect it, and get more of it.

This Core Drive is related to elements such as virtual goods and virtual currencies, but it is also the primary Core Drive that makes us want to accumulate wealth. Also, on a more abstract level, if you have invested a lot of your time to customize something to your own liking, or a system has constantly been learning about your preferences and molding into something that is uniquely yours, you generally will start to feel more ownership towards it.

Ownership and Possession is positioned to the far left of Octalysis, and therefore represents the Core Drive that exhibits the strongest influence on the Left Brain (again, this is not scientific but more symbolic) or analytical thinking. Here, decisions are based on more logical, calculating thought and the desire for possession as the primary motivating factors. When you do “rational calculations,” often times you are evaluating the gain and loss of certain desirables, such as money, instead of considering your “feelings” from other Core Drives.

In Farmville, you’re constantly striving to increase the value of your assets by developing your land, establishing higher crop yields, and improving the quantity and quality of your livestock. You can further develop your property’s infrastructure and dwellings – establishing that country manor on your dream estate.

Because of that, you want to constantly invest more time and energy into expanding your farm by getting more cows, plants, and more fruits, but also buying items such as stables that you could put your horses in or grooming services to make them look “prettier.”

So, much of the time, when your user obtains this sense of ownership, it becomes extremely powerful. It’s theirs. And they now have a strong motivation to change it, to increase it, and to improve it.

Wait, it’s mine? Hold on, I do care then!

Our brains have a natural association with things that we own. Pretend for a moment that you generally prefer most other drinks over beer (this exercise may be very difficult for some readers). If we were at a party, and I gave you a bottle of beer, you may respond, “Oh that’s okay. I’m not a big fan of beer.” I then respond with, “Nah, just take it! I’ll put it here next to you.”

At this point, you may still not care about this bottle of beer. You may even just not drink it and abandon it there when you stand up and leave. But if at that moment, someone walks by and picks up the beer and begins to drink it, you will likely feel an urge to say, “Hey, what are you doing?”

The guy may respond, “Well it doesn’t look like you were going to drink it anyway. What’s the big deal?”

Again, even though you didn’t care about the beer and may be abandoning it altogether, you may still feel the urge to say, “Still, that’s not cool. You should have asked.”

Once you have a sense of ownership over something, it starts to take a different course in your value system and begins to motivate your behaviors differently. If a beer you didn’t care about could get you to become upset with someone, imagine how much more you would be influenced if it was something you deeply cared about (for instance: beer).

A friend of mine, Chris Robino, once explained to me that, while he was in school, he was never any good at math. It was boring and annoying.

However, once he started running his own business and started adding a dollar sign in front of the numbers, the numbers and math suddenly became very engaging, and he started to master everything he needed to know quickly. With his new sense of mastery over money, he quickly built his business into a successful and lucrative consulting firm.

Chris Robino once jokingly said, “Once the numbers started to represent my own money, I instantly became a genius.”

Similar to the beer example, the nature of motivation and engagement completely shifted when our brain realizes it is now related to something in our possession.

Motivation Design: Few Degrees Removed

One of the strange phenomenon I’ve seen in game design relating to Ownership & Possession, is the aspect of fighting in relationship to gender preferences. Most game designers agree that females are less likely to enjoy games that have violence in them.

However, it seems like even though girls don’t necessarily like playing games where they are fighting, they have a higher tendency of liking games where they are nurturing and training pets that fight. It seems like girls don’t generally like to fight themselves, but many girls enjoy it when someone else is fighting for them. If you look at games like Plants vs Zombies or Pokemon, which are “fighting” games that are also popular among girls, those mostly involve the player having someone/something else fight. Of course, the cute graphics help make it more personable.

So it turns out, the best type of design in fighting games that appeal to more female players, are ones where there is a cute customizable avatar that represents the player, but instead of having the avatar fight monsters, have the avatar train other pets to fight those monsters. With a few degrees removed from the actual violence, female players have a higher tendency of enjoying the challenge and strategy more in fighting and competitive themes.

Gamification Design: Status Points and Exchangeable Points

At this point it is productive to explain two main types of points that a gamified system can give to its users. On one end, there are Status Points (Game Technique #1), where users see in a score keeping sense how well they are doing. Status Points for the most part can only go up as the user hits more Win-States and it cannot be traded for other valuables. This appeals more to Core Drive #2: Development & Accomplishment.

On the other end, there are Exchangeable Points (Game Technique #75), where users can utilize the points in a strategic and scarce manner to obtain other valuables.

Within Status Points, there are also smaller divisions such as Absolute Status Points (which measures the total amount of points earned in the journey) vs Marginal Status Points (which are points that are specifically set for one challenge or one time period, and can be reset once that challenge and time period is over), as well as One-Way Status Points (it can only go up) vs Two-Way Status Points (it can also go down as the user fails to achieve the Win-State).

Within Exchangeable Points, there are also differences between points that can only be redeemed with the game system for valuables, or it can be traded with other players in the system or perhaps people outside of the gamified system.

Each of these decisions has pros and cons, and many good gamified systems (and games) have a combination of the above.

As mentioned before, when you have Exchangeable Points, they become currencies, but simply having a currency economy doesn’t necessarily mean the experience is engaging. The key here is to consider how much labor was put into the process, whether the labor was skilled or unskilled, how widely accepted is the currency, and the long-term value of what can be exchanged with the currency.

Having something be openly tradable, even though may engage users in many aspects as they strategize how to create synergetic trading to maximizing outcomes, could sometimes destroy scarcity design (which is Core Drive 6) and hurt intrinsic motivation.

Ownership in the Workplace and the Web

A good example of a more abstract sense of ownership can be found in the workplace. Many people in the workplace feel like they don’t have ownership of their work. They’re just doing what their boss wants them to do and they don’t really get to feel that it’s their own project.

However, when the manager installs more ownership into the employee by giving her more control and tie the success of the project more closely with the employee’s own success, that’s when people work until 1:00 AM in the morning. They become tireless. They keep thinking about their work. They make their spouses upset by ditching other responsibilities (interestingly, some spouses unintentionally make their significant others feel less ownership over their households, resulting in decreased motivation in improving, nurturing, and protecting the home). The project is now their baby and obviously that’s also why people work harder on their own companies compared to just having a “job.”

A feeling of Ownership & Possession can manifest itself on the web too. Oftentimes, if a website gets people to invest time into building something, like a personal profile or avatar, users have a much higher chance of developing personal ownership within the effort.

When they start customizing their avatar or their website profile, they invest a lot of time and feel “this is my avatar, this is my profile.” Now they develop a stronger relationship to it and they now want other people to see it (reaching into Social Influence & Relatedness) – but they also want to spend even more time and sometimes money to make it look snazzier, with a better picture, and a nicer background.

Of course, there’s always a balance, because during the Onboarding process, even though it is advantageous to get people to spend time customizing things, users are still not committed to your experience, so it is often better to send them to the First Major Win-State first before users are required to customize things of their preference.

Game Design Techniques in Ownership & Possession

Above we have learned more about the motivational and psychological nature of Ownership & Possession, but to make it more actionable, below are some Game Techniques that heavily utilize this Core Drive to engage with users.

Build From Scratch (Game Technique #43)

When you create a product or service, its often good to get your users to increase their invested ownership and possession in the process (unless the objective is to get the users to take the Desire Action and then move on quickly to other systems). This is why it is often advantageous to have them involved in the development process early on – to “build from scratch.”

Building from scratch means that instead of giving them the entire setup – giving them the fully furnished house and the character from the beginning, you want them to start off decorating the house from scratch; pick and place the beds in the house for themselves; choose a hair color and style for their character; and select their preferred fashion statement. As I said earlier, when people are building something from scratch, they feel like, “I own this. This is my thing.”

But if you start off by giving them a perfectly enchanting character or a fully decorated home, they may not become as involved otherwise. Even if you tell them, “Hey, you can redecorate it or add things to it,” people will likely feel less ownership and be less engaged.

There has been studies indicating that people feel more attached to their cheap IKEA furniture even compared to other expensive high-end furniture, primarily because they spent more time building the IKEA furniture with their own hands. That feeling of personal ownership motivates them to talk about their IKEA furniture more often with friends too.

As mentioned above, if the Build-From-Scratch technique distracts people away from the First Major Win-State, then it is not good design. Either you want to give users the option to Build-From-Scratch as well as some quick template options that will allow users to customize later on, or you want to make sure that the Build-From-Scratch Technique itself is a First Major Win-State.

Collection Sets (Game Technique #16)

One of the most powerful and effective ways to utilize the Ownership and Possession Core Drive is through Collection Sets. Say you give people a few items, characters, or badges, and you tell them that this is part of a collection set that follows a theme. This creates a desire in people to collect all the elements and complete their selection set.

One example is in the game Geomon by Loki Studio (I was an advisor to them. Loki Studio was acquired by Yahoo! and Geomon was unfortunately shut down so you won’t be able to play it).

In Geomon, there’s the theme of the four-season deer. There’s a spring deer, a summer fire deer, and winter ice deer.


If you by chance captured one or two of these four season deer, it’s rather awkward to just stop only having a few of the full set. Now you’re willing to do a lot more work to get the other deer, which could mean that you need to be painfully waiting for a few months when the right season comes again. You may talk to people, negotiate, and even throwing in a few dollars just to finish that collection.

What’s mind-blowing about this level of ownership, is that people felt so attached to the Geomons (or Espers) they captured and trained in the game, that when the game announced that it was shutting down, the players (whom mostly consisted of high school students) banded together and raised a committed sum of $700,000 to see if they could keep the game going. That was quite an impressive figure which was mainly motivated by Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession as well as Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance.  In fact, in higher level Octalysis studies, you will see that building Core Drive 4 often reinforces the power of Core Drive 8.

Monopolizing Billions

Another great example is seen in the McDonald’s Monopoly Game. McDonald’s wants people to buy more burgers, so it created the McDonald’s Monopoly game where every time you hit the Win-State of “buying a burger,” you will get a piece of property on the Monopoly Board.

Once you accumulate all the properties, McDonald’s will give you great cash prizes and rewards. Now, like most of these collection games, there will be a few pieces that are extremely rare, and as a result, people are willing to spend real money to acquire these properties.

That’s somewhat odd, because people are not paying money in exchange of the reward. They are paying money in exchange for a “part” of the reward, which by itself is technically not worth anything. But because people are so desperate about completing a set that is almost finished, they are highly motivated to complete it as strong Endgame play.

The easy and common example of this is seen online through collecting badges. Once a person collects over 60%-70% of the possible badges (which again is usually in the Endgame Phase), most people would be highly motivated to pick up all the badges, just so they could feel complete.

When you give users rewards, don’t just give them items that have no motivational longevity. Oftentimes giving them collection pieces will result in longer-term engagement.

Of course, when a user fully expects a full reward either because of your own advertising or because of what your competitors do, giving them a Collection Set piece can sometimes backfire and end up insulting the user. Always be mindful that gamification is not a cookie cutter solution but always relies on thoughtful design based on context and the player in the system.

The Alfred Effect (Game Technique #83)

The Alfred Effect is when users feel that a product or service is so personalized to their own needs that they cannot imagine using another service.

As we march towards a fast-food world of more convenience and off-the-shelf options, people start to long for a deeper experience that is uniquely their own. That’s why some wealthy people would spend ten times more to customize a product to uniquely fit their style and preferences.

Through Big Data, we are now able to provide users that sense of personalization by having smart systems constantly learn about their preferences and habits.

In a game, the system is constantly learning about the user and customizing the experience based on past behavior. A game would know, “This player is on level 3; he has learned these four skills, but not these six, picked up these three items, defeated these monsters, talked to these two characters, but these other three characters. As a result, this door does not open.”

A game remembers almost everything a player does in the game, and modifies the experience based on it. Gamers take this level of personalization for granted: if at level 3, the game forgot some details of what the player did in level 1, the player would often become furious and quit the game.

In the real world, most sites just give you the same static experience, no matter what you do. Some more advanced sites provide different experiences based on region or gender, but most are on a very barebones basis.

But when a user feels like a system has been learning everything about them and customizing towards their needs, even if another service out there offered better technologies, functions, or prices, the user still has a tendency to stay with this system, because this is now uniquely “my system.” Nothing else understands me like my system.

These days, some of the biggest sites are implementing the Alfred Effect into their experiences, but most of them are still not ideal. Sites like Amazon are known to understand your preferences based on all your activities and recommend different products to you; Google Search now shows search results that are personalized for you based on your history; Facebook shows you content that you or your friends would most likely care about; and Netflix can predict which movies you will enjoy better than you friends can.

On a less automated form, some people have spent time adjusting their Operating Systems or Browsers right to their needs. Others have their own systems of Dropbox Folders in place that fits well into their flow of work. Even a person’s workstation that is customized properly to fit her habits can create more engagement and attachment to it.

When you have implemented a good level of the Alfred Effect in place, even if new products, technologies, or platforms that are better than yours are introduced to your users, they still have a high tendency to stay with their own uniquely tailored system.

Protector Quest (Game Technique #36)

Among other more standard game techniques, there are also less common Game Techniques, such as implementing the Protector Quest. Protector Quest is a concept based on the occurrence that people start to develop a relationship with something that they are protecting. Here a bit of Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness is present too.

Consider a game where you might start with a flock of sheep that you have to protect from wolves and aliens. As the game starts, you have to get rid of all the wolves that are approaching and then get rid of all the aliens that are trying to kill the sheep.

Eventually you begin to feel an attachment and a connection to the sheep, since your brain needs to justify your actions as meaningful. Why would you spend time defending something that isn’t good?

Now the object being protected can be anything that the designer wants the user to develop a relationship with. It doesn’t have to be sheep. It could be snails too. If you’re protecting the snails, which aren’t normally thought of as that friendly or likable, from the wolves and aliens, you will likely develop a subconscious liking of these snails that you worked so hard to protect.

If you give users or employees a Protector Quest where they need to keep an object or file safe from harms way, or you give high school students an egg to protect for a week, people will often become attached to the object or file as they freak out when the object or file comes under danger but is saved.

Gamified Competition in The Enterprise Workplace

Enterprise Workplace Gamification

Competitive gamification is certainly becoming a hot, new business theme in modern corporate development these days. It has been demonstrated to be effective in sales, where game mechanics based on competitive models are used to promote a “competitive interest” in engaging customers and closing deals. Now management is exploring other business functions which might benefit from competitive gamification mechanics and techniques.

But competition may not be effective, or even desirable in the enterprise setting. Why? Because it tends to create an unhealthy environment where employees put self interests above corporate and even customer interests. Instead of working towards a win for the company, a win for the customer, the individual just focuses on beating the internal competition – his colleagues and fellow employees. (To win the brass ring; that cash award or trip to Cancun.)

Gartner has predicted that 80% of the current enterprise initiatives in gamification will fail by 2014, primarily due to do poor design. Melissa Visintin further expands on this by stating that companies are trying to force game mechanics based on competition instead of understanding each situation and properly designing solutions based on the most appropriate mechanisms. It is not enough to simply throw together competitive game elements and expect the result to be effective.

What Exactly Is Gamified Competition?

A Working Definition of Competition

Mario Herger from explored the nature of competition from a number of perspectives. Drawing from Wikipedia, he has defined it in terms of ecology and sociology as:

“a contest between individuals and entities for territory, a niche, or a location of resources, for resources and goods, for prestige, recognition, awards, mates, or group or social status, for leadership.”

Notice the emphasis on the individual (or entity), and the need to “contend” or “contest” for something; implying that there will be a winner, as well as a loser. Maybe many losers.

In the enterprise this implies that we will have people competing with other people within the company. OK, that seems reasonable. But Mario Herger points out that this is contrary to the essential meaning of the corporation; yes, the very nature of an enterprise. For corporations are formed to bring people together and pool their different strengths in a collaborative setting. The fundamental design of an effective corporation taps the talents of its constituents to build something greater than the component parts. And yes, even more competitive in the external environment – the marketplace, where it faces the challenges brought forth by the other companies.

So now, do we want to introduce an anti-collaborative element – competition among the internal players, and potentially reduce their effectiveness as corporate team members? Possibly for customer engagement, but only after thoughtful analysis indicates that the benefits outweigh the risks, and possible long term detriment to the employees and ultimately the enterprise.

In general, adding the additional stress of competition to the challenges that employees face on a daily basis, will only result in a deteriorating situation with increased probability of burnout and uneven performance. Employees will become more motivated – to look for new opportunities elsewhere.

The Different Types of Competition

One perspective that we can view competition from is that of whether it can be deemed as healthy versus unhealthy. Mario Herger distinguishes between a “good” adaptive competitiveness and a “bad” maladaptive competitiveness by a set of specific characteristics.

Adaptive competitiveness has the following characteristics:

  • Perseverance and determination to rise to the challenge, but bound by an abiding respect for the rules.
  • The ability to feel genuine satisfaction at having put in a worthy effort, even if you lose.
  • The fact that you don’t have to be best at everything, just in the domain you train for.
  • Being able to deter or discourage gratification.
  • Being marked by constant desire to strive for excellence, but not for the desperate concerns of rank.

Maladaptive competitiveness in contrast, is characterized by:

  • Psychological insecurity and displaced urges.
  • A person who cannot accept the losing part of competition.
  • One who competes when others around are not competing.
  • A person who has to be best at everything.
  • One who doesn’t stop when the whistle blows.
  • An individual who drags others into competition.
  • One who will resort to cheating when he/she can’t win.

How Winners and Losers React

Now that we see that competition can be thought of in terms of adaptive and maladaptive forms, how do we view the players in these competitions? What are the common reactions that “players” have? Herger cites two Hungarian researchers – Martá Fülöp and Mihaly Berkics. They found that there are four common reactions for winners and losers.

Winners typically can either show:

  • Joy, expressed through gleeful enthusiasm.
  • Satisfaction with ones own competence.
  • Denial of the win as way of social cautiousness. Those players would feel guilty and fearful of the losers’ reactions, like retaliation, so winners would mask their inner joy and not express it openly.
  • Narcissistic self-enhancement, where the winners would feel a malicious superiority over the losers.

Continue reading Gamified Competition in The Enterprise Workplace