Trojan Horses and What Makes a Good Designer

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

A Trojan Horse without Greek Soldiers

Generic game mechanics and poorly constructed game elements such as levels, boss fights, or quests often fall into the same hole as PBLs. Simply put, applying traditional “game elements” ubiquitous in popular gameplay without diving deeper into user motivation contributes to shallow user experience: it’s all flash and no bang. An almost humorous example of this is when people I meet call something a “quest” instead of a “task” thinking that this automatically makes the same original actions fun and engaging. Sure, having a playful attitude can make a big difference, but it only goes so far, especially when your customers and employees may already distrust your motives.

The truth is, simply incorporating game mechanics and game elements does not make a game fun.

Games aren’t necessarily fun because of high quality graphics or flashy animations either. There are many unpopular, poor-selling games with state-of-the-art 3D high- resolution graphics. There are also games with very basic graphics such as Minecraft, or even no graphics, such as the purely text-based multi-user dungeon games (MUDs), that have large communities of players addicted to them. Clearly, there are more to games than “meets the eye.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people who work in gamification incorrectly think that applying game mechanics like points, badges, and leader- boards – elements that you can also find in boring and unsuccessful games – will automatically make the product or experience fun and engaging. Unfortunately, it’s not just what game elements you put in – it’s how, when, and most importantly, why these game elements appear.

It would be foolish for a modern army commander to say, “Hey! The Greeks sent a big wooden horse to the Trojans and won the war. Lets send our enemies a big wooden horse too!” In this case, he clearly doesn’t understand the true design behind the Trojan Horse, but he only copied the outer shell of it. Instead, it would be much more effective if he created a virus that pretended to be a normal file to corrupt enemy computers. Learn from the design; don’t copy the shell.

The Threat and Opportunities in Gamification

Even though gamification has become accepted in the mainstream, poorly designed applications threaten its long-term viability and impact development. I am genuinely afraid that in a few years, companies will look at gamification and say, “Hey, we tried the points stuff and it didn’t work out. I guess gamification was just a short-term fad.”

That would be a huge loss for the world.

Based on my years of research, observation, and design in gam- ification, I am a hundred percent certain that good gamification design can unlock tremendous potential and improve many lives in the process. There are hundreds of case studies that illustrate this also. And so it is my job (and hopefully yours one day) to continue protecting and innovating the core essence and the promise of gamification.

In the long run, the term “gamification” might actually fade and eventually disappear. Currently, no one describes a website’s design as being “so Web 2.0!” Gamification may just become the normal way we design, implement, and interact with the world around us. It’s my hope that the principles that optimize for human motivation becomes the standard for good design across the board.

Fortunately, there are enough good gamification examples that continue to show how thoughtful design can improve core business metrics and inspire new ways of thinking and execution. Besides the 90+ Gamification Case Studies listed on my site, as mentioned in the last chapter, it is interesting to note that some of the best historical examples of gamification, such as eBay or Woot.com, have not been categorized as gamification by most people in the industry. There are dozens, if not hundreds of companies that became extremely successful because, regardless of what it was called, they applied great game mechanics and gameplay dynamics to their processes. Some of these examples are illustrated in the following chapters.

Because of these success stories, I believe that gamification will continue to evolve and meet real needs if practitioners and the general gamification community also evolve in their understanding of its principles and practice.

So if “game mechanics” alone are not the true reason why games are so engaging and sometimes addictive, then what is?

The Story of the Good Designer vs. Bad Designer

To understand the core of good gamification design, let’s start with an example of how a bad game designer might design a game.

In designing a game, a bad designer might start off thinking, “Okay, what popular game mechanics and game elements should I use? Well, of course we need monsters in the game. We also need swords so where should I place those? How about crops that friends can fertilize? What about some birds that show a lot of attitude? I’m sure people will love it!”

As you can see from the exaggerated depiction above, a game might have all the “right game elements” but still be incredibly boring or stupid if they do not focus on their users’ motivations first. It is worth remembering that every single game in the market has what we call game mechanics and game elements. However, most are still boring and are financial losers. Only a few well-designed games become engaging and even addictive. Are you designing your experience to be the failing game or the successful game? How would you know?

So let us look at how a good game designer might tackle the problem. Instead of starting with what game elements and game mechanics to use, the good game designer may begin by thinking, “Okay, how do I want my users to feel? Do I want them to feel inspired? Do I want them to feel proud? Should they be scared? Anxious? What’s my goal for their intended experience?

Once the designer understands how she wants her users to feel, then she begins to think, “Okay, what kind of game elements and mechanics can help me accomplish my goals of ensuring players feel this way.” The solution may lie in swords, plants, or perhaps word puzzles, but the whole point here is that game elements are just a means to an end, instead of an end in itself. Game elements are simply there to push and pull on their users’ behavioral core drives.

As a result, in order to further explore, systemize, and scale methods of combining game mechanics with our motivational core drives, in 2012 I decided to share my original gamification design framework called Octalysis to the world. The Octalysis Framework embodies my life’s work, and the majority of this book will be about how to use Octalysis to design experiences that are fun, engaging, and rewarding.

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

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