Points, Badges, and Leaderboards: The Gamification Fallacy

Points Badges and Leaderboard- Image of Boy Scout Merit Badges

(Below is a manuscript snippet of my book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time).

A Story about Social Media

The landscape of gamification development must be understood in historical context to see why gamification mechanics themselves don’t ultimately lead to good design.

Let’s take 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.

Image showing the rising use of the term social media

Many forward thinking tech enthusiasts and startups fully embraced this new disruptive paradigm and its wide applications in content publishing, communications, and information sharing. Corporations whose business models truly embraced “innovation” began to cautiously explore this new arena outside of simply tossing the term around in meetings.

When enough interest and excitement in an industry hits critical mass, there will always be people and agencies that self-proclaim as experts to capitalize on the buzzing trend. It almost doesn’t matter what the new buzzword is – SEO, SaaS, Cloud- the subjects are so new that while no one can truly be an expert, everyone is in the running to be considered 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 models proving the virality of user-shared brand content and by collecting and promoting case studies showing how companies became huge successes due to their social media savviness. The pitch is very inspiring and logical.

Unfortunately, being an “expert” only went that far- when companies actually hired these social media experts to run their marketing campaigns, they found that all they could do was create Twitter profiles and Facebook fan pages (I’ve even seen services that charge $600 just to create these accounts). Not much substance to truly grasp the utilities of this new trend.

Everyone is now a publisher and many would argue that this is a good thing. However there is an important distinction to be made: the real question isn’t how often we publish, it’s what to publish? That was still a mystery in the early days of the social media evolution. For content, the “experts” would ask the company to send them updates “worthy” for posting and every once in a while they might even provide some customer support using the company’s Twitter accounts or share pictures on their Facebook fan page. But overall, the industry felt disillusioned by this new fad, as the miracle they were expecting in ROI 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 accounts. That’s just the outer shell of its influence and impact. We now know today 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’ve used. It was the informal and formal dialogue you had with your community that ultimately taps into the platform’s unique possibilities.

Knowledge of good social media principles doesn’t necessarily mean someone can execute them correctly. Take for example popularity. Everyone knows how to be “popular” – be outgoing, funny, confident, and 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”. Helping a brand become popular is exactly what true social media experts would be doing if both principles and execution were aligned.

Fortunately, because social media does have the power to make a company radically successful (and there are still dozens of successful social media case studies coming out on a monthly basis) the trend stuck around. In 2014, most companies now subscribe to the belief of, “If your company doesn’t have a social strategy, it will become irrelevant.”

What does this have to do with gamification?

The early days of social media mirrors 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 kids today do not have a strong work ethic. They complain that they don’t have discipline, are easily distracted, and don’t show persistence when encountering challenges.

But when it comes to playing games, kids have what most people would consider an amazing work ethic. Many will 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 for weeks or months in order to level up and progress. In the gaming world, this is rightfully called “grinding,” and it is fun and addictive for children.

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 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 up their character; they want to get that extra +5 strength; and they want to gain a new game skill and beat a challenging boss they couldn’t defeat until they reached a high enough level. Persistence in this case, means accomplishing challenges in the short term in an ever-challenging path to far-flung goals.

They do it because they see the big picture, the “why” they are doing it, and they like that sense of accomplishment, as well as the use of their creativity in developing and optimizing certain strategies. They want these feelings enough that anything that stands in the way, be it grunt work or otherwise, is justifiably 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 every 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 show and promise a great impact in the world, there are still many more examples of poor practice, failed attempts, and numerous misconceptions.

When I started my career in gamification in 2003, it was a topic that most people looked down upon. It was just one more excuse for young Gen-Y gamers to continue playing video games.

Fast-forward ten years and gamification is now a leading design methodology for industries across the world. Though it gave me great pleasure to see that my once lonely passion became mainstream, it troubled me that people who were self-proclaiming as gamification experts 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 and obsessed with for long periods of time, you get very short answers.

Like 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 in closely observing those who are going through the experience, but that’s like watching someone eat sushi and asking them 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 just based on the survey, you’re going to impart a “superficial sushi taste” to the product you’re designing.

As a result, a lot of 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 less informed people curious about gamification start to believe that the sum total of gamification methodology and philosophy is merely the phenomena of adding points, badges, and leaderboards to products. This rightfully makes them 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; 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 “experts” of limited experience are only familiar with how to implement PBL mechanics and even though these sometime 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 it’s because of the PBLs. They play it because there are elements of strategy, because it’s a great way to hangout with friends, or they want to challenge themselves. 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 later in the book.

What’s Under the Shell?

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.

A stark example of this is when designers name something a “quest” instead of a “task” thinking that this automatically makes the same old action(s) 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 company’s 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, and there are also games with very basic or even no graphics (e.g. MUD – multi-user dungeons that are pure text and no graphics), that have a large community 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 leaderboards – elements that you can find in the most boring games – will automatically make the product or experience fun and engaging.

But it’s not just what you put in, it’s how, when, and most importantly, why.

The Threat and Opportunities in Gamification

Even though gamification has become accepted in the mainstream, its poor application threatens its long-term viability and impact development. I am 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.

I am certain that good gamification design can unlock tremendous potential and improve many lives in the process.

And so it’s my job and yours to continue innovating and implementing with the core essence and promise of gamification in mind.

In the long run, the term “gamification” might actually disappear. Nowadays, 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.

Luckily there are enough good gamification examples out there that continue to show how thoughtful design can improve core business metrics and inspire new ways of thinking and acting in the world.

I’ve compiled a list of over 90 gamification case studies on my website with ROI stats of key business metrics from reputable and “serious” firms like SAP and Cisco. This list has been one of my most popular pages to date because enthusiasts and practitioners are constantly looking for actual metrics that prove that gamification can create a return beyond simple aesthetics.

It is interesting to note that some of the best gamification examples in history such as eBay or Woot.com, have not been categorized as gamification by most people in the industry, but there are dozens of companies that became extremely successful because (regardless of what they originally called it) they applied great game mechanics and game-play dynamics to their processes. I’ve included some of these examples in the following chapters.

Because of these success stories, I believe that gamification will continue to evolve to 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 for why games are 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.

If you think about it, every single game in the market has what we call game mechanics and game elements in them, but most are still boring and financial losers. Only a few well-designed games become engaging and even addictive.

So how might a good game designer look at the problem?

Instead of starting with what game elements and game mechanics to use, the good game designer begins 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 the users to feel, then she begins to think, “Okay, what kind of game elements and mechanics can help me accomplish my goals of ensuring our users feel this way.”

Maybe the solution lies in swords, maybe plants, or perhaps word puzzle games. 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’ core behavioral drives.

To explore and systemize this design process, I have decided to share my actionable gamification framework called Octalysis to the world.

10 thoughts on “Points, Badges, and Leaderboards: The Gamification Fallacy”

  1. Dear Yu-Kai Chou,

    thank you for your decision (“To explore and systemize this design process, I have decided to share my actionable gamification framework called Octalysis to the world.”) to share your system with us!

    I hope I can adopt Octalysis to my classroom and gamify my ESL English lessons for under motivatied teenagers.

    Judit

  2. Caveat: How do the players feel when tackling the business problem? I lack your experience in game design and deep understanding of it, although my nightly bout with Skyrim is moving me along the scale. I am suggesting the gap between the feeling and eventual outcome is a design requirement. My thinking is a fun or engaging game full of flow and fiero experiences without attaining the desired effectiveness on the solution is the same as delivering efficiency on wrong issue. Problem and feeling are inseparably link, no?

  3. Thanks so much for this article! Really aappreciate it. Am working towards trying to gamify my class and as an avid game player myself, am trying to think beyond simple PBL. Really agree with your points here. Looking forward to reading your book 🙂

  4. Thank you Yu-kai, this article was pretty revealing and will possibly save me from a lot of frustration. As the co-founder of a mobile app facilitating people the exchange of information about points of interests I head to note that the users are not engaged as expected. After playing around with the service they abandon it; never returning again. This may be partly because of the lacking userbase which is a prerequisite in some way but alsow because there is something missin that makes users stick. On the search for a solution, I somehow stumbled apon the buzz word gamification, which seemed to be the silver bullet we’ve been looking for. Just apply PBLs and et voilà, we are ready to take off.

    Seems as if we neet to go back one step and reconsider our plan. What I liked most about your post was the question about what emotions we want to create in our users. This question seems to link gamification more closely to our customers as we were initially aware of. To goal of our app is to exchange (positive) emotions between our users. But we were far too much focusing on this goal, missing the big picture. I am optimistic that this new insight will help us to get a step closer to (re)engage our customers and build a sustainable service.

  5. Completely agree with you on this.
    The way people define gamification today as “using game mechanics in non game environment” somehow make a judgement that as long as there are game mechanics implemented, its called gamification. I prefer your term “human-focused design” to explain it, because it start with human focus, not just game mechanics.

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