White Hat vs Black Hat Motivation in Gamification
(Below is a snippet of Gamification 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).
In the last chapter, we looked at how Left Brain Core Drives and Right Brain Core Drives differ in the nature of their motivation as well as their design methodologies, resulting in various short-term and long-term effects.
In this chapter, we will examine the fascinating intricacies of White Hat and Black Hat Core Drives, and how to balance them within a design.
The White Hat Core Drives are represented by the Core Drives at the Top of the Octalysis diagram:
- Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling
- Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment
- Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback
The Black Hat Core Drives are represented by the Core Drives at the Bottom of the Octalysis diagram:
- Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience
- Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity
- Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance
Origins of the Black Hat vs White Hat Gamification Theory
Up to this point in the book, you should have a fairly good understanding of how White Hat and Black Hat Core Drives function. In this chapter we will discuss when and how to use them for optimal motivational systems.
Though every single Core Drive in the Octalysis Framework has been researched and written about individually (including the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation), I believe my work on White Hat versus Black Hat Gamification theory is fairly original and provides a unique design perspective.
I began developing the White/Black Hat concepts while I was studying the Endgame Phase of different games. I became curious as to why the majority of successful games were obsessively addictive for many months, and then experience a huge user dropout with large numbers of players moving on with their lives.
On the other hand, I looked at how a few games such as Poker, Chess, Mahjong, and even Crossword Puzzles stood the test of time and never got old for their players. Video games like Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Defense of the Ancients (abbreviated as DotA, eventually spinning off the even bigger hit, League of Legends, and re-skins of similar shooting games like Counter Strike or Call of Duty, continue to be popular and engaging no matter how many years a player plays them.
Upon further research and observation, I realized that there was a big difference in how these games were designed and what Core Drives motivated their users in the late Scaffolding and Endgame Phases. It seemed like the games that go viral but then have shorter shelf-lives utilize Core Drives that create obsession, urgency, and addictiveness. Players would become glued to the game but then towards the Endgame Phase, the joy and fun no longer persists as strongly, yet the player mechanically continues to grind through many hours “laboring” through them. Due to the Sunk Cost Prison covered in Core Drive 8, players feel demoralized, but are unable to quit.
Eventually, some people do find the strength to finally quit and move on with their lives. This is perhaps due to important responsibilities, or shift to newer games that hit them hard with epic Discovery Phase marketing. Once that happens, Social Influence & Relatedness dictates a big exodus of people finally leaving the game, in hopes of finding that joy and passion again.
But for the games that are quite timeless (until their own sequels come out), when players are in the Endgame phase, there seems to be a continuous sense of wellbeing and satisfaction, just like the joy one has when playing an instrument or being called to a purpose. Based on this research, I started labeling a few Core Drives “White Hat” and a few others “Black Hat,” which borrows from my background knowledge in SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
In Search Engine Optimization, “White Hat SEO” refers to designing and promoting your site the way search engines like Google intend you to do. As a result, they rank your site highly when users search for related terms. “Black Hat SEO” on the other hand refers to methodologies that dishonestly exploit the rules, rigidness, and weaknesses of the search engines to get your site highly ranked.
Needless to say, search engines hate Black Hat SEO, and have massive teams of engineers that continuously make the engines smarter and harder to exploit, while severely penalizing any website that is caught utilizing Black Hat SEO techniques. Sometimes the search engine companies even ban websites completely off their search results, defeating the purpose of the Black Hat SEO in the first place. In the realm of SEO, just don’t do Black Hat – it’s not worth it.
Unfortunately, our brains cannot continuously update themselves to become harder to exploit like Google can. Nor can we as efficiently blacklist people who constantly apply black hat motivation techniques on us (nor do we want to, since some of them have good intentions that ultimately benefit us). The end result is that we become subconsciously motivated by things that make us stressed, worried, and obsessed, while feeling that we are not in control of ourselves.
The Nature of White Hat vs Black Hat Core Drives in Gamification
White Hat Core Drives are motivation elements that make us feel powerful, fulfilled, and satisfied. They make us feel in control of our own lives and actions.
In contrast, Black Hat Core Drives, make us feel obsessed, anxious, and addicted. While they are very strong in motivating our behaviors, in the long run they often leave a bad taste in our mouths because we feel we’ve lost control of our own behaviors.
The advantages of White Hat Gamification are obvious and most companies who learn my framework immediately think, “Okay, we need to do White Hat!” They would mostly be right, except there is a critical weakness of White Hat Motivation: it does not create a sense of urgency.
For example: if I approached you with great enthusiasm and exclaimed, “Go out and change the world today!” You may become very excited by this Core Drive 1 trigger and may echo, “Yes! I’m going to go out and change the world! But I’m going to first have a nice breakfast, brush my teeth, and get prepared for the day!” As you can see, there is no urgency with this level of White Hat excitement.
However, if I took out a gun and pointed it at your head, while quietly whispering, “Go out and change the world, or I’m going to kill you,” you are still likely to “change the world,” but you are probably not going to enjoy your nice breakfast or brush your teeth while being pushed by my threatening Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance motivation.
Of course, at that point you also no longer feel good about changing the world. Once you can leave my grasp, you will likely stop caring and drop the noble cause altogether. That is, unless the Epic Meaning & Calling regenerates from within.
Black Hat Gamification creates the urgency that system designers often need to accomplish their goals and change behavior. Often this cannot be accomplished through White Hat Gamification alone.
If a company simply implements White Hat Gamification while the user is constantly exposed to Black Hat stimuli from other sources such as email, appointments, or distractions from Facebook, they will most likely not have the opportunity to test out the experience. Of course, this user will feel terrible also, because they will continue to procrastinate instead of doing the things that are more meaningful and make them feel good. Unfortunately, because of the nature of Black Hat motivation, they will continue behaving that way nevertheless.
Zynga’s Bad Endgame Design is due to Black Hat Gamification
My theories on Black Hat vs White Hat Gamification can often be utilized to explain or predict why certain companies are successful or fail at different stages.
One such example is the social gaming company Zynga, which is known for games such as Farmville, Words with Friends, and Zynga Poker.
Zynga has mastered how to implement all sorts of Black Hat Game Techniques – of course, they don’t have a framework to think about the techniques as “Black Hat.” Instead, they consider it “Data-Driven Design,” which on the outset seems to be extremely clever and legitimate. Because of the Black Hat designs, all their immediate metrics looked good: Monetization, Viral Coefficients, Daily Active Users, User Addiction, etc. However, because people don’t feel good playing Zynga games after awhile, when they can drop out of the system, they will.
This is especially true for the late Scaffolding stage as well as the Endgame phase, since all the novelty, creativity, and true sense of development run out during these phases. This makes it even harder for all their new re-skinned games – basically Farmville in a city, in a castle, in kitchen, and so on, to become long-term successes. When that happens, it is almost like the users are still playing the same Endgame – right in Onboarding phase!
Because of these Black Hat mechanics, users quickly get tired if they have already been burnt out by the last Zynga game. Farmville 2 was doomed from the start unless they could implement much better White Hat designs into it to ensure long-term success.
Early in 2014, Zynga proved my Octalysis theories accurate when they decided to “double-down” on Casino Slot Machine games like Riches of Olympus. Of course, since they were committed to stick with Black Hat game design (which shows quick data-driven results), the only long-lasting engagement element they could use was the Right Brain Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity. Nonetheless, even if a person were addicted to gambling, they don’t feel awesome about themselves and their activities. This could still lead to later burnout.
In a Venturebeat article that accompanied the Riches of Olympus launch, the journalist Jeffrey Grubb asked then Head of Zynga’s Casino franchise, Barry Cottle, what he meant when he said Zynga was focusing on “quality in experiences and excellence in execution.” Cottle explained that Zynga wanted to make things that look and feel good. Cottle specifically brought up the game Candy Crush Saga, which “has a simple puzzle mechanic that players respond well to due to the extra animations and special effects.”
If Zynga thinks extra animations and special effects is what made Candy Crush successful, it’s no wonder they have their own graves dug out as a “game design company.” If extra animations and special effects are so important, why would a game like Minecraft become so successful? The graphics for Candy Crush aren’t even that stunning, compared to other games that look similar but don’t have even a tenth of Candy Crush’s success.
If you have been an active student of the Octalysis Framework, you will know that the reason why these games became so popular was due to their ab to retain Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback for the longest. Most Zynga games do not have long lasting Core Drive 3, and therefore engagement burns out.
Of course, the two games that are consistently top-ranking within Zynga are Zynga Poker and Words with Friends. If you notice, since they build on already timeless game designs like Poker and Scrabble, Zynga accidentally copied sound Core Drive 3 design without necessarily recognizing it. Both games elicit a higher level of strategy and problem-solving that other Zynga games lack. As a result, they demonstrate long-term success well into the Endgame.
With a good understanding of White Hat and Black Hat game design, you can begin to analyze and predict the strengths and longevity of any motivation system. If there aren’t any Black Hat techniques, there likely won’t be any breakout success; if there aren’t any White Hat techniques, users quickly burnout and leave for something better.
According to the Octalysis Framework, Zynga will never achieve long-term success unless they start building in more White Hat game techniques and continue to empower their users, instead of putting so much emphasis on Black Hat manipulative techniques.
Black Hat Gamification with a Clear Conscious
I want to clarify here, that just because something is called “Black Hat Gamification” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad or unethical. Some people voluntarily use Black Hat gamification to force themselves to live healthier and achieve their short term and long term goals. I would personally love to be addicted to eating more vegetables or confronting the tasks that I intend to procrastinate on.
The point of it being called Black Hat is that, once designed well, we are more compelled to take certain actions quickly without feeling completely in control.
However, whether it is “good” or “bad” depends on the intentions and final outcome of those actions. We could use Black Hat designs to motivate people towards good behaviors or we could use Black Hat designs to motivate people towards evil. Similarly, some of the most infamous people in history motivate people with Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling (among other Core Drives) towards evil and genocide, even though the nature of the motivation itself is White Hat.
As an example of Black Hat Motivation towards good behaviors, the SnuzNLuz is an app alarm clock that automatically donates the user’s money to a non-profit they hate if they hit the snooze button (the “wake me up 10 minutes later” button – for my foreign readers).
A more visually compelling (but illegal) concept is the Shredder Clock, which physically destroys your money when you press the snooze button.
In these products, people are waking up because of Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance – they don’t want to lose their money, especially to a non-profit they hate! (The SnuzNLuz also has a weird Core Drive 1 angle…)
But people are okay with this Black Hat design, because it’s for a goal they want. They are fine with designs that compel them to do things that they intend to do already but lack the willpower to do so.
What people hate is when companies, governments, instructors, or marketers utilize these Black Hat techniques to get them to buy things they don’t need, succumb under tyranny, work overtime, and get grades they don’t care about. Keep in mind that these people will often still do the Desired Actions because again, these tendencies are obsessive and/or addictive. They just won’t feel good about the actions and will burn out or revolt as time goes on.