yukai chou gamification

How Yu-kai Chou started in Gamification in 2003 and became a Pioneer in the Industry

Gamification Expert

New to Gamification? Check out my post What is Gamification & my Gamification Framework: Octalysis

From Gaming to Gamification

Recently, I have been getting more and more people asking me about my experiences as a pioneer in the Gamification Industry.

Gamification (or the widespread adoption of it) seems so new that it feels difficult to make the claim of starting in 2003, when catchphrases like “Cloud,” “Social Media,” or even “Web 2.0” weren’t even popular.

First, to clarify, I didn’t start “playing games” since 2003. I played games throughout my entire life, from my South Africa days to my Taiwan Days, all the way to my Kansas, California, and Vancouver days (yes, long stories…)

I was a hardcore gamer, and whatever I played, I needed to be the best at it. I was almost incapable of playing a game casually. It was either all or nothing. When I play games, I would whip out spreadsheets to figure out the exact combos that would make me win, read about strategy guides while in the restroom, and become a known thought leader in the forums of various games. There was even once when I broke into my college friend Jun Loayza‘s apartment through the window (he was in class) so I could practice on the game that he owned.

Interestingly, my transition to a Gamification Entrepreneur and Designer came from an epiphany I had when I was in school. Back then I played the Blizzard Game Diablo II very heavily, and had more than 5 characters above Level 90 and a couple above level 96. I was pretty hardcore at it. But at one point, my friends started to quit the game and move onto new games. Eventually I quit too and was in this transition period between games.

And then I suddenly felt extremely empty.

I thought, “I spent thousands upon thousands of hours getting more experience, leveling up, accumulating more gold, collecting better gear. And now I have nothing. Is there really no meaning to all the time I have spent in the past few years?”

I then started spending an obsessive amount of time trying to figure out how to “make games more meaningful” as well as “make life more fun.”

I wrote in more detail about the epiphany Diablo 2 gave me in a very old post, but essentially, that is the beginning of my gamification career and the development of my Lifestyle Gamification concept in 2003, initially called the “FD Lifestyle” (because the term Gamification wasn’t around yet). Here’s a speech I made at Google regarding steps to Lifestyle Gamification.

From Gamification to Entrepreneurship

After that, I started a company called Future Delivery. The goal of Future Delivery was to develop solutions that made productive activities fun.

Networking Gamification

In my first project, I thought about how to turn networking into a game, so I created a professional network called the FD Network, which turns a person’s network into something exciting as though that person was recruiting for a Mission Impossible quest. People had nicknames, they had “abilities” with levels assigned to them, and they get points if they helped out someone in the network. I found an old (and a bit embarrassing) animated video of the FD Network here for your viewing.

That network gathered all types of professionals, including a Nuclear Propulsion Engineers, a Rabbi, Musicians, entrepreneurs, and a lot more. I also turned my Excel Spreadsheet and Access Database into something I called “The Alliance Game” where I would keep track of what all my friends were doing, where they were in life, and see how I can help them to become more successful. I called this Vertical Networking.

Networking Gamification

I also remember walking into conferences in the early 2000’s with my elevator pitch, “I am a specialist in turning products and productive tasks into games.” Only to get the blank stare: “We don’t play games here…nor do our customers.” How awkward.

Timing is Everything, in and out of Games.

It was about in 2006 when I finally dove into high tech startup products. I recruited a team and we launched FDCareer, a site that turns career development into an RPG game.

Users would choose their “path,” such as “businessman” or “software engineer,” enter their resume, and an algorithm would break them down into 5 stats: Education, Experience, Leadership, Social, and Initiative.

Then, in order to level up, users needed to either get an internship/job in the real world, or complete “quests” on our site. A programmer quest could be like “learn a new programming language and write an AI that beats the computer in tic-tac-toe,” while a business quest could be to solve a business case in real-time.

I remember during that time, I mentioned to my team, “Hey! How about the tagline, ‘Gamify Your Life’?”  Sadly for me at the time, my teammates said that it sounded a bit weird and we shouldn’t invent words because it will take too long for the market to accept and adopt it. My team was right – it did take gamification many years of promotion before it became a more commonly recognized word…and it still sounds funny till this day.

FDCareer had some small successes. It was rated on Mashable as one of the Top 10 Social Networks for Gen-Ys, and we had a partnership with Disney Interactive & Media Group, where they could create their own quests on our site and qualify users for a first round interview based on quest performances.

Rule of Surfing: if you start to paddle when the wave is under you, it’s already too late

Our longterm vision was to turn it into an entire Virtual World, where people can network, find jobs, interview, and attend conferences through our platform. At that time, Second Life was really hot, but we saw Second Life as a “Myspace” for virtual worlds, where it is all about self expression with messy designs and dirty images. We wanted to become the LinkedIn for Virtual Worlds, taking advantage of the low barrier to meet new people, but being your authenticated self doing professional activities.

Serious Game Virtual World 1

Serious Game Virtual World 4Serious Game Virtual World 2

Serious Game Virtual World 3




We also played around with ideas of a virtual office, where remote teams can feel like they are “part of a culture,” while communicating easily in a more organized fashion. We were excited about all these concepts.


Workplace Gamification 1

Workplace Gamification 2


Unfortunately, that’s when the economy crashed in 2008. Every company was looking to lay off everyone they could, so our platform that makes hiring more efficient through gaming became completely useless. And with no funding in sight, we had to change directions.

My team and I then worked on a few other projects afterwards, including Viralogy, a social media rank, where bloggers would see how influential their blogs are and increase in their “V Score,” and RewardMe, a digital loyalty program that aims to bring Gamification into offline stores and restaurants. RewardMe eventually raised over $1M, was rated as a Top 10 Private Company to Watch by AlwaysOn, and was a Top 3 Finalist for Best Commercial App in the first ever LBS awards – The Locals.

Creating the Gamification Framework: Octalysis

Starting around 2009-2010, Gamification slowly became a buzzword, thanks to Bunch Ball’s efforts. I was excited to see how people have started to accept and even endorse these concepts that I have been pushing all along! I was approached by many companies for consulting/advisory gigs, and invited to speak at various organizations and conferences, including Stanford University, and Google Inc..

But then came a problem: whenever a niche craft becomes a buzzword, everyone starts to claim that they’re gurus, and many agencies would label that buzzword into their latest “expertise” when many of them have never even seriously played a game before (and the ones who do have never applied gaming to business). Everyone stays at the PBL stage (Points, Badges, and Leaderboard), or starts off thinking, “OK…how do I fit game mechanics here?”

And because of that, the industry is getting plagued with people who don’t know how to gamify correctly (just like 3 years ago, there were a ton of “Social Media Gurus” that only knew how to create Facebook Pages and Twitter Profiles). Of course, there are a handful of good Gamifiers out there too – not everyone’s faking it until they make it. But many of “experts” out there would just have clients put on some PBLs, just to hear from the client, “Well, it didn’t work too well. I guess gamification doesn’t work.”

What people fail to remember, is that ALL games have Game Elements in them. But most games SUCK, and only a few WELL-DESIGNED games achieve the status of Winning & Addicting. It is for this reason I gathered all my years of gamification experience, crystalized what worked, what didn’t work (and trust me, there were a lot more that didn’t work), and created the Gamification Framework called Octalysis to help the world gamify things better. I also started a 90 Episode Video Series called The Beginner’s Guide to Gamification to educate those who prefer being entertained over reading text.

Gamification Framework

The underlying idea of Octalysis is that, instead of starting with the game mechanics (or elements…I like to stay out of semantics wars between game designers and gamifiers), and figure out “where to put the leaderboard,” and “where to add a narrative,” a good Gamification Designer should always start off with the Core Drives and focus on how they want to make the users “feel.” Core Drives include “Epic Meaning & Calling,” “Expression of Creativity & Feedback”, and “Unpredictability & Curiosity.” In total there are 8 of these core drives, creating an Octagon shape with “Left Brain” Core Drives on the left, “Right Brain” Core Drives on the right, “White Hat Gamification” Core Drives on top, and of course, “Black Hat” on the bottom.

Imagine a game designer who thinks, “Okay…we want a game with swords. Where do the swords go. Okay…we need monsters too. Where should they go? Oh of course! We need Cows! And friends who can fertilize them!” The game designer could create a game with all the right “game elements” but still make it extremely boring/stupid. A good game designer should start off with how they want the gamer to FEEL. Do they want the gamer to feel inspired? Accomplished? Even Scared? Once that is determined, THEN the game designer can implement the right elements such as swords and cows into the game to accomplish that goal. The game elements are a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Similarly, in gamification, once the designer has determined which Core Drives they want to appeal to, THEN they derive out the right game elements/mechanics to fulfill that drive. Of course, after that, you figure out the 4 Experience Phases of a Player’s Journey, factor in Bartles 4 Player Types, and created a nice 4×4 Matrix of Octagons to go into hardcore mode if you like challenges.

Since then, my Octalysis model has been translated into 6 different languages, and I was recently rated Number 8 among the Top 40 Gamification Gurus.

The Quest to Give Gamification the Chance it Deserves

The reason why I’m in gamification is not because I think it’s “interesting” or “cool,” nor because I think this is a money-making buzzword in a booming industry. I’m in gamification because I’ve lived it and breathed it throughout my entire productive life. It is my passion and the dream I am living. 

While I am very happy and excited that Gamification is being recognized throughout the world now, it also brings me genuine sorrow to see the industry being plundered by opportunists who will smack on PBLs today and move on to the next big buzz word tomorrow. I believe Gamification has the potential power to create a world where everyone has fun in their work; every company performs better because people actually WANT to do the work and customers actually ENJOY the products; and society becomes a lot more productive as a whole.

That vision is possible with Gamification, but we only have one shot at it. In the next 2-3 years, the industry will decide if Gamification is useful enough to stay around in everything people do, or simply become a gimmicky afterthought. If all the industry is hearing about is PBLs and Pointification (btw, those do help actually), we might lose our chance forever. And that is why I am dedicating myself to give Gamification the chance it deserves in the industry.

We should build the future of Gamification, not screw Gamification.

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23 thoughts on “How Yu-kai Chou started in Gamification in 2003 and became a Pioneer in the Industry”

  1. Hi Yu-Kai,
    How is the gamification scene 3 years on from when you wrote this initial blog post?

    “In the next 2-3 years, the industry will decide if Gamification is useful enough to stay around in everything people do, or simply become a gimmicky afterthought.”

    Are terms like gamification and game mechanics being taken more seriously? Are decision makers better educated about what a quality game experience is about?

    Glad you are spreading the word.


    1. The quick answer is that, it is no longer “sexy” to just talk about gamification in the press as the newest thing, but companies are approving more and larger budgets for it.

      I think more and more people are designing it better, so the industry has a base foundation that is valuable and creating value. However, there are many people who just chased after the “trend” that is dropping out and pivoting into other fancy sounding things.

  2. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. It’s so motivating to learn from people who believe in their ideas and visions wholeheartedly.

    I’m convinced that the industry will see Gamification as an absolute necessity for future products and services as it digs so deep into the human nature. The exciting thing is that there’s still so much to discover and all the touched fields of research seem only to be at their beginning. As research progresses new insights will be gained which eventually influence the way we think about Gamification (or Human Focused Design).

    I’m determined to stick with the topic – learn, try, fail, succeed – to see what it reveals in the real as well as in the virtual world. 🙂

  3. FDCareer sounds so amazing! I found my way into consulting around collaboration communities and gamification by way of 15 years in recruiting. I had never heard of FDCareer but you’ve tickled the gamer in me (like you, I’ve been obsessed with games since I was a little kid and learned to play chess off of the back of a cereal box!). Can’t wait to devour the rest of your blog, Yu-Kai.

  4. I think Gamification is going to rule or at least majorly influence whatever we do in life. The initial resistance often fades quickly once you ask people why they react so negatively. Normally we get things back like: 

    “With G’ion you’re not motivating them to do the right thing, you just reward them to become more addicted to your product.”


    “We don’t need games in our classroom, we need a full time-out from internet and computers in our class room. It’s dangerous.”

    What helps ne:

    Asking people if it would be bad to get hung up on healthy behaviour or whether they think whether the school has a responsibility to teach children in a FUN way to prepare for a reality filled with computer science and internet.

    This resistance will fade once G’ion reaches mainstream and everyone will go all-in on Gamification!

    Keep going Yu-kai, you are on the right path (and so am I)

  5. What you have done is going to change the world. I am have a chemical engineering background, but after raising my children, am teaching high school chemistry. I would love to gamifying my classroom. Is there coursework or a workshop where I can jump start this process. I will continue to work through your videos.

  6. My project grows and shrinks as i have time to devout to it and when i have new inspirations. I am in a planning phase of making an interactive book which utilizes an octalysis type analysis of readers feedback that then sends the reader on the type of journey that fits them best. Taking the guesswork out of an authors readership AND making it easier for the author to reach more people, all in an interactive fiction book type lesson, but it is a bigger mouthful than i can deal with and i realize it is getting bigger (imagining a book thicker than war and peace by the end, but maybe not a problem for an ebook)

  7. veltsu Haha, it depends on what you call a “game.” Senior Execs also love games like Golf or Poker, which have the same game elements and 8 Core Drives involved. It’s just that they are still stuck on the early years of the gaming industry, which were targeted towards children and seen as “toys”.

  8. IanEdwards2 Haha, thanks Ian! (Btw, sorry for way slow response…my bad 🙁 ) How has your project come along? I think if kids 10% of their time optimizing their own life compared to optimizing their game character’s growth, we would have a much happier and more productive society.

  9. Good stuff Yukai.
    I’m pretty sure gamification is here to stay simply because the new generation is completely accustomed to playing games and they will definitely “get it”. Trying to convince the older population that work doesn’t have to be painful is hard, but a person who has played games in their youth (and early adulthood) is much more receptive.

  10. ah! i can dig it. i agree with everything you said. however (as a hard core gamer) and now an aspiring writer i feel that the magic of a non-sucking game is in the storyline. but there is no silver bullet, we have played good games with sucky elements but octalysis and gamification can help mediocre game, gamification, gamifying ideas (whatever) become great.
    i am not a guru like you, but i am driven in a similar manner, to make something good.
    your FD stuff is almost the same as my idea for a replacement for current education, if we have enough well written class materials, we could implement an exciting new school that similar to TED.com SOLE would have students leading themselves off on an educational journey that fulfilled their goals and built their dreams.
    that’s why i jumped into the trending gamification.  i look forward to your videos!

  11. Thanks for sharing your story and your passionate commitment to excellence in this field. I created a “motivational learning community” in 2009 and continue to improve and innovate, but have by no means lived it or mastered it as you have. What are you working on now?

    1. @AnnabelleHoward Thanks for the kind note Annabelle. I am still FAR from mastering it. I believe Gamification is craft that requires a life-long journey. (Much like how the Japanese view Sushi)I’ve been working on RewardMe, but am also working on some stealthy projects 😉

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