The three horseman of the gamepocalypse

(this piece was originally published on The Wall on 24 August 2012)

Are we headed for the Gamepocalypse – a dystopia where everyone earns meaningless points for every activity from watching television to shopping to riding the bus? Doubtful, as earning meaningless points isn’t much fun on its own. Why then are marketers’ attempts at gamification so focused on meaningless points?

Gamification sounds easy enough: translate business objectives into desired customer behaviour, use a points system to link behaviours to virtual rewards and free swag, throw in some social media integration and voila, profit. As games are fun and motivating, making our customer interactions more game-like will make our customers happier and more motivated. While essentially sound, contemporary gamification approaches exhibit three common flaws – 1) they are tedious rather than fun; 2) they manipulate rather than motivate; 3) they focus on customers rather than players.

Many existing gamification initiatives, and many marketing campaigns in general, focus only on collecting (boxtops, cards, figurines, badges). While collecting is sometimes fun, so is exploring, socializing, achieving, learning, collecting, surprise, humour, crafting and ‘fiero’ (the feeling of unlikely or masterful victory). To appeal to a wider audience, gamification initiatives therefore need skills to learn, a world to explore, characters to meet, artefacts to build, jokes to laugh at and adversaries to epically conquer.

Beginning gamification by asking what customer behaviours the system should produce is a sure route to failure. The three main elements of human motivation are purpose, autonomy, and mastery. If the only purpose of a game is to manipulate the player, it immediately undermines two out of the three elements. To maximize motivation, Gamification initiatives need to give players a meaningful goal, control over their own actions and a strong sense of progression – not a meaningless pursuit of points, even if those points do mean prizes. Brits paid out £3.2 billion for the sheer enjoyment of playing games last year without being bribed by free toasters. Quests are doubly effective when they have meaningful connections to the real world or other in-game elements such as character development,  and when players can choose which quests to pursue and and how to tackle them.

Unfortunately, marketing professionals are trained to consider customers rather than players and not trained in game design. Game design is complicated. Game designers weave story, puzzles, style, technology, feedback and mechanics into pleasurable, profitable virtual experiences. Therefore, consulting professional video game developers is good practice for gamification projects.

Designing a gamified system expressly for profit rarely works. Success comes from first designing a fun and motivating gamified experience and then leveraging increased consumer engagement into profit.

Dr. Paul Ralph is the director of Lancaster University’s Design Practice Lab.