Gamification: An Introduction

Gamification is a buzzword for the application of various aspects of positive psychology in conjunction with game-like elements used to guide people’s behaviours when performing tasks. While this is by no means solely utilised by software, many modern software applications have utilised its theories extensively, especially video games such as World of Warcraft.

We have an entire generation that grew up playing video games, being born in 1989 I have played games my entire life, and have seen first hand their progression from side-scrollers like Super Mario to the insanely complex high-end graphics of series such as Half Life. Even with the massive increases in processing power, memory and storage, gameplay has same stayed roughly the same. Most games follow the same pattern, you start a level, you play, you fail, you try again, you fail, you try again, you fail, you try again, and again, and again, and then you succeed. Then you start the next level.

This wash-rinse-repeat style of gameplay coupled with regular praise creates a very tight feedback loop and is even in some of the oldest video games.

Jane McGonigal in her book “Reality is Broken” frequently states that praise (or fiero), coupled with an increasing difficulty and frequent testing, creates a quickly addictive environment. It is the sense of accomplishment, traceable progression, and an attainable next step that keeps people coming back for more.

Tetris has a very simple premise. You score points by completing a row of blocks using various shapes that are generated (fall) in a pseudo-random order to progress. Every time you complete a row you are awarded points, the row flashes and then disappears (your small-reward), allowing you to use the re-claimed space to complete more rows. When you have scored enough points by removing enough rows you advance to the next level (traceable progression), which clears the whole screen (your big reward), and increases the difficulty (genuine testing). Tetris is perhaps one of the most obviously repetitive games in existence but Tetris combats this with two further sub-systems. A high-score leaderboard displaying the number of points you have earnt, allowing you to track your progress between sessions, and increasing the number of points you earn for each successful clearance of a line on the harder levels (genuine accomplishment), making a clearance much more satisfying on Level 9, than on Level 1.

It is the supply of praise – specifically the management of craving vs. frequency of genuine accomplishments – that must be utilised if you wish to create a system that truly works.

B. F. Skinner, an Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University devised the “Operant Conditioning Chamber” – commonly, and for the rest of this series, referred to as the “Skinner Box” – whilst a Masters student at Harvard in 1930. An extremely simplified example of this could be a rat in a box, with only a red light and a button. When the red light flashes, the rat has a few seconds to press the button and be dispensed food. If the light has not flashed, then pressing the button does nothing. Over time, the rat learns to associate the feedback loop of Light => Press Button => Food and will act accordingly, and it is this basic premise that fuels most gamified systems.

User performs desired action -> User gains reward
User performs undesired action -> User receives nothing, or is punished.

Using this premise within a video game environment is simple – games as a whole are by their very nature built around similar constructs which most are familiar with, be it from playing Tag in the playground at school as a child, to card games like Poker – and so polishing these functions requires less relative effort.

Applying these theories to a software application is considerably harder and requires the application to be suitable. A word processor, for example, is unlikely to benefit – although one could argue that even Word has many of these elements. It is my belief that the more social an application is, the more suitable and powerful gamification mechanisms are.

Palringo utilises two complementary systems. A points-based scoring system referred to as “Reputation” or “Rep” which is displayed to all as a Level (for example, “Level 1”) and a goal-based system called “Achievements“; these are badges that you earn, and again are displayed to everyone. At a conceptual level, users receive points based on behaviour that we deem appropriate, and are deducted points for behaviour we do not. Various achievements are used as both long and short term goals to give users a guide as to what to aim for next, thus further helping shape their behaviour.

I will go in to more detail about how Palringo has continues to successfully operate and expand this system as this series progresses but before I continue I feel I must explicitly state what this series is not, and will not cover. It will not cover any detail of the Palringo system that is contained within a black-box – i.e. it does not describe all factors of our Reputation system. Some factors however will be mentioned explicitly, many may be alluded to, lots will be omitted in their entirety, and there may be the occasional false flag. This is to protect the integrity of our system, and reduce the possibilities for exploitation. This series will also not contain any detailed technical descriptions, or examples of code.

What this series will cover are the themes, behaviours, and insights that are required to create a successfully gamified system – one that can, if required, save a company.

Part Two of this series: Game Playing and Fiero.