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Applying the Gamification Spectrum: Part 1—Solving Business Problems

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Happy New Year! And welcome back. I took some time off during the holiday traveling with old friends from college. But I’m back now, charged and energized for another exciting year ahead.


I thought I start the year with something fun—gamification. The last time I wrote about this subject, I focused on the gamification spectrum—a powerful framework for organizing all the gamification tools in the market. I also illustrated the power of the gamification spectrum by revealing 7 interesting patterns as we move through this spectrum of tools. These patterns gave us a better understanding of how certain properties of a gamification tool relate to the others. Although these facts about gamification tools are useful, this knowledge must be applied in order to create value. As Napoleon Hill once said, “Knowledge has no value except that which can be gained from its application toward some worthy end.”

 g-spectrum 9 patterns 600px pat7.png


Today, we will use the gamification spectrum to identify 2 more patterns, which has important implications on the application of gamification tools. We are also going to apply this knowledge to solve problems in business. Again, since the content of this post requires a deep understanding of the previous post, I recommend revisiting the previous posts if you missed any of them, or if you just want to refresh your memory after the holidays:

  1. The Gamification Spectrum—A Unified Organization of Gamification Tools
  2. The True Power of the Gamification Spectrum
  3. 4 More Insights Revealed by the Gamification Spectrum


Pattern #8 Extinction Period

The first pattern we’ll discuss today is actually the 8th pattern—the extinction period (i.e. how long it takes for a gamification tool to become ineffective at driving the desired behavior). Clearly this is important to understand for any gamification tool. Although it has been long observed that no gamification tool works forever, there is little information on how long each tool works. Although the gamification spectrum won’t give you the precise extinction period because that is context dependent, it does give you an order of the tools in terms of their extinction period. So we know which tool will work longer or shorter compared to other tools.


We can understand the pattern of extinction period from 2 different angles:

  1. sustainability
  2. players’ psychology of flow


From the previous post, we’ve already learned that tools toward the left of the spectrum are not sustainable, whereas tools toward the right of the spectrums are more sustainable. It’s easy to see that the sustainability of a gamification tool is directly related to its extinction period. Tools that are not sustainable (on the left side of the spectrum) have a short extinction period because they lose their efficacy to drive the desired behavior quickly. That is why they are not sustainable in the first place. Tools that are sustainable in the long-term (on the right side of the spectrum) have a much longer extinction period.

 g-spectrum 9 patterns 600px pat8.png


The second perspective looks at the players’ psychology of flow. If you recall, the state of flow is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation that can be reached only when the challenges facing the players match their skills. Since tools on the left of the spectrum are used to drive a very simple behavior, they are essentially “easy games.” As such, the players will learn and master those games quickly. We know from the psychology of flow that once the player mastered the game, their skills will surpass the challenges from these easy games. As a result, they will also quickly move into the state of boredom, which isn’t motivating and unable to drive the desired behavior. Consequently, the extinction period of these easy games will be very short.


As we move to the right of the spectrum, the tools are used to drive more complex behaviors, so they can be viewed as very “challenging games.” When a game is challenging, two things can happen. First, most people wouldn’t be up to the challenge; they’ll feel frustrated because the challenge is too great for their skills. So they’ll stop playing all together, but those that quit the game aren’t the players. The second scenario is that there will be a few players who will rise to the challenge. They will choose to continue to play and want to beat the game. However, because the game is challenging, it will take them a long time to master the game. For these players who want to win, the game will continue to drive the behavior. So the extinction period of these challenging games will be much longer.


Pattern #9 Engaged Population

This is a good segue to the next pattern we observed on the gamification spectrum—the player population—because I already alluded to it when talking about the extinction period earlier.

g-spectrum 9 patterns 600px pat9.png


Since tools on the right side of the spectrum are like “challenging games,” there will only be a small population of players who will engage. Only a small fraction of the population will be sufficiently motivated or has the ability to play such a challenging game.


Conversely, the tools on the left side of the spectrum are “easy games.” So there will be a much larger population who will engage in this easy game play. We know from Fogg’s behavior model that simplicity drives behavior. When the behavior is simple enough, even players who aren’t motivated will engage to carry out that behavior, because it doesn’t require much ability (i.e. resources from the players).


A Business Conundrum

Now these 2 patterns pose an interesting conundrum for business, because tools on the left side of the spectrum—the easy games—can engage a large huge population, but their effects extinct quickly due to the short extinction period. So even though they can drive behaviors and engage many players, these players don’t stay engaged very long. Alternatively, tools on the other end of the spectrum—the challenging games—can engage the players for a much longer time, but only a few people will engage and play those games.


As you can see, there is no “perfect” gamification. There isn’t one magic gamification tool that can engage a huge population for a long period of time. So which gamification tool should you use? As with almost any tool, you need to choose the right tools for the problem. If you have to choose a gamification tool to drive behavior, you will have to decide whether it’s more important to drive the behavior for a lot of people, or is it more important to change the behavior for a long time? Choosing the wrong tool for the problem is not only a waste of resources, it could even have counterproductive effects.

g-spectrum 9 patterns 600px Explain.png



Using the gamification spectrum, we have identified 2 very important operational properties about the gamification tools:

  1. extinction period—how sustainable are the tools
  2. engaged population—how scalable are the tools


Unfortunately, science tells us that scalability and sustainability have an inverse relationship with each other; the larger the scale, the less sustainable, and vice versa. That is, the larger the engaged population, the faster it will become ineffective; and the longer the tools are effective, the smaller the engaged population. As a result, practitioners of gamification must choose the right tool depending on what they are trying to achieve. There isn’t a single gamification tool that can achieve both scale and sustainability.


However, some of the most challenging business problems involve both scale and sustainability (i.e. changing behaviors for a huge population over a longer period of time). How can we achieve that?


This is not an easy problem to solve, but the good news is, there is a possible solution.


Stay tuned for next time to see how we can solve this problem.



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
New Commentator

I enjoyed reading this series of posts on gamification.  However, I don't really see the difference between Sustainability and Extinction Period.  Although you say they are related, to me, they sound like exactly the same thing.  Is there really a difference between the two patterns?  I mean, is it possible to have something that is not sustainable yet have a longer extinction period?

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @KaushalSheth


Thank you for the comment, and glad to hear you enjoyed this series.


You are right that there doesn't seem to be much difference betwen them since they are so closely related. However, there are slight distinctions (which probably doesn't matter that much in practice).

  • Sustainability: How long a gamification tool will work for the population
  • Extinction Period: How quickly a gamification tool becomes ineffective for each individual

They seem like just 2 sides of the same coin. But it is important to draw the distinction for several reason.


First, the mechanism under which these concepts are discovered is different. The reason that a tool is not sustainable, is because they drive an action that is totally under the control of the players, so they can be easy to gamed. As a result, it becomes an unfair game that nobody wants to play.


Extinction period arise because the action they drive is simple, so they are easy to master. As a result, individual players get bored quickly and stop playing. So the tool becomes ineffective quickly. So the mechanism leading to sustainability (i.e. cheating) and the mechanism leading to extinction (i.e. mastery) is different. But both have the same effect. They make a game (that was once motivating) not motivating anymore.


Second, because the mechanism leading to each is different, the way that you can control them is different too. You would make the gamification more bullet proof to increase sustainability, but you would make the it more challenging to increase the extinction period.


Finally, people might have different adoption criteria. Some may want a tool that is sustainable, but don't make any requirement about the extinction period because they don't know anything about extinction as it's a psychology terminology. Others (who presumably know more about psychology) might want a tool that have long extinction, but don't make any requirement about sustainability. Of couse, we know that when they ask for one, they are really asking about the other too.


So sustainability and extinction period, are 2 sides of the same coin, much like another post I've written about how searching and filtering big data are really just 2 sides of the same coin. Both are trying to increase the relevance of the data we see, even though the mechanisms are different.


BTW, all the properties on the gamification spectrum are correlated. It is not possible to have a gamification tool that have long extinction period but not sustainable. Likewise, it's not possible to have a tool that is highly susceptible to gaming, but offers intrinsic rewards. This is true for any pairs of properties on the spectrum, although some may seem more related than the other (like sustainability, and extinction period).


Anyway, I hope this addressed your question.

Thank you for asking and I hope to see you back soon.