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Gamification Tenet #3: Human Behavior can Change Everything!

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


As we move on to the 3rd tenet of gamification, we’ve already discussed 2 very important tenets that should guide your future gamification efforts:

  1. Have a Granular Understand of Your Desired Behavior
  2. You Can’t Change a Behavior that You Didn’t Track

Unintended Consequences Ahead.png

Since these are short posts with quick practical advice, I am purposely being brief, but I will compile all the tenets together in a summary post at the end. So let’s move onto the 3rd tenet for successful gamification today.


Always Keep an Eye Out for Unintended Consequences

One of the reasons that gamification has stirred so much interest in the industry is because it’s conceptually very simple. In reality, however, it’s very difficult to get gamification just right, because there are many design and implementation challenges. One of the biggest implementation challenges of gamification is to anticipate the unintended consequences of changing human behaviors.


What are unintended consequences? These are behavioral consequences that you did not design for, but arise as a result of driving the behavior you want. Let me illustrate this with an example. You have probably heard of a famous gamification theory—speed camera lottery. It is a simple, well-designed gamification that tries to incentivize safe driving by obeying the speed limit. It does so by offering the good drivers (those who drive under the speed limit) an opportunity to win the fines collected from the speeders at the end of the month.


This gamification has certainly had success and has resulted in a 22% reduction in average driving speed. What could be some of the unintended consequences? Perhaps some drivers would drive around the blocks several time (under the speed limit) to increase their odds for winning the lottery at the end of the month and thus creating the unintended consequence of traffic congestion.


One of the reasons that unintended consequences are so difficult is because most people wouldn’t have thought of them when designing and deploying gamification. This is because these consequences are usually only tangentially related to the gamified behavior we want to drive. However, gamification changes behaviors in the physical world and can affect people in real, tangible ways. So once you are able to measure the behaviors you want to gamify (tenet #2) down to every granular detail (tenet #1), you must constantly watch out for unintended consequences of driving each of these behaviors.


Common Unintended Consequences

Some of the most common unintended consequences are:

  1. gaming the gamification—cheating: when people want the reward too much
  2. over doing it—obsession and addiction: when people perform the gamified behavior too much
  3. over-justification: when people perform the gamified behavior for the wrong reason


Let’s examine just one of these to illustrate how difficult it is to deal with unintended consequences.


When you create a reward or incentive to drive a certain behavior, people will do whatever they can to optimize their odds for getting that reward. They may not intend to cheat and some probably wouldn’t even know that they are cheating. They simply want to get the rewards. Ironically the bigger the reward, the more incentive there is for one to game the system. As a result, cheating is one of the most common unintended consequences of gamification.


Having clear rules and guidelines helps, but these are useless unless you have a way to enforce. This means your behavior tracking/analytics system not only has to monitor the gamified behaviors, it must also monitor the unintended behavior and discourage (or even penalize) it.


In the speed camera lottery example, you will need a way to track whether people have driven around the block to increase their odds of winning the lottery. The challenge is that for every one gamified behavior, there are probably hundreds of ways to game the systems, each with very low probability. Moreover, no system is completely fool proof.


See the challenge we’re dealing with here? And this is just one example of the unintended consequences. If you want to discuss how to mitigate obsession and addiction, or prevent over-justification, please feel free to discuss in the comments area below.


Gamification Tenet03.pngAlthough I’ve listed 3 classes of unintended consequence that I often see in practice, there are literally too many one-offs for me to list. As I mentioned earlier, gamification changes people’s behavior in the real world, so there are always behavioral repercussions. Some of those are driven by design, but because humans aren’t machines, there will always be some unintended consequences. You just have to be mindful and watch out for them closely.


This is also why having a sophisticated behavior tracking/analytics system is so important for doing gamification right.



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.
Respected Contributor
Respected Contributor

A great read @MikeW, and something which I have to explain to colleagues quite often!

They see the results that we get from the gamification we have up and running, and naturally ask if we can increase that benefit by offering a greater reward.

I think one of the keys to avoiding that happening is finding the sweet spot where your reward is good enough to be worth taking part in the game, but not so good that the participant over-does it.


An example of where this didn't work - did anybody have Gran Turismo 2 on the original PlayStation?

You had to earn a lot of money in order to buy the best cars to drive, but when starting out, you'd earn very little for each race, and need to constantly spend the money you'd saved up to buy more cars to enter more races.

As an alternative, there was this one track where you got a fairly modest payout per race won, but the race itself was just two laps of an oval track, which was really easy to complete. If you did that race about a hundred times, you'd have enough cash to buy a really awesome car.

The problem is that once you'd bought a super-fast car, you could easily win every other race with it, breaking the overall gamification system of slowly building up your garage and getting to better and better vehicles.

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

Hello @ThomasRushton,


Thank you for the nice comment. Glad you like this post.


Yes, it is a natural thing for business to optimize. However, the big mistake that I often find in the business world is that people, somehow, believe everything is linear (or should be linear). That is, if you increase the input by certain amount, you should expect a proportional amount of increase of the output. This is almost never true in any systems (whether it’s physical, biological, social, ecological, or astronomical). Linearity is actually an outlier not the norm in most systems. But sometimes it’s difficult to for people to believe this, and they had to learn it the hard way—through failures.


You are right that we need to find that balance—that optimal flow zone—the fine line between certainty and uncertainty.


And Great examples with Gran Turismo 2 by the way. In a game, like Gran Turismo, this adverse behavior would simply make the game less enjoyable, or you will finish it too quickly and feel the game is too easy and stupid. But in gamification, the change in human behavior could have far more consequence than that. It could mean losing jobs, or even lives (in some extreme cases).


So any gamification practitioners must always watch out for the unintended consequence and do our best to mitigating them. Otherwise severe consequences you don’t expect (that could be a lot worse than just a failed gamification initiatives) could follow.


Thank you for commenting and see you again soon.