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Gamification Tenet #5: Level Up in Baby Steps

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

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As I alluded in my last post with the Angry Birds example, a well-designed sequence of levels with the proper level transition criterion is crucial to keeping players engaged, so they continue to play. This is a design aspect of gamification that many practitioners get wrong. It is also an area that I’ve worked on for many years at Lithium, which culminated in a patent that was granted by USPTO last month for the gamification spectrum.


We will explore this topic of leveling up today. But in case you missed any of them, we’ve already cover 4 tenets so far:

  1. Have a Granular Understand of Your Desired Behavior
  2. You Can’t Change a Behavior that You Didn’t Track
  3. Always Watch Out for the Unintended Consequences
  4. Change and Adapt Faster than your Players


And tenet #5 is…


Baby Step Level Up—Build a Ladder to Engage Sustainably at Scale

As the gamification industry continues to grow, more gamification tools are being developed. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of gamification tools out there. They include something as simple as points, badges, leaderboards (and their variants), to something as complex as different types of “reputation scores.” These tools all have different feedback timescales. Points are feedback mechanisms that are instantaneous, whereas reputations are feedback mechanisms with a much longer timescale—because it takes time to build someone’s reputation.


The key to choosing the right toolset for your problem is to recognize that not all the behaviors you want to drive are intended to last forever. The effective timescale of any behavior change is how long the changed behavior will last. For some common business problems, the effective timescales are shown below: Effective Timescale of Biz Problems 625px.png

It’s easy to recognize that tools like points, badges, and leaderboards work pretty well for shaping behaviors in short-term business problems (e.g. conference participation, employee onboarding, and engagement in marketing campaigns). There are many success stories of gamification in these areas because the feedback timescale of the tools match the effective timescale of those short-term business problems. However, these tools are less effective for sustaining long-term behavior changes in business problems that have much longer effective timescale (e.g. co-creation, customer loyalty, employee loyalty, internal collaboration).


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By applying the gamification spectrum, we can build a level up ladder that engages the widest possible audience for the longest possible time. The following 3-step formula shows how to build simple gamification tools into a highly engaging gamification program:

  1. Identify the effective timescale of your desired behavior change
  2. Find a gamification tool with a feedback timescale ≈ your effective timescale
  3. Build a level-up ladder by filling in the gaps with tools that have successively longer feedback timescale along the gamification spectrum
  • Always start with immediate feedback (e.g. points) to achieve scale
  • Fill all gaps (so the ladder is easy to climb) in order to maintain the scale as your players level up to the final rung of the ladder (i.e. the tool with feedback timescale ≈ effective timescale)


The result of this formula is a level-up ladder with many rungs (baby steps). Since there are many rungs, your players will get frequent feedback, which is more motivating by giving them a sense of progress. And because each rung is a baby step, they will be perceived by your players as a relatively simple task and therefore more achievable. Finally, since all gamification tools have a feedback mechanism that could serve as a trigger, we have a temporal convergence of motivation, ability and trigger. And this, according to Prof. BJ Fogg, will drive the behaviors you want.



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.