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Gamification beyond Business and Future Challenges

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

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+.



CSI_logo web.gifAnother announcement: I will be speaking at the CSI Member Summit. I will be talking about the analytics and social network analyses (SNA) for quantifying collaboration and its effectiveness. If you are going to be in Utah on Sept 19-21, let me know. Maybe we can meet up for a hike.  🙂


Today, I would like to address two more questions posed at Wharton’s Gamification Symposium. Some of the questions discussed at the symposium are covered in earlier posts. If you are interested, please feel free to check out the following:

Q1: What is gamification?

Q2: What is it not?

Q3: What can the gamification community learn from the gaming industry?

Q4: What can psychology and management teach us about the gamification of work?


Q5: How is gamification being applied beyond the business world to address societal and public policy challenges?

Gamification has been applied in many areas beyond business. Some of the most inspiring examples come from education, health care, fitness, and goodwill. There are several common themes and some interesting insights emerged from studying these non-commercial applications of gamification.


  1. Always use positive feedback for motivation
  2. Don’t reward people for things they know or believe they should be doing already. For example, if someone feels that recycling is a moral obligation, then rewarding him for recycling may cheapen that behavior and may even make the behavior morally offensive. It will give people the impression that someone is recycling only for the rewards, not because he is environmentally conscious. Likewise, rewarding someone with $5 for donating blood may give people the impression that he’s donating blood only for the money, not because he is altruistic. The same goes with voting or other civic engagement. This is an example where gamification requires a better understanding of their players. Bartle’s typology is clearly insufficient here. We need to know the motivational orientation of the players (i.e. how sensitive they are to extrinsic rewards).
  3. Don’t reward desirable results that the player may not have the ability to achieve. Rather, we should focus on rewarding actions that may lead to the desirable result. For example, we should not reward children for getting good grades, because they may not know how to get better grades. But we should reward them for reading books, which is a behavior that everyone can do and have control over (see Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?).
  4. Use both social facilitation and social competition to drive the gamified behavior. Cooperative games seem to be more effective than competitive games in many use cases. One of the reasons may be that fewer people can benefit through competition compare to cooperation. In a competitive situation, there will be winners and losers among the participants, but everyone can gain from a genuine cooperation. So why don’t people cooperate more? Greed! Because the gain of any individual from competing is usually greater than the gain from cooperating.
  5. Use crowdsource for any selection process, because it is more democratic, meritocratic, and transparent. Transparency is very important, because it leaves an audit trail that deters cheaters from gaming the gamification system.
  6. Give the players a wide range of possible activities where they can choose freely what they like to do. Track all activities within this sandbox and reward the players accordingly. This basically offers many different types of motivator simultaneously, and let the players discover the motivators that work best for them.


Q6: What is one thing we should be asking here about gamification? What do we already know, and how could we get better answers? What we need to know: open research questions, and challenges going forward.

I feel this question was not properly addressed at the symposium. So I like to pose couple of open research questions to the gamification community out there.


Open Question 1:

Psychology web.gifNumerous experiments in psychology have demonstrated the overjustification effect. That is, the use of extrinsic motivators, such as money, points, and badges, that ultimately decrease a person’s intrinsic motivation to carry out the gamified behavior. However, gamification using extrinsic incentives often does work in the short term in many real world applications. My question is, how long will these extrinsic rewards be effective before the overjustification backlash kicks in?


Not everything requires long term engagement or sustained interaction. Some problems are short term in nature. In those cases, it may be sufficient to gamify certain behavior using external incentives, without much negative side effect. So it is important to know how long will extrinsic rewards work. This window of effectiveness is likely not constant, and depends on numerous factors, such as the difficulty of the gamified task, what game mechanics/dynamics are used, the player’s gaming personality, their level of motivation, etc. It would be very valuable to identify the factors that affect the length over which extrinsic incentive will be effective and quantify their dependencies.


Open Question 2:

The second question that is of great interest to me involves the state of play. The reason is that many great games are engaging not because of the game mechanics/dynamics. We know that game mechanics are often not necessary for play to occur (e.g. imagine a chess player totally immersed in a game). However, play is an important aspect of all great game that makes them engaging. We also know that play is a very powerful motivator, and the mental state of play may even have some biological and evolutionary significance. However, there is little research on the biological and mental state of play.


I believe that an essential attribute of play is autonomy. Play is almost universally voluntary. When a game (or play) becomes mandatory, it often loses its essential entertaining value. For example, mandatory basketball playing becomes practice rather than play. It may still be fun, but the fun comes from the progression of getting better at basketball. And it’s much less fun than if the player can just play whenever he likes. Many activities we do for work are actually not so different from those we do for fun. Very few people are willing to work for money doing something they hate. The fundamental difference between work and play is really between obligation and voluntary. We also know that play often brings people into flow due to the steady progression of our ability and challenge (see Flow, Gamers and Superusers).


Both of these attributes of play make it a very powerful intrinsic motivator. I am interested to find out what are some other essential attributes of play that makes it such a powerful force in our lives? If we have a better understanding of play, it will certainly help us develop better and more effective gamification strategies.



Non-commercial application of gamification has been implemented in many areas. Many insights are generated by analyzing their successes and failures. However gamification is still in its infancy, and there are many important open questions that still need addressing. I posed two questions that I felt are important both theoretically and in practice. If you are a researcher in this field and have data that may address these questions, I welcome your input. In the mean time, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comments and/or suggestions are always welcome. See you next time.



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.