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Real Life Gamification: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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+.



Okay, I think people are probably a little overloaded from the engagement data and my mini-series on Facebook engagement. I know because my last article has relatively low page view and has only gotten one kudo. So I am going to take a break from Facebook engagement today and use this opportunity to return to my gamification series, which is long overdue.


As I promised, there will be a few more articles on this topic before I wrap up the gamification series. I apologize for the circuitous route in wrapping this up! There are just so many interesting topics that I’d like to cover and so little time for me to write about them.


In my previous gamification post, I showed you one way in which you can gamify enterprise software to drive adoption. However, gamification can be applied to many aspects of our lives: health/fitness, good will/volunteerism, education, work, and solving some of the most challenging problem facing our society today. So, I’d like to apply the framework we’ve learned to analyze three gamification strategies that have been implemented in different areas of our lives. Some of these are successful, yet some are doom to fail, and I’ll attempt to explain why.


The Good: Speed Camera Lottery

Speed_camera_lottery_web.jpgThe speed camera lottery was an attempt to gamify people’s good driving behavior (i.e. obeying the speed limit law). As with any speed camera, it takes photos of speeders, and fines them. But this camera also takes photo of drivers who obey the speed limit and keeps a record of these good drivers. The interesting twist to this speed camera is that the total collected fines from the speeders contribute to a pot, which can be won in the form of a lottery by the good drivers at the end of the month.


So what are the three factors from the Fogg’s Behavior Model?

  1. Motivation: Winning the lottery. The driver must want to win; otherwise, this wouldn’t work because there would be no motivation
  2. Ability: The drivers is in control of the car and certainly has the ability slow down
  3. Trigger: The speed camera lottery sign


Is there a temporal convergence of the three factors? Yes, definitely. Because a driver wants to win the lottery, and at the moment when he saw the trigger (i.e. the lottery sign), he is driving and has the ability to slow down the car. So this is a good gamification that is going to work. The result confirmed our analysis. The average speed before gamification was 32 km/h, but it was reduced to 25 km/h after implementing the speed camera lottery. 


The Bad: Golf Game for Lead Assignment

A large enterprise (whose name I will not reveal here) is trying to gamify their sales executives’ lead assignment behavior because they often fail to assign leads to their sales reps. Their gamification strategy is to develop a golf game on the iPhone/iPad that uses the tilt interface to roll golf balls (representing new leads) into holes (representing their sales reps). The idea is that as they play this game, which most of their sales executives will find entertaining since many of them like golf, they will be assigning leads at the same time.


The action this enterprise is trying to gamify is lead assignment, but what are the three factors necessary to drive this action?

  1. Motivation: Playing a fun game of golf on the iPhone or iPad
  2. Ability: This game actually slows down the lead assignment process and makes it less efficient. The task of assigning a lead to a rep normally takes only a few seconds, but it may take minutes now because sales execs need to roll the ball into the a hole by tilting the mobile device. Consequently, this game increases the amount of time (which is a scarce resource) needed to assign a lead. Conversely, it decreases the ability of the sales execs to do the task (i.e. assign leads)
  3. Trigger: There is a notification system that periodically reminds the sales execs to play the golf game when there are new leads


Since the sales executives will actually have less ability to do the task, this strategy won’t even have all three factors needed to drive the gamified action. Obviously, there can’t be any temporal convergence if one of the factors is missing. So this gamification strategy is doom to fail. It may work for a short due to the novelty effect, but it is not an effective gamification, and it is not going work after the “honeymoon period” is over.


I must emphasize that gamification is not a game, and it is not about turning some boring tasks into a game. In fact, simply putting a game on top of a boring task is generally a very bad way to do gamification. As we saw from this example, it usually doesn’t work.


The Ugly: Gamifying Store Check-ins at GAP

Gap FB Places Checkin.gifI heard this example from Seth Priebatsch at SxSW Interactiveearlier this year. In order to gamify consumers’ check-in behavior, GAP is giving consumers a chance to win a free pair of jeans when they check-in to GAP via the Local Deals Feature on Facebook Places. They leveraged the appointment game dynamics by making this a one-day-only event from 10am to 9pm on Nov 5th, 2010. To limit cost, they are only giving away 10,000 pairs of jeans.


The action GAP tries to gamify is check-in, but do the consumers have all three factors necessary to drive this action?

  1. Motivation: Winning a pair of free jeans
  2. Ability: Not all consumers use Facebook Places or have a smartphone. However, if GAP only wants to gamify check-in for smartphone owners who also use Facebook Places, then sure, they have the ability to check-in
  3. Trigger: The appointment dynamics has a built-in trigger (i.e. the appointment), which prompts consumers to check-in before “time’s up” at 9pm


What about the temporal convergence? Yes it exists, but only until they run out of jeans or the time limit is up. As soon as a consumer finds out that the 10,000th pair of jeans is gone, there is no more motivation for them to check-in. So they stop checking in. Thus, even if GAP only wanted their target audience (i.e. iPhone owners who use Facebook Places) to check-in during the appointment period, it will only be effective when there are free jeans. Clearly, this is not going to work after the campaign, and that is precisely what we saw: few people continue to check-in to GAP afterwards.


So I can’t say this is a very good strategy for gamifying check-ins. Furthermore, most consumers probably want the free pair of jeans much more than they are interested in checking in. So they will tend to focus too much of their motivation on the reward rather than the gamified activity (i.e. checking in). When this happens, consumer often start gaming (or cheating) the gamification system to get the reward. And it will eventually lead to the moral hazard of game play, where the reward becomes the sole motivation for consumer to check-in. This may not sound so bad, but it is a serious problem because when there isn’t any reward, like free jeans, people will no longer have any motivation to check in anymore. 



Today, we applied the behavioral framework that we’ve learned to analyze three examples of gamification in the real world. This framework checks for the presence of motivation, ability, and trigger, and their temporal convergence. With this framework, we can evaluate the effectiveness of any gamification strategy. If you missed the earlier posts that describe this framework, now is a good time to review them.

  1. Gamification from a Company of Pro Gamers
  2. The Magic Potion of Game Dynamics
  3. Psychology 101: Motivation for Gamificators
  4. Simplicity Counts! Even in Gamification
  5. The Final Touch: Trigger and Gamify


Alright, let’s discuss some real life gamification. If you have any example that you like to share or like me to walk through with you, please let me know. Again, comments and suggestions are always welcome. For next time, I will gauge your interest to see whether I should continue writing about gamification, return to Facebook Engagement, or talk about something new.



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.
Aashish Patil
Not applicable

Hi Mike,


I am not sure if the Bad example of the Golf game is really that bad. Agreed that assigning a Sales lead takes only a few seconds or so but because its a chore the procrastination period needs to be taken into account too. Thus, the total time would be Procrastination Period + Few Seconds. Golf game would take a little more time but would reduce the Procrastination Period significantly because now its more fun to assign a lead. So, the overall time would be less than the regular process. To overcome the Novelty Effect, what if a Leaderboard was created of Sales execs who assigned max leads - that might motivate more execs to use the game + try to get on the top of the leaderboard.


BTW, have enjoyed reading your articles on gamification - very nicely explained. 



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

Hello Aashish,

Thank you for the comment, and I'm glad you are liking my writing so far. I will definitely try to keep it up.

When analyzing gamification strategies, we must focus on what is the action or behavior we try to gamify and what precisely is being done to gamify the behavior of interest.

For the golf game example, the company created a golf game for assigning leads. That alone is not going to work in the long run. But as with most business strategy, you can change things as you learn from your mistakes. And it is very likely that they may put in a leader board later after seeing that the golf game is not working after a while.


But if they are using a leader board, then that is a completely different strategy which uses a very different set of game mechanics/dynsmics. Moreover, if they use a leader board, then they don't need the golf game at all, a leader board by itself is a perfectly good gamification and have been shown to be effective in many different areas, even with task that are ordinarily very boring.

BTW, procrastination is no different from not taking the action. In terms of behavior, it doesn't really matter why a person is not performing the task. It can be the lack of motivation, ability, or trigger. Or it can be the misalignment of the three factors, or any other reasons. Procrastination is usually attributed to the lack of motivation. The golf game basically makes lead assignment more motivating at the cost of reducing ability. So it can be argue that it's not so bad. But in general, to reliably drive a behavior predictably, we need to have the temporal convergence of ALL 3 factors. Trading off one factor with another, may work, but it won't be predictably reliable.

The main reason that I don't think this golf game is going to work is the efficiency argument. It may work if you have 5 leads. But what if you have 100 leads. You have to play this game for 100 time to assign the lead. The few minutes can easily adds up to few hours. If you make the game more challenging and more interesting to play, it's going to take them more time and more effort to roll the golf ball into the hole. So the very fact that make the golf game fun, is making your work less efficient. I seriously doubt that after few month of playing the same golf game over and over again that they will still have the same motivation to play. Especially when the game actually slow down their work, and the leads queue grow bigger and bigger.

Alright, I hope this explain the deeper logic behind the short analysis in my blog.


Thank you again for bring this point up. I think a lot of readers are probably wondering about this too. I hope to see you again next time.


Andreas West
Not applicable




as always enjoy your posts about gamification and please keep them coming. It's not only the things that you write, but your style of writing that adds to the enjoyment of reading and re-tweeting you.


I'd like to add to the golf game. You could have managed this sales problem very easily by giving them a KPI on it and sales people will clearly follow it to maximize their income. But I agree that a leaderboard will have an even better success because of the Killer and Achiever nation of the sales people (the excellent ones are Killer for sure). So they do like to compare their progress so far with that of others and want to dominate, so no need to come up with such a boring golf game, on top of it it's indeed a loss of efficiency and stealing their time.


For GAP it's just a test I think, they weren't fully convinced what to do with this new thing and probably said, let's try it for one shot and see what the results are. Hence the one-off character of their campaign not adding any lasting positive effect. I guess they haven't understood gamification anyway otherwise they would never have tested this approach on their side.

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

Hello Andreas,


Thank you for the nice comment. I sincerely appreciate the complement.


You got it. A good KPI on a real time leader board plus a good trigger will probably be more effective than the golf game. At least there is no decrement of ability, since they will be using the same method they’ve been using to assign leads. A trigger is needed because leader board that no one pays attention to will not be very effective. That is why that traditional leader board on a company plaque are not as effective. Then the question comes to when do you  trigger. As you said, since most of the power sales are Killers and Achievers, a good way is to trigger when someone move ahead of somebody else. But you can be a little more creative here.


I think the company is probably just trying to do something creative, but didn’t understand gamification and took the term too literally.


For GAP, if they were simply experimenting, that was a pretty pricy experiment. They basically used merchandize (jeans) to buy a Facebook check-in that has little value unless they know what they are going to do with the check-in data. Since they are essentially exchanging a possibility of winning a pair of jeans with check-in, which is a very simple action that doesn’t really cost much, so it is almost a guarantee that it will work during the appointment period as long as there are still jeans left. So I don’t really see the point of the experiment if you know the result already. They may want to experiment just to confirm their suspicion, but I just don’t see a lot of benefit from this exercise. They could have done much better with stronger and longer lasting effects.


Not applicable

Hello Mike, 


I've been a regular reader of all your posts and I must say that I love them all.They're all very instructive and insightful. Keep doing this great job! 


First of all, this post is a killer! Loved the three examples and couldn't agree more with them. I have just one question about The Good and The Bad ones:


 1. The Good: the only motivator of this action was winning the lottery. Therefore, if the drivers didn't get this financial motivation, they probably wouldn't slow down their speeds. Do you believe that when we're talking to a community of people that don't know each other it's harder to motivate people without money or increasing their status? Is there something that can be done to catch unknown people in a more emotional way? Storytelling is a way out?


 2. The Bad: I totally agree with your example. Over the time, the task would only get more boring and watching the discussions, I agree that a leaderboard could be a better solution. My question is: socializers tend to don't mind for leaderboards, right? Or is there any trigger that could make socializers participate in some sort of leaderboard?


And I have a third question concerning a case of mine.


In a community of people (Facebook Group) that are tied only by their ages and they need to give responses through a certain period of time (weekly), what is the best way to keep them always motivated? I'm thinking to introduce a role-playing style of game that  people would level up and gain badges according to their answers. Is this a way that could be reliable for all types of gamer's personalities?


Once again, thank you for all your posts! I've never commented on them because I'm not confident with my English writing, but I'm hoping you'll understand my questions above. 🙂






ps.: keep up on the gamification writing. I believe this is the future! 🙂





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

Hello Nico,


Thank you for commenting and for following my writing. First of all, your English is great. I have no trouble understanding you. So don’t hesitate to comment in the future. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I am pretty responsive.   😉


Now let me try to address your question.


Q1. I don’t think it is particularly harder to motivate people in a community who don’t know each other. Just that the method and levers that you leverage to motivate them are different. For example, our platform works quite well motivating customers of large brands (i.e. a community, where people don’t necessarily know each other at all).


Story telling is certainly a good way to motivate people, because it give people the meaning and reason to do certain things. Very few gamification strategy uses this mechanism yet. And it is usually the hardest part for game designers, who designs video games, because the story has to be relevant to the players in order to motivate them. However, no story is universally interesting to everyone. If there was, it would have been told already.


Q2. Socializers don’t care about being on the top of the leader board, but they still care about how they compare to their peers, friends, relatives (i.e. people they know). So a good leader board design for killers and achievers are different from those for socializers. For socializers, the leaderboard design should show how he compare against his friends/peers, who have similar performance as him. That is show him couple of his friends who is just above him and couple of his friends just below him.


Q3. It is not easy to keep people always motivated. Even with financial reward, people eventually get tired unless the reward gets bigger and bigger. This is not only hard to achieve, but does not work in the long term either. Extrinsic rewards are not sustainable long term motivators. However, it is possible to have a long term gamification strategy and that is a topic that I plan to explore later. So I will have to defer you to a later post that will be coming soon.


In terms of motivating different types of personality, unfortunately there is NO one size fits all solution. That is the whole reason why there exist different types of gamer personalities. They are, by definition, motivated by different things.


As you can see, gamification is not an easy thing. It is very hard to do it right and achieve effectiveness. It almost need to be customized to the individual, which make it very hard to scale. But that is a challenge that gamification strategists need to deal with in the future.


Thank you again for your questions. I hope to see more of your questions in the future here.

Not applicable

Hi Mike,


Have been sitting here reading your articles since lunch, very interesting stuff. I started work admin work at a little CRM company a couple weeks ago and so have been reading up - not sure how relevant this particular article is to what I'm supposed to be doing but it's definitely interesting! I'm off to read the previous articles on the topic.


Do you have any other recommendations for reading about gamification? It sounds like something I've been doing for ages (to motivate myself, and to motivate kids when I worked in childcare) but I never realized there was a word for it, much less in-depth analysis of it. I guess that I should have realized, given that I keep coming across things like ChoreWars and Fitocracy.


I thought ChoreWars was a great concept, but sadly it was not as effective as I thought it would be in my geeky university flatshare. Maybe if I'd let my flatmates exchange XP for free food, ha! Or maybe it was the trigger missing. I'll have to try setting up automatic reminder emails. I'm moving in with my partner soon - we're both untidy and work in this industry, we'll have to give it another shot! For science. 🙂


Looking forward to reading more from you.



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

Hello Gwen,


Thank you for stopping by and for the nice comment. I’m glad you find my work interesting.


Gamification is definitely relevant to CRM (see The Future of Enterprise Software will be Fun and Productive).


In terms of gamification, there are a lot of stuff out there, since it is a hot topic now. But there are a lot of marketing fluff and pure hype out there. That is the main reason I decided to write this gamification series on Lithosphere and put some science behind the subject. Nevertheless, some of the fluffy stories out there are quite inspiring, and you can find a lot of them at


Gamification is applicable in many aspects of our lives beyond business. But as you’ve discovered, there are some that are not very effective. And it is definitely not the case that you slap some points and badges on then people will magically engage. Understanding the science and the behavioral psychology underlying a gamification will let you evaluate its effectiveness.


In the next month or so, I will continue to contribute to this series on gamification. So feel free to follow me on Twitter or Google+ to receive updates.


Thank you again for commenting. See you next time.