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The Gaming Industry, Gamification, and Work

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+.



gSummit logo_web.pngA quick announcement before I begin today. I am honored to have been invited to speak at the Gamification Summit, Sept 15-16, 2011. I will be talking about the behavioral psychology of gamification and the evaluative framework that has emerged. So if you are going to be in The Big Apple around mid September, please ping me. I would love to meet and chat.


Last time I summarized the debate at Wharton’s Gamification Symposium over “What is gamification?” in a short definition of this new buzz word. Today, I like to address a couple of questions posed at the symposium that is important for the advancement of gamification.



Q3: What can we learn from the gaming scholarship and the gaming industry to develop effective gamification?

The gamification community can learn a great deal from game designers and the gaming industry, because people will get tired of the same games over and over again. Eventually people will get tire of points and badges. These simple game mechanics will become annoyances and ultimately be despised.


Companies that use points and badges will be treated the same way as those that still use pop up ads and spam mail today. When that happens, we will need to borrow and evolve new game mechanics/dynamics from the game designers in order to continue to engage the players. The gaming industry will usually do a much better job coming up with creative and engaging attributes of game play, because they get paid just to do that.


gameController+Keyboard.jpgBecause gamification is applied in a non-game context, the primary goal of gamification is usually not to make the gamified activity so fun and entertaining that people will pay to play. People often do not pay for gamified experiences, so consumer’s expectation for innovative game play is usually not as high as those hardcore gamers. In fact, it is often the organizations (e.g. business enterprises, schools, brands, government agencies, etc.) implementing the gamification that have to pay. Since most organizations will try to minimize cost, it’s unlikely that they will spend dollars to innovate on new game attributes.


For this reason, professional game designers often criticize the gamification community for their shallow gamification design and ignorance about the complexity of the players persona. However, as gamification becomes more prevalent, consumers’ expectation will change. Basic game attributes simply won’t work anymore. Then the gamification community will have to start picking up the pace within the gaming industry. They will be forced to take the player (i.e. consumers) much more seriously, and not only rely on Bartle’s overly simplistic gamer typology.



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

An important function of management in the work place is to motivate the work force. However, management often fails to do so. In fact, because management often uses extrinsic incentives to motivate their work force, it often ends up decreasing people’s intrinsic motivation to work. This is a well know phenomenon in psychology called overjustification. In theory and practice, it is much more effective to use intrinsic motivators.


The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is a subject of much debate, because external rewards can sometimes be internalized and become intrinsic to the individual. Yet intrinsic motivations can also be reflected and reinforced externally. According to Scott Rigby, the key difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic has to do with the perceived locus of causality. If a reward is meeting the intrinsic psychological need of the player, then it is less important whether the actual reward itself is intrinsic or extrinsic. In other words, external rewards may work as long as they align with and reinforce the intrinsic motivation of the player.


There is a great deal of literature about our intrinsic motivations. They range from Maslow’s meta-needs; to Dan Pink’s autonomy, mastery, purpose; as well as Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. So management should focus on providing these intrinsic motivations. For example:

  • The autonomy to do what the employees want and when they want
  • The proper challenges that move employees into flow
  • The rapid feedback of progression that highlights employee achievement (mastery)
  • A moderate amount of social competition and social facilitation
  • An equal opportunity for everyone self-actualize, and beyond (the meaning and purpose of it all)


In practice, however, this is very difficult. For example, if you give an employee some autonomy, individual productivity will tend to increase. However, this also creates a coordination problem, because by definition autonomy means employees will tend to work independently of others. Consequently, autonomous employees often overlook the common goal of the group, the team, and the organization. This often counteracts the individual productivity boost. So a good manager’s job should be to find the balance that optimizes both individual and group productivity at the same time by giving employees the proper amount of autonomy.


Likewise, it is very hard to always give the proper challenge to move employees into flow. Since most tasks at work are driven by the market and the customers, they do not come in a continuous range of difficulties. The next task that comes along is either too challenging or too easy for a particular employee. Therefore, employees are usually not in flow.


giffgaff_002.gifHowever, if you are able to successfully gamify work, you can get amazing results like giffgaff. Giffgaff is one of the fastest growing mobile (SIM-card based) network in UK, and it’s primarily r run in partnership with their customers. These customers collaborate in the community to provide peer-to-peer support, viral WOM marketing, and ideas for product development. Unlike internal collaboration among employees, these customers are under no obligation to collaborate at all. However, they are all working together with giffgaff, for a brand they love. This is in part due to gamification's jumpstart, and it's reinforcement function. They worked so well together that they outperformed employees of their competitors, and achieve a CSAT score and NPS that is on par with Apple and Google. And the average response time for questions is about 90 seconds 24/7.



my_SXSW_idea_2012b.pngGamification is hard, but if done right, it can achieve amazing results. However, people will get tired of the simple gamification strategies (e.g. pointification and badgification). At that point the gamification community will have to learn new techniques from the gaming industry. They will need to borrow new game attributes and create new gamification strategies in order to continue to drive game like behaviors among their audience.


BTW, I will be traveling most of next week. That is why I decided to post this article earlier, since the  last post was pretty short and simple. So, see you when I return. Finally, if you feel that I'm qualify to speak on this topic (i.e. Gamification: From Hype to Science), please help to vote for my SxSW proposal by clicking on the image to the right (you may need to create a FREE account to vote). Remember, Tomorrow (Friday Sept. 2nd, until midnight CDT), is your last chance to vote! Thanks, and I hope to see you there.



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.
Not applicable
Interesting point about needing to move beyond points and badges eventually. But I wonder if that is still a long time away for biz apps. Unlockable content + features spring to mind as the next step.
Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Dan,


Thank you for the comment. 


Because points and badges are such shallow design, people are bound to get to the point of point/badge fatigue very quickly. That is why Foursqure experience such high churn rate. But you point out a good question, how long is it before that happens. The data probably follows a power-law type of distribution and there isn't really a hard stop point. For some, it will work a long time, but not for others. So personally, I would love to get some data from Foursquare and plot the distribution of active usage, then figure out the half life of their active users.


Unlockable content and feature is a natural, especially for enterprise softwares that has a lot of complex workflow. (see The Future of Enterprise Software will be Fun and Productive).


Thank you very much for the comment. See you next time.


Tony Ventrice
Not applicable

Mike, it might make more sense to clarify your stance on points and badges.  Points and badges are simply elements of a game, they are not even game mechanics, much less entire games.  I think you meant to say that people will grow tired of the novelty of points if they are not built into meaningful activities.  

While a few people may be temporarily amused by the act of earning points simply to earn them, the need for real context is already clear and present. 


Tony Ventrice

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

Hello Tony,


Thank you for the great comment.


You are right. Points and Badges are not the mechanics. They are used by many game mechanics and dynamics. I've talk about those previously (see Gamification from a Company of Pro Gamers), that is why I've omitted their discussion here. I should have put a reference to earlier works. I apologize for not doing that. This post is just a summary of the debate that took place at the Wharton symposium.


You are also right that people will get tired of meaningles points and badges very quickly. But what was discussed at the symposium is that people might event get tired of real game mechanics and dynamics that uses these simple elements. Consumers may get to a point where they recognized it and simply say "Yeah, this is another one of those badge thing that wasted so much of my valuable time, I'm not going to play that game anymore." etc. That is a possible concern if people start abusing these simple elements to a point where consumers resent anything that may resemble them. They won't even bother trying to find out whether it is any different from other good gamification that associate meaning and context to the points/badges.


Clearly, you understand  the importance of context and meaning, but many people are blindly applying these game elements, which is a danger to be warned.


Anyway, thank you for the comment. Hope to see you next time.