Real Gamification Mechanics Require Simplicity And, Yes, Game Designers Can Do It

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

My gamification post two weeks ago (which described everything you really need to know) struck some nerves, especially as it came out just before a Gartner report claiming that 80 percent of gamified projects would fail. I received emails from several folks who had unsuccessfully tried to gamify their service and found the process frustrating, or felt that they had been sold some snake oil. Most commonly this was because they got caught up in the seductive fantasy of the engaged user who interacts on multiple levels rather than focusing on specific outcomes. So they had levels and badges and achievements and whatever, and no earthly idea how those things were supposed to improve their service.

That post also led to a short Twitter debate with Gabe Zichermann (the love-him/hate-him figure who evangelises for gamification) on whether it was fair to criticise gamification on the grounds of game design (in my opinion: yes), and what that meant. In particular I talked about the perpetual vagueness surrounding the gamification scene, such as the slippery nature of “game mechanics.” As far as I can tell, the mysteries of mechanics are the reason why gamification seems like voodoo. And it shouldn’t be.

Gamification mechanics should be simple to understand. All they are are the actions that players take (“agency”) and the rules that limit those actions to create pressure (“urgency”). Between those two poles lie an interplay that is described as a “loop” (“I hit ball, see if ball stays inside the court and if opponent returns ball, I hit ball again”), and a whole bunch of loops produces a “dynamic” (we trade the ball many times until one of us makes a mistake and loses a point).

In principle this is straightforward. But a slightly icky secret among game designers is that the term “mechanic” is often made intentionally vague. We tend to use it as a catch-all for operations and effects, but also emergence, behaviours, feel and other areas. Anything that seems related to how a game does what it does gets labelled a “mechanic” by the unwary or the undisciplined, often to vamp while thinking of a solution to a specific problem.

So “mechanics” takes on lots of equivocal meta-meanings, and gamification theory has gone especially wild in this regard. While the essential idea of gamification is “just add game mechanics,” when you don’t know what you mean by “mechanic” then it all becomes hazy very quickly. This mess needs to be untangled.

Fake Mechanics

The following are often listed as gamification mechanics: Achievements, Behavioural Momentum, Blissful Productivity, Community Collaboration, Discovery, Epic Meaning, Urgent Optimism, Surprise Delight, Being the Hero, Pattern Recognition and Badges. There are several similar lists, gathering everything from the emotional highs of winning to the compulsive need to check in at certain times of the day. To the outsider it appears that gamification is essentially a process of picking from these lists (such as with a mechanics deck) and baking a pizza of engagement. I’d like a double helping of Discovery, a few slices of Being the Hero, and hold the Behavioural Momentum.

None of the above are game mechanics. Not a single one. They are either rewards (achievements, badges), emergent effects (community collaboration) or observations of psychological states. None of them is an action or rule that specifically contributes to agency or urgency, and they would be better described as “neat things you sometimes see in games.” However because we tend to propagate the idea that they are mechanics, a lot of folks out there think that points, badges, level, hope and dreams are all equivalent. This way trouble lies.

A real game mechanic is short and specific, and describes either a thing you can do or a limit. Rolling the dice to take your move in Monopoly is a game mechanic. So is the rule that says that if you pass Go, you get $200. So is the instruction on the Chance card that sends you to jail. Every mechanic should be as easily explained as any of the above, and if it’s not then likely it is not a mechanic at all.

While gamification rarely wants to be as complex as Monopoly, the same easy explanation rule applies. If you’re thinking about gamifying, and you’re following my previous instructions (keep it simple, stop getting it lost in the meta, focus on making one number go up) then it should be pretty clear that you need mechanics that are as easily described as “roll the dice to take your move.” Fortunately there are many real-world examples of gamification that work to show you how.

Seven Real Gamification Mechanics

1. Voting: The X-Factor gamifies the process of finding musical talent by turning it into a competition. Every week contestants sing for votes, and the bottom two have to sing for survival. They are then then subjected to a further round of voting by judges, and the loser is eliminated. At the end of the competition, the winner gets a recording contract.

The X-Factor is all based on one mechanic: voting. Viewers pick up the phone and vote for their favourite acts, and this helps keep their act in the race. The mechanic also satisfies the condition of making one number go up (as all successful gamification does). That number is revenue. X-Factor’s owners make millions of dollars from constructing an elaborate experience to encourage those at home to make a premium phone call. It’s that simple.

Likes, retweets, +1s, Diggs (remember them?) and so on are all versions of the same mechanic. They are used when a user posts some content to a site, and a reader takes an action to contribute to the sharing and curation of that content. Unlike X-Factor, however, these kinds of votes are not about raising revenue. They are about raising the number of quality content submissions, as quality content is why most users return to any given service.

2. Follow: A variation on voting (a second stage if you like) is following. If, for example, you like this post then maybe you will follow me on Twitter. So my follower number goes up, which I like because it makes me think that my reach is expanding. Although moderated by others, follower, friend or subscriber numbers gamify popularity. They reflect a sense of clout and influence for the followee, and to some people that sense is very important.

The benefit (the number which is meant to go up) for the provider of the mechanic is the increase in connection nodes. According to Metcalfe’s Law the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in that network. However in a social network not all nodes are connected. So gamified activity connects them, increasing the value of the network both to the provider and the user.

3. Collect: A few years ago I wrote a post about the need for gamification to keep it real, and I used the example of Air Miles. Air Miles gamify travel by encouraging users to collect a resource (miles) that they can then exchange for goods and services. It is the prospect of this exchange that makes miles worth collecting (such as upgraded flights) and sometimes customers even buy extra flights to build up points. Ticket sales are the number that the airlines want to see increase.

While the rewards that the airlines end up paying can be high, schemes like Air Miles are generally judged worth it for the loyalty benefits. Of course the same model applies to thousands of other loyalty schemes in one form or another.

4. Unlock: The bad thing about alternate reality games (or ARGs) was how they basically dragged users along through elaborate stories. However what worked well was their treasure-hunting dynamic. They were about finding clues and solving puzzles, and this activity was moderated by a rule: A solved puzzle unlocked the next puzzle.

Unlocks are not rewards like high scores or achievements. They are rule mechanics that change the state of a game to set new challenges. In social games, levels are often used to unlock new items that the player can purchase, for example. When Google used math puzzles as part of their recruitment ads in 2004, they were using an unlock mechanic to find qualified applicants for their position. The prize at the end was a possible job at Google. The number that goes up is the number of qualified users.

5. Lottery Draw: Everyone has their secret plan for what they would do if they won $50 million in the state or national lottery. But of course you can’t win without a ticket. So you buy one, and then around comes the draw where six numbers are chosen and your dreams turn to dust once more. The way in which the draw operates is the mechanic that powers the lottery. It works in two ways.

First, splitting a draw into multiple moments heightens urgency, making that last ball seem crucial. (A variant of this is the way boxes are opened in Deal or No Deal). Second, high prizes upend our sense of probability. Even though the chances of you winning the lottery are likely lower than of being killed by lightning, you figure you’ll have a go anyway. These two factors make the number of ticket sales skyrocket, and that is the number that is supposed to go up.

6. Grades: For a while last year the DailyBurn app made me feel bad. It’s one of many apps that lets you enter your weight and height and set goals for weight loss. It computes a calorie count that you should aim for each day, which you validate by entering what food you’re eating into its system. It then shows you little bar-graphs of your progress, and if you blow your limit (say on carbs) it turns red. I saw a lot of red.

Nobody likes red just as nobody likes receiving a D on an exam. We instinctively want good grades, and in certain circumstances, that can be a very effective mechanic. The danger is that grades often distort user activity toward getting a better grade rather than getting the benefit that the grade is supposed to represent. So grades work best when they are associated with making a number go up (in DailyBurn’s case that’s retention – users enter their nutrition every day) rather that achieving a holistic effect.

7. Clearing: When iOS6 finally launched I was disappointed by the Do Not Disturb feature. I’d wanted it to shut off all intruding notifications, not just phone and Facetime calls, so that I could use my iPad to write in peace without being disturbed. The reason I bring it up is that it lets me talk about one of the most effective gamified mechanics out there: Clearing.

Like many of you, I find fire-engine-red numbers compelling. I have seen what that new mail is, that new notification from Tweetbot, and I must clear it. Clearing, ordering, and upkeep are compulsive behaviours for many of us, especially in areas that are relative to our personal lives, and the action of clearing makes us feel like we’re keeping good order. Of course the number that this make mechanic is designed to make go up is retention. More clearing means more visits to the app/service/site, which is an opportunity to engage further.

Conclusion

When you think about it, gamification is not new. It’s just a way of looking at a lot of simple operations, analysing why they work, and then figuring out ways to implement them in other settings. In the modern era lots of things can be gamified (and lots can’t) but it only proves useful if we know the outcome for which we are designing, as well as the simple mechanic that’s supposed to make that outcome happen.

If you can explain your mechanics as simple actions or rules with defined outcomes, then perhaps you will see delight or blissful productivity as a consequence. If you can’t, all the levels and badges in the world won’t save you.