Despite the existence of numerous widely-accepted definitions of “gamification,” it makes sense to offer an original interpretation of this concept: using knowledge of human motivation to achieve business goals. Here are a couple of examples of how gamification works in everyday life:
Example 1: Mother and Child A mother wants her child to eat porridge, but the child resists. The mother then says, “If you eat your porridge, I’ll give you a chocolate bar.” As a result, the child eats the porridge, gets the chocolate bar, and everyone is satisfied. This is a simple example of gamification: the mother proposed a game mechanic of a delayed reward, the child completed the “level,” received the reward, and everyone is happy (we’re evaluating this case purely from a game mechanics standpoint, not pedagogically).
Example 2: Wikipedia Wikipedia authors don’t get paid for writing articles, editing, fact-checking, etc., yet thousands of people around the world enthusiastically contribute to it. One of the motivators is a special leaderboard where people with the highest volume of approved community-written texts will be immortalized. This means that authors have a motivation (besides wanting to help people, etc.): they want to be remembered. This motivation of vanity is supported by a corresponding game mechanic — the leaderboard.
In summary, gamification is not just about, or even primarily about, games within products. Games are secondary; they are merely a tool for fundamental work on motivation, which helps bring value to the business. Therefore, the main focus is on emotions and user motivation.
That’s why it’s more logical to talk about “motification” rather than gamification — that is, working with the motives that drive people to engage in various actions, from having breakfast to pursuing sex or advancing up the career ladder.
Eight Motivation Mechanics: Octalysis
Taiwanese-American entrepreneur Yu-kai Chou developed a universal classification of motivation types called Octalysis (from the Latin “octo,” meaning eight). Octalysis comprises eight fundamental motivations that drive us to do anything from getting up in the morning, using the restroom, and working:
- Sense of significance, mission. People love to be appreciated and valued.
- Self-improvement, unlocking creative potential, skill development. Humans are the only creatures on the planet capable of self-analysis and creativity, making it one of the strongest motivators.
- Social pressure, friendship, competition. Humans are social beings who cannot live outside of society.
- Mystery, surprise, unpredictability, curiosity. People love to predict the future but don’t like it when others tell them about it. Examples include loot boxes or Kinder Surprise eggs. You eat the chocolate, and inside is a secret that makes the purchase worthwhile. If someone tells you the secret in advance, it becomes less interesting and motivating, decreasing its value.
- Avoidance of negativity, stability, safety. Example: You don’t want your dog to die, so you feed it. The motivation to feed your dog stems from avoiding negative outcomes.
- Resource scarcity, impatience, deficit. When resources are scarce, people compete for them. Examples include buckwheat, sugar, and toilet paper, which spark shopping wars when there’s a threat of hunger or other catastrophes.
- Ownership, accumulation, sense of proprietorship. When a person owns something, they don’t want to lose it. Skilled salespeople first put the product in the buyer’s hands and then start bargaining. This is an excellent example of acquiring something and not wanting to give it back.
- Achievement, striving for leadership. People are highly motivated by achievements — many even burn out in pursuit of realizing their ambitions.
What Not to Confuse with Gamification
Gamification is a somewhat hyped topic, and many myths have developed around it. Let’s examine what gamification is not.
- Game mechanics. Game mechanics themselves are just one of the stages of building gamification in a product. Once you understand how motivation works and what the user is dealing with, you implement certain game mechanics. Moreover, these mechanics are not always game-related. For example, Wikipedia’s honor board can only be called a game mechanic with a stretch.
- A tool that entertains and amuses. In practice, when people discuss gamification, they often imagine incorporating mini-games into a product. However, gamification is not always fun. For example, a 30-second timer with the words “Red Price” or “There will never be discounts like this again. Buy now” is a classic example of gamification but isn’t amusing.
- A tool to “patch” problems with processes in a company. If your user calls a hotline and waits 10 minutes for a response, gets redirected from one manager to another, and at the end of this agonizing process, a cheerful and friendly voice says, “Hey, while you’re waiting, let’s play ‘Guess the Tune’?” — that’s a failure. Systemic gaps can’t be fixed like that. Unfortunately, if you have problems in your business, gamification won’t magically solve them.
In general, gamification is often regarded as a kind of magic bullet: implementing gamification, adding mini-games and some cool promotions, and the business will immediately take off. This is not how it works.
When to Implement Gamification
3-point checklist that helps determine whether you should consider implementing gamification in your product:
Point 1. Gamification works best in highly competitive markets. It is necessary to fight for fractions of a percent in metrics, provide additional value, and create some metagame around user behavior. Gamification is essential here. In edTech, gamification is also necessary — the market has become quite competitive and dense.
However, if you are starting a startup in a blue ocean, gamification will be an unnecessary waste of resources and time. It won’t help grow the business at a normal pace. In such situations, it’s better to improve metrics using classical product solutions that do not involve game mechanics. Work on UX, conduct research, fix buttons, and improve the quality of transitions between screens — and the metrics will start to rise.
Point 2. Gamification is needed when you have already conducted many experiments on a specific target metric, but it still doesn’t grow. Of course, if your target metric is revenue, you likely have something wrong with your metrics hierarchy and need to dig deeper. But if you are aiming for other metrics, you can try implementing gamification. In my experience, this works.
Point 3. Gamification is appropriate when the user complains about discomfort but continues to use your product. This is the most important sign that it’s time to implement gamification. In other words, if a call center client is willing to wait for 10 minutes, it means your product is truly important to them, and in this case, reducing negativity with gamification (like the “Guess the Tune” game, for example) might be a good idea!
When Gamification Won’t Help
Problems in business process development. One company launched an internal competition among programmers — whoever wrote more lines of code would receive a bonus. Pure gamification: it seemed fantastic. They started checking the results and found out that the actual problem with code volume was that programmers had to go through nine circles of hell to get their code accepted. Therefore, gamification did not help — the promised bonus did not compensate for the painful process. Resources were spent on gamification, but the processes remained the same.
Limited resources. Gamification is expensive, just like game production. And making games in a product that is not a game is even more expensive. So, if you have a startup, you can forget about gamification.
Testing a basic hypothesis in a startup. For example, you’ve created a new taxi service that clearly outperforms Uber in some aspects. First, you need to test the basic hypothesis that your product is better, rather than implementing gamification: loyalty programs, bonuses, coins, etc. You should consider gamification when the basic hypothesis has passed the test and it’s clear that the product has potential.
Lack of product value for the user. This point is quite obvious, but still important. If you are selling a product that is simply not needed in the market, it’s unlikely that a “Match-3” game embedded in the product will suddenly make it popular.
Case Study: An Online Gaming Marketplace
In this case study, we will look at an online gaming marketplace that sells in-game items such as skins, stickers for in-game weapons, and other gaming-related stuff.
One of the important metrics for this marketplace was the conversion rate during the first session. Users would come to the site and choose what they wanted to buy. However, it was difficult for them to understand how to make purchases without spending money on unnecessary or unsuitable items, in other words, how not to lose money. Buying such in-game items can be complicated with numerous parameters, different forms, and fluctuating prices, somewhat resembling the cryptocurrency market.
The product team decided that a configurator would be helpful and logical for the users. To create a suitable configurator, the team analyzed the users and their motivations. They discovered that creativity was a strong driver for their users. Consequently, if they created an attractive configurator where users could select weapons by color, specific type, price, and various stickers, they could motivate users through creativity. As a result, the conversion rate for the first purchase was expected to increase.
The hypothesis was confirmed — the new configurator led to a 7% increase in conversion rate. Additionally, the number of items added to favorites during the first session increased by almost 20%, with a portion of these deferred items being purchased later.
Of course, users also had another strong motivation — avoidance: they did not want to buy skins that would later decrease in value and become impossible to sell for a reasonable amount of money. However, there was not much that could be done about this issue, as it is impossible to influence the value of skins, similar to trying to regulate stock prices individually.
The key takeaway from this case study is that when implementing gamification, it is important to target the most important motivation and focus on it. This motivation should provide the most significant growth and be the most evident, which is somewhat similar to the concept of a startup, where initially only the most critical hypothesis is tested.
Case Study: Gamification of Homework Assignments in a Lifestyle Course
In this case study, the company’s name cannot be mentioned due to a non-disclosure agreement. One of the projects during the collaboration was the gamification of homework assignments. The company offered a daily lifestyle course for women, covering topics such as facial massage and makeup, divided into two levels: beginner and advanced. However, almost none of the students completed their homework assignments, as if they were not needed at all.
The team decided that this was not right: users had paid for the course (which was not cheap) but did not complete the homework assignments, meaning they were not practicing the skills they had learned.
As a result, the company introduced a soft currency: virtual diamonds or coins that could only be used within the course or application. This currency could be exchanged for discounts on other courses and was only awarded for completed homework assignments.
Unfortunately, the conversion rate did not improve. The team believes that they may have misidentified the users’ motivation, assuming that the most important factors were ownership and avoiding negative experiences. Additionally, they may have made a mistake in trying to address two motivations with one mechanic without prioritizing one over the other.
Upon conducting additional research, it was revealed that the main reason users signed up for the course was social influence. The company then encouraged users to take photos of their completed homework assignments, share them in their stories, and send a link to the company, promising to repost these stories on their one-million-follower account. This approach worked, as it targeted the users’ primary motivation. One woman even sent a lengthy essay explaining why the company should repost her story, without mentioning the homework assignment itself.
Case Study: Gamification in a Betting Platform
In this case study, the company’s name cannot be mentioned due to a non-disclosure agreement. The project is currently underway, focusing on an important metric: the number of bets per user.
In general, users can place bets anywhere: online, in various betting establishments, or even with another person. The essence remains the same: people place bets and experience the excitement of potentially winning or losing. However, users have already experienced this thrill and grown accustomed to it. So, what’s next?
The team thought it might be worthwhile to test a mechanic involving collections, similar to the concept of Kinder Surprise toys. For every 1,000 rubles (or equivalent currency) a user bets, they receive a random virtual collectible card. Currently, there are cards for six different sports, with more in development. When a user collects all five cards in a collection, they receive a substantial free bet, or “freebet.” The bet itself is free, but any winnings from it are real and can be withdrawn and spent, just like with a regular bet.
The collection mechanic works simultaneously with achievement and ownership — once again, the team is pursuing two motivations and is unsure if this is the right choice. However, it seems that in the current situation, it’s difficult to focus on just one. Firstly, achievement — users want to collect the entire set, which means they’re less likely to place bets elsewhere. Secondly, ownership — they’ve already collected a certain number of cards and continue betting to collect them all. If they don’t collect all five, what was the point of collecting the first three?
The results cannot be shared at this time, as the hypothesis is still being tested and everything is under NDA. However, the team promises to provide an update on the outcome once they can disclose the information.
Gamification is not about games, but about working with motivation. You need to think about what your user wants to do, their motives for using the product, writing something, or making purchases. Games are just a specific embodiment of gamification: progress boards, delayed rewards, collections, and many other mechanics.
To focus on the main thing — people’s motives, rather than games within the product, it’s important to remember that you are primarily engaged in motivation, not gamification. Gamification is based on a complex understanding of types of motivation and the mechanics that trigger it, but it is not motivation itself.
Gamification works situationally — it’s not a golden bullet. There are cases where it is interesting and beneficial to work with gamification, and there are cases where it will be a waste of money and time.
Gamification is expensive. If a manager suggests implementing gamification, immediately clarify whether additional resources will be allocated for it. Also, consider finding someone who is knowledgeable about game mechanics, as they need to be understood.
Gamification will not cure process problems.
Gamification is cool and interesting, and if it makes sense in your case to try implementing game mechanics, be sure to work with them.
To understand the topic of gamification, Yu-Kai Chou’s book “Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards” can help, and you can develop a better understanding of specific mechanics by playing games and analyzing gamification cases in other products.