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Play the power game

January 5, 2016

Gamification – another business trend or a powerful means to enhance efficiency and quality of work? Gamification pioneer Yu-kai Chou shares his insight about this topical issue.

All humans have feelings, ambitions, insecurities and specific reasons for doing certain things. Gamification is the craft of deriving engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world activities. It is a human-focused approach that optimizes feelings, motivations, and engagement as the basic foundation for designing systems.

Since game designers have spent decades learning how to keep people consistently engaged with repetitive activity loops towards “purposeless” goals, games are a great source of insight for human-focused design. Think of chess, hide-and-seek, or Monopoly – you could stretch back centuries to learn what game designers can teach us on creating compelling, playful experiences.

Reducing costs

In a few short years, gamification has reached a social tipping point and is starting to creep into every aspect of our lives, from education, work, parenting, and all the way to healthcare and scientific research. In an industrial context, gamification is often seen in training: companies allow new trainees to overcome difficult challenges within the simulated environment that causes game-like feel to actual challenges. The research indicates that simulated training can reduce the annual training costs by more than 50 percent on just the equipment operation and instructor time.

The academic studies also suggest that gamification can increase both the efficiency and quality of training. Several defense organizations, academic institutions and companies like NASA, Honda and John Deere have implemented gamification techniques in training. These gamified simulators allow the company to track data on each person's performance, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of these employees to both analyze and then utilize in the workplace.

A game changer?

How can a company make optimal use of gamification? And are there possible pitfalls that should be taken into consideration?

It is important to remember that gamification is beyond simply using points or badges to motivate people towards desired behavior. Good gamification implementation relies on thoughtful design that applies the eight identified inner core drives (see the picture). Only when the core drives are balanced can a company implementing gamification then create long lasting and engaging experiences, which in turn generates sustainable business ROI.

Take employee motivation, for example; companies should especially capitalize on meaning, accomplishment and empowerment. That means making employees feel like they are doing something important and also developing in their chosen professional tasks. These core drives make users feel powerful and in control, but a possible pitfall might be that there is no sense of urgency. Then focusing on; scarcity, unpredictability and avoidance: they make users feel urgent, obsessed, even addicted to the desired behavior, though in the long run users can feel like they are not in control of their own actions.

The biggest risk in designing gamification applications is being too dependent on the logical brain. That means counting on core drives such as accomplishment, ownership and scarcity that are all related to extrinsic motivation – things people do for a reward, not for the activity itself. The company, in this instance, might see a short term increase in their business metrics, but in the long run the user can burn out and lose motivation. Instead, core drives such as empowerment, social influence and unpredictability are related to intrinsic motivation: things people do simply because they enjoy it, and they are even willing to pay real money to do these activities.


Text: Yu-kai Chou
Photos: Yu-kai Chou, Shutterstock

8 core drives of gamification

1. Meaning
The user believes that they are doing something greater than themselves or they were “chosen” to do something. As a result they devote a lot of his time to the task at hand. Example: Wikipedia.

2. Accomplishment
The user is making progress, developing skills, and eventually overcoming challenges. Example: Receiving badges and points.

3. Empowerment
The user is engaged in a creative process where they have to figure things out. The user needs to be able to see the results of their creativity and receive feedback. Example: Lego.

4. Ownership
The user is motivated because they feel like they own something. Example: Customizing a profile or avatar.

5. Social Influence
The user is motivated by mentorship, acceptance, companionship, as well as competition and envy. Example: Competing with a skilled friend.

6. Scarcity
The user wants something because they cannot have it. Example: Facebook during its early stages.

7. Unpredictability
The user wants to find out what will happen next. Example: Watching movies or reading novels.

8. Avoidance
The user is motivated by the avoidance of something negative happening. Example: Losing a job.

Yu-kai Chou

  • Gamification expert and author, president of Octalysis group
  • Yu-kai Chou is a gamification pioneer and international keynote lecturer for entities such as Stanford University, TEDx and Accenture. In 2014, Yu-kai was rated #1 in the Top 100 Gamification Gurus by the World Gamification Congress.