April 12, 2014

The Secret To Successful Game Design

Why Some Games Fail and Others Succeed

Gamification seems to be at a crossroads. Numerous case studies detail the powerful behavioral transformation caused from the application of game principles to areas ranging from customer engagement to narrative-based learning to classifying objects in the galaxy. Consequently, IT research giant Gartner predicts that more than 70% of Global 2000 companies will have added game elements to at least one of their applications at some point this year.

But while the success stories have highlighted the potential of gamification to reinforce behavior, examples of failure can just as easily be found. As with any emerging trend, the hype doesn’t always translate into results. Technology’s success depends on context, and a shallow understanding of context will inevitably lead to superficial results. Gamification is no different.

The vast differences in gamification case-studies beg the question: what makes some gamification strategies fail, while others achieve meaningful results?

Moving beyond anecdotes and debate, science has provided an answer to why games fail and why they succeed. The real predictor of a game’s success lies in its ability to provoke the release of dopamine, a chemical the brain releases as part of the human body’s natural reward system.

The surest way to unlock dopamine bursts lies in effectively motivating users, but motivation is a complex topic. Let’s explore.

Make It Meaningful

The process of meaningful game design relies on tapping into the proper form of motivation. Motivation comes in four forms: extrinsic (external), intrinsic (internal), positive, and negative. Since it’s unlikely many games will be designed around negative reinforcement, let’s make positive reinforcement the default, which leaves choosing between external and internal motivation as the key to successful gamification.

External motivation works by rewarding people for completing tasks that they often have no emotional connection to. As an example, let’s turn to the age-old practice of enticing teenagers to cut the grass in exchange for cash. Unless the teen holds a strong interest in gardening, they have no internal desire to cut the grass; it’s a chore.

A cash reward will most likely motivate a user to complete an action, but this type of external motivation is a slippery slope. Although paying a child for mowing the yard achieves the desired result, the user gains no psychological gratification from the experience; the behavior remains a job.  Think: why would he ever willingly cut the grass again without being paid? The teenager has no emotional connection to the grass being short – no one ever acquired a bunch of new friends because he had the best trimmed yard.

We can infer from this example that external motivation:

  • is either expensive or flat-out unsustainable for many businesses: users must always receive a reward to complete an action
  • susceptible to diminishing returns: unless the reward increases or changes in some substantial way, the user may grow apathetic to the cash reward in favor of having more free time

The key to truly motivating someone lies in making the desired behavior intrinsically meaningful  by putting the needs of the user before the needs of an organization. Internal motivation must match the values a user already holds dear. The theory of motivational affordance (discussed in greater detail below) explains that users create internal connections to games when an aspect of the game relates to the specific background of that user.

Think about the average driver of hybrid cars: It’s almost a sure thing that these consumers care about conserving energy. In this a context, game elements that record the amount of energy the driver saves with their hybrid vehicle make perfect sense: of course these users want to know how much fuel they saved or the impact they’ve had on carbon emissions. Any game elements created around these values appeal to hybrid drivers on an internal level and could be used to encourage behavior like driving slower to burn less gas.

 So find out what motivates your users. If you’re an employer, think about the aspects of their job your employees value on an emotional level. Why does it matter to them?

 Pinpoint Motivational Affordances


From a motivational perspective, games will need to appeal to range of user backgrounds, so always test your games to uncover what’s working and what’s not. While different users will undoubtedly be drawn to different game aspects, broad categories do exist within the theory of motivational affordance, creating a framework employers and marketers can use to inform the direction of their gamification tactics.

Some of the major motivational affordances include:

  • Achievement: One of the staples of gamification, providing avenues for achievement fulfills a fundamental desire for the improvement of the self. This affordance is so powerful that entire companies now focus on providing game achievement services, or like Codeacademy, make progress and rewards central to their business’s design.
  • Leading and Following: Perhaps best exemplified by Foursquare, social competition has been proven to increase user engagement and reinforce behavior. And while being the leader — in Foursquares’s case the “mayor”– can be viewed as the lone goal of such games, it is important to note a large number of users will not achieve that position but still utilize Foursquare in order to associate themselves with a particular behavior.
  • Social: One of the more obvious affordances given the ubiquity of social media, social aspects of games allow users to create connections around a shared experience. A sense of belonging remains one of the most fundamental psychological needs for humans, so a robust social element makes for a powerful game experience, as seen by Farmville’s success.
  • Emotion and Narrative: Simultaneously the most elusive and most important motivational affordance, emotion can be found at the root of every other affordance. The most effective way to generate an emotional connection with a user lies in the power of storytelling. Humans both process information and experience connections best in narrative form, so telling a compelling story forms the crux of successful game design and implementation. All the previous examples tell stories: Codeacademy tells the story of how you became a front-end developer. Foursquare records the narrative of your life by broadcasting the interesting places you and your friends visit. Farmville spins the yarn of how you created a cow with purple spots.

Gamification does indeed find itself at a turning point. The science of motivation can explain why game design works very well, and also why it fails. As with any technology or strategy, legitimate commitment to understanding and implementation is required. The truth is undeniable: games are powerful tools; they’ve existed in human society for some time now, and with quality design and careful planning, they can alter human behavior in dramatic ways.

Have you experienced game elements that rely too heavily on external motivation? Have you been delighted recently with a game experience? Let us know in the comments.

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