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The seven tricks everyone can learn from game designers

Gamification, the practice of adding game-like mechanics to non-game applications to improve engagement, is going through a hype cycle. And one of its leading experts, Amy Jo Kim, added to the push by outlining seven core gamification tricks today at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

Kim, a veteran game designer and founder of the game studio Shufflebrain, said she wasn’t a fan of the word “gamification.” She prefers the word “game thinking” and believes that games are going to be everywhere, noting that game designer Will Wright refers to this time as a Gambrian Explosion, much like the Cambrian Explosion that gave birth to so many new life forms 500 million years ago. Games are everywhere.

Kim said that some people describe gamification as a loyalty program on steroids; or using game techniques to turbo-charge products, services and apps; or taking a real world activity and turning it into a game. But game thinking cuts through the hype and is a more important story. It’s about teaching what game designers know that everybody else should know.

Here are the seven ideas explained:

1. Know who’s playing – design for their social style. There are a lot of different ways to entertainment people. What is their style of playing? Are they so competitive that they like to beat their opponents and brag about it? Is the audience into exploration? Is the gamer cooperative, or playing for the sake of self-expression? These considerations will affect the core actions in the game or service.

2. Build fun, pleasure, and satisfaction into your core activity loop. Many critics felt that FarmVille had no game play. But Kim said the core activity actually was fun. You planted crops, watched them grow, harvested the beautiful fruits of your labor, and enjoyed rewards. Foursquare also creates positive emotions, since the location-based game is fun, useful in terms of educating you about your surroundings, and it’s social. Even Amazon has a core activity loop where you click on something, get immediate information about it, then you buy it and receive assurance that the transaction has gone through. Amazon imparts a positive emotion that makes you feel like you can trust it with your money transactions.

3. Change the user experience over time. There are three key stages of a player’s life cycle: novice, regular, and enthusiast. They won’t experience a web site, game or other experience in a static way. They need different content to be satisfied. Foursquare uses points and badges for leveling up. Regulars need fresh content, activities and challenges. Enthusiasts need exclusive rewards, recognition, and impact.

4. Build a system that’s easy to learn but hard to master. You can look at applications such as Quora, the question and answer site. It’s easy to figure out how to ask questions or read answers. Other users can edit your questions so they will get better answers. You can learn from their example how to write better questions. The quality of the questions goes up. Quora can teach people how to master the question and answer process.

5. Use game mechanics to light the way towards mastery. The Nike + Coach program trains users how to run. It offers clear feedback and progressive goals that show you how to master long-distance running, share your stats with the community, and understand what your stats mean. It shows you the path to get better.

6. As players progress, increase the challenge and complexity. This is called “flow” in game play, where you try to keep the player interested in the experience, balancing between anxiety and boredom. You have to keep the gamer in the middle, or the flow channel. You can do this with progressive quests, which give you more tasks to do once you’ve leveled up in games like CityVille. You can make the user interface more complex after someone masters the game and give the users new tools when they are ready for them.

7. Embrace intrinsic motivators. A book by Dan Pink — Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us — tells about intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic value trumps extrinsic rewards in many ways. You can get your user to complete tasks by stirring their intrinsic motivations that deliver real value to players. Modcloth lets users create a crowdsourced clothing line that gives people who create it a lot of satisfaction, but not a huge external reward.

Kim has worked on games such as The Sims and Ultima Online for Electronic Arts and she has helped design game-like experiences for eBay, Netflix, and Rock Band. She is holding her own gamification workshops in the coming weeks.


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  1. [...] 2015. The Gamification Summit drew a big crowd in January. Gamification experts Gabe Zichermann and Amy Jo Kim are doing regular gamification [...]

  2. [...] Beyond Gamification – 7 core concepts everyone can learn from game designers, distilled here. [...]

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