Gamification Without Play

November 23rd, 2011

Tribal DDB Asia Pacific’s Brandon Cheung explores the creation of meaningful content. This blog post was first published at ClickZAsia where we regularly contribute content.

Gartner predicts that 70 percent of companies will have at least one gamification application in their business within the next two years.

This is a bold prediction. And I absolutely believe it to be true. But it begs the important question, how many people really understand gamification right now and will they see the tidal wave of game-mechanics coming their way?

Currently, the common definition of gamification is a system of points and rewards that provide us with an incentive to play with products, services, or otherwise ordinary tasks. While this definition is not wrong, it’s not completely right either. When I wrote about gamification five months ago, I tried to emphasize that gamification has deeper applications beyond fun experiences. Observing the market almost half a year later, I realize this shift in understanding is easier said than done.

So let me try to reframe this in a way that takes the play out of gamification.

The Academic Theory of Motivation

By the book, gamification is applying game-based mechanics to non-traditional game environments. But even this definition creates ambiguity in action.

Game-based design is built on achieving the optimal State of Flow, which progressively aligns challenges and skill levels to keep a user interested and engaged. When this is out of balance, a user is either overwhelmed by the complexity or bored by the simplicity.

When executed correctly, gamification acts as a powerful motivation tool to change human behavior. Ordinarily boring or tedious activities such as education, work, or exercise can benefit greatly from the right state of flow.

It just so happens that game designers (e.g. Hasbro, Mattel, Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Zynga) have been the masters of this craft for many years. They’ve used this flow to entertain us with their games time and time again. And this is why we naturally associate gamification with playfulness and fun.

Reframing the Motivation of Play

We’re starting to see a lot of frameworks floating around that define the components of good game mechanics:

1) Gartner talks about the 3 M’s – motivation, momentum, and meaning.
2) The book, “Game Frame,” talks about a cycle of challenge, feedback, improvement, and reward.
3) Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets) calls it Meaningful Play with three core ingredients of meaning, mastery, and autonomy of action.

While these are nice thinking frameworks, they’re all still very academic and theoretical. Dare I say, “too strategic” for the masses.

How do we bring this back down to earth? How can we see more examples of this in our daily lives beyond situations of fun and play?

Rather than a framework, I prefer to use this question as a guide for identifying gamified actions:

Is it a willing and progressively structured action?

We tend to think game experiences are like this: “I do [X] because it’s fun.”
But really, our mind is going through this process: “I willingly do [X] because it’s [Y]… and that makes it fun.”

Willingness to do an action that others may find dreadful can be driven by a variety of personal motivations:

1) “I willingly practice because it improves my skills.”
2) “I willingly manage my budget because I want to retire early.”
3) “I willingly donate to charity because it’s good for others.”

The key to structure is building incremental levels of feedback and achievement to keep you willingly engaged. The moment your motivation becomes overwhelming or boring, you’ve lost that structured flow.

A few examples from my life:

1) I willingly check my Facebook notifications every day because I love clearing out those little red boxes. If there are 100 notifications, I’m overwhelmed. If there are no notifications I’m bored. The more I do this, the better my experience gets.
2) I willingly exercise because it’s good for my health. If I keep track of my progress I feel like I’m accomplishing my goals. If I don’t keep track, the end goal is far away and daunting. Apps like RunKeeper help.
3) I willingly write this column because it’s rewarding to help others. If it gets likes, shares, and comments I’m achieving my goals. If the content doesn’t vibe with my readers, I’m challenged to improve.

The progressive structures that we set up in our minds to motivate our actions are the purest game-mechanics at work. The reason why we willingly do something instead of unwillingly do something is solely dependent on our mindset.

Play is just the byproduct of how we’ve built the flow in our minds.

Gamify Yourself First

So if you’re thinking about applying gamification to an aspect of your business, whether it’s for customer interaction or employee management, I suggest you build some game structures in your own life first. You’ll appreciate the complexity before you rush into launching more points systems and badges.

See what it’s like to transform your own obligatory actions into willing and progressively structured actions.

One place to start is at work. It’s likely that your annual performance feedback doesn’t motivate your daily performance. Try to build a structure that gives you a daily challenge and sense of achievement and growth. Make your pay-off personally relevant and not just about your boss or your paycheck.

At my office we share one cool thing per day to educate our team. And each day the content gets better and better. We feel guilty if we don’t raise the bar for each other’s benefit.

The structure you create doesn’t have to be fun; it just has to be relevant. People will convince themselves that it’s playing instead of working.

As regional digital strategy director at Tribal DDB Asia Pacific , Brandon is an integral part of the development and execution of Radar, Tribal DDB’s regional social media offering. He also provides digital leadership for the agency’s clients. Brandon was previously (Group) Strategic Planning Director at Isobar and Carat Hong Kong, where he led digital and social media development for a range of clients, such as Chivas Regal, Swire Properties, Tiffany & Co., Nokia and adidas. He also developed Astro, a proprietary social media customer relationship management (CRM) system. Brandon has eight years of experience in digital marketing strategy, having worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. He loves the Internet and thinks we don’t say it enough. Show him some love on Twitter @brcheung or Google+.



  • Sara says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Officially bookmarked your wonderful blog.

    This explanation…

    We tend to think game experiences are like this: “I do [X] because it’s fun.”
    But really, our mind is going through this process: “I willingly do [X] because it’s [Y]… and that makes it fun.”]

    …is phenomenal.