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psychology of gamification

Tapping into the Intangible: Qualifying the Psychology of Gamification

In a nutshell, gamification techniques strive to leverage people’s natural desires, ranging from competition to achievement to self-expression to closure. It’s an industry poised to hit $5.5 billion within the next five years (M2 Research). While there are a lot of resources being invested in these strategies, there aren’t many that are doing it particularly well, with Gartner claiming that 80% of attempts fail. Why the high failure rate?

They ignore the user’s needs.

One of the earliest examples of gamification is the inclusion of Solitaire in the early versions of Microsoft’s Windows. Microsoft included Solitaire to help soothe people who were intimidated by the system—remember, the idea of a graphical user interface, using a mouse, was pretty revolutionary—and Solitaire was a way to familiarize them with the concept of clicking, dragging and dropping. Techniques have gotten more sophisticated since then, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for user empathy.

Simply employing gamification in a training program or in other business applications isn’t an automatic way to guarantee participation and retention. Many implementations take into consideration the planning aspect of the development, but arguably the more important side of gamification—tapping into users’ minds—is less tangible.

Gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou knows this, and he developed a framework that takes a human-centered approach to analyzing gaming strategies. This changes the focus to how the user interacts with the training program or business application as well as the rewards, gains or detriments that can occur. He created a framework called Octalysis, which can be used to assess and visually represent how well strategies are implemented based on core drives, which then fall into quadrants of deeper understanding.

Chou’s eight core drives in gamification include:

  • Meaning: the user feels that they were chosen to play the game, or that they’re contributing to something greater than themselves.
  • Empowerment: the user becomes addicted to the creative process of figuring out a problem and trying different combinations to solve it.
  • Social influence: social elements that drive people such as acceptance, competition, and social responses. It satisfies our natural impulse to feel connected and closer to people through events to which we can relate.
  • Unpredictability: the desire to continue to find out just what happens.
  • Avoidance: this drive is based upon the avoidance of something negative happening. As humans, we’re extremely risk averse, whether it’s the idea of losing work in the form of points or advantages gained through a system.
  • Scarcity: the desire to have something but not being able to have it. It’s similar to games that have appointment dynamics, such as come back in two hours and gain bonus points, which makes users think about the game in the meantime.
  • Ownership: the user feels like they own something, and because they own it, they want to make it better.
  • Accomplishment: simply put, it’s the internal drive to overcome a challenge.

These eight drives are arranged in the shape of an octagon, and then assigned a score based on how well the drive is met on a scale of 1-10. Additionally, Chou identifies four quadrants that can help define the strategies even further. Each drive falls under right brain (intrinsic motivation) and left brain (extrinsic motivation), white hat (positive or inspirational) and black hat (negative or manipulative).

Gamification Framework

Octalysis sounds complicated…well, because it is. But applying the framework can be helpful to determine how you’re meeting the learning needs of the users. It’s one thing to have a lot for users to do, but the most important question is simply why do they want to do it?

How do your gamification efforts stack up in the octalysis?

Written by Meghan Hatalla, a higher ed technical training and communications specialist


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