After promoting the word "Mobile" for so long in the recruitment space, it may not shock you that many people have said to me, "Can we have a mobile game to help us with recruiting?". I am tired of firms jumping on to the marketing buzz of "gamification" and totally missing the point. It would seem a bunch of marketing executives are envious of the user growth of platforms like Foursquare and the viral impact of games like Farmville or Angry Birds.

So in true high level executive fashion, they have missed out all the details and created the latest buzz word - "gamification". Now we see all sorts of services trying to add game elements to their products, for example Monsters BeKnown product awards users with badges, oh what wonderful fun that must be.

The current checklist for a product manager to deliver gamification is the following...

  1. Reward users with points for using the product.
  2. Reward higher levels of usage or abnormal usage with badges.
  3. Provide a score board, both among the users social graph but also global
  4. Provide incentives where possible.

Thats is it - easy?

That is what Foursquare offer, what Monsters BeKnown offers and hundreds of other products ranging from shopping through to fitness. But, does it work?  Is this the secret to rapid growth?

The answer, No, No and NO. This common place attempt at trying to make a product or service "fun" does not work, I will tell you why and provide you the true Gamification Strategy...

I hear the shouts now, "but it does work, look at Foursquare, look at all these wonderful examples." Well lets look at the data from Foursqaure, they have grown in users from 2m users to 5m and then 8m, nice work. But lets look at the engagement, they measure it based on average number of checkins, this went from 0.5 checkins per day on average to 0.4 checkins and then with 8m users to 0.34.

So growth of user base saw a big decline in interaction over time. Why is that? Surely this is some mistake, all those new users must have wanted to play the game, and with more people playing existing users had more game to play? Sadly, this is not the case. (I believe Foursquare growth to be closely linked to social network growth not the game element)

To really understand what is actually going on we need to turn to behaviour psychology. Lets consider how children react to being asked to do tasks where pocket money or a reward is offered to do the task. For example washing the parents car.  How do they react? They look down trodden, they don't want to do the task. Rewards to incentivise actions fail to deliver the expected results when they are dangled like a carrot in front on a donkey. Our brain consideres the task and concludes, if a reward is needed to be offered to convince us to do the activity, the task must be negative. Gamification is frequently incorrectly implemented in this manner, which will fail to deliver the expected long term results.

The idea of a simple, almost trivial action being rewarded to attract frequent use is flawed. At its roots it feels like a the users are smilar to rats in a Skinners box, being rewarded with food for pushing a lever. This is not a game, it is NOT going to generate long term engagement. It will result at best in a 5 minute fad.

Have you ever wondered why some childrens birthday toys result in 5 minutes of play and then the child turning to enjoy the cardboard box the toy arrived in for hours on end? It is exactly the same with the typical "gamification". The kid opens the toy, pushes the buttons, gets rewarded with sound or a light, quite quickly this becomes boring - but the box offers unlimited potential!

The toy box, provides us a big part answer to the problem with typical gamification and the answer to make a wonderful game. To really appreciate this take a look at Lego. A simple box of Lego with 200 bricks - how many different structures could you build? The possibilities are endless. This the same for the box in the children's eyes.

Today's common gamification does not offer many possibilities, quite the opposite. Foursquare game offers two possibilities checked in or not (btw Foursqare offers much more user interaction than the game element). Games that last and generate true engagement offer many opportunities. Lets look at the recent hit, Angry Birds. Each level has many different methods to win, different ways to use the birds, different tactics. But then consider TinyWings a spin off game with a bird very simliar and affectionate as Angry Birds. There is no options, the possibilities are very restricted, in this game the you have to fly or not fly but at very precise moments of going up or down a hill. There is only one way to do it. It is boring.

The game must not be too rigid, it must allow creativity, innovation or cunning. If this topic interests you I suggest a book called "Man, Play and Games" by  Roger Caillois written in 1961. Caillois focuses on forms of play on a based on a scale from ludus, structured activities with explicit rules (games), to paidia, unstructured and spontaneous activities (playfulness).

At its roots a game must be fun, it must entertain the player. But what is fun? There are many games where the core activity would be considered by many as the opposite of fun, for example there is a huge number of card games where the entire premis is maths. Or we could consider Scrabble which is just spelling. Many would consider video game hits like Call of Duty not fun, as all it is is war, which I don't remember being described as fun! So the core activity is not the answer.

The reason games are fun is humans like to learn. Now, that learn may not be maths and spelling, it may be mastering hand and eye co-ordination to help a computer graphic plumber save a princess or a blue hedgehog to save a load of rabits. It maybe learning to analysing data and patterns in data to be the best football manager in the world. If we consider some of the most popular hobbies this fits, such as cooking or learning to play an instrument. When someone enjoys say playing a guitar its is the learning process that incentivises them to continue, it is not money rewards, few have any intention performing on stage. Its the same with cooking, if you enjoy trying out new dishes or styles of food it is the learning that makes you do it. Hobby chefs are not aiming to open a restaurant, nor are they trying to enjoy tasting foods of the world, visiting a restaurant would be a better and easier option for that!

So learning equals Fun. The curve ball is that in the wrong environment learning equals work which for most is not fun.

There are plenty of games that manage to tick the learning box and the fun box and even the possibilities box but they still fail! Why, what else is there to get right?

Simplicity! Games need to be simple. The objective, the aim of the game etc needs to be easy to understand. Many successful games start simple and get complicated, that works as long as basic education theory is followed. The key is scaffolded learning. This refers to learning in small chunks at the game players pace.

If the learning flow is too steep the game is too frustrating and not enjoyable. If the learning flow is to flat it seems too easy and the learning reward is never realised. Consider the now 30 year old plumber Mario, in the first game the player is first challenged to learn how to jump. Then the player is challenged to jump and land on something. Then to shoot fire. Then to shoot and jump. This is scaffolding and keeps the game simple. Alternatively, if Mario missed you, consider Monopoly, the game starts by buying property, simple enough. Then the challenge is to get all the same colour. Then you learn to buy houses etc, it is scaffolded learning.

Scaffolding should be coupled with reward at a macro level not at a micro level. The reward may be a new level or a new feature or kudos etc. Rewards given without scaffolding or challenges result in short term interest, and we want long term retention!

In the UK and USA the most participated sport is Golf (it is actually fishing but I refuse to describe fishing as a sport). Golf has also provided thousands of computer games generating millions of pounds (unlike fishing). The Golf industry is worth 50 billions euros in Europe alone!

Here is the Gamification (Golf) blue print:

  • Simple - you hit a ball with a stick forwards to get it into a hole, the one who achieves this by hitting the ball least times is the winner.
  • Learning - it is easy enough to hit a ball forwards, tougher to get it straight. Tougher to hit up a hill etc etc. The environment is typically beautifully landscaped, so unlike a classroom.
  • Scaffolding - as you develop your game through hours of practice you learn how to use different clubs - irons, putter then woods. You learn how to hit the ball a small distance on a par 3 course and play on the putting green. You then learn how to drive longer distance. Eventually the course becomes the challenge mixed with the weather.
  • Possibilities - well if everyone hit the ball the same place every course would have a worn path along the grass. There are many possibilities and many challenges thanks to bunkers, rough, balls bouncing off in a surprising direction, gusts of wind etc.
  • Reward - improving your score or handicap, competing with others and winning or just the pleasure of the ball "plopping" into the hole. The ability to play a tougher course. The reward to use a new club type.

Now consider these key points Simple, Learning, Scaffolding, Possibilities, Reward with games or hobbies that you return to day after day or week after week. As a kid I wasted a lot of time playing 9 Ball Pool and Pacman - both of these tick the true gamification requirements.

So, before you waste money on the latest marketing buzz, stop and think about it. What is the goal?

Do you want to invest development funds, marketing budget and time into a product that has 5 minutes of interest? If not then do it properly, or don't bother.

If you goal is to attract users and raise awareness, you would probably be better off outsourcing a viral video and then seeding it by buying views through Google AdWords in the hope it goes viral. Or just adopting standard online marketing strategy.

Don't insult your potential candidates, do gamification but do it properly or not at all.

For further reading look up Gabe Zichermann, Organiser of the Gamification Summit.

(Written on my iPhone, sorry for any typos I will get to them later)

AuthorDave Martin