Gamification: Game Mechanics
After analysing what gamification is and its potential to achieve user loyalty, as well as who is currently applying gamification techniques, we will now go deeper into the underlying techniques for gamification of a website or service: game mechanics.
Game mechanics are a number of rules for creation of enjoyable games that generate a certain degree of addiction and commitment in users, as well as a route to follow, either in a videogame or in any other kind of application. Although there are many user mechanics, we will here focus on the most significant or usual ones in website gamification.
In a way, we are all collectors to a certain extent, as we have interests that we feel passionate about, and we want to get everything that is related to them: literature, music, videogames, etc. In fact, this is the key to the success of the companies that launch all sorts of collections to be sold in Spanish newsstands (particularly after the summer).
In fact, as children we have all been über-collectors of sticker or card collections: football players, Pokémon, or any other topic. These stickers and cards meant a lot to us as we would “brag” to our playground friends that we owned cards which they didn’t have (because they were very rare), or even exchange duplicate cards for cards which we needed to complete our collection, establishing a social communication which was based on these collections.
The concept of collecting things has been successfully transferred to many social networks. For example, in videogame social networks such as Wipley or Nosplay, users generally have a “virtual shelf” where they can keep their videogames; in book social networks, such as Anobii or EntreLectores, there are “virtual shelves” that display our book collections, etc. These are only the virtualisation of the book/CD/videogame shelves which many of us have at home, which we are very proud of as aficionados of a certain subject, and which we display to our friends to show that we are super fans of a certain type of novel or film.
In addition to vertical social networks, this kind of game mechanics can be found in multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft, where we have an item inventory, and where we can also obtain a number of “special” armours or weapons which in a certain way represent a player status.
Points are one of the game mechanics to which we have been most exposed until now. In fact, points affect many aspects of our lives, some of which are related to game, some of which are rather less “entertaining”, such as exams, performance reviews, project evaluations, etc. Points are a basic, simple way to obtain feedback on the things we do, and they motivate us because they provide immediate feedback. They also allow us to compare ourselves to others (we will examine this aspect in the following section).
Points have existed in videogames practically from the start. Almost any videogame we have played gave us immediate feedback, specifying the points earned by killing alien spaceships (Space Invaders), placing pieces in place (Tetris), eating “ghosts” (PacMan), or killing enemies and completing missions (World of Warcraft).
Applying a point system to websites, services, social networks, and even other offline tasks is relatively easy. Users of any website are constantly performing actions, either implicitly (visiting a page or product) or explicitly (registering, commenting, adding friends). If we determine the importance of each of these actions and assign it a numerical value in points, we obtain a system that encourages users to perform actions in our website, and gives priority to those actions which are of greater value to us. Thus we encourage users to “play” the game which we want them to play.
The concept of points has appeared in systems that are similar to gamification and which are relatively frequent in everyday life, such as user loyalty programmes. For example, many petrol stations have systems that allow us to accumulate points (which are usually represented as a percentage of our purchases) which can be then exchanged for some kind of product or discount. As users, we fall into the “trap” and usually refuel in petrol stations that are affiliated with the user loyalty programme in which we almost have the points necessary to get a product which we are interested in. In some cases, this makes us pay less attention to the price of petrol than to points, which is, after all, a secondary reward, particularly given how expensive petrol currently is.
3. Comparisons and ratings
The main problem with points is that, in themselves, they don’t enable us to obtain adequate conclusions. Getting a score of 5 in an exam may be more or less difficult than getting a 9 in a different subject, and points do not allow us to measure real effort. Thus, in order to reach a conclusion, we need to be able to “relativize” these scores, and here is where comparisons come in. Comparisons provide us with a different viewpoint: you may have obtained a score of 5 in an exam, but that was the highest score in the class, and thus you have a certain idea of the effort required to achieve that score. By contrast, your score of 9 in another subject is average, your effort won’t stand out, however near to the maximum score you are.
In addition to relativizing points, comparisons encourage a certain aspect of human nature: competitiveness. We all like to win: we all like to be among the most relevant, influential, “cool” people, or else among the strongest, the most intelligent, etc. Allowing users to compare themselves to others or to global rankings promotes this competitiveness, as well as user participation in your website.
Many websites (vertical social networks, blogs, portals, etc.) currently include user rankings based on user participation. These rankings promote user involvement, provide users with immediate feedback on their participation, and even offer them “rewards” for their actions. Moreover, they allow website administrators to identify the most active users, the “power users” who attract more users and encourage other users to participate by means of their activity level and their “passion” for the service.
In addition to allowing us to build comparisons and rankings, points also open the door to level development. Levels are usually represented as point ranges, and offer users a clearer view of their position in a certain game or website, as we generally have a finite number of levels, as opposed to a (practically) infinite number of points. For example, in World of Warcraft, you can earn points in multiple ways, and just obtaining a million points does not make it easy to compare yourselves to other players, given that, as we progress through the game, the number of points earned for every mission and action completed grows exponentially. Basically, earning 10,000 points may be as easy at a certain point in the game as obtaining 100 points in an initial game stage. However, being in level 40 allows you to see that you are practically halfway through the game levels (there are currently 85 levels).
In addition, levels allow us to quickly identify various involvement levels, as well as to create different challengers for users. A level-1 user is a new arrival in the system, and is not remotely as involved as a level-85 user. Users in the higher levels can be shown more features (as they are used to the game or website interface and probably enjoy it), and given much more complex challenges. By contrast, users in lower levels should be nurtured in a different way, allowing them to advance more quickly in order to get them “hooked”, and gradually showing them the system features and possibilities, so that they are not completely lost among endless possibilities.
Feedback is one of the mechanisms we are most used to and which has the greatest impact on our personal and professional development. Just to use an example of the importance of feedback which I have recently borne very much in mind: positive feedback plays a key role in dog training. In a few hours, you can get a dog to respond to an order in a specific way by providing immediate positive reinforcement (as a prize which the dog can eat, or else patting and encouragement), and that reinforcement is etched in the dog’s mind practically for life, as a linked has been established between the order and a certain action.
Feedback is also crucial in personal relationships. You may love a person, but if you don’t reinforce that love (saying that you love him/her, with everyday gestures, etc.) a situation can be generated in which the other person, by not receiving this kind of reinforcement and stimuli, may feel alienated. In our professional lives we are also used to reinforcement and stimuli (although, unfortunately, in many companies negative reinforcement is much more common than positive reinforcement). A work environment in which positive reinforcement leads to employee enthusiasm and happiness is clearly different from an environment where negative reinforcement prevails, and people often feel intimidated when it comes to innovation.
Given that we are so used to reinforcement and feedback, why shouldn’t this be the case in the web applications we use? Insofar as possible, our users should always receive some kind of feedback, which can be positive, a notification that tells them that they have successfully completed a task/mission, or even that something has happened which might be of interest to them. Although notification have been the object of a lot development lately (Facebook notifies us by email when someone publishes something on our wall, and LinkedIn notifies us when someone adds us to their contact list), positive reinforcement is not adequately implemented yet. Users often navigate through websites, sharing and commenting on information and they are not given any kind of feedback on their actions, which can make them feel that they are on their own or even that they are wasting their time.
Giving feedback to your users helps them to learn how to use an application or system, speeds up their development, and makes them feel more comfortable and enjoy more what they are doing, even if it’s boring or everyday tasks.
In this post, we have analysed 5 of the most frequent game mechanics. Even though these are not remotely all the available game mechanics, they allow us to have some clear reference points when it comes to gamifying a website, or even gamifying everyday tasks. Game mechanics are nothing new, but rather are integrated in some way not only in videogames but in our daily lives, and so users can follow them in a highly intuitive way.
In the next posts, we will take an even closer look at some of these game dynamics. We will also examine some other game mechanics, studying their effects (both positive and negative) and giving examples of their use in web applications such as social networks, blogs, and other web services.