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Gamification is evolving, as ever more research on motivation creates a broader reference for more purposeful, effective design. So, let’s call gamification for what it is: motivational design.

When ‘gamification’ hit the big league of business buzzwords around 2011, it was pitched as a cure-all for slack employee engagement, erratic compliance, sagging customer loyalty and every other performance ailment known to business. The hype was thick and furious, but mostly lacking in wholly satisfactory responses to basic questions: What is it? How does it work?  Maybe the concept seemed too obviously simple to interrogate (it’s a game, right?) but for every early adopter success story there were exponentially more gamification failures.

So, game point to Brian Burke at Gartner for the now famous prediction: “…by 2014, eighty percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design.”

Why design matters

Design, in its many forms, is concerned with ‘improving the human experience’ in our interactions with products, technology, living spaces, services and each other.

The human-centred design movement has raised the profile and expanded awareness of what has always been a basic tenant of good design; that is, making things work better for peopleGood design is quiet, discreet and serves our needs unnoticed. Bad design draws attention to every obstacle between us and the task we need to perform.

Where so many gamification applications go wrong, as Burke pointed out several years ago, is focusing heavily on obvious game mechanics (like points, badges and leaderboards) while underestimating, or outright ignoring, “more subtle and more important game design elements, such as balancing competition and collaboration, or defining a meaningful game economy.” It’s the stuff of deeper human drives that support behaviour change build on tangible, long-term benefits for the organisation.

The essence of gamification

So, what is gamification?  Here’s a few representative explanations.

Roman Rackwitz, CEO of German-based Engaging Lab, calls it straight up: “Please take into consideration that there is still an ongoing debate – around the world – concerning gamification’s definition.” True, but not particularly helpful to the uninitiated.

Brian Burke, Vice President, Chief of Research at Gartner, refreshed the company’s position on gamification in 2014, with the definition:“The use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.” The reference to ‘digital’ is not a requirement, strictly speaking, but is the form most gamified applications take in a business environment.

Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball, author, currently with Google, cuts to the chase with this evocative analogy in his business best-seller, Loyalty 3.0: “If motivation and big data had a love child, its name would be gamification.” Gamification is essentially motivating people through data.

Yu-Kai Chou, speaker, author, President of the Octalysis Group and creator of the Octalysis Framework speaks to the gaming roots of gamification: “Gamification is the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities.”

The definition is familiar, but his explanation gives it new life: “Games have no other purpose than to please the human inside.”  And whether the player’s objective is to slay the dragon or save the princess, “those are all excuses to simply keep the player happily entertained inside.”  What a beautiful description of intrinsic motivation.

Motivational design (aka gamification)

The Playa perspective redefines gamification altogether by calling out the central components of what it is and what it does:

“Gamification is design that motivates people toward specific behaviour change. It’s motivational design.”

Playa’s take on gamification as motivational design reflects both a growing body of research on human motivation and a greater understanding that absent solid design, game mechanics are fun, but essentially meaningless conduits for changing behaviour. What’s the point? This repositioning creates a broader frame of reference for gamification, which makes for more purposeful and better performing, gamified design. 

Let’s keep talking

As the global gamification dialogue continues, we can only move closer to a clear, consistent articulation of what gamification is and how it can be applied for the betterment of everyday, human experiences. And that’s important for helping organisations make sense of how gamification and motivational design can foster engagement, fuel intrinsic motivation and support business objectives.  But only when it’s done right.  So, let’s keep talking.