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Using collection sets in gamification sustains engagement and taps into a deep-rooted human drive to collect and acquire things.

When we look at gamification analyst Yu-kai Chou’s now famous Octalysis framework, we observe that there is a lot more going on than simply providing ‘a bit of fun’ for the player. The framework seeks to qualify why we enjoy games by determining eight core drives that motivate us to keep playing. If a game is too easy, we lose interest. On the other hand, if the game is too difficult, we get angry very quickly.

A delicate balance needs to be struck between frivolous and frustrating. Similarly, in-game reward mechanisms need to be employed intelligently, as too little of one or too much of another will soon lead to disengagement. It is important to remember that it is in the playing that we derive our joy, it is the striving toward accomplishment that we stay engaged; in other words, it’s not the achievement itself that motivates. It is the means and not the end that gives us pleasure.

So, how do we sustain joy and engagement in a gamified solution? One way is to include collection sets; little items ‘to have and to hold’, which have no real effect on the gameplay itself but are highly prized and coveted nonetheless.

Collectible sets, in stark contrast to badges of accomplishment, have no intrinsic significance. That is to say, they aren’t rewards for completing challenges, nor are they indicators of things like rank. They exist purely to be collected and admired by the player and they appeal particularly to those of us who are ‘completionists’. We “want it, because we want it”. From a hunter-gatherer perspective, badges of accomplishment appeal to our inner hunter, while collectibles appeal more to the gatherer side of our nature. The hunters didn’t just chase down a gazelle, cook it and eat it; they kept the horns as trophies and gathered those trophies to show off.

How then do you explain people who collect, say, porcelain figurines, or snow globes, or expensive Lego sets? Surely, there is no advantage to collecting this type of thing in the hunter-gatherer sense, so what’s the deal? Well, the answer is quite simple actually – collecting things brings us joy. Beethoven most likely didn’t know how ‘challenge affects dopamine levels in our brain’ when he wrote the Ode to Joy, for him it was simply enough that joy was the pinnacle of happiness and worth pursuing.

This is borne out time and again in successful games. The ability to bring joy distinguishes a simple ‘click-fest’ from a true masterpiece of engagement and immersion.

Some of the most successful games can be very much the opposite of fun – they can be positively frustrating at times – yet it is amazing what folks will go through to unlock a special or rare collectible. Even Napoleon said, “A soldier will march long and hard for a piece of coloured ribbon”. Strictly speaking, his ‘ribbon’ is a badge of achievement, not a collectible, so let’s rephrase that with a modern spin: “Parents will drive far and wide – and to a whole chain of stores they may not even frequent – just to complete their children’s ‘Stikeez’ or ‘Little Shop’ collections”. Completing a collection of baubles from a retail outlet doesn’t result in material discounts for the parents; the reward they get is the joy on their children’s faces.

By including collectible sets in your gamification you are tapping into a primal drive, but again it is crucial to strike the right balance for your target audience. Games exist that are almost entirely rewards based with zero actual gameplay, specifically tablet games where the objective is to tap the screen to unlock more stuff to tap, so you can unlock even more stuff (to tap). These games get ‘old’ very quickly and are sorely lacking when it comes to teaching moments. They abuse our drive to collect and admire our collections and, more often than not, they require us to pay real money, not game credits, to unlock the really supercool, ultra-prestige collectibles. Other modern games have it right however. The hit game Fortnite Battle Royale, for example, also features many collectible sets, such as special dance moves or designer skins that change appearance. Unlike unlocking a more powerful weapon, which provides an advantage to the player, unlocking the complete set of dance moves provides zero tactical advantage; they simply look good and give the player joy.

Collectibles are important mementos, trophies if you will, that remind us of the decisions we made, the actions we took, but most importantly the emotions we felt while playing the game. For this reason, gamified solutions should always feature a ‘trophy cabinet’ or similar virtual space where the player can return and marvel at their collection. We love to collect things and we love to admire our collections.

It’s in our nature, our Mode to Joy. Full pun intended.