One Sentence, Huge Difference: How you label an award can effect behavior.

22 10 2011

Steve Urkel from ABC/CBS sitcom "Family Matters": A smart kid?!

Which praise do you think produced better results in American 5th graders?

You are Smart!


You worked Hard!

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford along with Claudia Mueller conducted a study across 12 New York City schools to discover that what we thought to be the obvious answer, wasn’t so obvious.  Dweck’s study showed that a simple sentence, the positioning of an extrinsic reward, had huge impact on the results of the children’s performance.  An article in Wired Magazine explained the study:

When Dweck was designing the experiment, she expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect. After all, it was just one sentence. But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.

Dweck’s next set of experiments showed how this fear of failure can actually inhibit learning. She gave the same fifth graders yet another test. This test was designed to be extremely difficult — it was originally written for eighth graders — but Dweck wanted to see how the kids would respond to the challenge. The students who were initially praised for their effort worked hard at figuring out the puzzles. Kids praised for their smarts, on the other hand, were easily discouraged. Their inevitable mistakes were seen as a sign of failure: Perhaps they really weren’t so smart. After taking this difficult test, the two groups of students were then given the option of looking either at the exams of kids who did worse or those who did better. Students praised for their intelligence almost always chose to bolster their self-esteem by comparing themselves with students who had performed worse on the test. In contrast, kids praised for their hard work were more interested in the higher-scoring exams. They wanted to understand their mistakes, to learn from their errors, to figure out how to do better.

The final round of tests was the same difficulty level as the initial test. Nevertheless, students who were praised for their effort exhibited significant improvement, raising their average score by 30 percent. Because these kids were willing to challenge themselves, even if it meant failing at first, they ended up performing at a much higher level. This result was even more impressive when compared to students randomly assigned to the smart group, who saw their scores drop by nearly 20 percent. The experience of failure had been so discouraging for the “smart” kids that they actually regressed.

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence. Samuel Beckett had the right attitude: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Dweck’s study gives us clues in ways to present awards and achievements which encourage a deeper commitment to the system.  If a player perceives to have reached “Mastery” level, does the system encourage or discourage them from achieving more?   When designing player comparison charts and leader boards, does the game reward the most effective player motivation?  Based on Dweck’s Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset illustration by Nigel Holmes, guiding players towards the Growth Mind-set produces a more desirable, engaged and loyal player:

Click Image to see higher resolution chart:


Games provide an engaging environment for kids to make mistakes with a low cost of failure, so they can learn and discover a path to mastery.  James Gee, a linguist at Arizona State University talks about this, and other merits of educational video games.

“In a world full of complex systems that are interacting with each other to give us more and more disasters – like our current economic system, or our global warming – we really want that video game theory of intelligence.  You’re not intelligent because you rushed to be efficient in a goal you never rethought.  You are intelligent when you have explored thoroughly and you’ve thought laterally not just linearly, and you have rethought your goals and in modern games done so collaboratively in multiplayer and having to compare and contrast your solutions.  And also having different skill sets.  In many video games, you play in a team where everybody has a different skillset.  Much like modern science where you take big challenges…and you combine scientists with different skill sets but who learn to collaborate and learn to have some common language – that’s actually a way of playing today too.”

Strategic Synergy on Alltop

24 08 2011

Alltop has added Strategic Synergy to their Social Media section!  We haven’t had an opportunity to post recently because we’ve been building a new product called Carddit.  I plan to share the story and evolution of this product in upcoming posts, as well as other interesting examples of game mechanics in UX design.  Please stay tuned, and thanks for adding us Alltop!

Games that Bind: Community Through Games

9 11 2010

We’ve often heard that games give us a reason to socialize, but is there more to it than that?  As society gains more in complexity, are we also dealing with shifts in our cultural dynamics that have us looking for social contact in alternate ways?

Andrew Hiscock from Bitmob wrote an interesting post from a Anthropological, Sociological and Psychological perspective on possible reasons why we game today:

The problem is that…society has a staggering complexity. We have evolutionary defined social circles existing in a society that may not allow for the full expression of cultural needs to be expressed within the “close” group and the “regional” group. There is poor organization, no set hierarchy, and no loosely defined roles. Sure, these are taken care of in society at large, but not in the people we can call part of our sphere. This has set up a sociological conundrum in which modern man find themself.

Comparing the social circles of today and the social circles of early man, we can find a variety of differences:

1. There is a lack of shared group problem solving that leads to solutions to direct and clearly defined problems.

2. There are no clearly defined roles within a set hierarchy.

3. Any member can adopt any role they wish, without clear benefit to the group at large.

4.  Boundaries of intergroup activity are not clearly defined

We can see these points articulated in modern video games: the rise of social (either online or communal) gaming; the development of role-based games (World of Warcraft, Battlefield, and MAG all come to mind); specific scoring systems associated with roles within a video game; and video game fans’ self-identifiers (hardcore vs. casual, Sony vs. Microsoft).

(Source: Why we Game? Bitmob)

In past Agrarian societies, where agriculture and farming were the primary means of support, our strongest social circles had to be family and local communities.  Our roles in these communities were clearly defined.  The roles helped focus our abilities, were guided by necessities for survival, and also set an expectation to a person’s contribution in their community.  However, our modern societies have gifted us with an increased independence, and today’s communication with extended family is often reduced to exchanging Christmas cards or visits at the occasional birthday parties. Without these past requirements for interaction, are we looking for reasons to communicate with our extended social circles and can games fulfill these needs?

Many game-based events have been used in the past as reasons to focus and converge community spirit.  For example, the town of Tarragona , in Spain’s Catalonia region has hosted a traditional game of Human Pyramid building since the 18th century.  Teams comprised of families and friends converge every 2 years to compete in this popular contest called the Concurs de castells, to build the tallest human pyramids.  The games encourage participation from everyone: the more people who take part, the stronger and more complex the pyramids.  It is an interesting event that builds a strong community spirit.  Interdependence is key in the design of the game, as every participant relies on the other to fulfill his/her role, or the pyramid collapses.  Most importantly, what drives people to this event is not just winning the contest, but rather the experience of everyone working together in order to succeed: a common goal.

This short video (approx 4 min) shows the Concurs de castells, interviews players and talks about roles people play in the game:

Another popular game in other social circles is the game of Mahjong.   Rich with memories and family traditions, Mahjong is a 4 player game that originated in China around 1870 consisting of small, marked tiles.  I stumbled upon an interesting video interviewing people and their thoughts about the game.  From social game providing a reasons to gather, to deep meaningful memories of family bonding, Mahjong has been a part of many lives.

This brief video (approx. 3 min) interviews people and their memories of growing up with the game of Mahjong:

Perhaps these social needs are subtle driving factors in the potential application of gamification into so many areas.  I think we will find that tomorrow’s “games that bind” may not be Mahjong, but a game like World of Warcraft or FarmVille.

More on Roles, Multiplayer Relationships, Interdependence, and Synergy in Gamification Design

Video links of other cultural games of interest:

Polynesian Stick Song game:


Scotland – the Highland Games:

Soccer a game bridging cultural divide:

Engagement Flow in Gamification

2 11 2010


What dynamics are in play when we examine the path to user engagement?

In visualizing how engagement flows from extrinsic game mechanics to intrinsic motivators, let’s look first at a smaller simplified model exploring the various stages a player experiences along the way.

The image below shows 5 basic elements.

To illustrate by way of example, let’s choose a quest with location check-ins:

1.  The Game Mechanic is a quest, with an achievement delivered after check-in.  The game mechanic facilitates a mode of play.

2.  Play is freely chosen and associated with fun, pleasure and enjoyment.  The idea of a scavenger hunt is playful and may initiate certain behaviors.

3.  Behaviors refer to actions related to the game mechanics such as going to a retail store, checking in for an event, challenging friends to compete, or announcing check-ins on Facebook.  These behaviors may evoke a player’s engagement.

4. Engagement in this example is when a player becomes absorbed and the game activities, subject or brand consumes one’s attention or time.  For example, the player checks in every time they pass through a location and shares this with friends.  It creates an increased involvement and participation that produces mastery.

5. Mastery is an intrinsic motivator that stimulates a player to independently and persistently overcome a challenging skill or task.  Once the player has checked in at the quest locations, they obtain an achievement and look to the next challenge or motivator.

At this point, in order to keep the player further engaged, the game mechanic must either evolve and scale in difficultly, or shift to address another motivator.  This dynamic balance between boredom and frustration is described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”:

Flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

To evolve the simple model to accommodate more complex situations, we need to introduce other dynamics, leading to 2 questions:

1. How does Self-Direction influence this model?

2. How does direct feedback relate to each area?

In the next figure, the linear engagement flow is now a circle reflecting how the game mechanic shifts or scales to accommodate the growth of the player as they seek new motivations.  This highlights the relationship between the engagement flow and Self-Direction.

Self-Direction, or independently guided actions occur by making choices in the game resulting in direct feedback.  In an optimal scenario, direct feedback should take place throughout the entire experience, giving us an ever-evolving and adapting engagement model.  It is important to note that each of the elements of the flow influence the other elements creating local feedback loops and are contributors to the dynamics of the game play.

The model also aligns with Jenova Chen’s variant of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow diagram.  In his thesis “Flow in Games”, Chen describes active flow adjustments through self-directed choices, represented by the red path of arrows (see figure below).  The Gamification Continuous Engagement Flow accounts for this meandering path through the introduction of direct user feedback.   In Chen’s drawing, the white regions represent anxiety (upper) and boredom (lower):

The significance of self direction along with varying and often changing motivators make game design with a single unvarying game mechanic impractical.  Successful designs will incorporate evolving and scaling mechanics suitable to a wide range of personalities, moods, player skill levels and interests.

Posts related to this subject:

Why Both Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Matter in Gamification

Gamification, Reality TV and Reiss’s 16 Intrinsic Motivators

The Myth of the Universal Player

Gamification Design

Gamification, Reality TV, and Reiss’s 16 Intrinsic Motivators

24 10 2010

Steven Reiss is a professor of Psychology at Ohio State University and author of several books including  The Normal Personality.

Based on research from over 6,000 participants, Reiss suggests that intrinsic motivators, or those reasons people hold for initiating and performing voluntary behavior,  can be described as 16 basic desires.

These desires are:

(click on chart for higher resolution)

In this multifaceted model, these basic intrinsic desires directly motivate a person’s behavior. The unique combination and ranking of these desires determine our individuality and uniqueness.  Although people may also be motivated by non-basic desires, Reiss suggests it may be a means to achieve an even deeper basic motivation.

From a Gamification standpoint, it is especially interesting to note that Reiss models a close association between the basic desire for social contact with the need to play or to have fun.   If our social needs are genetically intertwined with play, it may add another lens to the importance of multiplayer relationships in game design.

The 16 desires give us a better understanding of variability in designing systems for engagement.  Reiss suggests that the enormous differences in what makes people happy make it unreasonable to factor out extrinsic incentives such as money or grades as effective motivators.  Different people are motivated in different ways, and as Reiss wrote in an article in Psychology Today:

I [Reiss] object to intrinsic-extrinsic motivation because it offers “one size fits all” solutions for educating children and motivating adults. I believe, for example, that some children thrive with cooperative learning, others thrive with competitive learning situations, but intrinsic-extrinsic motivation theory wants all children to grow up with cooperative learning. In the name of self-determination, undermining theory imposes its values on others believing it is for their own good. I think undermining theory could be misused to teach children who are competitive by nature that something is wrong with them for enjoying competition.

How do these 16 desires affect our taste in media?  In 2004 Reiss and James Wiltz performed a study on Why People Watch Reality TV.  According to Reis, Media events like Reality TV repeatedly allow people to experience the 16 desires and joys and suggests that people select media to fulfill certain needs. These needs vary greatly from one individual to the next, however his data showed that the largest significant motive for watching reality television was social status.  Slightly less than the need for social status was the need for vengeance, or the desire to win. These same 2 high-ranking motivators may be the reason why we find early implementations of Gamification emphasizing achievements and status levels.

Consequently, it makes sense that media or subject matter that taps into all 16 basic desires have a higher chance of attracting more people.  In the case of Reality TV, Bryant Paul, a psychology professor at Indiana University suggests “The closer someone is to you, the easier it is to empathize, and really good empathy equals really good television.”  The same holds true in game design – the more the game mechanics echo our own intrinsic needs, the better the individual’s gaming experience.

Taking the 16 desires into popular game design, this chart shows how (for example) World of Warcraft addresses each motive:

(click on chart for higher resolution)

Reiss’s 16 basic desires can provide an effective framework for measuring how successfully an application covers the range of intrinsic motivators. Using this framework should allow you to evaluate your own application’s appeal and highlight areas of improvement.

Why Both Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators Matter in Gamification

17 10 2010

Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University wrote a book titled Predictably Irrational where he describes the difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators and how these affect management decisions in driving employee behavior .   Ariely suggests that moving from extrinsic motivators or rewards such as money, points or schedules, to intrinsic motivators or internal needs including friendship, commitments , and loyalty, is in essence making a move from a market relationship to a social relationship.

An extrinsic or market relationship in this case is defined by the exchange of monetary currency for a product or service.  An Intrinsic or social relationship is the exchange of an intangible for a product or service.  Ariely illustrates this differentiation in his book with a Thanksgiving dinner scenario, also retold by Jeff Monday in the video below:

Imagine you are at your in-laws house for Thanksgiving. At the end of the fantastic meal you walk over to your mother-in-law and instead of giving her the customary social payment of a big hug and thank you, you pull out your wallet and ask her how much she wants for the meal. Here is where the behavioral economics get interesting. Even if you were to offer her $1000 for the meal, a meal that only cost her only a couple hundred dollars and a few hours of her time, she and everyone else at the table will be offended because they will feel you cheapened the day.

Why? Well behavioral economics show us that the intangibles like love, gratitude, trust, and community that we receive in a social exchange are difficult to put a value on, so difficult in fact, that we can’t calculate them and value them as priceless. By offering the $1000 to your mother in law for the Thanksgiving dinner you are putting a cheap value on something that is priceless in her mind. This inequity is caused by trying to blend a social exchange with a market exchange and it is an important lesson for managers who are moving to a management style with greater intrinsic motivators.

Jeff Monday’s video discussing Ariely’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (approx 5 minutes):

The Thanksgiving dinner example can be described within a gaming context, as Sebastian Deterding presents in his slideshow Pawned. Gamification and its Discontents.  Deterding shares a similar scenario where an extrinsic motivator interfered with intrinsic needs:

…adding explicit rule systems to a given conduct can mess with the implicit social rules, norms and meanings governing it. Take akoha, a service that tries to promote random acts of kindness by casting them as “missions” you collect awards and gifts for. Now a befriended game designer of mine tried this with another game designer friend of his and invited him for a coffee, as the mission required. When the friend curiously asked why he was invited, my friend replied in explaining the service and mission he was on. To which the friend furiously answered:

“Have you any idea how degrading that is, being invited not because you care about me, but because you want to progress in some game?”

We have learned that game rewards or points can cause conflict when it is the primary motivator in exchange for a friend’s intrinsic social needs.  But what would happen if the motivations in this scenario were instead presented in this fashion:

“Would you like to meet for coffee and play this social game together?”

So rather than suggesting the points are the primary reward, the player presents an opportunity to build upon a social relationship as the main motivator.  This is a similar positioning to the popular social game “Words with Friends”, where players can “catch up with friends as you kick their butts in a word game”.   Taking it a step further and offering both parties added synergies in game play will enforce the link, emphasizing the importance of the relationship.  The Washington Post reported on social bonds created in online games:

The most popular social games are collaborations. To progress quickly through the games, you need to help other players, and they need to help you. Such collaborations, according to game designers and users, foster a sense of community in an often-splintered world.

In our examples, shifting focus to an intrinsic value would probably have produced a stronger relationship, even when external motivators are part of the system.  However, that doesn’t mean we ignore extrinsic motivators altogether, as Steven Reiss, a Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University argues,

“Individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy – for some competition, winning and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others, feeling competent or socializing may be more satisfying. The point is that you can’t say some motivations, like money, are inherently inferior.”

The illustration above offers a perspective where intrinsically positioned game mechanics can act as facilitators for social activity and exchanges.  Games give us an effective framework to bond with others.  Interestingly enough, as soon as we try to measure those intrinsic mechanics we move them into the realm of external motivators.   That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the number of Twitter followers or friends on Facebook influence us in different ways.  But we want to try to build systems where externals aren’t the only things available.  Internationally-known metagame expert and social game designer  Amy Jo Kim describes game mechanics as the sauce or seasoning on the meat of the core game. Designers need a great core game and should use game mechanics to help improve it. Game mechanics as extrinsic tools like experience bars or achievements will push the player to reach the next goal.  But things of intrinsic value will always provide greater incentive for the player.

Dan Ariely’s video discussing experiments in motivation:

Another part of Ariely’s discussion, Motivation in the Knowledge Economy:

The Myth of the Universal Player

12 10 2010

Malcolm Gladwell  spoke at TED on the subject of spaghetti sauce and business lessons learned from Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher and Psychophysicist famous for his studies in spaghetti sauce and consumer behaviors.

In his talk, Gladwell shares how Moskowitz fundamentally changed the way the food industry thought about human tastes and what makes the consumer “happy”.  Moskowitz discovered 3 break-through concepts in his work, questioning the validity of historical assumptions in the food industry:

1. People don’t necessarily know what they want to eat or what will make them happy. When it came to food tastes, focus group results did not correlate with their test data.  A critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down.

2.  The importance of horizontal segmentation. There is no “perfect product”, but rather many flavors of the same product.  Moskowitz democratized the way we think about tastes.

3.  Confronted the notion of a platonic dish and that there was only one way to serve a dish. In the 1970’s, when the industry talked about “authentic tomato sauce” it implied thin, Italian tomato sauce with no visible solids, and that to please the maximum number of people, they had to provide culturally authentic tomato sauce.  They discovered that this was not the case.

Maxwell describes the industry’s past obsessions with the search for the ultimate cooking universals, finding one taste that suited all of us.  And those universals were sought after in all fields of study.  Psychologists, medical scientists,  economists, were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave.  Moskowitz’s spaghetti sauces changed all of that.

The revolutionary shift in science over the past few years is the movement from the search for Universals to the understanding of variability.  And as Moskowitz says “When we pursue universal principles in food, we aren’t just making an error, we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice.”

We can infer similar scenarios in game genres, game mechanics and our tastes in fun.  Different segments of the population will have different interpretations of what they find fun, hence the importance of understanding variations in human behavior and psychological profiles.  Regardless of who’s personality type model the designer is building towards (different models are shared in this blog, your choice!), the primary point is that in order to engage a broad, online population, one has to design for varieties in motivations.

And of course the upper parameter should also be set, as Barry Swartz (another TED talks psychologist) warns us.  Too many choices can lead to paralysis and overwhelming numbers make it hard for people to choose anything at all, leaving us ultimately dissatisfied with our decisions.

The answer: Create a variety of choices, tailored to a few key clusters of preferences.  Anything beyond may create stress and confusion.

And as Malcolm Gladwell closes, “In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness.”

[Edited to add:]  One question to ask is, if we don’t believe in the myth of the Universal Player, then why do we see so many universal ranking systems?

Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talks video: