Gamification in the Most Unlikely Places

9 10 2010

Successful game-based designs are everywhere – we just have to know where to look.  And they often appear in the most unlikely places. In this ongoing series, we’ll look at interesting implementations of game mechanics in places you wouldn’t suspect.  Today’s subject, for example, is found in the bathroom.

A popular “trade secret” of parents with toddlers is the wondrous multipurpose utility in Cheerios.  Parents are known to creatively present learning opportunities as games to their children.  In potty training, Cheerios become the perfect targets.  Simply throw a few Cheerios in the toilet and the children, especially boys, start target practice.  And it works.   Some parents even build upon the game, awarding stars for successful hits, leveling up targets with colored Fruit Loops, shaving cream or colored ice cubes.

One innovative company has even designed color-changing targets.

Are you finding your toddler isn’t interested or motivated by the target practice game mechanic?  Not to worry, there are many game mechanics available that align with different motivations and personality types.  Another option could address nurturing personalities.  For example, one parent shares this game variant that worked for their child:

“Every house has a toilet or two. Our toilet’s name is Mr Toilet, and his job is to eat up all the poo, so that people don’t get sore tummies. That’s what all toilets do. Mr Toilet is very hungry and very sad because you won’t feed him by going to sit on him to do No.2’s. Do you think you could help him to not feel sad anymore?”

“Imagine my surprise and elation”, said the parent, “when she looked at me for only a second before giving me a nod and a big smile, and then running off to “feed” Mr Toilet!”

Although this is not a common topic in most design-oriented Gamification blogs (Seth Godin’s Purple Cow?), I wanted to share an extension of this game mechanic used today by adults.

In Amsterdam’s airport, the men’s room porcelain urinals have an image of a single fly etched close to the urinal drains, as an experiment in human behavior.

The New York Times reported that “spillage” on the men’s-room floor fell by a remarkable 80 percent with the introduction of the etchings.  Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, a pioneer in the increasingly influential field of behavioral economics, called this a “Nudge” or the subtle introduction of an engineered mechanic that manages to attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way. Best of all, a nudge does not actually require anyone to do anything to enforce it; it’s a part of human behavior.  Thaler suggests the flies are fun as “Men evidently like to aim at targets.”

Cheerios apparently works at any age!


Multiplayer Relationships, Interdependence, and Synergy in Gamification Design

7 10 2010

What attributes keep people engaged in, and committed to playing a multiplayer game?

Tom Bollich, an early Zynga investor and former lead engineer says today’s social games have a challenge.  He described the problem in a recent interview:

“You can’t make the cheap little viral games like you used to.  These games, it’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. You can get a lot of people, but they don’t stick around.”

Game mechanics in social games have been effective at getting people’s attention, but how do you design a system that keeps players engaged and involved?  We may find some clues when examining another form of social games, the MMORPG and it’s industry leader World of Warcraft (WoW).  WoW has managed to keep players entertained for almost 6 years, attracting over 11.5 million players worldwide.  Nielsen shared numbers from 2009 that ranked WoW first in PC games most played, averaging 653 minutes per week.

Typing “/played” in World of Warcraft displays how long a character has been played and the numbers surprise most people.  So the question becomes, what game mechanics or features are keeping so many people interested for such a long period of time?  What attributes can transform a simple game into a lasting community?

People tend to be more engaged within a community when they feel a sense of belonging and can contribute towards a hot topic or goal within the community.   The “Tribalization of Business” study conducted by Beeline Labs, Deloitte and the Society for New Communications Research (2008) cited key features contributing most to community effectiveness:

Most Facebook games involve asynchronous multi-player game play, or experiences that are presented in discrete chunks at different times for each player, so players can interact and perform exchanges without the need of being simultaneously online.

Oftentimes the social game is so focused on the need for asynchronous game-play, that they bypass the importance of building relationships and interdependencies between players and the game becomes almost a single player activity.   As seen in the Tribalization study, engaged social players want to be able to help others and contribute towards a common goal.   They want to develop a reputation and grow in status.  Adding a way for players to feel needed increases their desire to stay within the community.  The stronger the community, the more important status becomes. The opposite is also true: without a community, there is no status.

Interdependence, or the dynamic of being mutually responsible to each other,  is an important aspect in designing longer lasting communities. Providing interdependent subtasks allow players an opportunity to create relationships and to personalize their experiences as they explore the system.

Interdependence is also an element of effective social groups, where groups evolve beyond just a collection of people and become functional teams.  Muzafer Sherif formulated a technical definition of social groups listing the following elements:

A social group is a unit consisting of a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:

1.  Common motives and goals;

2.  An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles,

3.  Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships;

4.  Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group;

5.  Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated.


Here we see that a group in itself does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his or her strengths and minimize his or her weaknesses. Effective team members learn how to help one another, help other team members realize their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.


This dynamic is found in WoW, where each class has a function in gameplay. By working together, the team players synergize -becoming more powerful, or gaining in game advantages.

Missing one of the functional character types leads to slower progress or potential failure in quests and dungeons.

Most MMO’s utilize what is called the “holy trinity”- Tank, Healer and DPS.  A “Tank” function is the player who has armor and is the focus of a monster’s attacks – they take the brunt of the beating but in exchange do very little damage to the monster.  A “healer” is someone who can replenish health, but is generally very fragile.  “DPS” is the Damage class which has power, but little armor.  Each class relies on and enhances the other in order to maximize performance.

If one function is missing, the group feels a significant impact.  For example, a Tank and healer without DPS means the monsters don’t die.  A tank and DPS without healer means the group takes too much damage.  Each player is needed for the team to succeed.

Unlike most Facebook games, WoW sits on the other end of the spectrum, and is designed to encourage synchronous play.  Players feel obligated to work with others because of established responsibilities and expectations to the team. Peer pressure and in-game social commitments are implicit in the system’s design.  So one may ask, will these social features work in an asynchronous environment?  A few social games have adapted casual variations of this:

  • FarmVille requires players to fertilize each other’s crops
  • Happy Aquarium requires another player to open mystery crates in their fish tanks
  • Yoville has “Friend actions” that require friends to complete

Promoting interesting and longterm interdependent activities may increase the chances of a user staying active in the community.

An important aspect in the design of a system, the social group (2 players to many players) can be implemented in many creative ways:

Roles, or a division of labor, gives players a specialized function and presents an opportunity for designers to tap into player motivations and personality types.  For example with respect to the Myers-Briggs personalities:

The key is to offer an equally enjoyable experience for each role or personality type, which requires paying particular attention to balancing fun for each class.  Any function a user chooses to adopt should offer the same amount of fun and content.

World of Warcraft Looking for Group Screen

Make it easy to find the roles you are missing. Interdependencies can backfire if a particular class is too necessary to progress, too hard to find (rare), or unavailable for the team.  To address this, Blizzard built an innovative “Looking for Group” option making it easier to randomly fill parties.

Class homogenization can become boring.  Creating diverse and challenging jobs for players to master allows them a choice in how to contribute to the community.  And by leveraging a system of player interdependence you amplify the importance of relationships within a community.  Once meaningful relationships are established, there is little motivation for a player to leave the game.

Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley on Using Game Mechanics for Good

2 10 2010

Foursquare is a one of the first successful products in using game mechanics within a non-traditional gaming application to drive user engagement.  It is a mobile application that adds interest to real world locations within a engaging framework of badges and leader boards.  Users “check in” to places they visit, find friends, share comments and encourage exploration.

Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo 2010 in New York to share a Foursquare thesis the company sought to prove:

Thesis #1: Can you use game mechanics to change behavior in the real world?

Crowley explains that game mechanics in this sense, can be used for good.  Foursquare hopes to motivate people to change in a positive way, by building real world social experiences that reward people for their actions.  From working out at the local gym to volunteering and philanthropy, game mechanics are a great way to recognize accomplishments and encourage behavior.

The presentation supports an earlier post where we discussed the benefits of using game mechanics to promote positive community behavior. The video below demonstrates new features in Foursquare:

FarmVille’s Golden Game Mechanic

29 09 2010

At the Social Gaming Summit 2010, Mark Skaggs, Zynga’s VP of Product Development and FarmVille’s lead designer talked about time-based gameplay in FarmVille.  Appointment Dynamics, also referred to as a “Golden Mechanic” by Mark Pincus, is a game mechanic  where a player is presented incentives  to return at a predefined time to take an action.

In the case of FarmVille, the appointment dynamic is to return to harvest crops before they wither.

Mark shares further points in the video:

– Zynga tries to tap into implicit understandings: small plants take less time to grow than larger plants

– Analyze play patterns: offer variations for different player schedules

– Some people plant in the morning, return at lunch, return again at dinner, and then repeat the next day.

– Some people only play during work hours

– Most popular periods seem to be in 4 hour “chunks”, although they also offer 6 hour and 2 day (to cover players who play at work)

Using Gamification to Minimize Community Management Costs

28 09 2010

How much does it cost you to moderate your online community?

For World of Warcraft and its 11 million players, those costs include over 2,056 game masters and 66 community forum managers, and probably would have cost much more, if not for game mechanics to prevent conflict and manage community interactions.

Gamification is an innovative way to reduce coordination costs, decrease moderation requirements, and promote positive social behavior.  But before looking at examples of implementations, we first examine how our online infrastructures have evolved.

New York University professor of New Media Clay Shirky spoke at a TED conference in 2005 about the subject of Institutions and Collaborations.  (Video linked below) In it, he defines the coordination costs of a company as “all of the financial or institutional difficulties in arranging group output”.  He shared some of his insights:

…Because the cost of letting groups communicate with each other has fallen through the floor, and communication costs are one of the big inputs to coordination, [an alternative to starting an institution] is to put the cooperation into the infrastructure, to design systems that coordinate the output of the group as a byproduct of the operating of the system without regard to institutional models.

….When you build cooperation into the infrastructure…you can leave the people where they are, and you take the problem to the individuals, rather than moving the individuals to the problem.  You arrange the coordination in the group, and by doing that you get the same outcome without the institutional difficulties.  You lose the institutional imperative, you lose the right to shape people’s work when it’s volunteer effort, but you also shed the institutional cost which gives you greater flexibility.

Build the system so that anybody can contribute at any amount.

Here Shirky presents the power of a cooperative community; the ability to surpass any amount of effort an institution could do on their own.  And tapping into this resource brings it’s own unique benefits – in this case, previously undiscovered photography. But he warns that the power of broad-reaching communication comes with some side effects:


…(in reference to a teenaged pro-anorexia community), We are used to support groups being beneficial,…but it turns out that the logic of the support group is value neutral.  A support group is simply a small group that wants to maintain a way of living in the context of a larger group…

The normative goals of the support  groups that we are used to came from the institutions that were framing them, and not from the infrastructure. Once the infrastructure becomes generically available, the logic of the support group has been revealed to be accessible to everyone.”

So in order to maintain some semblance of values and social protocol within an open and accessible infrastructure, companies are having to deal with high costs of moderation and community management.   And the larger the community, the more resources required.  There may be opportunities to channel this collaboration through a game-based design and allow institutions a scalable method of injecting values back into the system without the high overhead of additional personnel.

Gamification can add a persuasive framework of rules within a social online infrastructure to help guide user behaviors and actions.  By offering rewards and positive reinforcement, designers can build a foundation of acceptable social behavior within a community.

There are 2 ways to implement this:

1) Create rewards and tools for self moderation.

2) Design the environment to minimize social friction in game play.

Looking at existing MMO’s we find several examples of mechanics that minimize potential social conflict.  Mythic’s  Warhammer implemented an innovative mechanic called a Public Quest which removed the awkwardness associated with player invitations or dealing with potential rejections.

Public Quests (PQ’s) are area-based quests that trigger upon entering a zone.  They  involve a large number of players gathering together to complete the task at hand, and all rules are automatically handled by the system.  Anyone can participate, and by basing your roll, prize, and experience point gain on your contribution to the goal, they promote a fair system of reward with minimum stress.  This automated ability of giving players the chance to join teams and work together simply by being in the same area, presents a social game play mechanic that adds to the community experience.  In essence, the PQ becomes a way to bring players together and creates a sense of community pride.   (More on PQ’s are found in an article by Garrett Fuller here.)

An example of self-moderation through game mechanics is the design of eBay’s reputation system.   For every exchange on eBay, both buyer and seller are asked to post positive or negative scores to the person with whom he/she transacted.  A general score is publically displayed,  representing a user’s cumulative reputation within the system.  For the most part, buyers and sellers are honest.  And although the system can be abused, a completely open or unregulated marketplace would probably require higher moderation costs.

eBay Reputation Screen

“The 2008 Tribalization of Business” study was conducted by Beeline Labs, Deloitte and the Society for New Communications Research, where they asked what were the biggest obstacles people face to making communities work:

Beeline Labs is now Human 1.0

Not surprisingly, the top 2 results were user engagement (51%) and community management (45%).  Gamification addresses many of these obstacles by offering a structure of incentives (points, achievements, titles, based on personality and motivations) that encourage users to vote (like/dislike), moderate content,  and invite people to join.


In essence, gamification is another way for companies to indirectly enforce value rules to a vast communications infrastructure.  And rather than penalizing users for bad behavior, the positive reinforcement rewards in gameplay may be enough to moderate the majority of participants, providing a scalable, efficient, and cost-effective system.  Ultimately some people will try gaming the system, so providing a method of constant feedback, either through analytics or surveys, will help you evolve the mechanics as necessary.

Promoting positive social interaction reduces the stress and overhead of community management, and creates a welcoming environment for your community to grow.  It can potentially transform an environment where people are reluctant to interact due to fear of negative reaction, into a more welcoming atmosphere that encourages participation.  There is a great amount of potential in the use of mechanics in this manner, and the associated savings from community management resources should appeal to most institutions.  We hope to see more of this implementation in future gamified sites.

Clay Shirky’s TED presentation: Institutions and Collaborations:

[Editted to add] Randy Farmer, an industry expert in building reputation systems spoke at Google Tech Talk where he shares challenges faced when using Gamification within a reputation system.  As always, designing for your audience is paramount, and certain aspects of Gamifiation may not apply to your users.  His comments, warnings and experiences are worth watching:

Reuters employs game mechanics to improve commentary onsite

Reuters is due to introduce a points system to its website that will manage and rate users’ comments, rewarding users with points and the ability to contribute without moderation…..Reuters’ plans will certainly encourage users to think about the way they’re commenting online if they want to continue to contribute to the community. If content and conversation improves, this will certainly have a positive impact on Reuters’ online reputation.  Read More.

7 Social Game Design Lessons from Playdom’s Steve Meretzky, VP Game Design

25 09 2010

Take a peek into game design lessons from Playdom, a leading developer of social games.  As a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company and part of Disney Interactive Media, Playdom games are played by over 44 million monthly active users across different social networks, and include games such as Social City,  Sorority Life, and Mobsters.

The video below is from June 2010, and recorded at the Silicon Valley Facebook Developers and Social Gaming Meetup, with presentations by Playdom and KISSmetrics.

Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design at Playdom shares 7 design lessons in building and monetizing social games.

Although your gamification goals may or may not include revenue derived from game play, Meretzky offers ways to increase opportunities for monetizing.  Gamification designers interested in strictly user engagement could easily substitute monetization prompts with other user behaviors, such as sharing the site with friends, or completing user surveys/profiles.

Either way, your best results in getting a user to act will come from tapping into the engaged player.  An engaged user, in Playdom terms, often exhibits characteristics including 10x more play sessions than a non-paying user, and 10x more friends.

Playdom uses 2 methods of monetizing:

– Offer products/services to the impatient player (for example: in a system that uses a supply of energy which depletes and recharges over time, there is an opportunity to sell energy)

– Sell virtual goods (or soft currency which can be spent on goods)

Meretzky’s 7 Lessons learned by Playdom to increase monetized goods are:

Lesson 1: Engage the player first,  then monetize.

Lesson 2: Consistent sales/Time Pattern.

Rather than having an item available consistently in game, create demand by staggering availability across a time pattern.  Playdom metrics show that about 1/3 of all sales occur in the first 24 hours and then taper off.

Lesson 3: Gameplay value matters .

Often times the largest motivators are items that improve the user’s play, in particular goods offering a Player vs Player advantage.

Lesson 4: Vanity dives sales.

When dressing up avatars for example, items that look better or cooler, sell better.

Lesson 5: Involve the community

Communicate with your players, offer polls/surveys and act on results.  Social Games are a live service, take advantage of that fact

Lesson 6: Current event tie-ins work

Bring “real world” goods and events into the game.

Lesson 7: Shake it up, Baby!

Although  A/B testing leads to the “best” of everything (item type, duration, price, etc), repetition can become stale and new is better than best.  Shake things up, the user base appreciates it when you do something different.

How do you know your game designs are engaging?

Before launching a new game, Playdom often performs 30-minute company play sessions.   If they continue to see large groups of people playing during “off hours”, it’s a good indication that they have a hit.

For smaller companies that don’t have a lot of people internally, use friends and family and you’ll find out quickly if your game is really fun or not.

The presentations from Hiten Shah, CEO and Co-Founder of KISSmetrics  and  Matthew Davie, Project Lead, Publishing at Playdom are also on the video.

Steve Meretzky’s presentation is at  38:50 in the video.  (The complete video including KISSmetrics is approx 1 hour and 36 min in length. )

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Gamification Lessons from Sim’s Creator Will Wright

24 09 2010

Will Wright, one of the gaming industry’s most respected thought leaders, has been designing video games for over 25 years.  With blockbuster titles including SimCity, the Sims and Spore, Will has won numerous awards, earning Lifetime Achievement Awards by both Game Developers Choice and PC Magazine.

Will gave a insightful interview at the Web 2.0 Expo in 2009, where he shared thoughts on why his games have been successful at engaging people worldwide.   The following quote is from the video clip which is available for viewing (courtesy below:

“Most people are very narcissistic.   The more you can make the game about that person, the more interesting, the more emotionally involved they will get.

(Interviewer) “Isn’t that the same thing about Amazon?”

“Yes, like the whole web thing, when you think about it, people like the idea of communicating and crafting their own identity.  Before the technology we have now came around, people did that with their choice of their wardrobe, or the kind of car they drove, or the kind of house they lived in…nowadays people are crafting more of their identity on the web and it’s a much lower friction, you don’t have to have a lot of money to create a really dense web presence or an elaborate one.

It can also say a lot more about who you are really. [For example] If you are really about protecting the endangered ring-tailed lemurs, you aren’t going to present that with your wardrobe probably. On the web though, I go to your Facebook Page and I can very clearly find out about the things you are passionately interested in very readily.

I think the intersection of these virtual identities that we’ve been crafting and experimenting with is starting to intersect and collide with kind of our real “face-to-face” identities in the real world in an interesting way.   I think games are going to be an aspect of that, they’re going to be one possible dimension of your personality .”

Will targets an important success factor in his game designs that can easily be translated into any gamified social system.  People are interested in directing their experiences, expanding on their personalities, and portraying this within online identities in the community.  Their choices are important and help define their personalities.

Personalization doesn’t necessarily mean graphical avatars and a full 3D gaming environment.  It may be presented as a simple series of attributes, levels, titles, activities and achievements.  From selecting virtual gifts to acquiring a specific title of status, to selecting a challenge out of a list of player-vs-player encounters, personalization is  one of the strongest catalysts for game-based engagement.

An example of how a title  (status  mechanic) can achieve this personalization is found in many massively multiplayer online (MMO) games today.  A title is the text found before or after a player’s character name.  MMO enthusiasts have been known to work outrageous hours across many months towards obtaining a title.

Interesting, fun titles in various MMOs are:

  • “God Walking Amongst Mere Mortals”  – GuildWars
  • “L33t Skills” – GuildWars
  • “Pie Eater” – Lord of the Rings Online
  • “Legendary”-  Star Trek Online
  • “Treasure Hunter” – Guild Wars
  • “Love Fool” – World of Warcraft
  • “The Insane” – World of Warcraft

If presented within a well designed UX, a gamified system that offers many choices and many paths to success can truly engage a user.  And by tailoring the mechanics to accommodate various personality types, people are thrilled to work and win in their own ways.

The complete 30 minute interview video is (well worth watching) found at