Is it all a game? Understanding the principles of gamification

The rapid emergence of gamification for improving how we engage people has seen some astounding successes in recent years – including innovative marketing campaigns for hip-hop moguls, airline frequent flyer programs, and sticker albums for global sporting events.

But what is gamification, and what can business do to leverage its potential? This was the subject of a lecture I gave at the 2015 Beedie Alumni Reunion. You can view the talk below and access and download the slides here.

The event, held at the Segal Graduate School on March 31, was an opportunity to present for the first time new research published in Business Horizons and Advances in Consumer Research. The research, conducted with Beedie faculty Leyland Pitt and Jan Kietzmann, Beedie PhD students Karen Robson, and Kirk Plangger, examines the effectiveness of gamification as a method of increasing engagement among stakeholders such as employees, customers, and students.

I explained how gamification, defined as “the application of game design principles in non-gaming contexts” (Robson et al 2015) is being used in business. The term “gamification” emerged around 2010, though the phenomenon has been used effectively in business for some time.

Gamification is not about creating games, it’s about learning how the world of gaming and related concepts in psychology and behavioral economics all combine to produce fantastic levels of engagement. It’s about gamifying non-gaming situations: processes that happen in various industries. How can we learn from that in order to understand and control the behavior of stakeholders?

During the talk I examined companies that had gamified certain processes such as training and recruitment in order to understand why they had done so. I also looked at the computer games industry, and so as to propose a framework for designing and management gamification experiences.

I described in detail several examples from popular culture of gamification being used to great effect as a marketing campaign. Jay Z’s book launch campaign in conjunction with Microsoft’s search engine Bing, for example, resulted in Jay Z receiving some one million new social media followers in the space of one month. An interactive Tippex commercial, meanwhile, saw sales rise by 30 percent for what is essentially a dying product. In each case, the key to the success was that the level of player engagement was extremely high.

The research reveals three reasons for the rise of gamification: the quest to attain high levels of intrinsic motivation in employees and consumers; the pervasiveness of technology; and the growth of the video game industry, valued at some $30 billion.

Consider for example, the levels of engagement attained by the popular video game Call of Duty. The most recent edition of the Call of Duty franchise racked up some $775 million in sales within its first five days of release – more than any Hollywood movie. Gamers have spent approximately 25 billion hours playing the franchise, or over 2.85 million years.

Such dedication is down to three intrinsic motivational factors: competency building, where the player attempts to master a task; autonomy, where the player can experiment and customize the experience; and relatedness, with the experience providing the player a sense of purpose.

The participants in a gamified experience fall into four categories: Designers, who design, manage and maintain the  experience; Players, who compete in the experience; Spectators, who witness the  experience but can also influence it; and Observers, whose role is solely to watch.

The framework I introduced can be used for understanding and designing gamified experiences. It consists of three principles: the mechanics, the set-up, rules and progression; the dynamics, or the player behavior; and the emotions, or the players’ state of mind. If you get the blend of dynamics, mechanics, and emotions right, then you will more likely produce an effective gamified experience where people are motivated to spend lots of time and money engaging.

To illustrate the overall gamified experience, I used the example of popular TV show American Idol, ranked the number one show in the US from 2003 to 2011. It uses gamification principles to engage spectators – the audience and TV viewers who influence the show – and the players – the potential artists are potential employees. The show is both an entertainment process and a talent recruitment process. If you consider the level of viewership, voting and related emotions in American Idol it is clear why it is a beacon of gamification. Imagine if we could engage students, voters, employees or customers the way the American Idol audience is engaged.

Be wary though, while gamification is an appealing tool, businesses must understand why it works. Rewards are not enough – it is the playing and the progress that makes the experience fun and pleasurable. And remember, it is not about designing a game per se; the goal is to gamify a business or public process.

This post was adapted from a contribution by the Beedie School of Business.

The ideas and frameworks are based on research presented in the following articles:

Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J., McCarthy, I., & Pitt, L.  Is it all a Game? Understanding the Principles of Gamification. Business Horizons (July, 2015)

Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J., McCarthy, I., & Pitt, L. (2014). Understanding Gamification of Consumer Experiences. Advances in Consumer Research, 42, 352-356

You can view and download the presentation related to this posting here: