Mind Games: The Psychology of Gamification

Original post by Joey Strawn via Business 2 Community

The brain as gears

I’m a satisfied customer of Netflix. I’ve been a Netflix customer for about four and a half years and because of that, they have gotten quite good at suggesting movies my wife and I might like. Yet, the last two movies that came in the mail for us sat on our DVD player unwatched for almost a month each. We chose the movies that are in our queue. We sat down and purposefully and willingly added movies we wanted to watch to that Internet list, but when Netflix mailed us the movies we requested, we didn’t want to watch them. Why is that?

Basically what is happening to me (and many others) is that psychologically there is a gap between what I believe I want to do in the future and what I want to do right now. I build an aspirational list of movies that I truly believe I want to watch in the future, yet when those films arrive, I end up putting them on the shelf and watching more episodes of Phineas & Ferb or Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time. We want to be kind of people that watch serious movies and chomp at the bit to dive into The Kids Are Alright, but normally, Jackass 3 ends up on the television.

Our minds are tricky things and can really play a lot of dirty tricks on us if we aren’t careful, so how can gamification help us understand how our minds process information and how can it be used correctly to branch out from being “just another Internet fad”?

First Things First…

I’m a big proponent for the increased use of gamification. You may have noticed that I talk about it quite a bit around here and even use it to some degree on this blog (click on the red Rewards ribbon in the top corner if you don’t believe me). Let’s get one thing straight though right off, right now gamification is a fad. Sadly, it is overhyped and even more sadly it is misunderstood. Too often, gamification is equated as simple points and badges.

“You got to the morning status call on time. 10 Points. Work = gamified.”

Not quite.

To break out of the funk of Internet overhypation (that’s my word, but feel free to use it), gamification and game mechanics must be informed and studied aspects of a campaign or strategy, not just an 8-bit veneer. From here on out, when I talk about gamification, I’m talking about what should be one aspect of your plan, not a saving grace for your crappy service or product.

The Feedback Loop

This month’s issue of Wired magazine had an amazing article on the functions and applications of The Feedback Loop to the human psyche. I’m going to touch on some of the things they talked about, but I highly suggest you pick it up and read it for yourself.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Feedback Loop, it works under the premise that by providing people with information about their actions in real time and giving them an opportunity and motivation to change those actions, you can often lead people to better behaviors. Feedback Loops have been used for years, even back to the 18th century, when regulators and governors were used on steam engines and then furthered for human psychological study in the 1940s within the field of cybernetics. The Feedback Loop is also a guiding principle in gamification, so it’s not as much of a “fad” as people like to make it out to be. It’s simply becoming easier to measure and use in everyday life.

A Feedback Loop consists of four basic stages: Evidence Stage (data), Relevance Stage (data processing), Consequence Stage (data defining), and Action Stage (data usage). It looks kind of like this:

Feedback Loop[Image via globalwhelming.com]

Let’s take a look at the four stages of the Feedback Loop and see how they can be applied to gamification.

1. Evidence

The first stage of any Feedback Loop has to do with data collection. I’ll use the idea of behaviors as data for our examples of gamification Feedback Loops. So, behaviors must be measured, stored, and evaluated to hold any significant relevance to further steps. Behaviors must be quantified and then presented to the individuals taking part in the game. Information being sent back to individuals in real time is even more helpful because it gives an immediate view of how things stand for any player at any time.

One thing that’s making the craze of gamification spread so rapidly is the dropping price of and advancement in sensors. We can sense and quantify everything from energy usage, car fuel, brushing your teeth, walking and anything else you can slap a sensor on. In his talk Visions of the GamepocalypseJesse Schelle talks about new senors, saying “This is how games are going to get everywhere.” From the Wii Fit, to the PS3 Move, to the Xbox Kinect all on video game consoles, we are collecting data and then showing it to the participating individuals in real time.

As you see your Wii Mii mimicking your every move as you run around a fake beach, that’s the evidence stage of the Feedback Loop. Have you found a way to get information to your customers in real time quantifying actions you want them to improve? Mint.com has. So have ZyngaPlayfishEmpire Avenue and many, many others.

2. Relevance

As I used to say to my Statistics teacher in college after she spent hours showing us how to correlate numbers in Excel, “So what?”

Data means nothing if there’s no frame of reference. Let me repeat that for you:

Data means jack crap if there’s no point of reference as to why it’s important.

A speedometer showing your speed as you drive by has no meaning to you unless you know the actual speed limit for that area. Someone sensing and showing you your BMI means nothing if you don’t know what a healthy BMI level is (or even what BMI stands for). A credit score of 750 isn’t good if you believe it’s out of 45,000 instead of 800. You get the idea.

Your job, as users of gamification, isn’t to figure out a way to measure things you want your customers to do, your task is to figure out a way to relay that information back to them in a context that makes it emotionally resonant.



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