Recently I did a course on the emerging topic of Gamification on the highly acclaimed learning platform Coursera. In this post I wanted to recapitulate and write about my experience with this kind of learning.

The course took 6 weeks and consisted of 12 chapters in total, each of them containing between 5 to 6 videos with a length of 10-15 minutes.

Accompanied by the course you as a student are obliged to do homework quizzes and accomplish course assignments as long as your purpose is to receive a course certificate. At the end of the course you have to prove your knowledge by completing a final exam.

The course was conducted by professor Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania, who is also the protagonist in each of the video lessons, apart from some video interviews where he talks to people from the gamification industry.

To give you a more tangible idea what the course was about, these are the different chapters the course was made up of:

  • What is Gamification
  • Games
  • Game Thinking
  • Game Elements
  • Motivation & Psychology (I)
  • Motivation & Psychology (II)
  • Gamification Design Framework
  • Design Choices
  • Enterprise Gamification
  • Social Impact & Behavior Change
  • Criticisms & Risks
  • Beyond the Basics

So far the course outline, but I’m not going to sum up the entire course content, instead I would like to focus on the topics that most sticked in my head since I’ve finished the course.

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Probably all of us have some experience with Gamification to some extent. If we look at applications like Foursquare, Runkeeper or CrowdTap, they are all gamified, and because of this they feel engaging, but why? One interesting question is: What is it that motivates us to use them?

Intrinsic motivaton describes the actual activity itself that we enjoy. In the case of Foursquare that would be sharing our current location with a friend, with Runkeeper that would be the activity of running, and in CrowdTap doing surveys and other activities.

Extrinsic motivation on the other hand is what describes the “outer" rewards that the gamified experience provides to keep us motivated. In the case of Foursquare that is receiving badges or becoming the mayor of a place, in Runkeeper the notification email about a new record. It describes the “dopamine effect" that we experience when we get rewarded for a certain activity or sequence of activities.

The PBL Triad: Points, Badges & Leaderboards

In Chapter 4 about Game Elements, Mr. Werbach talks about the basic structures of a gamified system. Almost all real-life examples provide these three elements. 

Points can generally be seen as a unit to measure a user’s activity. They display progress towards a certain objective such as a badge, or serve as a way to determine win states, e.g. between competitors. Furthermore, they can be connected to rewards and achievements such as completing a level or predetermined target.

Badges are the representation of achievements and nothing less than the signaling of importance, just like a trophy. With badges, a user collects a social display of what he has achieved.

Leaderboards provide tangible feedback on competition. This is where the social aspect comes into play. By telling the players where they stand in comparison to others gives them not only interesting insight into how well they do but also how much effort they have to put in to get better.

Most applications also use personalized leaderboards where people see the friend-relative variant. The reason for this is that people can feel overwhelmed when seeing only the upper end of the rankings. It’s been proven that when the top players are not within a certain reach, people are more likely to stop playing than if the gap is managable.

Player types

People that play games can be categorized by several demographic and psychographic characteristics. One specific model, based on a 1996 paper by Richard Bartle and called the “Bartle Player Type Model", allows us to classify players by four different types. As of October 2011, the test which is based on that paper had been taken over 700,000 times.

In this model, gamers are categorized on an x-axis by the extent to which they are interested in either the gaming world or other players. The y-axis represents the degree of acting or interacting with either of them.

The Bartle Player Type Model

The four player types which emerged in the course of this experiment are the following:

  • Achievers: People who play in order to gain points, reach new levels or collect equipment or other performance indicators of winning a game.
  • Explorers: Players who aim to explore as much of the game’s world as possible, finding secret places or discovering hidden areas
  • Socializers: People that enjoy interaction, whether it be with other players or the computer who controls a virtual character
  • Killers: Evil players (usually in a minority) who prefer to disregard the actual game rules and fight against other players

Progression & Engagement loops

In a later chapter, Prof. Werbach speaks about the topic of recursive and repetitive structures (also described as activity loops) that a game involves in order to keep players interested and enganged.

An engagement loop is the constant process of giving the user something to do (e.g. overcome a challenge). When this motivation is strong enough, it willl lead to the action (e.g. solving a puzzle), and after spending some time on the task, the user gets feedback. (e.g. receive some points). When this feedback becomes a motivator, the cycle is closed which in turn will lead to more actions.

Diagram of Engagement Loops

Designing a gamified application involves structuring it the way that this loop happens. In Foursquare for example, you check in at a place, you receive some feedback (e.g. that you earned some points, a badge or became the mayor) which again will motivate you to engange in some other action (like seeing what your friends are doing, checking out some information about the location which you’re at etc.). A well-designed system will keep this process moving all the time.

The general approach at how the gamified system moves forward is called progression loop, which can be seen as the representation of the player journey from novice to master.

The way this is typically done in games is through rising and falling action, as can be seen in the following diagram.

A typical Progression Loop

The first step is “Onboarding", the process of getting someone up to speed and to the point where they know the basic rules of the game.

After that you move up to some higher level where you can take a rest, because if it’s constantly up the slope it becomes too challenging and people get exhausted.

Then, the player moves up again by accomplishing some tasks that challenge him and after some more time there’s typically a significantly harder challenge such as a boss fight which takes you to the next level. This usually serves as an opportunity to accomplishment or a demonstration of achievement, like the mastery over that part of the game.

Once you overcome the boss fight, you get a little rest and then you start climbing again, which closes the progression loop.

Feedback is what pushes towards motivation which in turn pushes towards action which makes up well-structured progression loops that allow players to progress through the game.

The interviews

Four of the chapters of the course were rounded off with video interviews, of which the most inspiring to me was the one with Bing Gordon, former Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts. He is also a major advocate for Gamification and made some interesting points that I would like to sum up here:

  • Every Startup CEO should understand Gamification
  • A bunch of principles in Game Design are useful for motivating your employees
  • One of the principles of Gamification is instant feedback. One of the things that games are great at is instant, tangible feedback
  • The easiest way to learn about Gamification is to play a great game
  • The things that are working in the best games are usually the best principles
  • Cooperation trumps Competition 3:1
  • For most people, high score rankings are demotivating, you’re only motivated when you’re 90% on the way to success
  • Grades in school are kind of the gamification of the educational system
  • Gamification is a fun way to apply communication theory
  • You have to have great failures
  • Games are polarizing, some people react poorly to extrinsic results
  • Kids that grow up digitally believe that the purpose in the world is to be the best version of yourself that you can be and that life is not hierarchical

Gamification examples

During the course, we were presented a bunch of real-world examples of Gamification, some of which I would like to share with you: