Why Gamification Beats Peanut Butter on Pancakes

The 21-day Gamification Course is a free e-mail course by Yu-kai Chou, who has written the book Actionable Gamification. But what on earth is gamification? According to Wikipedia, gamification is:
...the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts to improve user engagement, organizational productivity, flow, learning, crowd-sourcing, employee recruitment and evaluation, ease of use and usefulness of systems, physical exercise, traffic violations, and voter apathy, among others. A review of research on gamification shows that a majority of studies on gamification find positive effects from gamification. However, individual and contextual differences exist.

If you are making a game it's obviously a good idea to understand the game-design elements and game principles. But if you are not making a game, you may also need to apply the ideas behind gamification. Last year I read the book Superbetter, which is promising to give you a framework so you can apply the ideas behind gamification to improve your own life. The book says: "Playing SuperBetter for 30 days improves mood, reduces symptoms of anxiety & depression and increases belief in the ability to successfully achieve goals."

One of the interesting ideas from the book Superbetter is what you should do if you have experienced a traumatic event. If you, within a few hours after that event, play a game like Tetris, then you will minimize the risk of getting post-traumatic stress from the traumatic event. So as in Wikipedia's definition, gamification can be applied to many more areas than just traditional games. With that in mind, let's learn more about gamification.


Gamification is the art of stealing all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities. But why is it called gamification if it can be applied to so many other areas? The reason is that the game industry was the first to focus on human-focused design because games have no other purpose than to please the user playing the game. This is actually not entirely true because there are games with a purpose other than to be fun, such as a game helping victims with burn injuries heal their wounds, but you get the idea.

Human-focused design is a design process which is trying to optimize for the human in the system and not the efficiency of the system. You can compare it with the iPhone, which didn't have a stylus because Steve Jobs focused on the human and not the technology, which is called function-focused design. Games have to focus on the human because a game is not a game if not a human is playing it. But if you are building something else, like a nuclear reactor, then you can focus on designing an efficient system.

The game industry might not be old, but it has spent a lot of time to master motivation and engagement, so you can now learn something from games, such as why the game World of Warcraft is addicting? I personally had a classmate who disappeared from school because he became addicted to World of Warcraft. What if there was a way to make school as fun as games? This is what you will learn here!

You can argue that it is the challenges and limitations, such as rules and obstacles, that makes a game fun. A game like soccer has a challenge (win the game against the opposing team) and limitations (you can only kick the ball with your feet), but everyone, including me, doesn't enjoy playing soccer. So a game needs more than just challenges and limitations to be fun.

Why do you want to do something?

Why do you like to play soccer, and why do I hate to play soccer? There are 8 fundamental reasons (called core drives, or CD) why you and me want to do something:
  1. Meaning. You want to do something because you feel it has a purpose.
  2. Accomplishment. You want to do something to overcome challenges.
  3. Empowerment. You want to do something because you like to be creative and test different strategies.
  4. Ownership. You want to do something if you feel like you own what you are doing.
  5. Social influence. You want to do something because other people around you are doing it. 
  6. Scarcity. You want to do something now because you think the opportunity may be lost if you are not doing it now.
  7. Unpredictability. You want to do something because you want to see what's happening after you have done it. 
  8. Avoidance. You want to do something to avoid something negative happening if you are not doing it. 
The difference between these core drives is not always clear! For example, being part of an exclusive shopping network is:
  • 1. Meaning - You want to be a part of the elite.
  • 2. Accomplishment - You made it into the club.
  • 4. Ownership - You get to buy the best stuff!
  • 5. Social influence - Now your friends are jealous of you.
  • 6. Scarcity - You are part of this 1 percent ultra exclusive club!

A summary of each core drive

1. Meaning. You believe you are doing something greater than yourself or that you were "chosen" to do something important. Examples:
  • Spend your spare time updating Wikipedia. You believe that by updating Wikipedia your work will affect millions of people around the world in a positive way.
  • Being a member of a limited network, such as "an exclusive, member-based online shopping site for clothing and accessories, which runs time-limited sales which can only be viewed by its members." 

2. Accomplishment. You have an internal drive to make progress, develop skills, and overcome challenges. This is the core drive that is the easiest to design for because you can simply add leaderboards, points, and trophies. But don't forget the challenge, because you don't want to get rewards for free. Examples:
  • I wrote a book about Elon Musk (the challenge) and my "leaderboards, points, and trophies" is the book's Goodreads rating. Each time I get a good rating I feel proud and sometimes I take a print-screen of the rating and attach it to a tweet.
  • When you buy something on the auction site eBay, you feel that you won. So even though you might have paid more compared to what you initially wanted to pay, you feel that you won against the other guy who were bidding against you.  

3. Empowerment. You need ways to express your creativity by repeatedly trying to figure things out and try different combinations. This makes you feel good and you take action because you find the action enjoyable on its own. You also need to be able to see the result of your creativity by receiving feedback so you can improve what you have done. Examples:
  • The game Minecraft is popular because you can be creative in it and do whatever you want. Other people can join the map and give you criticism, but you can also give yourself criticism because you see what you've created.   
  • Websites that let you play around with your personal economy so you can test different strategies. What's happening if you invest 20 percent in stocks and save 30 percent in your savings account?   

4. Ownership. You are motivated when you feel like you own something, and you want to make what you own better. Besides being the major core drive for wanting to accumulate wealth, this deals with many virtual goods or virtual currencies. If you in a game spend a lot of time to customize your profile or avatar, you automatically feel more ownership towards it. This is also the core drive that makes collecting stamps or puzzle pieces fun (for some). Examples:
  • In Pokemon the player has to catch all Pokemons.
  • McDonald's had a physical game where you had the chance to get a piece of the game when you bought a hamburger. When you accumulated all the pieces McDonald's gave you a reward. 
  • You've spent a lot of time writing blog posts on your blog (you now own it) and you want to improve it by increasing the number of readers.

5. Social Influence. This drive incorporates all the social elements that drives you, such as mentorship, acceptance, social responses, companionship, competition, and envy. When you see a friend who is amazing at some skill or owns something you also want to own, you become driven to reach the same level. This also includes your drive to draw closer to people, places, or events that you can relate to. If you see a product that reminds you of your childhood, the sense of nostalgia would likely increase the odds of you buying the product. Examples:
  • The online game Parallel Kingdom has mentors that spend time with you when you've just started the game. They give you items and a push in the right direction. Players who get help tell themselves: "I can't possibly quit this game now and let my mentor down. He/she just gave me his valuable items! I can't let his/her effort go to waste." So they continue playing because someone else has done a favor for them. 
  • A hotel wanted to persuade their guests to reuse their towels, so they tested two different signs: "Please help us save the environment by reusing your towel," and "80 percent of the guests that stayed in this room reused their towels." It turned out that the second sign was most effective because we humans tend to do what other humans do. If you are told other people are reusing their towels, then you will also reuse them.  

6. Scarcity. This is the drive of wanting something because you can't have it and you want it immediately. Many games can say "come back in 2 hours later to get your reward." The fact that you can't get something right now motivates you to think about it all day long, so you might pay to have it at once. Examples:
  • Facebook started at a small scale for just Harvard students. When Facebook opened up to everyone, you wanted to join because you previously couldn't.
  • Until the mid 20th century, diamond engagement rings were a small and dying industry in America. But then someone came up with the idea to restrict the supply of diamonds to make them a status symbol. The diamonds themselves aren't actually that rare.
  • The game Candy Crush gives you the opportunity to either pay to get something now or wait sometime. Some pay because they want it immediately. 
  • You are more motivated to buy a product with a limited edition, even though you don't know how many "limited" is. 100 products? 1 million products? It doesn't matter to you! 

7. Unpredictability. You want to know what's happening next. If you don't, your brain is engaged and you think about all the time. This is why you watch movies or read books. However, this drive is also the primary factor behind gambling addiction. There are experiments showing how rats continuously press a lever because of unpredictable rewards. What if the next press will result in cheese? Examples:
  • What if the next lottery ticket will make you rich?
  • What if the famous person on Twitter is finally replying to your tweets?

8. Avoidance. This core drive is based upon the avoidance of something negative happening, such as avoiding losing previous work or avoiding admitting that everything you did up to this point was useless because you are now quitting. The problem is that you are much more likely to change your behavior to avoid a loss than to make a gain. Examples:
  • It's much harder to sell a stock if you have lost money on the stock than it is to sell a stock with a profit. This is why so many people are losing money in the stock market! What you should do is to sell the losers and hold on to the winners. 
  • When spending time on an auction on eBay you don't want to lose the auction. 

The Octalysis framework

You can summarize the 8 fundamental reasons (core drives) why you want to do something in the co-called Octalysis framework:

You can connect the different sides of the octagon to the different parts of your brain. But that's boring so let's see examples of the framework in action:



Example: Blogging

Why do you want to have a blog? As said before, there are 8 fundamental reasons (core drives) why you want to blog:
  1. Meaning. You believe that by writing articles you can help people and make the world a better place. You will also become a better writer. 
  2. Accomplishment. It's a challenge to write a blog: you have to come up with new ideas about what you are going to write, and you have to update frequently.
  3. Empowerment. By experimenting with the blog design and different types of articles you can be creative and see how many readers you can get.
  4. Ownership. You've spent a lot of time with the blog so now you feel like you own it, so you want to improve it.
  5. Social influence. It's more fun to blog when you see that people are reading the blog, and it's fun to compete with other people who are writing similar articles.  
  6. Scarcity. Writing a blog is a long-term investment. You don't know which articles will become popular, so you have to wait and see. 
  7. Unpredictability. It's fun to see which articles will become popular. 
  8. Avoidance. You measure how many people are visiting your blog and it's painful to see when the trend line is down. If the trend line is down, you want to write more articles to avoid the fact that all the hard work up to this point has been a waste of time.  

Example: Selling video games

While writing this article I read the book Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World. It explained how Nintendo used gamification to sell more video games:
...it was wise to market video games like movies - released cautiously, rationed so that demand outpaced availability, and then withdrawn from circulation as soon as interest began to wane. This rationing tactic, treading games like priceless objects (Scarcity), worked. After all the hyper about a new game took hold (Meaning), kids dragged their parents to stores, but outlets couldn't keep the games in stock. A kid who was absolutely dying to get "Link" [a game] would arrive at the store, only to find it sold out. Maybe he would try a few other stores without success (Empowerment and Unpredictability), but then he would buy another Nintendo game. Then, a week or month later, a new supply of "Link" would come in. The kid wanted "Link" more than ever then, and unless his were the most iron-willed of parents, they would succumb.
The Atari wave (the competing game company) had floundered in large part because of a flooded market. By design, Nintendo did not fill all of the retailers' orders, and it kept half or more of its library of games inactive.

I also suspect that the kid's friends, and those around him who had found a copy of the game, were influencing the kid to buy the game (Social influence). When the kid finally bought the game, the kid had overcome the challenge to find the game (Accomplishment and Avoidance as in not finding the game at all). Now when the kid has spent a lot of time to find the game, the kid now feels like the kid owns the game (Ownership) and will thus enjoy it more.

But why is Nintendo's share of the market today much lower than Nintendo's share of the market in the 1990s if they have figure out the secret to how to sell games? The answer is that today it's much more difficult to create a hype about a new game (Meaning) because so many good games are being produced each year. Nintendo is also doing their best to avoid creating a hype about a new game because they are preventing YouTubers from playing their games, and since many gamers are buying the games the YouTubers are playing (Social influence), no-one is buying Nintendo games.    


This was just a short summary of the 21-day Gamification Course. If you want to learn more you should take the course yourself. I learned a lot, even though I had studied the area before by reading books like Influence, Yes!, and Superbetter. So I will continue to study the area because a good product is not good unless you have users who are actually using the product. And since you can use gamification in other areas as well, such as avoiding post-traumatic stress, you now see why gamification actually beats peanut butter on pancakes.