Mar 172011

In a series of talks at Google, TED and SXSW, big ideas have been circulating in the emerging area of gamification. Revealing the psychological levers behind game mechanics and applying these mechanics to solving real-world problems, Sebastian Deterding, a UX designer and researcher, and Seth Priebatsch, founder and CEO of gamification platform startup SCVNGR, have emerged as two early thought leaders worth watching. Both contend that gamification, or making a non-game application more engaging by adding game-like features, is clearly more than a bolt-on marketing fad and even quite possibly the next big thing for the internet.

A few core ideas shared by both of these thought leaders are deconstructed from their recent talks below so that we may more readily consider applying them in our own projects.



Sebastian Deterding

For UX designers, software developers, marketers, and educators eager to apply gamification to increase user engagement and loyalty in their non-game products and processes, Sebastian Deterding’s Google Tech Talk is a can’t-miss on game mechanics and their underlying psychology.  Deterding’s points in “Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right” are so useful that they’re worth extracting from the YouTube, slides and speaker notes that he has provided.

Deterding dives into three elements he believes are key to high-engagement, high-loyalty games and gamification – meaning, mastery, and autonomy.

Meaning. To Deterding, game mechanics must be connected to something intrinsically meaningful to the user in order to drive engagement and loyalty. Otherwise they will produce a shallow feeling of novelty which will soon wear off and lead to abandonment. To illustrate, Deterding cites Arsenio Santos’ blog post on why he quit Foursquare. Santos found that achievements were the only benefit to playing the service. “Underneath the game mechanics, it didn’t provide anything of value or interest to him,” Deterding says. “He played around, discovered some stuff, and found there’s nothing really there for me.” By contrast, consider Stack Overflow (now being renamed StackExchange). “This service is a poster child for having reputation, points, and badges,” Deterding says, “But even if you take that away, it would still be immensely valuable for the user and meaningful.” One of Deterding’s slides quotes founder Aaron Patzer: “What we’ve learned from our users is that any game aspect has to be at least for finance oriented toward some specific thing that you are working toward: I want to buy a house or a car, take a vacation, get out of debt. Otherwise you have a system of points with no levels and no end game.”

When trying to ensure that the gamification experience has meaning, Deterding says designers should follow these important principles:

Connection to a meaningful goal. Gamification should be connected to some meaningful goal that the user brings to the platform. This can be accomplished via offering customizable, or user-defined goals, as in the site RescueTime. The goals needn’t be personal, but they should allow users to self-identify with an interest, passion or curiosity that they already have in their everyday life. Deterding finds a strong example because it allows users to self-identify with a number of different personal finance goals. This can be done with finance, health, fitness, science, sustainable behavior, really anything.

Connection to meaningful community of interest. Second, the gamification system must connect the user to a meaningful community of interest. Deterding parses the broad assertion by gamification vendors that the status and influence dynamic – i.e., the “bragging rights” for achieving a status or badge – is a core motivator for engagement. In order to brag in front of your friends, he adds, you should be showing off something they actually care about. Deterding cites the entertainment recommendations site as a negative example. GetGlue allows you to check in and like different items of pop entertainment and earn badges for completing those behaviors. “That is something that if it slips out as an auto-post [to Twitter or Facebook], I say ‘sheesh, I’m sort of ashamed of that’,” Deterding says. The argument is that liking movies is too vague or off-topic to be interesting or meaningful to the community of his friends. “Contrast that with a more focused community like,” he says, “which is basically a huge wiki and community site for board games.” Deterding argues that, since he and his friends in fact are board game geeks, becoming a fan of the game Hornet Leader 2 is something meaningful to the community around him. If the community gives him kudos for that, then this is something he cares about. Another facet of meaningful community Deterding admires about BoardGameGeek is its community-generated goals process. If the community generates a goal and sets the activities to achieve it, this automatically ensures that it is of interest to the community.

Wrapping gamification in a meaningful story. Many argue, Deterding concedes,  that video games don’t connect to anything relevant to our everyday lives. So how do they achieve meaning? The answer is that video games wrap their goals, levels and other game mechanics within a story, and the narrative of the story gives meaning to the experience. As an example, Deterding notes the site which tries to motivate users to crowdsource earmarks in legislation. “You’d have to be a true policy/transparency wonk to care about this,” he says. What if instead, Deterding wonders, this process were wrapped in a story headlined “Discover Corruption” and given a Watergate theme to motivate citizen journalists? “Suddenly this menial task would seem much more exciting and motivating,” he argues. For a more remedial example, Deterding cites the classic Atari video game Missile Command in which the simple mechanic of keeping red trajectories from reaching blue ones is wrapped in the story: “Defend cities from nuclear bombs.” Similarly without supporting story, visuals and artifacts, the hugely popular game Mafia Wars would be stripped to a dull “fill the progress bar to progress” mechanic.

Mastery. In what is arguably the most incisive point of his talk, Deterding contends that there is a fundamental misconception in gamification discourse about why games are engaging. Gamification marketers may say users are engaged by the rewards in games (points, levels, and badges are basically all rewards). Deterding argues that what really captivates users is mastery. This leads to fascinating and powerful parallels between increasing engagement and loyalty in gamification, learning and problem solving.

“There’s this pop-behaviorist idea of video games as a kind of Skinner box that doles out rewarding points like sugar pellets every time we hit the right lever,” Deterding says, “But if that were the case, it should be engaging to earn a trillion points every time you hit the button, which is not true. Deterding argues that game designer Raph Koster comes closer to the truth of why games are engaging when he writes that fun is just another word for learning. To be sure, this sounds counterintuitive since we associate learning with school and generally think of school as anything but fun. But at its root, Deterding states, the fun of learning is really the fun of mastering something. Figuring out a puzzle, recognizing a pattern, or having the dexterity to make the next step in a game that you couldn’t make before, Deterding says, are all elements of mastery that give us that good sense of achievement which is the core fun of video games. For Deterding, the apparent disconnect between the fun of mastering video games and the laboriousness of mastering school lies in the presence of “optimal conditions”. That’s what video games do for us, he argues. They provide optimal conditions for achieving mastery. And the way they do this, he says, is by providing interesting challenges.

Scaffolded Challenges.  Games make the conditions for achieving mastery optimal by setting goals for us and adding rules to make pursuing these goals more interesting. Deterding translates this into UX recommendations by encouraging user experience designers to always place clear, visually present goals in the interface. The UX should acknowledge that the user is returning and clearly set forth the next goal to achieve in the game. In addition, Deterding argues, UX designers should make sure the goals are well structured and well organized. Designers should break up each goal into smaller, achievable goals, presenting the first of these, then having the next queued up and ready to go. “This structured flow of goals pulls users through the game,” Deterding says. A good pair of examples he cites are Zynga’s FrontierVille and City Ville – “You can play without any missions, but when you enter, on the left side, there is a clearly marked list of new missions and new goals you can pursue.”

The next technique Deterding cites to create optimal conditions for achieving mastery is to ensure that there is not just a bland line of goals on the same level, but that the goals get increasingly more difficult. This is what game designers, and educators, refer to as “scaffolded challenges.” Deterding advocates Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi’s flow theory which states that we feel best not when we’re under-challenged and bored or over-challenged and frustrated and anxious but in the ideal middle spot between them where the challenges match our abilities and we get a feeling of achievement by mastering them. This is “flow” – the psychology of optimal experience. It’s often represented by a graph like the one above, with difficulty on the vertical axis and skill and time on the horizontal axis. Anxiety results when difficulty is high and skill and time are low. Boredom ensues when you have lots of skill and ample time but confront an easy challenge. Flow, or optimal experience, takes place in a diagonal zone, cutting a swath between these extremes rising upward and to the right.

Fluctuating The Difficulty Of Challenges. To further optimize conditions for achieving mastery and the fun of learning, Deterding says, games don’t pull a straight line through the flow zone. They usually have a flickery line up and down through it. Users face steep and challenging goals, then suddenly something of very low difficulty. The advantage of fluctuating, Deterding explains, is that on the one hand it provides the experience of failure which gives you something to learn from. The player, or learner, needs to try something different in order to succeed. At the same time, it makes success feel more rewarding than if the user succeeded right away. A second advantage of fluctuation is that when the level of difficulty in the flow zone suddenly dips low, you get the experience of aceing out, of being the super-king and finishing everything, Deterding adds. Then the difficulty rises again. You struggle a bit, and the fluctuations continue, staggering generally upwards in challenge and mastery.

Varying The Type Of Challenges. The next twist to optimize conditions for achieving mastery is that games don’t merely add more of the same kind of challenge as their levels increase in difficulty through the flow zone. “That would be boring, grinding, repetitive,” Deterding objects. Games pose you one kind of challenge and then another, he says, and then they combine them into a more complex challenge. Games vary the challenges as well as increasing them in difficulty. Translating this into UX recommendations, Deterding advises user experience designers to employ variety, depth, and complexity. “Start simple,” he says, “Then try to scaffold it slowly into more complex tasks. For example, take the goal from ‘add a comment’ or ‘like’ something to ‘become the moderator of a page’”.

Excessive Positive Feedback/Juicy Feedback. The final way Deterding explains that video games optimize conditions for achieving mastery is by providing us with excessive positive feedback when we master something. Over-stimulate your users and give them a smile, Deterding says. Think rainbows, Beethoven’s 9th, pinball-like tabulating points. “That’s what game designers call juicy feedback.” Deterding advises UX designers to always provide juicy feedback to optimize the conditions for achieving mastery.

Autonomy/Freedom. Deterding says research finds one of the core reasons why games are appealing is that they are voluntary – an activity we choose for ourselves. He believes this voluntary, autonomous aspect is key for successful applications of gamification to productivity contexts.  For him, the great example is Tom Sawyer, who convinced his friends to give up a playtime going swimming and pay him for the privilege of doing work – painting his Aunt Polly’s fence. Creating the impression that he was painting the fence voluntarily, Deterding says, made the experiential difference. Filling out spreadsheets may seem dreadful at work, Deterding points out, but if you do it in a multi-player game you’re engaged in the same activity and paying for the privilege because you voluntarily chose to play. The Scoreboard application for provides him with another example. Depending on whether users engage with it voluntarily or whether a supervisor attaches a reward to it, Deterding says, it can be empowering or very demotivating. Attaching extrinsic rewards to a challenge also has the problem of devaluing the activity. Deterding appears to have a distaste for Twitter sweepstakes in which users are asked to retweet or follow something in exchange for qualifying to win a giveaway. “This gives a social signal that the activity is not valuable –  it’s so bad, they had to pay to get followers,” he says.

At first it may look like trying to create autonomy and freedom in gamification conflicts with the central game mechanic of rewards. However Deterding cites ways to meld and optimize the two. First, designers can give the user many possible ways to achieve the goal, once the goal is agreed upon, taking a “shared goals, individual pursuits” model which increases the experience of autonomy. Zappos customer service is an example that Deterding cites — “We want a good customer experience. Make the customer happy. But how you do that is completely up to you.” A second technique is to provide feedback that is informational and helpful in solving the task, rather than feedback in the form of a pat on the back or a reward, Deterding says. gets kudos from Deterding for providing users with helpful feedback on how far they are from reaching a specific personal finance goal and next steps to take if they don’t make it. The feedback is informational, rather than controlling, which contributes to the sense of autonomy. A third method is to give users unexpected rewards, or “Easter eggs” as they’re known in video games. If you don’t expect a reward, and suddenly it appears, Deterding argues, then you don’t make a causal relationship in your head between your doing the activity and the reward. “Hence you don’t feel controlled by it,” he says. “You feel autonomous.”

Deterding’s Take-Aways. Summing up his Google Tech Talk, Deterding advises product managers to think through gamification as a process, not as features: “Provide a story with meaning that connects to your users’ everyday lives; provide a rule system they can master; provide a free space they can play in.” He stresses understanding the core parts of game design as set forth in books like The Game Design Workshop. Playing board games, and thinking about how they create engaging dynamics between users, is a good mental exercise that Deterding recommends. A UX designer by profession, Deterding reinforces knowing your end users and keeping it uppermost in mind that as UX designers “we are not our users.” Failing this can result in applying the wrong game mechanics to your target audience and a failed service. Protoyping, play-testing, and iterating your rule system and point system are critical, Deterding stresses, noting that the top-selling game Plants vs. Zombies was iterated upon for three years before launch. Finally, he says, bring in the data. Supplement the quantitative data with qualitative. For example, he notes, designers can measure how long it took to win a level and tune it to make it more difficult if it’s just three seconds. Discovering whether the point system is refined to curb exploitative behavior is another factor that can be quantitatively measured.

Seth Priebatsch

At age 22, Seth Priebatsch, Chief Ninja at SCVNGR, is not only running a Google-backed gamification startup with a $100M valuation. In recent talks at TED and SXSW, Priebatsch is laying out a big vision of what’s next for the internet. To the mind of this disruptive young entrepreneur, the next big thing will be an expanded application of game mechanics to solving real-world problems – including challenges in education, customer acquisition, customer loyalty, location based services, and maybe even (he jokes) global warming.

Priebatsch evangelizes a vision he calls “the game layer” of the internet – a capability that he believes it will take the next ten years to build and that he predicts will have 10 times more influence on our lives than the “social layer” which precedes it. Whereas the social layer traffics in connections, the game layer traffics in influence, Priebatsch says. “It seeks to influence where we go, what we do, how we do it, why we do it.” What excites him, and in turn makes him exciting to watch, is planning how the game layer can be built and what it can do now – “because it can do great things”.

Following are Priebatsch’s five well-thought-out examples of how game mechanics can solve – and in some cases currently are solving – big problems, as presented to his audience at this year’s SXSW:

Game Mechanics And Education. Priebatsch’s first focus is on school, whose many elements – including motivated players, challenges, rewards, rules, allies, enemies, appointment dynamics, countdowns, incentives and disincentives – he meticulously likens to a game. “You’ve got all these things that basically make school the best real-world implementation of a game that’s out there,” he says, “but unfortunately it’s a little broken.” In Priebatsch’s assessment of school as a game, but a poorly designed one, there are two central problems that he believes lend themselves to solution via refined game mechanics – engagement and cheating.

Students aren’t as engaged in school as they should be, Priebatsch believes, because of a broken grading system. To Priebatsch, grading is nothing but a “status” game mechanic, but one that is done wrong. “What the grading system has done is create what we call ‘the moral hazard of game play,’” he says, crediting the phrase to game designer Jesse Schell. In making this error, grades replace the real reward – in this case, learning for learning’s sake – with a series of ersatz rewards in the form of arbitrary letters that we get on individual actions. “When you replace the real reward with the fake reward, “ Priebatsch argues, “people start to view the actions they need to take to get the reward as chores, and they start becoming very unengaged.” More than this, he reasons, a grade is a game mechanic that you can lose in a game where we don’t want people to lose. Priebatsch challenges the grading game mechanic then redesigns it on the fly. “Why have a mechanic where you can progress negatively, where a huge mental focus is placed on not failing?” he asks. “Why not create a grade system that is based much more on progressions, where, instead of having a grade based on a weighted average on how you do on each individual challenge, quiz, test, start with zero experience points and as you do well on challenges, tests, and quizzes you increase your experience points and you move from a level B to a level A to a level A+ ?” In the redesigned grading game mechanic, Priebatsch says, “You can’t level down. You can’t fail. It’s all about focusing on the positive. It’s just how quickly you can progress to level B, or level A, or level White Knight Paladin Level 20.” Priebatsch maintains that educators would still wind up with a normal distribution of students at the end. But by decreasing the direct correlation of action to reward and having people focus on the end result, he says, it is possible to correct a grading system that naturally leads people to focus on the wrong things. The outcome, Priebatsch predicts, would be to increase engagement in school, to make people study harder, do better, and be more prepared for success in life.

Priebatsch shares a similar approach proved to reduce cheating in school. “What’s going on with cheating is we’re fighting it with a game mechanic called disincentives,” he says. “If you cheat, you get thrown out, you fail on that test. Something bad happens. But the problem with this is that the mechanic is totally misapplied.” Priebatsch contends that the current disincentive is not on cheating, but rather on getting caught. “When you’ve got these misapplied disincentives, people learn very quickly how to play the game as you’ve designed it,” he argues. “We just designed the game slightly wrong.” Priebatsch’s solution, once again, is to change the rules. Rather than having rules that call for an omnipotent overseer (a teacher, a TA, or an admin) enforcing the disincentive against cheating, Priebatsch suggests substituting a mechanic called the “social fabric of game play”, a term he credits to game designer Jane McGonigal.  At Princeton, Priebatsch reports, this game mechanic reduced cheating from over 400 incidences a year to 2. “They made it such that when you are taking a test, there is no teacher, no admin, no TA, no oversight of any kind,” Priebatsch says. The only two rules this game mechanic are: (i.) Students must write down an honor code stating they will not cheat and have not seen anyone else cheat, and (ii.) Complicity is as much a crime as cheating yourself. If you see someone else cheat, and you do not report it, you’re just as guilty. “This really subtle shift changes the game from me fighting against my players and against the admin who is this omnipotent enforcer who has the power to watch over us, to a game where it’s me and the other players enforcing on one another, trusting one another because we’re all in the same game, and it changes the enemy from being the admin to being the test,” Priebatsch explains. Always on the lookout for social problems solvable by game mechanics, Priebatsch imagines applying the social fabric of gameplay to other large-scale processes such as the tax code and tax law. “Imagine everyone enforcing that themselves – the social fabric of gameplay on a national level.”

Game Mechanics And Customer Acquisition. Priebatsch illustrates the power of game mechanics to make quantum improvements in customer acquisition by dissecting the company that has done the best job acquiring customers – Groupon. To Priebatsch, Groupon is simply the sum of three game mechanics (plus a huge email list). The mechanics are free lunch, communal gameplay and countdown.

Free Lunch. “Free lunch is one of the most subtle game mechanics in the deck,” Priebatsch explains. “Free lunch basically plays off of the consumer’s own skepticism to get them to engage in the game. We’ve been taught since we were two that a free lunch can’t exist. What we see here [Priebatsch shows a slide of Groupon daily deal] is too good to be true – 50% off on an awesome lunch place. So how can it actually be done?”  Groupon is very careful to explain that the free lunch has a catch, he says – “a certain number of people have to buy it in order to tip it. And so it is a free lunch, but the skepticism is removed because the free lunch is justified.” This appears to be standard challenge/reward scenario, Priebatsch admits, “except the brilliance of what Groupon has done is they can present the free lunch, they can play off the consumer skepticism by justifying it with this tipping rule, and yet be guaranteed that the consumer never has to take any action to do it. The consumer never has to do any work, because 95% of all Groupons tip before 8 am.” Even though Groupon daily deals contain a call to action to socially share the deal with friends, Priebatsch explains, this almost never requires the consumer to do work because the vast size of Groupon’s email list is almost always enough to tip the deal by itself.

Communal Gameplay. Groupon’s second game mechanic is communal gameplay. “It is based on the idea that you can give anyone a very complex problem, and if you make the rules clear and you make the goal clear, then decentralized networks of people can solve these problems very very quickly,” Priebatsch says. The Groupon communal gameplay example, he notes, is that as a community you need to hit 50 purchases for a great deal to be triggered. “The way you do that – the rules are very simple – is you share it with your friends,” he notes. “The goal is equally clear – you get the great deal at the end.” As he mentioned earlier, Priebatsch points out that Groupon nowadays uses the social sharing call to action more as a kick-starter, since most of the deals tip simply because they have such a huge email list.

Countdown. The final dynamic that makes up Groupon is also the simplest, Priebatsch says. It’s the countdown. “It’s a very simple dynamic,” he explains. “ Everyone understands it. But what it does is it creates this humongous exponential spike in activity as you get closer and closer to countdown zero.  There have been a lot of studies done where you take two equally sized groups of people and you present them with an opportunity, and you give one group 24 hours to decide and the other group 30 days to decide. And the 24 hour group consistently takes advantage of that opportunity more often because the spike in engagement created by the countdown mechanic is so huge.”

These three game mechanics, plus an email list, basically equals Groupon, Priebatsch concludes, and it gives you a lot of powerful customer acquisition.

Game Mechanics And Loyalty. Game dynamics such as the level-up – jumping from one level to the next, unlocking status and unlocking a higher reward – have already been used in very sophisticated loyalty programs. “But they use them in such an overburdened way that it’s almost impossible for people to interact,” Priebatsch argues. He’s attempting to remedy that with SCVNGR’s new product, LevelUp designed to compete with Groupon and LivingSocial. LevelUp offers a series of three deals to consumers, who unlock each one in succession as they try out a business, each time leveling up and increasing loyalty. The idea is to re-engineer the game mechanic of social location based services to prevent consumers from abandoning interacting with a local business after just one check-in. Priebatch hints that LevelUp also uses the concept of inclusive ownership, in which a small group of people get to share special status and benefits, rather than exclusive ownership, where the benefit and special status are conferred upon just one individual. “We think, and a bunch of people think, that the daily deals space and the location based space are going to converge very quickly.” A location-based daily deals service that lets a group of people share the benefits of a level-up game mechanic is definitely one to watch.

Game Mechanics And Location Based Services. The fourth problem to which Priebatsch applies game mechanics is narrower but one that directly concerns his own company – location based services. “We’re going to talk about moving them into mainstream,” he says, “But we’re going to handle it in a generic way – how do you take any service that is inherently niche and expand it into the mainstream?” Only a small percent of the addressable market uses social location based services today, Priebatsch notes, even though big money and big partners have pushed it hard, including collaborations like Facebook Places/Gap, Whrrl/UPS, Foursquare/Pepsi, Gowalla/Disney, SCVNGR/Coca Cola. Again, Priebatsch’s solution for driving mass adoption of social location based services is to change the rules of the game mechanics in two ways: (i.) Use quantitative easing to relax the rules until people engage, introducing ‘loosely coupled’ versus ‘tightly coupled’ correlation of people and places. Right now social LBS services are a game that’s too hard, Priebatsch argues. They require you to be at a physical location to engage in the game. For example, limits the experience since it’s a small moment when two people are in the exact physical place. “What if the location is a ‘loose’ place, such as a place that you will be at? You change the rules so people re-engage.” Look for more ways to engage with places than simply announcing your arrival. (ii.) Change the reward game mechanic. Like Sebastian Deterding, Priebatsch concedes that rewards can motivate, but he consistently warns about their negative side. When a social LBS service offers a reward in exchange for desired behaviors, users may be engaging because they want the reward but don’t value the community. Priebatsch is asking the right question when he wonders what happens when a service can’t offer a reward for every behavior. This game mechanic may not be sustainable. That’s a game mechanics problem Priebatsch admitted he and his team at SCVNGR haven’t cracked yet. Listening to him, though, you have to feel that it’s only a matter of time.

What do you think of these big ideas on gamification? Discover any others you’d like to add? Share your thoughts in comments.


Credit for Seth Priebatsch composite image to UK Guardian.

  8 Responses to “Deconstructing Gamification’s Big Thinkers: Sebastian Deterding & Seth Priebatsch”

  1. […] Gamification’s Big Thinkers: Sebastian Deterding & Seth Priebatsch – addresses this question All 0 CommentsCannot add comment at this time.  Mathijs van Meerkerk Finite and […]

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  3. Alex, great questions. I think part of the answer is that forward-thinking educators are conducting small, agile experiments using redefined game mechanics. Over time, the results are shared, tried by others, and so begin to spread and affect change in this way. Seth Priebatsch’s description of the game mechanics experiment to reduce cheating at Princeton is a good example. It is being tried by several other colleges now. I think it’s safe to argue that in this incremental way, refining the game mechanics of school stands a good chance of improving many measurable areas of education — without the need to move huge obstacles like government funding decisions right away;)

    • John Barber says: ‘I think part of the answer is that forward-thinking educators are conducting small, agile experiments using redefined game mechanics.’

      I am one of those teachers and you can follow my progress on

      It’s a lot of experimenting, as there’s one important difference between games and education: games are played voluntarily (you buy the game!) yet education is experienced by most students as an almost involuntary action. As Priebatsch says, a lot of this has to do with a broken reward system, so it’s a big challenge to get students playful and engaged in my classes, while still operating within this broken environment.

      It’s great fun to develop, and even though I fail a lot, I learn a lot about what works and doesn’t.

      • Bruno, thanks for sharing. I will definitely follow your progress. There is nothing like real data from small experiments with real users (in this case, learners).

  4. Thanks, Lynda. I appreciate your feedback!

  5. Arielle, thanks for the comment. Very glad you found the post useful.

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