Yu-kai Chou has two main goals: making life more fun, and games more productive. Here he talks in depth about the far-reaching psychological principles that underpin gamification.

What first attracted you to gamification?
In 2003 I was a heavy gamer. After finishing one particular game, I realised I’d spent thousands of hours of my life building strong game characters, but every time I completed a game, I was left with nothing. If I put that same time into learning a new language or playing the violin I would be high level in that skill in real-life, not just in a game.

I started a journey to understand how to utilise these fun elements of games. Games are fun even though there is relatively little purpose, compared to things we know have greater importance, like education and healthcare, but we often seem to have less motivation to engage with them. Out of this curiosity, I built some technology start-ups and eventually started blogging about and writing about gamification.

What are the most common mistakes you see businesses make?
Many businesses are still looking at gamification in ways that don’t engender success. The first common mistake is that the business has failed to evolve beyond gamification 1.0. They’re still stuck in the early days of points, badges and leader boards (PBLs), simply bolting gamification onto an already poorly designed experience.

PBLs are the first step in that wrong direction. Companies think that if they simply add points and badges, or turn their resources into quests and narratives, that they’ll automatically be fun. My observation is that all computer games on the market have game elements, but most still aren’t fun and turn out to be financial failures, so success doesn’t come from adding game elements that are found in exciting and boring games alike. That won’t automatically make an activity fun. It’s more about how you bring all the necessary elements together to appeal to our core drives.

Can you expand on what you’ve discovered regarding these core drives?
I spent many years studying exactly what makes a game fun. I studied many games that are superficially very similar, but somehow some are extremely successful while others are not. I wanted to know why.

It’s obviously not because one has game elements and the other doesn’t: a visually stunning game can be a failure, while a game like Minecraft can be relatively ugly, but a huge success. I realised all the successful games have eight grouped core drives associated with them (which I call the Octalysis Framework):

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling
  2. Development & Accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback
  4. Ownership & Possession
  5. Social Influence & Relatedness
  6. Scarcity & Impatience
  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity
  8. Loss & Avoidance

If none of the core drives are activated, there is zero motivation for people to engage so nothing happens. Gamification is really about bringing together all the necessary elements that appeal to these core drives.

Of those eight core drives, there are different consequences and natures. The first three are what I call ‘white hat’ drives, which make you feel empowered but there is no sense of urgency associated with them. If we take an action based on one of these drives, we feel happy, but we may tend to procrastinate. The last three are the ‘black hat’ core drives, which make people feel urgent, obsessed or even addicted. In the long run, these can leave a bad taste in the mouth because we’re not in control of those behaviours.

We then have the ‘left-brain’ core drive: this isn’t geographically linked to activities on the left side of the brain, but it is symbolically associated with our ‘logical’ brain. That relates to extrinsic motivation; the things we do for reward, a purpose or a goal where we don’t necessarily enjoy the activities. Once we obtain the reward or reach our goals, we stop doing the activity. In contrast, the ‘right-brain’ core drives – symbolically the emotional side of the brain – deals with intrinsic motivation; the things we do out of pure enjoyment. These can be activities that we enjoy so much, we may even pay to experience them.

A lot of companies like to design for left-brain core drives because it’s so much easier to attach a reward to the activity you want to see as opposed to making it fun and dynamic. In fact, extrinsic motivation can kill its intrinsic counterpart. If someone wants to do something to begin with, giving them a reward can decrease interest because of over justification: people start to think they are doing the activity exclusively for the reward, so when they receive it, they stop, even though they would have otherwise continued for free.

Tell us about you experience working for eBay.
I helped eBay with a project with the goal of getting their small seller to become more professional. What makes eBay unique compared to competitors like Amazon is that they have a large number of small sellers selling niche products you can’t find elsewhere. Unfortunately, a number of these sellers are less professional, and that ca n lead to bad buyer experiences. Consequently, I helped them create a seller’s dashboard to really motivate these people level up and become better sellers. Of the eight core drives, the first is epic meaning and calling, which creates a feeling that you’re doing something bigger than yourself.

These small sellers aren’t less professional because they’re ignorant, they just don’t really care. They approach selling in terms of getting rid of ‘stuff’ from their garage, so there is little motivation. I helped eBay reframe the seller journey in terms of running their own business, as entrepreneurship. Sellers then start thinking, ‘yes, I should offer better customer support’ or ‘of course I should upload more photos’. From there they start to think about whether they have more things to sell, and suddenly they are fully engaged.

Yu-kai Chou is creator of the gamification framework: Octalysis, and author of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards.

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Until next week…
Paul Brown