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The 4 Secrets to Gamification



Eugene Gan - published on 09/24/13

Know these basic principles of gamification and you can apply it to anything - even to help with the new evangelization.

What do waitressing, changing baby diapers, and controlling air traffic have in common?

Give up? They are all themes of popular video games. You’d think that something as laborious, something as odious, something as serious as these wouldn’t be the subject of play, and yet all three have made it big as games. Gamification can blur the lines between work and play. That’s the wonder of gamification in action: applying game engagement principles to work-related, non-gaming tasks and making them something we voluntarily choose to do and enjoy.

So can we gamify websites and social media to boost traffic and participation? You bet. There have been enough of you who have asked me about using principles of gamification to create engaging new media websites and online social media for the Church that I have decided to write this article. But before you dive right in, if you haven’t read the first part that introduces the concept of gamification, you can still find it here.  (If you’ve already read the first part, then congratulations! You’ve earned yourself 10 points, and if you post a comment below, you can redeem the 10 points for a rosary that my family and I will pray for you. Simply let us know in your comment below to claim it!)

What I hope to do is give you key pointers about how to engage the audiences of your Church’s website or online social media by using a few fundamental principles of gamification. Keep in mind that these same principles can be applied to a host of other activities as well, including get-together games during Church functions, catechetical lessons, and youth-ministry activities, to suggest a few.

Also remember that the Catholic Church acknowledges authentic truth even when found “outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #819). In this spirit, I’ve discerningly drawn gamification principles from a variety of sources, including studies on engagement, research on social engineering, and books such as Gamification by Design, A Theory of Fun, The Play Ethic, Rules of Play, and The Art of Game Design, to name a few. I say ‘discerningly’ because if you read some of these, or listen to some of the authors’ presentations, you too might discern an underlying framework that is antithetical to the foundation of human dignity and freedom. My concerns about some of these texts and presentations include a leaning toward relativism, a focus on engagement without balancing the specter of addiction, as well as an over-emphasis on extrinsic motivation coupled with recommendations for organizations to accept the “fact” that intrinsic motivation is dead. In other words, it’s all about winning some reward rather than about doing what’s right because I choose to do what’s right. It’s a pity, too, since many principles of gamification can be forces for good, but there is currently no concerted effort to honestly discern them.

And one last caveat: to be clear, this is not about gaming some system, or about “winning converts,” or about the Church getting large numbers of people so it can “fill its coffers” (as one reader put it in a recent TIME magazine letter to the editor following a blurb about the Holy Father, Pope Francis). While God certainly loves us so much that he hopes for all his children to come home to him, he is more interested in hearts that lovingly and joyfully respond to the reality that we are his adopted children – and act that way – than to large numbers who “worship with their mouths only” (Isaiah 29:13, Matt. 15:8; as is also evident in how God allowed Israel, our spiritual forefathers, to be purified during the various exiles, whittling away at the numbers till there was a remnant of true and faithful souls, e.g., 2 Kings 19:31, 2 Chronicles 30:6, Isaiah 10:20).

With all that understood, let’s take a look at a few common gamification elements: Badges, Leaderboards, Points, and Onboarding.

Badges(or ribbons, or patches) These gamification elements mark the completion of goals, and can be interpreted as ‘status’ symbols or achievement levels attained. With badges, you have the opportunity to create designs that tie in to and reinforce the overall design and theme of your website. I can already see badges that showcase the saints, or sacramentals, or virtues practiced – just be careful, as too many badges can get confusing quickly, not to mention run the risk of reducing the value of each badge earned if there is a whole screen of them displayed.

Leaderboards This gamification element is handy for making simple comparisons, commonly used to see who the top scorers are. There are many ways to do this. For example, you can make comparisons locally, globally, or between people who know or have chosen to link, follow, or friend one other. The advantage to top-scorer leaderboards is that they are intuitive: they clearly and simply, without any explanations necessary, display the top players. The disadvantage to such a system is that it appeals more to competitive types (studies suggest that these comprise a minority of players, relatively speaking) rather than to the majority of players who play to socialize and not to compete per se. Moreover, with regard to social media websites, top-scorer leaderboards can actually become a disincentive. Why? Because top-scorer leaderboards can easily create the idea that since you’ll never reach those top levels anyway, why even bother trying? A better approach might be to position the player right in the middle, and then show the player two ‘lower’ and two ‘higher’ friends. This relative (as opposed to literal) ranking has two distinct advantages: it provides the player with smaller, doable steps to take to reach the next goal or level, while at the same time, if set up rightly, encourages the player to help the two players who follow closely behind with completing their goals.

Points You’re probably already familiar with this one: you earn points for achievements, completing tasks, or reaching goals. Points also help you understand how your players are interacting within your created environment by quantifying their subjective experience of your website or social media. This in turn helps you design or modify a player’s experience of your site. The key here is that points need to point to something. What do they represent? How might they be used, redeemed, or applied? For example, experience points and reputation points are useful for building trust (e.g., eBay, Amazon, various forums), while skill or achievement points earned for completing tasks or reaching goals can be redeemed for physical or virtual goods.

Onboarding This refers to a player’s first minute of interaction with your website. This is a critical experience that must be consciously and carefully thought through. For better or worse, the modern attention span is short, and another site is but a click away. The first minute needs to strike a fine balance: welcome and bring players in without overwhelming them, yet at the same time, provide plenty of options that would meet the needs and expectations of different players. Experience, not explanation, is the name of the game here. Let your players experience your site. Don’t describe it, especially not with massive amounts of text – pictures help, but even better these days is a short video or animated clip if you must explain something (keep it to a minute if you can, three minutes tops). The ideal onboarding scenario is to let players experience a small part of the whole.

Nowadays, video game tutorials that teach you “how to play” are virtually non-existent, preferring to let the first few levels of the game itself be the so-called tutorial. Do something similar with your website or social media. Let your players experience a small bit of the whole array of options that you would like for them to experience. Avoid forcing the player to register all their details as a first step. Let them play and enjoy the experience and value of your site first. Keep things simple and understandable, but suggest a growing experience of value if they choose to continue. It’s similar in concept to the popular maxim “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.” The key is engagement. On average, according to research cited by MIT, students only remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, and 50% of what they see demonstrated, but when they are interacting in virtual worlds, that retention rate skyrockets to 90%. Be sure to reward your players during this short onboarding phase. Be supportive – even exuberantly so – and give frequent feedback, especially in these early stages. There’s a reason why in video games, when you complete a level, even a simple one, you’re rewarded with lots of rousing bells and whistles, sounds, animations, excited cheers, and various other motivating digital pats on the back.

Which gamification element should you choose? Should you combine some of these gamification elements? It all depends. Who are your players? What are their motivations? How might their motivations translate into preferred modes of play? How, in turn, do these preferred modes of play determine which gamification elements to use so that your players are engaged? We’ll take a look at these and more next time.

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