January 12, 2023

The art of gamification - Part I

Gamification can be a mighty tool when used correctly – because it can trigger or influence almost any desired behaviour. In this two-article series, we take an in-depth look at the specifics of gamification.


In the first part of this article on gamification, we explain its basics with the help of the "Octalysis Framework" by Yu-Kai Chou. In the second part, we will see this framework applied in a corporate context – more specifically in the application to the processes of one of the largest online marketplaces as well as in the area of sales ("corporate sales").

What is gamification?

Gamification is taking engaging and motivating game mechanics or design principles and applying them onto non-game/real-world activities or behaviour which should be encouraged.  It’s often used to engage and motivate people to achieve specific goals.

One example to mention is the serious game FoldIt. Scientists were struggling with the Aids Virus protein structure for 15 years, until someone had the idea to make this problem into a game. FoldIt was a protein folding game which simulates the problem, and it was put online. To everyone's surprise, the problem which could not be solved for 15 years, was solved by gamers in only 10 days.

In another example the company Opower changed the consumer behaviour of its client to use less electricity by simply comparing the power consumption of consumers within the region they live in. This simple yet highly effective game design created over 1 terawatt of energy savings or a rough 120 million dollar over a couple of years.

If gamification is done right, the return of investments (ROI) can be humongous. A list with over 90+ gamification cases can be found here.

The biggest companies in the world use gamification, no matter if it's the automotive industry, banking, software, telecom, education or even governmental institutions up to the military. Especially the military.

Human-focused Design

You can call the process of gamification as "Human-focused Design" as opposed to “Function-focused Design.” It’s a design process that optimises for human motivation in a system, as opposed to pure efficiency. You can think of a factory when we talk about "Function-focused design". Here you optimise for the maximum output in the least possible time to create the highest efficiency, but neglect the people working in the factory with their needs. Gamification is clearly focused on people.

And the reason we call it Gamification is because the gaming industry was the first to master human-focused design.

Design problem

As exciting as it sounds to drive behaviour by gamification, plenty of companies get gamification wrong. Gartner predicted in 2012, that 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily due to poor design by 2014. And they were on point with that statement.

A common misconception is the approach companies take when trying to apply gamification. People are dazzled by fancy game mechanics and elements, for example "points, badges and leaderboards", hoping that implementing these things will automatically create a successful gamified experience.

A great game designer basically has to have the following question on her or his mind:

How do I want my user to feel?

This is the goal. Once this is understood, the selection of the game elements and the design can take place to accomplish that goal. And here come the core drives of the Octalysis Prime framework into play, that motivates the users. And that is the starting point of creating a magnificent gamification experience.

The Octalysis Framework

While there are a couple of gamification and behavioural frameworks out there, the Octalysis framework is the most complete gamification framework out there. It was created by Yu-kai Chou, a Taiwanese-American entrepreneur, author, speaker, business consultant, and experience designer. He is one of the earliest pioneers in the industry of gamification. The framework takes a holistic approach on the subject, and takes into account why some game techniques are motivating us in an empowering and inspiring way, while others do that in a manipulative and obsessive manner. The 8 core drives are also backed up by behavioural economics, motivational psychology, and also neurobiology. 

The 8 core drives are responsible for any behaviour or action, and if none of them are present, there is no motivation and no behaviour occurs.

The following is a list of the individual core drives, followed by examples in which they are used.

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling – “We are motivated because we are part of something bigger than ourselves” (Wikipedia, Open-Source projects)
  2. Development & Accomplishment – “We are motivated because we feel like we are achieving mastery and improving ourselves and progressing (points, badges, leaderboards)
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback – “Using our creativity is what motivates us” (Lego, Minecraft, Chess)
  4. Ownership & Possession – “because we feel like we own something, we want to improve it, protect it and want to get more of it (accumulating wealth & collecting things)
  5. Social Influence & Relatedness – “everything we do, based on what other people do, think or say” (all social activities like collaboration, competition, mentorship etc.)
  6. Scarcity & Impatience – “we want something, simply because we can’t have it or it’s difficult to obtain” 
  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity –“because we don’t know what is going to happen next, we are constantly thinking about it” (gambling industry, skinner box experiment)
  8. Loss & Avoidance – “things we do, to avoid a loss” (sales, crowdfunding)

Black Hat vs. White Hat Gamification

Before we jump into the individual core drives, let's talk about white hat vs. black hat drives within the Octalysis framework. The top core drives are considered as white hat gamification because they are positive motivators. These core drives make us feel powerful, and we feel good about it (while there is no sense of urgency). The bottom core drives are black hat, and they make us feel urgent, obsessed and even addicted. Here we are not in control of our own behaviour, and it leaves us with a bad taste in our mouth, and therefore they are negative motivators.

The two drives in the middle (Ownership & Possession, Social Influence & Relatedness) can go in both directions, positive or negative. In general, the classification into white and black hat is not a moral compass, but gives a good idea what core drives are more on the positive or negative side. Alternatively, you can also think of passion vs. obsession-driven behaviour.

(Fig. 1: White Hat vs. Black Hat Gamification, Octalysis Framework)

Something that is engaging lets you express your creativity, makes you feel successful through skill mastery, and gives you a higher sense of meaning. When we find these things, they make us feel good and powerful. On the contrary, if you are always taking action without any clear plan in mind, constantly fearing that you will lose something, or struggling to get what you want but can't have it, these experiences will often leave a bad taste in your mouth – even if you are regularly motivated to take these actions.

Binge-watching on Netflix, Scrolling the Facebook feed or pulling a slot machine is such obsessive behaviour. But just because it’s called black hat, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It can also be used to motivate us to execute good behaviour and habits, like working out more, getting up earlier or living more healthy.

(Fig. 2: Left Brain vs. Right Brain, Octalysis Framework)

Left Brain vs. Right Brain Gamification

Firstly, the left brain vs. right brain ideology of the Octalysis framework should be viewed symbolically – this is not actual science, though it makes a lot of sense to categorise the core drives according to that idea. Yu-kai Chou considers the core drives on the left side of the framework as left brain drives because they focus a lot on extrinsic motivation. So, things you do for a reward, purpose or a goal, while you don’t necessarily enjoy that activity. Once you gain what you wanted, you stop doing that activity. These core drives are more associated with logic, calculations, and ownership.

On the other side are the right brain drives, which you enjoy doing because they are intrinsically motivated. Even to a point where you would pay money to do these activities. These drives are more related to creativity, self-expression, and social aspects. We don’t need a reward to use our creativity, being with our friends or being in that suspense of unpredictability (think of casino gambling) – the activity itself is rewarding on its own.

This is important because many companies make the mistake of focusing on the left side and aim to design for motivation based on extrinsic motivators, such as rewarding users at the end. However, many studies have shown that once you stop offering the extrinsic motivator, user motivation will often decrease significantly lower than before the extrinsic motivator was first introduced.

(Fig. 3:  Octalysis Framework using the example of LinkedIn, Octalysis Framework)

LinkedIn also had this issue in the beginning. Users only went there to find a job or recruit people. It was very much result-oriented. Over time, it became more of a social business network, where you could endorse skills of your contacts and also become a tough leader writing and creating content. That naturally enhanced core drive 7 unpredictability and curiosity because now you might want to know what others in your industry or beyond are saying.

Now it’s finally time to look in detail into the core drives.

1. Epic Meaning & Calling 

The Core Drive of Epic Meaning & Calling occurs when a player believes they are doing something for the greater good, or they were "chosen" to do something (of epic meaning and calling). You can see this with players who devote a lot of their time helping to create things for the entire community, as with projects like Wikipedia or Open-Source software. But it doesn't have to be a community. Projects like Ecosia (plants trees financed by search engine ads) or Fairphone (a smartphone designed to last, with fair and recycled materials) enables individuals to reduce their carbon footprint and "make a world a bit better" with their contribution.

2. Development & Accomplishment

Development & Accomplishment refers to the internal motivation to improve, learn new things, and eventually succeed in overcoming challenges. The feeling of progress, achievement and mastery is a strong motivator. LinkedIn uses a progress bar to get more data out of people and eBay was using seller badges from very early on. Udemy also uses a progress bar to show how far you have progressed in your learning journey.

A "challenge" is an important aspect of a badge or trophy; without one, it becomes meaningless. This is also the core drive that is the easiest to design for. Therefore, companies often consider only this one core drive and focus on points, badges, leaderboards. And that is the number one mistake when it comes to corporate gamification.

3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

The empowerment of creativity and feedback occurs when users engage in a creative process, where they have to test different combinations and figure things out. Not only do people need an outlet for their creativity, but they also need to see the results of what they create and receive feedback so that they can respond. It appeals to the creator inside of us. Chess, Poker, Go, Lego, Minecraft or painting are games or activities that are enjoyable for their own sake and don't require constant input from the designer to stay interesting. You could also call them evergreen mechanics.

4. Ownership & Possession

This is the type of drive where users feel motivated because they feel like they have a personal stake in it. Because you own something, you want to improve it, protect it, and you want to get more of it.

Among the primary drive for wanting to amass wealth, this refers to many virtual goods or virtual currencies within systems. Also, if a person invests time in personalising their profile or avatar, they naturally feel more attached to it. And this is also the drive for all the collectors, no matter if it's stamps, baseball cards, books, NFTs or art.

5. Social Influence & Relatedness

Social influence & relatedness is everything you do, based on what other people do, think or say.

This drive incorporates social elements that motivate people, like being able to look up to someone, feeling you are a part of something, and having others support you. Additionally, collaboration and competition can drive people as well. If you see a friend who is great at something or has something amazing, it can make you want to reach the same level. 

Furthermore, it encompasses the desire to get closer to people, places, or events that we can identify with. We are more likely to purchase a product if it reminds us of our childhood due to the sense of nostalgia it produces. Core Drive 5 is also relatively well researched as of late, with many companies focusing on how to better their social presence and building communities around them.

6. Scarcity & Impatience 

This drive aims at wanting something, simply because we can’t have it, or it’s difficult to obtain (think of “the grass is greener on the other side”). ​​Many games have appointment dynamics (come back in x hours to get your reward) – people are motivated to think about something all day long when they can't have it right now. When Facebook started, its only users were from Harvard. Then it became available to a few other well-renowned schools, and eventually all colleges. When it finally opened to everyone, join rates increased because people who previously couldn't get in were now able to. A more recent example was the app Clubhouse, where people only could get in by invitation.

7. Unpredictability & Curiosity 

Unpredictability & Curiosity sounds harmless, but it's a quite impactful driver. Generally, you want to find out what will happen next. The unknown is often unsettling because our brains are constantly trying to predict what will happen next. This is how headlines and cliffhangers on Netflix series work. Many people consume movies or novels because of this internal drive. 

This is also the primary driver behind gambling addiction and the essence of a slot machine mechanic. This core drive is also evident in company-run programs such as sweepstakes or lotteries. The Skinner Box experiments, where an animal irrationally presses a lever due to being curious of the results, are referring to the core drive of Unpredictability & Curiosity. But many companies and people have misunderstood this as something that happened because of points, badges or leaderboard mechanics (which is development & accomplishment, as we now know).

8. Loss & Avoidance 

This core drive is based upon the avoidance of a loss and something bad to happen. On a small scale, it could be to avoid losing previous work ("lost progress"). On a grander scheme, it could be to bypass confessing that everything you did until now was futile because you are quitting.

In addition, people feel like they will lose the opportunity if they don't take advantage of it immediately. Sales is driven by loss and avoidance, since often it creates a false sense of urgency ("buy now, offer will expire in x hours/days") and is triggering FOMO ("fear of missing out").

Putting it into practice

The Octalysis Framework is also about balance, just like real life. You get the best results when you combine all or most of the key drives into one user experience. How this is done, you will learn in our next article.

Gamification can be a mighty tool when used correctly – because it can trigger or influence almost any desired behaviour. In this two-article series, we take an in-depth look at the specifics of gamification.
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