Understanding the power of gamification

For the last 2 weeks, I have been learning Spanish on Duolingo. It’s amazing.

The Duolingo app is just phenomenally well designed for helping one go deeper into the world of a new language – one chapter/session at a time.

Thanks to its regular in-between-session nudges I have been super regular. Built a 13 days streak.

Last week, I got a notification that I was in the Top 10 of the Silver League ! If I could retain the top 10 position by Sunday, I would progress to the next League – The Gold League.

And, guess what – I spent more time than usual going through the chapters and exercises. Collecting more points, just to ensure that I entered the Gold League. Which I did !

This got me thinking. What motivated my behavior to strive for this League membership?

I had no clue, what the Silver or the Gold League is? It’s just a leader-board in the app.

Is it across all learners, in which case its HUGE. Or is it for just Spanish learners? Or is it across a small cohort – algo picked to get all of us to do little more.

There wasn’t even any prize or any thing.

Whatever it is, the leaderboard got me motivated enough to invest more time in my Spanish lessons. I learnt faster. Got better. Got into the Gold League. And a bigger fan of Duolingo !

Its basic gamification man !! – you must be thinking.

As I asked myself why did Duolingo really succeed (Even this article from Wharton talks about Duolingo as a successful example of gamification done right), I realized how little I knew of what causes our behaviors to be influenced by game dynamics.

And hence I decided to uncover what drives Gamification .

Interestingly, last week itself I was listening to the Masters of Scale podcast featuring Ahn (Duolingo & Captca & reCaptcha founder). The two geeked out on how gamers influence product management.

Reid and Ahn discuss gamers product management

The Gamified Concoction

How we feel and what emotional decisions we make, are all governed by a few chemicals.

Research indicates that

  • Dopamine (the feel-good hormone) gets released when we are rewarded.
  • Badges and leader-boards may trigger Serotonin (drives will power and delayed gratification) – by remembering past successes
  • Endorphins get triggered by the thrill and excitement of playing a game

According to the Self-determination theory, there are three different underlying human needs

  • Need for competence
  • Need for self-autonomy
  • Need for social-relatedness

But like a good mock-tail, it works only when mixed well. Most businesses struggle to deploy game mechanics into their products and offerings

Why do so few businesses succeed at Gamification?

Finding the right user at the right time.

E.g. Leaderboards are considered as effective motivators, if there are only a few points left to the next level or position, but as demotivators, if players find themselves at the bottom end of the leaderboard. Competition caused by leaderboards can create social pressure to increase the player’s level of engagement, and can consequently have a constructive effect on participation and learning [Source: ScienceDirect]

This seems to be bang on – I could see how another 10 mins daily could keep me in the league. The Duolingo app never mentioned the leaderboard until I was almost there.

Choosing the right tools.

Whether it is leaderboards (competing with others) or performance graphs (improving on your past self) or avatars or meaningful stories (articulating the narrative for the user), choosing the right tool set makes a huge difference.

E.g. Insight Timer – a meditation/wellness app – has a subtle nudge to help one maintain-the-streak and build-the-habit.

Insight timer milestones
Insight timer milestones

It’s more than just reward points.

“The biggest pitfall in using gamification is thinking that all you have to do is drop in some game elements. [For example, saying], “We will give people points for something , and they will get really excited just because the points are there.”Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter authors of The Gamification Toolkit.

Banks have long believed in the power of their reward-programs to steer consumers away. As bankers we obsess over the earn and the burn rates of various competing products in the market. But do our customers really care?

Google Pay brought in an interesting twist to the cash-back fever that ruled India, with its seemingly simple scratch-card-like experience. That one simple insight (of riding on an existing gamified experience) has changed the way cash-back was communicated in the industry now.

Google Pay Gamification

More about Gamification


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