Mind Games: The Psychology of Gamification

Original post by Joey Strawn via Business 2 Community 

The brain as gears

I’m a satisfied customer of Netflix. I’ve been a Netflix customer for about four and a half years and because of that, they have gotten quite good at suggesting movies my wife and I might like. Yet, the last two movies that came in the mail for us sat on our DVD player unwatched for almost a month each. We chose the movies that are in our queue. We sat down and purposefully and willingly added movies we wanted to watch to that Internet list, but when Netflix mailed us the movies we requested, we didn’t want to watch them. Why is that?

Basically what is happening to me (and many others) is that psychologically there is a gap between what I believe I want to do in the future and what I want to do right now. I build an aspirational list of movies that I truly believe I want to watch in the future, yet when those films arrive, I end up putting them on the shelf and watching more episodes of Phineas & Ferb or Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time. We want to be kind of people that watch serious movies and chomp at the bit to dive into The Kids Are Alright, but normally, Jackass 3 ends up on the television.

Our minds are tricky things and can really play a lot of dirty tricks on us if we aren’t careful, so how can gamification help us understand how our minds process information and how can it be used correctly to branch out from being “just another Internet fad”?

First Things First…

I’m a big proponent for the increased use of gamification. You may have noticed that I talk about it quite a bit around here and even use it to some degree on this blog (click on the red Rewards ribbon in the top corner if you don’t believe me). Let’s get one thing straight though right off, right now gamification is a fad. Sadly, it is overhyped and even more sadly it is misunderstood. Too often, gamification is equated as simple points and badges.

“You got to the morning status call on time. 10 Points. Work = gamified.”

Not quite.

To break out of the funk of Internet overhypation (that’s my word, but feel free to use it), gamification and game mechanics must be informed and studied aspects of a campaign or strategy, not just an 8-bit veneer. From here on out, when I talk about gamification, I’m talking about what should be one aspect of your plan, not a saving grace for your crappy service or product.

The Feedback Loop

This month’s issue of Wired magazine had an amazing article on the functions and applications of The Feedback Loop to the human psyche. I’m going to touch on some of the things they talked about, but I highly suggest you pick it up and read it for yourself.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Feedback Loop, it works under the premise that by providing people with information about their actions in real time and giving them an opportunity and motivation to change those actions, you can often lead people to better behaviors. Feedback Loops have been used for years, even back to the 18th century, when regulators and governors were used on steam engines and then furthered for human psychological study in the 1940s within the field of cybernetics. The Feedback Loop is also a guiding principle in gamification, so it’s not as much of a “fad” as people like to make it out to be. It’s simply becoming easier to measure and use in everyday life.

A Feedback Loop consists of four basic stages: Evidence Stage (data), Relevance Stage (data processing), Consequence Stage (data defining), and Action Stage (data usage). It looks kind of like this:

Feedback Loop[Image via globalwhelming.com]

Let’s take a look at the four stages of the Feedback Loop and see how they can be applied to gamification.

1. Evidence

The first stage of any Feedback Loop has to do with data collection. I’ll use the idea of behaviors as data for our examples of gamification Feedback Loops. So, behaviors must be measured, stored, and evaluated to hold any significant relevance to further steps. Behaviors must be quantified and then presented to the individuals taking part in the game. Information being sent back to individuals in real time is even more helpful because it gives an immediate view of how things stand for any player at any time.

One thing that’s making the craze of gamification spread so rapidly is the dropping price of and advancement in sensors. We can sense and quantify everything from energy usage, car fuel, brushing your teeth, walking and anything else you can slap a sensor on. In his talk Visions of the GamepocalypseJesse Schelle talks about new senors, saying “This is how games are going to get everywhere.” From the Wii Fit, to the PS3 Move, to the Xbox Kinect all on video game consoles, we are collecting data and then showing it to the participating individuals in real time.

As you see your Wii Mii mimicking your every move as you run around a fake beach, that’s the evidence stage of the Feedback Loop. Have you found a way to get information to your customers in real time quantifying actions you want them to improve? Mint.com has. So have ZyngaPlayfishEmpire Avenue and many, many others.

2. Relevance

As I used to say to my Statistics teacher in college after she spent hours showing us how to correlate numbers in Excel, “So what?”

Data means nothing if there’s no frame of reference. Let me repeat that for you:

Data means jack crap if there’s no point of reference as to why it’s important.

A speedometer showing your speed as you drive by has no meaning to you unless you know the actual speed limit for that area. Someone sensing and showing you your BMI means nothing if you don’t know what a healthy BMI level is (or even what BMI stands for). A credit score of 750 isn’t good if you believe it’s out of 45,000 instead of 800. You get the idea.

Your job, as users of gamification, isn’t to figure out a way to measure things you want your customers to do, your task is to figure out a way to relay that information back to them in a context that makes it emotionally resonant.

3. Consequence

Most of the time, consequence is a negative term. It means reaping the negative outcomes from something you’ve done. This isn’t the case here. I’m using consequence in it’s trust definition of simply the effect or result of a previous action.

So, you’ve gathered your data and shown it to your players, it’s been formatted in a way that gives them some reference for action, now you have to make sure your Feedback Loop actually shows them the actions they can take. Even relevant data is useless unless it connects with people and ties into a larger purpose or goal. Feedback Loops aren’t meant to control the people you’re communicating with, but rather give them back control by illuminating the paths made available with the new information. To quote the Wired article, “The ideal Feedback Loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal.”

In most games, the consequences are obvious. If you don’t jump at this point, your character dies; if you don’t help your friend water their crops, you lose your right to reciprocity; if you don’t kill Mugsy Two-Toes, Big Boss Green won’t share his drug money with you; and so on. In your gamification, understand your strategy enough to be able to direct players to a desired end using the data they are willingly giving you.

4. Action

If no action is ever taken, your Feedback Loop has failed and your data becomes simply data. We all want to get at the ROI of social media and action makes up the “R”. Without action, all you have is information and in games, information is never enough.

Your players must decide to engage with all the above information, thus giving you more behaviors to sense and relay and starting the Feedback Loop all over again. Are you including calls to action after your customers engage and learn from you? Do they have the ability to act immediately or do you draw out the process through many steps?

Every action taken begins a new loop that inches us closer to our strategic goals if you’ve built your Feedback Loop correctly.

Spin Me Right Round

Every company’s Feedback Loop will be difference in practice, but the elements will always be the same. You must measure behaviors and relay data in relevant context to your customers so they can understand the consequences of their moves and engage in a desired action to lend more behaviors to be measured. It sounds confusing, but lets take one example and walk through it from beginning to end.

In some new Hybrid cars there is a display on the dash that shows a plant. The car’s computer takes the emission and gas data from the driver’s actions (Evidence) and converts that data into the image of the plant (Relevance). If you drive more economically, the plant flourishes, but if you drive wastefully or reckless, the plant withers (Consequence). At this point the driver can either continue driving the way they had and watch the plant flourish or wither or change their driving to affect the image of the plant (Action).

This post may be long, but your Feedback Loop doesn’t have to, it just has to hit on all the necessary elements.

Our minds play lots of dirty tricks, but if you’re applying data back to your customers’ minds in the right way you can help everyone understand paths of action and create an emotional and psychological connection between your brand/game/company/etc and your customers that can loop back around on itself to create lifelong fans that are being just as fullfilled by the relationship as you are. And isn’t that what you really want?

If you enjoyed this post and your friends won’t hate you for sharing a long-winded post about psychology, please feel free to use the share buttons located all over this page. Also, if you feel so inclined, please leave a comment and let me know what you think of the psychology implications to gamification and how they might affect how businesses use it in the coming years. You can also subscribe to my blog if you want, the posts are all this long, I promise. : )

Thoughts?

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