The following is a short excerpt from The Beginner's Guide To Gamification For Online Communities. The full 68 page book is available free right here.
Gamification can do a lot, and do it well. It’s worth repeating though, that gamification is not a fire-and-forget solution. Nor is it a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires thought and consideration to implement. It requires further observation and tweaking after the fact to ensure that things are working well. There are a few caveats and pitfalls of gamification that you should avoid or at least be aware of before implementation.
Don’t Run Your Community on Extrinsic Motivation
Points, badges, prizes and other forms of extrinsic motivation are the foundation of gamification. It’s important to note that extrinsic motivation cannot be the foundation of a community. At a certain point the reasons for any member to contribute has to be intrinsic. Eventually, extrinsic rewards run dry. There needs to be something for your members to move onto when that happens.
Poorly designed online games often see this problem. Players are only playing for a sense of progression. The most serious players run out of progression after a month and immediately quit. The more casual players catch them soon after. The developers end up stuck in a treadmill, trying to outpace their player’s progression before they get bored. It’s futile, and those games see falling subscriber numbers and an ignominious death.
The successful games, like World Of Warcraft, are the ones that use in game systems at a medium to grow social bonds. Players enjoy the game, but not solely because of the extrinsic rewards. They enjoy being part of a team, making friends and progressing together.
The game is a medium to be social in, not something to be beaten and cast aside. Games that create strong social bonds are much “stickier” with subscribers, and perform much better in the long term. They grow their game through a sense of community, just as you can grow your community with games.
The Skinner Box Problem
B.F Skinner once devised a series of experiments based on the Operant Conditioning Box, colloquially known as the Skinner Box. The experiments were performed on rats, but nonetheless yielded a number of interesting insights into how people behave when exposed to stimuli. A complete rundown of the experiments is outside of the scope of this book, but they’re an interesting read if you’re interested in human behaviour.
In gaming, the term Skinner Box normally refers to games that cynically rely on operant conditioning to keep their players hooked. Most of the science behind slot machines is based on Skinner’s work, and they’re an extremely profitable enterprise.
It might be tempting to deploy mechanics based on this research in your own gamification, but this should be done sparingly, if at all. As effective as they are, people are increasingly aware of the manipulative effects of operant conditioning, and may come to resent your game even as they continue to play it.
Great games aren’t just compelling, they’re enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding. Those kinds of games will cause players to associate good times and positive feelings with your brand. Games that rely on base compulsion are more likely to inspire resentment and bitterness. Be responsible in your designs.