Blog Post By: John Sulaitis

Has Gamification Gone Too Far?


Badges, points, leaderboards, levels, progress bars, check-ins, rewards — it’s hard to find a digital experience that doesn’t incorporate some form of gamification. At its core, gamification is a powerful and often delightful way to incentivize behavior that often enhances a digital experience. It’s one of many tools that can be leveraged once an effective, efficient, and satisfying strategy is in place. But if unchecked, like a fire, it can quickly consume and burn the entire experience down, becoming a level of abstraction that removes a user from an otherwise immersive experience — a constant reminder that a business is trying to make them do something they don’t care about. Like any other design decision, gamification should follow a strategy that supports the product’s goals. When it goes beyond that, it has gone too far.

How do I know if gamification is going too far?

Unless you’ve recently come out of a coma, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about gamification. (NOTE: If you have just woken up from a coma, please stop reading. You have a lot of Game of Thrones to catch up on.)

Gamification is a tool used to accomplish a specific goal. When misused, the effects can be devastating. It harnesses deep, psychological mechanisms that can impact one’s behavior and even one’s sense of self-worth.

When used properly, it:

  • improves the user’s experience by becoming a “delighter” rather than a distraction
  • promotes activities that benefit the business
  • incentivizes a behavior that supports our user’s goals

When used poorly, it:

  • incentivizes users to extend their naturally protective comfort zones (e.g., give us more personal information and you’ll receive this reward)
  • affects levels of self-worth (e.g., you didn’t accumulate enough “Likes,” people must not like you)
  • convinces users to perform an activity at the expense of a healthier option (e.g., work late to compete with co-workers instead of seeing your family at home)
  • leads to addictive tendencies that motivate to overextend financial responsibilities (e.g., in-app purchases)

When speaking with clients, we often advise them to focus on a solid experience that allows the user to achieve goals in an efficient, effective, and satisfying manner, then explore if gamification makes sense. If so, decide on what behaviors the business wants to incentivize, apply game mechanics that enhance the experience, test to make sure it works, and benchmark to see if it’s effective.

Some of the best ways to ruin your gamified digital experience revolve around the concepts of: determining appropriateness, avoiding oversaturation, incentivizing the wrong actions, and convoluting the experience.

1. Determine Appropriateness

You may act differently with your friends than you do at work. Maybe you don’t tell that joke. Maybe you dress differently. We do these because the alternatives aren’t appropriate, and the same applies to digital experiences. Product owners often try to add gamification to products simply because they like the idea of it, even when it doesn’t fit.

When appropriateness isn’t considered, gamification can trivialize “real work” that users come to the product to do. Imagine you are applying for a loan or logging in to see your test scores. The last thing you need is to earn a badge for accessing a document or seeing how many people have shared it. Every design and interaction decision should serve a purpose. Gamifying an experience just to do so will dilute the real intention of the service.

Determine Appropriateness

2. Avoid Oversaturation

Remember when you were a kid and you ate too much Halloween candy? You didn’t think it was possible, but there you were: sick, having binged on all that sweet deliciousness. Adding gamification to every aspect of an experience doesn’t make it more fun, it causes “death by gamification.”

A key objective of gamifying an experience is to encourage behavior. When everything uses game elements, the behaviors you’re trying to encourage lose their meaning. Badge flooding is a good example of this. Experiences that give you a badge for signing up, another for sharing content, and yet another for using a system for a certain number of hours quickly lose their potency because the badges didn’t require any real effort to earn. In these instances, badges lose their ability to motivate.

Another aspect of oversaturation happens when the game elements overshadow the purpose of the product. Duolingo, the language learning app, uses gamification to encourage users to continue learning, but this comment from their user “Che2101” showcases how excessive gamification is eroding the experience:

“I have stopped doing this because there is too much focus on levels, daily quotas, etc. I would like to focus on French not competing. It would be great if we could choose which gamified elements we want. I would like to turn off the daily reminders, the coins, the levels, and the references to competing with friends…”

Users aren’t dumb. They can see through thinly veiled attempts and will quickly realize that worthless extrinsic rewards are… well, worthless. Since gamification has been added to so many digital products, it’s likely that our users have already been burnt by it. They will quickly recognize pointless patterns of gamification and will either tolerate it (if we’re lucky) or move on.

 Avoid Oversaturation

3. Incentivize the Right Actions

People are natural hackers. We evolved into pretty nifty problem solvers. When we design experiences where the extrinsic reward outweighs the intrinsic one, unintended consequences follow.

Earlier in my UX career I was involved on a project where the team wanted to gamify the act of reading articles for high school kids. The idea was simple: the more articles they read, the more engaged they’d be with the content, and the more they’d learn important lessons to support their academic future. Sound idea, noble intentions.

The original metric of success was that they’d receive a point by simply clicking in an article. In this case, users would need to click on a certain number of articles a day to earn points that could then be exchanged for prizes. The prizes (game systems and gift cards) were very relevant to this user group, making them in high demand.

Our teenage users quickly learned the mechanics and clicked articles for points without actually reading them, undermining the objective. The added problem was that the intrinsic value of learning was overshadowed and subsequently diminished by the extrinsic value being offered. This led to a psychological principle known as Overjustification Effect. The intrinsic reward of reading helpful tips about higher education, and the objective of the product, were undermined when an extrinsic reward of prizes for behavior was introduced.

How does the Overjustification Effect work? Going back to our example above, let’s imagine that some teenagers are really motivated to learn about college. They spend hours online visiting different websites gathering information. They intrinsically love learning more. Suddenly, we start paying them a dollar for each article they read. Everyone thinks win-win. The business gets teenagers to read more articles, and the teenagers are getting paid for doing something they were doing anyway. Kumbaya. Everything is right with the world.

Suddenly, the budget runs out and the business can’t afford a dollar per article. No problem, right? Since the teenagers were already inspired to read the articles this shouldn’t affect them too much. But the Overjustification Effect kicks in, the intrinsic act of learning shifts to an extrinsic one, and once that’s taken away, and the act of reading articles isn’t rewarded and the teenagers stop reading altogether.

Fortunately for us, not many teenagers are intrinsically motivated to read articles about school (shocking, I know), so we were able to safely gamify the experience. But we made it harder to earn reward points by having the teenagers answer a few questions at the end of each article. We also recommended adding a timing mechanism on each page to reduce the likelihood of users gaming that system by skipping straight to the quiz for points.

 Incentivize the Right Actions

4. Convoluting the Experience

Gamified experiences shouldn’t need instructions; the added layer of gamification should fit perfectly with the task the user is being motivated to accomplish. Like peanut butter and jelly, one should enhance the other.

Sadly, we’ve seen situations where the user needs an advanced degree in astrophysics to understand what’s going on. The biggest culprit are experiences that convolute a simple, well understood concept.

I remember working on a project building an online game for kids. The goal was to allow our young users to explore the virtual homes of TV show characters where kids could virtually walk through the pimped-out bedroom of their favorite characters. If the characters had a cool poster on the wall, the user could opt to use their points to buy it and put it in their virtual room. The social aspect was showing off their cool digital room to online friends. To earn “money” to buy things, the kids would play a variety of games in the system. Simple enough.

However, for unknown reasons, the client didn’t want a straightforward equation for points to dollars. Instead, he wanted to assign a random number of points to users, regardless of how long or well they played the games (believing that the randomness would be more incentivizing). After rounds of usability studies, we found that this had the opposite effect. This layer of abstraction didn’t incentivize because the users were confused and simply didn’t know what the system expected them to do to earn the points. Forcing users to figure out how they were going to be rewarded took them out of the flow of the experience.

In Conclusion:

Gamification is here to stay. It’s our responsibility to ensure that the game elements we choose to include don’t swallow up our user’s primary goals. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Are these mechanisms appropriate for the experience?
  • Are we oversaturating the experience with too much (or completely unnecessary) elements?
  • Is the gamified experience actually incentivizing the intended actions?
  • Is the game mechanism simple and intuitively understood?

Keeping these questions in mind will help keep the fire of gamification in check.

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