Gamification and Your Mobile App Development


How to perfect gamification in your app.  

Gamification is one of the most popular buzzwords when discussing mobile app strategy. So what does it mean? Gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game contexts, encouraging action and rewarding accomplishments.

Over the past few years, more and more product owners have come to me asking to “gamify this app.” But when pushed on what they mean by “gamification” most clients had a good understanding of the basic concept but didn’t know how to incorporate it into their mobile app.

Loads of popular apps have committed to the gamification process. Nest has doubled down on this concept by providing gamified features like ranking and badges (leaves). Automatic (the driving companion app) gives real-time, audio feedback on bad driving, badges and a weekly score (mine is 95 out of 100! #BeatThat). Audible also provides all sorts of badges.

The list goes on and on. It’s undeniably fun, but why are so many apps rewarding us for just…living our lives?

We are social (and competitive) animals

When Automatic tells me I’m in the top 5% of drivers I get a little swell of pride (and a fun little release of dopamine in my brain). But why do I care if an app tells me I’m performing well against a bunch of other people I don’t know? Because it reminds me that I’m a part of something bigger than myself.

Robin Dunbar of Oxford University argues that the very evolution of the human brain was driven by our increasingly complex social relationships. And belonging to a group gives us a sense of identity. It helps us understand who we are and feel a part of something. That belonging is essential to our brain’s development.

Perpetual Desire

Incentive salience describes how our minds react when we anticipate a reward. When we get a reward we feel a rush or a high. This is our mind releasing dopamine rewarding us for a job well done. But it turns out that even when we think we’re going to get a reward, our brain gives us the dopamine shot.

This release not only gives us pleasant feeling but also increase motivation to complete the task and actually get the reward. Dopamine has been found to augment decision-making by influencing the priority, or level of desire for an outcome.

Balancing Act

The problem with gamification in life, and in apps, is balance. If a game is too easy, our minds don’t see it as a challenge, we get bored and (most importantly) the flood of dopamine into our neural pathways stops.

If we make the gamified app too hard, people can’t get rewarded frequently enough. Not enough dopamine and it’s “bye-bye, pleasure and contentment” and “hello, annoyance and irritation”.

Is there a Secret Formula?

Surprisingly the answer is “yes”. Tom Chatfield, game theorist and author of Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century provides gamification guidelines based on massive data samples. These guidelines should absolutely influence your gamification strategy, because games that possess these characteristics have a much higher chance of being well-balanced and enjoyable to users.

  1. Let the user achieve goals ~25% of the time (not too easy, not too hard)
  2. Challenge the user to complete approximately 15 (5-20) tasks to receive a reward.
  3. Vary the reward. ~90% give a standard reward, but ~10% give a great reward, and .1% an amazing reward.
  4. Include multiple long- and short-term aims (One task is boring, and long tasks alone are exhausting with rewards too hard to reach).
  5. Reward effort, but don’t punish failure.
  6. Provide rapid and frequent feedback (It is hard to learn when there isn’t appropriate feedback).
  7. Provide experience bars measuring and showing progress.
  8. Include the element of uncertainty. Randomizing rewards really excites our mind.
  9. Keep the finish line in sight.
  10. At task 13, increase the chance of reward to 75%.
  11. Include a social component, by being sure to build a community.

The game of life

Apps are uniquely suited for gamification because our smartphones are always close to us. As a result, they’re right there when you want to log a meal, a work out or are driving. Gamified apps tap into our innate desire to seek rewards, making the simple act of turning up your heat or driving to the store a chance to get a dopamine burst and a sense of belonging. Pretty powerful.

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