Gamification: What It Means and How You Can Use It


A group of scientists were struggling to solve a thorny problem: They were studying the structure of an enzyme similar to HIV, trying to understand the stability of the enzyme. This is a very hard problem, and traditionally scientists used to run computer simulations to try out various structures to study how stable they were. Since there can be billions of different ways the structure could form, computationally this was a very expensive and very long process. This particular problem had stumped the scientists for over 15 years.Until one of the scientists had a brilliant idea: Evaluating the structure and the stability of the protein was a very intuitive task, something that computers are horribly bad at – but at which humans are very good at. So, they invented a game around it called “FoldIt”, where players could manipulate the enzyme, and would get points if their enzyme was stable.

And BAM. Gamers solved the puzzle in less than 3 weeks, something that computer simulations had not solved for over 15 years.

Every Product’s Dream

That regular people are better than super-computers at some task is interesting, but there is another interesting lesson here for entrepreneurs: How did scientists manage to get users to do their work for them, offering nothing but some virtual points in return? The gamers were neither paid nor were they working for the scientists.

This seems like the dream of every product: Getting users to do all kinds of stuff on your website without spending any money. This is the whole concept of gamification

The idea behind gamification is to incorporate features into your products that adds elements of games – points, rewards, tasks, missions, etc…, as an incentive mechanism for users. For example, adding a simple reputation score can dramatically alter the way users comment on an online forum. Once the reputation score is in place, you will find users are eager to track, measure and increase their score, and will go to great extents to increase their score. An excellent example of this technique is on sites like Slashdot and Reddit. Users type in very thoughtful, interesting and funny comments that adds real value to the sites, while the crappy comments get buried down.

Gamification has applications in lots of areas, including enterprise software. Creating “badges” for employees that attend training and providing leaderboards of top employees has proved to be remarkably effective. Another mobile app has managed to get users to “check-in” at places to try and become “mayors” – Keep in mind that giving out a “mayor” title is costless for the app, and yet it has managed to get users to repeatedly open their app and “check-in”. Airlines have used loyalty points, making users “earn” gold/platinum levels in a similar way.

So, how can you use it?

There are several standard techniques where you can start your thinking. The first step is to identify the biggest friction points and the most important set of metrics that you care about for your product. Next is to try and map them to some of the gamification techniques and see if they fit.

“Badges” are the most basic technique. This is where you give users a “badge” or a title – Like “Top Commenter” - to encourage users to comment, if that’s what you care about. If you care about users coming to your site regularly, you can award a badge to users that login consecutively for 7 days. It is important that you display this badge prominently against the user, especially so that everyone else can see that the user has earned the badge. If you want users to complete a survey, award badges for every survey that they fill out.

The use of virtual currency and points are another popular way to incorporate gamification. You can start by awarding points for purchases or other activities that you want users to do on your site (like add friends, give you detailed demographic info etc…), but that’s just the start. You can then create leaderboards for users to compete and see where they stand, have achievement “levels” that users can work towards and then have a way for users to redeem these points for other privileges – Maybe a free coupon or early access to new features. Comparing their points with friends is another way to leverage the virtual currency.

There are lots of other techniques that have evolved recently. Gamification is still in its early stages as companies (especially startups) are trying to figure out what works best. This is the right time to dive in and evaluate and see what works for you.


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