Landscape Interview Series #3: Yu-Kai Chou

We are honoured to have had the opportunity to interview Yu-Kai Chou, widely considered to be the leading global gamification pioneer.

Hello Yu-Kai and thanks for your time today! So, let’s get going with our questions…

Landscape: How do you describe gamification? 

Yu-Kai Chou: It’s a craft. It’s a design philosophy. It’s a way of thinking. It’s about human-focused design as opposed to function-focused design. Most systems are function-focused, meaning they optimize on efficiency and usability. Human-focused design is different. It looks at feelings, motivations and insecurities and optimises for these. We need to remember that games are voluntary – the moment you don’t enjoy the game, you leave it to play something else. We can really learn from games how to do human-focused design well because of that nature. There are many technologies and tools that are based on gamification. Some tools are better than others and many take the “let’s add some game elements to the product” approach and miss the point. Fundamentally, gamification is a way of thinking and designing.

L: What do you think of the term “gamification”?

Y: The term gamification is a blessing and a curse. It is long, imprecise and just doesn’t sound like it should be in business. On the positive side, it unlocks the imagination and stands for fun. Games at the beginning were targeting little boys. When products like Farmville, Nike+, and FourSquare became popular with people like my Mom, the world started to recognize that the power of games can really motivate everyone.

L: What are the great examples of gamification at “play”? 

Y: The lazy way is to add games and badges to your website to give the user points. This has harmed gamification. When we design gamefully we need to think of who the user type is. I see serious games as part of “explicit gamification” since it is learning from games to solve a real world solution.

Foldit is a great example of a serious game that enables users to contribute to important scientific research whilst also making it fun and exciting, and it solved a HIV virus medical research problem that had eclipsed scientists for 15 years in less than two weeks. Autodesk, the 3D-imaging software launched a marketing game called “Unchartered Territory” with gamified free product trials that have increased their sales conversion by 17%.

Ebay is another early successful gamification experience. Many people don’t realise that competitive bidding, getting different coloured stars and eventually levelling up to become a Power-Rated Seller with many benefits are examples of gamification.

L: Do you play games? What do you love?

Y:  Yes, my work and my life are a game. When I saw them that way they took off! I also play games as research for friends. I see my role as being like a wine expert – I can taste the wine, but I can’t get drunk!

L: What do you see as the key drivers for pushing gamification into business?

Y: You have to look at how people are motivated. My Octalysis framework describes what I see as the 8 Core Drives of gamification. If none of those 8 Core Drives are there, there is no motivation and no behavioural happens. Therefore, if there are none of those 8 Core Drives, there is no motivation to try gamification.

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Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity is a prevalent driver towards gamification among professionals, many of whom are gamers. People who like games wonder about how it can be implemented into their workplace. Appealing to this is a good way to catch people’s attention – but since Core Drive 7 is a Black Hat (meaning it will drive short-term obsessive behaviour but users may burn out in the long run), your gamification strategy needs to offer something more or they will switch off.

Equally, a true communications pioneer will be motivated by the driver I describe as Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling. They will be drawn to gamification because it is a higher vision that they believe in – essentially where the world is moving towards it.

The key route that usually gets gamification into the business quickly is appealing to Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance. Organisations will move forward with something if they are going to lose out to competitors or if they believe they will become like Kodak, Block Busters, or Borders if they don’t use it.

Think back to when companies started having websites. At first companies felt it was a distracting fad, and they were uncomfortable with websites. As more companies adopted websites eventually they became a competitive necessity. Today, most companies believe that you aren’t even a real business if you don’t have a website.

L: What is the value of workplace gamification?

Y: It allows people to do their work in a creative, collaborative, and joyful manner. Most employees do not like their work. They do the grind so they can have their weekend. They moan about the boss. This happens the world over. In the Octalysis framework their getting up and going to work motivations are “ownership” – getting a pay check and “loss avoidance” – not getting fired. Gamification can bring “epic meaning” as another perspective to their working lives.

Studies show companies that have engaged employees are 2-3 times more likely to retain employees than the average company. If you love your work and culture you will stay. Training and recruitment is expensive and therefore good gamification can massively affect the bottom line, both on the productivity front, as well as the HR front.

L: Is there a difference in the types and approaches of gamification in real games and work?

Y: Gamification is a combination of a few difference disciplines – UX, UI, behavioural economics, motivational psychology, marketing and neuroscience, all connecting to business systems that generate an ROI. If you think about it, you need all of the above to create a good game, besides the last part: business system that generate an ROI.

The difference between games and work is how mandatory they are. Games are fun and as long as people stay in the game, they are successful. Gamification must increase business metrics. If it does not increase business metrics to generate an ROI, it is a distraction and must be taken out.

I always tell clients that when they have ideas about gamification they need to consider how does this motivate user towards the desired action? It’s not enough for it to be a fun, cool idea. It must motivate them towards behavioural that increases business value. The metrics must be quantitatively increased and the results delivered must be clear. If your numbers go up, the gamification design was successful; if not, it fails and we want to be accountable. Many clients didn’t plan to track this and my team usually enforces it. It’s important for our credibility.

L: Is gamification only for Millenials?

Y: That’s a big misconception. Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity, the gambling core drive, is a core drive for people of all ages to explore games. Everyone wants to feel appreciated and competent and the reward aspect of games is widely valued.

In fact, Baby Boomers are actually more motivated by gamification design than younger people (unless they know it’s called “gamification”, then they say “ah that’s for kids”).

Millenials are spoiled with their core motivational drivers being satisfied – they play games all day long. When they get to work they find it boring. Chances are, whatever you try, you won’t match what they do outside. Whereas babyboomers are more likely to engage if put in an environment that delivers on their drives of regularly feedback, appreciation from peers, meaningful choices, and epic meaning. Everyone’s brains crave these Core Drives and they will be more motivated.

L: What are the key challenges companies face that gamification could assist with?

Y: As long as it is related to motivation, we can improve it. These include productivity, sales, social sharing, training, and revenue. Sometimes gamifying your workplace can even improve your customer sales. For example, Zappos created a happiness culture where employees are happy and passionate about their mission. Tony Hsieh makes it clear that they are not a shoe company, but a happiness company that happens to sell shoes.  When you bring fun and happiness to your customers, they begin to love you as avid fans.

L: Can anything be gamified – in order to influence or change behaviour? 

Y: As long as you can define a desired behaviour, we can improve motivation towards that behaviour through Octalysis Gamification.

However, there are two limitations. Firstly, we cannot make computers smarter. If your images are loading slowly or queries aren’t coming out, sorry, we can’t help you. Secondly, we cannot get people to do what they don’t know what to do. We can’t get someone to fly a plane across the Pacific Ocean because they simply don’t know how to fly a plane. We can, however, motivate them to learn how to fly a plane.

L: Is gamification manipulative?

Y: The simple answer is yes. However, much in life is manipulative. We accept and expect it. Parenting is manipulative! Saying “please” is a mild form of manipulation. I wasn’t going to do something for you, and you said “please,” so I agreed to do it for you, even though nothing about that transaction ahs changed. Often, saying “thank you” is also an emotional reward. People not only accept these things, they expect it.

The question is how can we be sure gamification is ethical? Firstly, gamification must be opt-in. People accept that you will try to influence them, “I will allow you to pitch to me.” They do not have to agree to your persuasion, but they agree to being persuaded. Secondly, transparency is critical. The user needs to know what your goal is. For example, hypnosis is a form of manipulation with full compliance. However, I opt-into being hypnotized and there is transparency in what you want me to do. Gamification not mind control but nudging people on the fence towards a direction.

L: We find that our clients in the communications world are enthusiastic about gamification. They see the value. The problem is in convincing business leaders to endorse it. Any tips? 

Y: You need to appeal to “social proof.” Demonstrate that this is the norm and that serious companies are using gamification. This is why the 90 Gamification Case Studies with ROI Stats I showcase on my website is popular – it addresses the logical brain of the senior executive. There are other materials out there showing that gamification works. Gallup has studies that are useful. Often, at end of day when a budget holder commits to gamification it’s because of Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance. They have to feel ‘if we do not do this we will fall behind competitors’. That’s the key thing to work on.

L: How might perceptions need to shift about gamification?

Y: I think the biggest issue is that there are a lot of companies talking about gamification. I’ve been doing this for 12 years. When I started out, it was uninteresting and people thought I just wanted to play games.

Now gamification is popular – points and badges are everywhere – including in many failing games. That’s not what makes games work. The real risk is populating the world with bad gamified designs. This will mean companies will say we’ve tried gamification and it doesn’t work. That’s why I am so committed to aligning gamification with business objectives and data, and in making ourselves accountable as gamification experts.

L: What is the future of gamification? 

Y: Firstly, I believe it will continue to grow and become an integral part of every business – whoever adopts it early will become winners in the new economy. Social media was a distraction seven years ago. Now companies believe that if you’re not on social media as a organization you become irrelevant. I see gamification as that next wave.

Secondly, there is a view the term ‘gamification’ may change. I do like the phrase “Human-Focused Design.”  “Gameful Design” and “Game Thinking” are other contenders. I didn’t create the term gamification – it happens to be the marketing term everyone in this area goes under at the moment. Even if term disappears – as long as our brain stays the same, the ability to motivate people towards desired behaviours will always be useful. Also, games will always be around, in one form or another.

That concludes our interview. Thanks so much Yu-Kai – it was an absolute pleasure to talk to you.