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How CIOs can use game mechanics to build better engagement

Game mechanics are more than just rewarding badges. This primer on game design theory offers insight on building customer and user engagement.

Over the past few years, the enterprise has increasingly turned to the principles of gamification, the idea that...

game mechanics can be used to help motivate employees, brand a company or incentivize consumer behavior. Often, this game design theory is as simple as creating a series of badges and achievements, as social networking site Foursquare and Fitbit, the maker of the wearable fitness tracking device, use to reward desired behavior on the part of the consumer or employee.

Like social media a few years ago, gamification has been growing in popularity as a way for CIOs and senior leadership teams to interact with the business' customers and employees. At the same time, however, consumers are becoming savvier about game mechanics directed at them, so smart CIOs must take their gamification strategy one step further, by customizing the game mechanics to appeal to different types of players.

CIO gamification strategy stresses balance

Game design theory seems simple on the surface, but successful game mechanics must appeal to a wide audience. The five most commonly used game mechanics are points, badges, levels, leaderboards and challenges, and, according to Gabe Zichermann, CEO of Gamification Corp., these game mechanics have one key limitation.

Monique VandenbergMonique van den Berg

In 1996, Richard Bartle coined the terms "diamonds, clubs, spades and hearts" in his Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology. These categories define four different types of game players: achievers, killers, explorers and socializers. All five of the game mechanics Zichermann identified appeal to the same type of player: the diamond.

Although most people -- whether employees or customers -- are a mix of "player" types, they often find that one category resonates with them most strongly. Using Bartle's game design theory, CIOs seeking to create a gamified enterprise can target their games to appeal not just to one type of player, but to two or three or even all four -- thus appealing to the greatest possible number of players and maximizing the metrics of success.

Different approaches to play

Achievers, also known as diamonds, are the treasure seekers and leaderboard climbers of the gaming world. Many initial gamification efforts target diamonds by, say, creating a leaderboard or a series of achievements. This can be seen in implementations like Foursquare, where users unlock badges by "checking in" at various locations, or Fitbit, where users "level up" by meeting fitness goals.

Various online games also fall into this category, allowing users to compete against other players to make the most sales at a fictional Dunder-Mifflin office or to create the most popular virtual Real Housewife of Beverly Hills. It often takes only a small amount of external validation to keep achievers motivated.


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The second category -- the killers -- are known as "clubs." Not just content to raise their own scores, they delight in lowering the scores of others, sometimes even destroying other characters -- all in the name of fun, of course.

It's worth noting that killers don't need to "club" other players. In one-on-one games, killers get pleasure from playing evil characters or wreaking destruction and havoc on an in-game world. An interesting real-world application of the killer mentality is Camover, a game out of Berlin, Germany, in which users receive points for donning ski masks and (illegally) destroying video surveillance cameras in creative ways. This is game-as-social-protest: a game that isn't really a game, but is intended to effect change in how the government monitors the citizens of Berlin.

Explorers are called "spades" because they like to dig for information. These users enjoy gathering expertise of game nuances, finding loopholes, exploiting bugs and uncovering unexplored game tangents. A game that appeals to them has to have enough breadth, depth and nuance to be worth exploring, and might also contain hidden achievements, secret shortcuts or other Easter eggs to discover. In one example, Adobe partnered with Bunchball to create an online Photoshop tutorial that awarded points to customers for demonstrating their expertise with its software. This online game combined achiever and explorer mechanics to increase sales for the Photoshop product.


Balancing the needs of all four types of players is a real challenge for game designers, and it will be a challenge for CIOs.

Socializers are the final game type, called "hearts" for their desire to make connections with other players. Games should appeal to their socializers through an in-game live chat, a messaging system, a Skype or IM interface, a Facebook interface, external chatrooms or forums -- as long as it's a way for players to directly chat with and help each other within the game world. Socializing doesn't have to be limited to player-to-player interaction, either -- socializers also respond positively to interaction with members of the game design team, representatives of the enterprise or even NPCs (non-playing characters) within the game world. In the game Health Month, users complete various health-related tasks to earn points. Other players are able to give their points to friends to "heal" them if their friends fail to complete in-game tasks. Buster Benson, the game creator, noted that this was "by far, the most popular game mechanic," and added, "Social forgiveness and camaraderie are fairly untapped game mechanics, and yet really powerful."

Game design theory in practice

A game that is well balanced among the player types, such as Angry Birds, is the holy grail of game design. Angry Birds appeals to achievers by challenging them to pass levels with the perfect score of three stars and to beat other players' scores on the worldwide leaderboard. It's attractive to killers by being based around destruction, with exploding, havoc-wreaking birds that appeal to our inner toddlers, who delight in knocking over stacks of blocks. Explorers enjoy the strategizing of the advanced levels -- where should I aim this yellow bird if a blue bird is coming next? Finally, thanks to its popularity, Angry Birds was able to appeal to socializers as well, becoming the game that everyone was playing and talking about, and it gave people an opportunity to introduce their friends to the game.

Balancing the needs of all four types of players is a real challenge for game designers, and it will be a challenge for CIOs within both midmarket and enterprise companies. If your company is building a game, it's worth considering the four types of players as you create your game design. If your midmarket company already has a game in place, it's worth considering how to broaden the appeal of that game's mechanics, adding content to appeal to more than just the "achiever" game type.

Ultimately, CIOs who can broaden the appeal of the gamified enterprise will enjoy more engaged users, broader reach, a motivated corporate culture and -- most importantly -- game apps that do more than just award badges.


Monique van den Berg is a freelance technology journalist who specializes in social media and gamification and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been writing online since 1999, used to have a blog about her Sims, and has written for Contact her at [email protected].

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