Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Force behind Gamification : The Science of Flow

Gamification may well be the latest trend in human motivation, but it builds on many decades of psychological research and proven results.

"The Force is ... an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us." 
Obi-wan Kenobi

So in my last post I described gamification as a way to use game mechanics and game thinking to motivate audiences and solve problems.

What are the scientific and psychological research results that support gamification?

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, studied happiness and personal fulfilment and came up with the notion of flow, which is a state when we are completely absorbed by what we are doing, be it arts, reading or playing a game, without complete disregard to the outside world, or our basic necessities like eating or sleeping.
Mihály Csikszentmihályi is a Hungarian national who was born in Fiume, Italy in 1934, who moved with his family to Venice, when he was just 10 years old, fleeing from the horrors of war. He faced the inevitable effects of the war on people, but he was also intrigued by the fact, that some people seemed just as happy during the hard times, as before, and that made him curious about human happiness. At the age of 22, he moved to the United States and started studying psychology. He found it very interesting, that some people, could enter a kind of trance, a state of complete involvement and absorption of the self in the given activity. He interviewed many people, for example painters, and created the notion of flow, when we are completely involved and absorbed in the activity we are doing, and feel happy without being rewarded for it. Flow is also a state, where we enter due to our intrinsic motivation.

In order to achieve the state of flow, there must be a balance between the challenge of the activity and the skill of the person performing the activity. Otherwise if the challenge is too high compared to the skill (or the skill is too low for the challenge), the person becomes anxious, and if the challenge is too low (or the skill is too high for the challenge) boredom sets in.

Therefore this area is, where games and game design do very well. It builds on intrinsic motivation, and provides just enough challenge to be beatable at the particular skill level, in this way keeping the player "in the flow".
If we translate flow to the work environment, Csikszentmihalyi comes up with the following conditions needed to achieve flow :

1. goals are clear
2. feedback is immediate
3. a balance between opportunity and capacity
4. concentration deepens
5. the present is what matters
6. control is no problem
7. the sense of time is altered
8. the loss of ego

Some points sound familiar from game mechanics?
Not coincidentally.

Gamification may well be the latest trend in human motivation, but it builds on many decades of psychological research and proven results.

So how are we translating these results into everyday applications?

In any gamified system, the following principles have to be kept in mind :

1. Intrinsic motivation is important : a good gamified system must build on the intrinsic motivation of the player (customer, employee, user etc.), so through gamification, the designed solution has to be able to help motivating with going through the personal journey, what the player wants to take. If we take the goal of losing weight as an example, the 'player' must have an intrinsic motivation to lose weight and the system must build on, strengthen and nurture this motivation via taking the player through the journey.

2. The challenge has to equal the skill, special care to be taken at the beginning : It's very important to give a sense of accomplishment all through the process, but especially at the beginning, when our player is new to the process and needs a lot of encouragement and support to take the first few steps, so that he or she can see that it really works as they expected. It's a good idea to put him or her in a sort of 'safe zone' or tutorial level, if you will, where it is very easy to succeed and at the same time, there is very little chance of failure or doing the wrong thing.

3. Give feedback, and a lot : always keep your 'players' in the loop about what they are doing right, what they have accomplished and what their next goals are and how to reach those goals. If you think you've given enough feedback, give some more. Positive reinforcement is key to the success of a gamified system.

4. Challenge low and high : As you go along, add additional challenges as well as abilities, in order to keep them engaged and keep them challenged and rewarded for the positive actions. It's a very good idea to start with a minimum number of tasks and challenges, and add more in number and more challenging ones, not just in magnitude but in variety to the mix. You can at the same time combine earlier smaller challenges into series of challenges in later phases (levels), so that you can combine the familiar with the new challenging tasks. Not all people are equal, some like more challenge, some like less, so provide for all type by adding challenges, but only in a ramped up manner, never give more than just what they can accomplish based on their current skills.

5. Add a social layer : Many individuals appreciate to be able to share their progress and be able to compare themselves to others, or even challenge or help them in the goals. Therefore, add a social aspect to the system, that will motivate them to come back and be motivated to achieve in the context of the achievements of their peers. It not only motivates but also reinsures them in what they are doing.

Obi-wan, I understand all this, but I was thinking that games are just an easy way of satisfying oneself, isn't it the case then?

I would like to take a moment to dispel one of the misconceptions about gamification. It's often said, as criticism, that games or gamified systems are just cheap and easy ways of satisfaction, and they are just feeding the individuals with easy things to do and reward them for it. Now, if a game or gamified system is like that it's a bad representation of it. Since, by human nature, if something is too easy, we will get bored with it, and will not pursue the activity any further. As humans we do like to be challenged (might be amazing really for some), but at the same time we would also like to be rewarded for it.

In our next post we will look at what each player is motivated by.

What do you think it is each person motivated by regarding the player journey?
Are the end results important or the way to get there?
Are we the same or are we different in this respect?

About the author : Norbert Szigeti Csúcs is an online marketing, CRM and gamification expert with more than a decade experience working with global companies to create value. His latest endeavour is in the realm of gamification, as he does a lot of research at Aquilone Training and works with companies on the practical side of gamification to benefit their customers and employees.

About Aquilone Training : Business efficiency development by training, coaching and organizational development, working through corporate organizational maturity modelling. 
Professional, rational, ethical.