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Keeping Gamification Safe, Surprising – and Fun

February 15, 2017

Last year was a real doozy. From surprising election results to many other roller coaster events, the year taught us many lessons that continue to shape our 2017. If you’re a designer of engaging experiences, here are a few things to use in your gamification projects – whether consumer- or internal-facing.

The arc of engagement is finite

2016 was the year of Pokémon GO. At its peak, the game had more than 75 million users and $16 million in monthly revenue. By the end of the year, those numbers were reportedly well below 20 million and $2 million. Not too shabby, but the meteoric rise (and subsequent atmospheric burnout of the game) definitely caught the public’s attention.

A number of great articles have been written about the reasons for the rise and fall of Pokémon GO, but rather than speculate on the “why,” I want to focus on the “what.” That is, expectations of novelty vary proportionately to the intense novelty of the initial experience. If you think something is super exciting at first, you must really reach to keep that level of enthusiasm going over time.

It might have benefited Niantic to focus on a slower build to enthusiasm. The lesson for other engagement designers: Don’t release all your features at once, don’t reveal them all to users, and leave yourself some room to innovate as you go. Engagement is a marathon, not a sprint – and it should surprise no one that the hotter you burn at first, the faster you will die out. 

Behavior can still be surprising

Donald Trump’s upset win in the U.S. presidential election caught many people by surprise. It seems people’s behavior at the ballot box didn’t match what they said they were going to do.

When you design an experience for engagement, you generally begin with a series of hypotheses about people’s behavior. If you’ve spent a lot of time working with the target population, you may also feel quite complacent in your expected knowledge of how they will react. Approach the process of behavioral design with humility and an attitude of expecting the unexpected. Run your tests in the real world, and wherever you allow a sandbox, expect people to play to the margins of their ability and interests.

Things are less predictable than they seem, but users’ actions are much more valuable than their intentions (or words). 

We are living parallel lives

Your users are increasingly living separate lives online, mingling only with those they are close/connected/in agreement with. The fake news scandals and discussion of Facebook’s “silo effect" on the election continues, but for gamification design the lessons are crucial: Do not expect people to develop connections to those outside their circles. They are unlikely to enjoy challenging themselves or each other, and they are growing accustomed to seeing tons of self-reinforcing information.

This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge this paradigm. On the contrary, if you care about improving the world, there has never been a better time (or more important issue) to address. However, one cannot expect people to be socially curious or adventurous about ideas of their own volition. Confirmation bias is a real thing, and if you want to fight it, you’ll need to be deliberate in how you lead users to get their information and connections.

If your engagement depends on people going outside of their comfort zone, remember 2016's cautionary tales. Push hard, give users incentives to do so and make clear that networking is part of what you really want them to do.

Privacy is evaporating

There have been many recent examples of erosions of privacy in the public and private spheres. Although there are many people deeply concerned with this issue, the increased prevalence of Wikileaks, spying acts and Amazon Echos are but a few ways people are making accommodations for lessened privacy. If you are among the concerned (me too!), be sure to consider your audience and mission when designing privacy controls into your gamified apps.

But in a more general fashion, it highlights a crucial point: People seem very willing to trade privacy for experiences that are delightful, useful and accretive to their experience. If you are designing a behavioral intervention that requires increased access to your users, you can likely get this permission if you make your case clearly, identify your value proposition and deliver a healthy amount of surprise and delight. Similarly, if you want people to care more about privacy protection, it would behoove you to design experiences that help explain in greater detail the trade-offs and how to control for them.

Either way, privacy is more fungible than ever before, and this presents unique opportunities and threats for engagement designers.

Automation, triggers and addiction

The increased prevalence of technology, behavioral design and even gamification have led to a concomitant increase in awareness of their potential negative consequences. Particularly, conversations about behavioral addictions have been on the rise and some categories – like porn – have received a large and growing amount of attention from foes and “victims” who feel their lives have been negatively impacted by technology.

At the same time, behavioral design and gamification have continued to grow in importance and impact. This leads to conflict for designers and a renewed call from some circles for more ethical design guidelines. It’s true that each industry, company and activity is attempting to win the engagement economy, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a zero sum game.

For me, this has led to putting my money (and time) where my mouth is. Earlier this year I started with amazing co-founders a company called Onward to help conquer behavioral addiction and overuse. I hope you’ll give Onward a try in early 2017 when it’s ready for public beta, and in the meantime if you’re interested in the mission I’d love to hear from you.

But even if you don’t share my passion for tech-life balance, the deleterious effects of behavioral compulsion and addiction should be no less obvious. I encourage you to consider the ethical implications of your design decisions and how best to balance business goals with personal freedom, growth and health for your users. After all, having them around for a long time – healthy, productive and engaged – is good for society and your bottom line.

Gabe Zichermann is an expert on gamification, user engagement and behavioral design, an author and founder of Dopamine, a creative agency focused on gamified campaigns. He can be reached at or through Twitter. 

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