When Does Gamification Work in Communities?

When Does Gamification Work in Communities?

Note: This post originally appeared in the Gather Community Consulting Newsletter. Get future newsletters by subscribing at the form below this post.

I’ve spent the last week thinking about gamification and community. 

Gamification, so we're on the same page, is the use of the elements of games (like badges, avatars, leaderboards, etc.) in non-gaming environments. 

I had been working with a product team to navigate the rollout (and removal) of the slew of points, leaderboards, badges, and contests in their community product. They were gamify-ing all the things, but the features they had did not bring their members closer together or further their mission. In fact, they encouraged shallow interaction. 

Can gamification be powerful for incentivizing social connection, rather than group competition, meaningless engagement, or task completion? 

To begin conceptualizing the answer to this question, I thought about gamification's most common rewards systems as entirely extrinsic, and I classified the desire for social connection and togetherness as intrinsic (if these terms are new to you, Michael Wu defined them succinctly for Lithium). On this foundation, past academic work and case studies show us 3 key insights, among many:

  1. Knowing that rewards will be given may actually lessen intrinsic motivation and lead to worse outcomes on activities, but rewards given after activities are complete have no impact on intrinsic motivation (from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973).

  2. Culture impacts effective reward systems. For instance, in one study, researchers found that Chinese students were less likely to lose intrinsic motivation if an extrinsic reward was introduced than American students.

  3. Teammates and meaningful stories/avatars can impact social relatedness in gamified environments, and other gamified elements can help teach basic task competence and desire for freedom (from Computers in Human Behavior, 2017).

There is a lot of research to dig through beyond these 3 dense studies, so I want to keep things short and sweet for you. I came up with a few guidelines for using gamification to build a sense of community:

  • Gamification should be used to recognize contribution to the group, positive community behaviors, community status, and commitment. 

  • Rewards (points, badges, etc.) should not be given in exchange for an action or to motivate an action, but rather after a positive social behavior occurs, so users don't come to expect a transactional value for social connection. This is distinct from “incentives” for motivating such community commitment — don’t use gamification as a “carrot” for positive behavior.

  • The most helpful elements of gamification for creating social connection are avatars, stories, and encouraging people to form teams to get work done. 

  • Whenever possible, rewards should be given personally: handwritten notes, postcards, personalized greetings, and should underscore contribution above competition. 

  • Customize your gamification usage and patterns to who you wish to serve with the gamification features. Age, gender, culture, environment all impact how we react to game elements.

So, yes, gamification can work for building social connection in communities. But the features must be deployed thoughtfully, personally, and to recognize contribution rather than competition with other members.

Very few communities do this without going overboard, but I have hope that one of you will use these ideas as a launching pad to make your community's use of gamification all the more thoughtful. 

Are you using gamification in your work? When is it most effective for building social connection in your community?

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