The Useless Usefulness of Rewards in Gamification

True Gamification is not about rewarding players

To disagree is to build systems that destroy Engagement.Before we get to the defense of that statement I’d prefer to start with a question:

“Have you ever tried explaining Gamification to someone who grew up in the 50’s?”

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My fiancee’s Aunt recently asked to me to explain my work and what exactly Gamification is. As part of my explanation I mentioned the rewarding of player behavior to ensure he or she stays engaged with the product. She of course from her perspective and generational heritage had a specific issue with this whole reward for effort point. From her point of view her generation didn’t needed to be ‘as spoiled’ as the current one and that we need to learn that sometimes it’s about working hard to achieve goals instead of expecting reward for the expenditure of great effort.

Of course I had no reply because she was completely right.

Behavior without meaning renders rewards useless for engagement purposes. The same applies to rewards that take little to no effort to achieve. Think back for a moment:Hasn’t everything you have taken pride in achieving during the course of your lifetime go hand in hand with the struggle and effort you put in to achieve it. The value of a supreme achievement is neither the medal or the acclimation but that instant where all that sweat, effort and focus fuse into that single triumph that resonates for a lifetime. Gold Medals are pretty but they’re not the goal.

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The confusion around the value scale of rewards is one of the greatest pitfalls (and dangers) affecting modern Gamification today. Superficial Gamification is all about adding rewards and steering players to complete tasks. The vast majority of Gamification tool sets are semi nebulous and vacuous systems that are packaged and sold as ‘THE EVOLUTION’ in enhancing any website’s visitor engagement. From rewarding content sharing to link clicking and a vast array of similar minimal effort actions the end result is visitors are generally at no point truly engaged. Any reward is meaningless in the context of either effort or difficulty and what you end up with is scores of visitors with zero validation, no real engagement and a website impression that ranges from ‘okay’ to ‘meh’.

Zero effort = Zero difficulty = Zero impression. Is it any wonder the general perception of Gamification schizophrenically lurches from Vaporware to Savior almost weekly?

When it comes to looking at rewarding players in IamP’s systems I like to keep in mind the SAPS model created by Gabe Zichermann. SAPS: Status, Access, Power and Stuff. It’s a hierarchy for player rewards with Status as King and Stuff in the dung heap. It’s a model that fully takes into account what I’ve been trying to get across this entire post.

Intrinsic motivators are not only more successful in regards to players rewards but they forge longer lasting motivation to boot.

SAPS takes to heart the lesson that creating achievement through effort and revealing that achievement to the world is the right way to reward player effort. Let’s not forget we haven’t even examined the conception of ‘Extinction‘: Rewards almost always lose their value over time. The reason it’s critical to emphasize this is that when taken together with operant conditioning ( education and learning through behavior reinforcement IE Gamification) you run into a rather serious problem. When operant behavior with reward reinforcement starts shifting into operant behavior with no reinforcement that behavior is going to grind to a halt.  The value of any given reward never stays static. Time and experience always alters value. Before you know it what was once shiny and pretty soon becomes dull and boring.

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This whole “reward is no longer rewarding process” is termed Habituation. Humans as a species eventually get used to any form stimuli given sufficient time. I like to describe it as that wonderful moment when, after moving close to a major highway, you finally master the ability to sleep the entire night without being disturbed.

These two effects, Extinction and Habituation, come together in both Games and Gamification. Being rewarded for specific behaviors over time devalues the act of both seeking and then even desiring these rewards. Ever played an RPG like Diablo, Titan’s Quest, Grim Dawn etc? Core game play is about the slaying of monsters in an endless pinata-like quest for loot. Categorized by quality and power by item color slaying monsters results in the dropping of either: common grey items, magic blues, rare yellows and the occasional jaw dropping orange legendary. At first players grab everything they can as anything that drops is often an upgrade. Time passes and before you know it’s ‘Orange or Don’t Care’.

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A core RPG problem is players outgrow the lure of potential rewards and stop playing. They often solve these problems by resorting to solutions like story, leader boards and a wide range of options that funnily enough work in both the Games and Gamification Industry.

In Gamified platforms it’s the same problem. An initial reward (for arguments sake let’s say coins) will trigger repeated behavior in order to earn more coins. Given sufficient time you end up with players with stockpiles of coins and little to zero motivation to acquire more. In both Games and Gamification the rewards become over time meaningless and the desired behavior ceases.
I may have begun this post by arguing Gamification is not about rewarding players but perhaps the better argument should be:

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Why shouldn’t I reward players?

I’m not arguing rewards should be simply tossed out the nearest airlock. I’m arguing towards an implementation that follows SAPS and triggers true motivation. This whole assembly floor mentality towards Rewards and Achievements is the past and these mechanics that govern them should be seen as the outdated relics they really are

Rewards should never be the focus of any Gamification system: Progression, Achievements that require true effort and Quest Progression driven by Status  IS the reward.

Real Gamification is about ensuring Players in a Gamification always feel like a Gamer playing  Mario on a fantastic quest. Mario might be focused on saving the princess but the Player is driven less by Lady Peach and more by the challenge of overcoming of obstacles, the status of uncovering secrets and ultimately becoming the finest Mario Player they can be.

That’s the real reward in any Gamified System built by following Best Principles: Ensuring a Player always walks away not with a bag of meaningless awards but with their core self leveled up.

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