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Gamification: Rewarding Users With Points


One of the main reasons why games such as World of Warcraft gained popularity in the early days is because of the real-time feedback they provide. All your actions influence your avatar’s image and its stats which grow with every level. And you can see all this progress enforced by flashing stats +1 stamina, +1 intellect, +1 strength in front of you.

In previous articles, I wrote about the importance of grind, hard work and failure. In this one, you will learn how to apply real-time feedback to your product. And the use of stat rewards will boost the motivation of your users to complete or proceed with a challenge or task.

Why real-time feedback works? 

It is because we enjoy seeing immediate progress of our actions. That’s why, sometimes, life is so boring for many. You don’t know the progress of your efforts in months or years. In a game? After every action or quest finished, you receive a trophy. Your receive points or earn experience that levels you up. And that’s an important gamification element we miss in real life — something that will show how good we did or are. (+1 karma)


Applying stats to real life

How it can be applied to a product? Let’s say that you design an app that will help users to keep a certain diet to lose weight. Usually, keeping up with a nutrition plan requires certain things:

  • Eating healthy food;

  • Eating at a specific time;

  • Drinking a lot of water;

  • Sticking with the entire program without skipping a day;

Now let’s say that the user followed and completed all the tasks necessary for one day. She checked all the to-do’s: 

  • Eat three healthy meals;

  • Drink two liters of water;

  • Be active for 30 minutes;

How we can reward a user or show real-time feedback here?She could receive bonus stats for each to-do (+1 to her will, +1 to her strength or +1 to her health). And these stat points could be transformed into experience that adds up to her level (progress).


What if the user never skipped a day for an entire week?

She could receive bonus points. And then, the user should have a dashboard with all the points were she can track all her progress. This is only going to enforce her motivation to stick with the plan. 

Then, these stats or points she receives could enhance her virtual “avatar”. For example, the avatar may lose weight as she progressess through the program. Day 1 the avatar is a bit overweight and with each day of the program it becomes slimmer. Or gains weight for skipping too many days. Why is this useful? Because she is able to see immediate feedback for her actions. Which will give her extra motivation and boost to continue through.


Is it limited only to one industry? 

No. It can be applied everywhere. Whether you are providing courses, fitness training, nutrition program or business coaching. The bonus stats you could reward a user for finishing a challenge or completing a task is limited only to your imagination. 

You can give “+1 endurance for getting through the long drive home tonight” or “+1 backbone for sticking up for an idea in the meeting”. And once a user gains a certain amount of +1 to his “Avatar”, he levels up and feels an immediate effect of his actions.

And that’s what the game World of Warcraft gets well. Once you work hard towards finishing a goal (quest), you receive a reward (item or virtual currency). And if the item is good enough, you equip it, and it enhances your avatar stats (stamina, intellect or strength).

Systems that help us level up in real life, by providing us with voluntary obstacles related to our real-world activity and by giving us better feedback really can help us make a better effort.
— Jane McGonigal

Loss aversion and ecouraging positive habits

Giving +1 point to a skill for achieving a certain goal, task or showing effort is a great way to build and ecnourage good habits (routine — reward). But what if a user did not finish a task one day? Or maybe she felt lazy and didn’t want to eat healthy today? 

And that’s fine, we are humans after all and not robots. But we could prevent some bad habits from happening by “punishing” a user. In other words, lowering the overall stats. Here is were a cognitive psychology will help us — loss aversion.

Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equal gains. “It is better to not lose $5 than to find $5.” The principle is very prominent in the domain of economics. What distinguishes loss aversion from risk aversion? The utility of a monetary payoff depends on what was before experienced. Or was expected to happen. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

So every time a user doesn’t finish her workout or doesn’t complete a daily task, you could give her a -1 point to a respective stat. This is a mild form of punishment, which is necessary for building character, habit and a strong will.

Let’s take another example. A user set herself the goal of eating healthy for one month. Every time she misses a day, she receives -1 point to her stats. And more she misses, more she loses (gradual increasing loss). But this again will depend on what type of context you have and what are your goals. You will have to answer the question: “What do you want to motivate users to do? What bad habits do I want to take out of their daily lives?” Here is an example of how it could technically work:

  • One day miss: -1

  • Two day miss: -2

  • Three day miss: -4

  • Four day miss: -8

  • Five day miss: Go back to 0

How loss aversion was applied by Italy’s government

We are by nature loss averse. We hate losing stuff — no matter if it is money or simple points. An interesting experiment of gamification was applied and implemented in Italy for drivers. 

As a car driver, you receive a certain amount of points (20). And every time you violate a traffic rule, for example ignoring the traffic light, you lose points (in this case 6). This psycholgical trick decreases the chances that you will do it again. And due to its effectiveness, many countries applied this demerit point system (more info).

Note:Some countries do it vice-versa. They give you points for violating a traffic rule. And giving instead of taking will skyrocket a terrible behaviour. There’s evidence that drivers were boasting between themselves on who had the most points for breaking the law. Giving points for bad behaviour means encouraging it. 

Compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best effort.
— Jane McGonigal

Learning gamification from Nike+ Running App

Let’s take as an example an app that is (was) popular among runners. An app that motivated people to run more than anyone else did. Especially those who want to run faster and farther.

And here I mean learning from the old app, not the current one which ruined everything. So the old version used a fascinating gamification model from which we can learn some principles and apply it to our own products.

Stats! Stats! It got me out of bed to run this morning cuz I need BETTER STATS. It’s real world achievement points! Who else will play with me? I seek challenges! 
— Message board post from a new Nike+ runner

People who used the old version, know that, after using Nike’s app for running, with time they ran faster and farther. How did that happen? People were motivated by real-time feedback and the rewards they received, once they finished a run. 

Of course, running is its own reward — all the endorphins, less anxiety and stress, clear mind, better endurance and stamina. But we are all humans, and at one point lazyness will hit in, and your motivation will diminish. Whether it’s a really hot or rainy day, or you are about to go out with your friends in a couple of hours. So motivation is still an issue for most of us. In this case Nike designed their app to provide an additional level of intrinsic motivation, beyond your capabilities.


What did Nike add to the game?

1. Real-time feedback

How fast or slow are you running? How far did you run? Being able to see all of this through the app in real time allows you to have better self-awareness. Whether you are slowing down and need to increase your pace or you run too fast and need to slow it down. Also, running faster or slower is more rewarding because you are able to see numbers go up and down in real-time, which is motivating. (in this case, giving more points in real time for running faster is a great practice)

2. Levelling system

The app had six levels, with different colours which followed the same principle as the martial arts belts: yellow, orange, green, blue, purple and black. In the beginning, you advance quickly because the amount of points necessary is minimum. But once you grow in points, it becomes harder to achieve the next level. The numbers may be intimidating to people, but sure motivating.

3. Online trophies

Based on the data Nike collected, they could create challenges and personal achievements. Trophies for best times or new running distance records. And when you had a good run? A voice from a famous person like Lance Armstrong will cheer you on.

4. Community

One of the critical elements of creating a successful product or service is if you are able to build a community or movement around it. All your achievements on Nike+ could be kept private or shared with the entire world on Facebook or Twitter. After you finished a run, you could share the distance, time and the location. Add all those trophies, points and achievements, and a couple of friends you can play with, and you have a perfect game.

5. Create your own challenges

Anyone could create their own challenge and invite people to participate. What is a game without friends to play with? The challenges could be competitive — who earns the most points. Or they could be based on time — who finished first before time runs out. Or who can collect the most amount of points in a week? It could be set up as a team event for a group of friends or coworkers. And of course, you could make the challenges private or public.

6. Personal avatar

When joining the club, you get to create your own avatar which grows depending on your activity. This is one of the most critical aspects of gamification, alongside with the community. All those points, km ran and time — are added up to your own personal profile or Nike+ Mini. Which in the end reflect how the avatar will look or talk to you.

Your avatar’s energy level will depend on how far or long you’ve run. If you did good runs for a couple of days in a row, your Mini will jump and bounce off the walls. If you missed your training for a couple of days, the Mini would tease you.


An avatar that “grows” can boost your motivation

Research suggests that using an avatar enhanced by points that are gained from your level of activity is useful. Even without research, 10 million active users of Wolrd of Warcraft will prove that (or any other MMO game).


Jane McGonigal in her book, Reality is Broken, writes about a research done at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which proves that watching your look-alike avatar, for example, lose or gain weight as we do exercise, makes us workout longer. And participants who received real-time feedback from their avatars did on average eight times more exercise repetitions than participants without an avatar's feedback.

For example, when the avatar provides text feedback, you feel motivated to do more. It may say encouragin words such as: "You are running so much that Running became my middle name". Or it could tease you for being lazy, which also motivates you to workout more. It's a strange feeling, but it comes from the instinct of trying to be a good person and please others.

Both ways, all the efforts and hard work you put into growing or advancing your avatar, will create an emotional attachment to the virtual you. That is also a good reason why games are so addictive - you become attached.

In the end

A virtual avatar is not as effective as gaining points, levels and achievements but it’s part of a bigger equation. It’s part of a field on how we learn to motivate ourselves better. And these gamification tools can be used to improve our lives and create or ecourage better habits. 

Eugen Esanu