Lynette Reeves, Behaviour Change Specialist at Miroma Project Factory explains the importance of play and how game techniques can be a key tool for successful behaviour change.

Whether you are aware of it or not, we are all attracted by play. As children it is how we learn and how we make sense of the world; understanding rules of engagement, how to ‘win’, satisfying our urge to compete and to be rewarded. Our child-like attraction to games does not disappear as we get older, but the context in which we play becomes more varied even while our reward mechanisms become more nuanced. Whether we are talking about computer games, fantasy leagues or an epic game of Monopoly, they challenge us in the best way, command our attention, make us feel smart (or really dumb!) and keep us coming back for more. Those who specialise in the industry know what makes us tick, and what to do to generate the emotions they want from us. It’s the whole reason why games can be so addictive because yes… games are designed to keep you playing, whether for benign enjoyment of play or the more damaging spiral of the gambling industry.

When these same motivations are applied outside of games, we refer to this as ‘gamification’ – where we add familiar, game-like elements to tasks or activities so that they become more engaging and keep us coming back for more. Some of the first examples of gamification are frequent flyer points and supermarket loyalty schemes; they feature those key techniques of rules, points, levels, rewards and feedback loops. These are known as game ‘mechanics’. ‘Happy hour’ is a game technique designed to make something attractive because a benefit is only available for a limited period of time. Social media is built on the very foundation of game mechanics.

Key to making gamification work is not throwing everything you know about game techniques at the wall and hoping something sticks, but implementing them in interesting and user-friendly ways that not only fit naturally with what you are trying to achieve, but also help deliver the desired outcome for the product or service, including ensuring people feel rewarded when they reach their goal. Getting the balance right of risk and reward is a skill of its very own and this is exactly the same for gamification contexts as it is for board or computer games. For instance, a game cannot be too easy; we have an inherent ability to understand how game mechanics work and a basic need to be feel challenged, but there’s a fine balance. Too easy or a mechanic that is overly repetitive and we’ll get bored (we call this ‘churn’). Too difficult or too many game complex mechanics and we’ll give up too quickly. It is why games in any context need a lot of real ‘play testing’ to get that exact balance right.

Using game thinking and applying game mechanics in non-game contexts is a way of motivating people to do things they otherwise might not do. While many businesses use gamification in the hope that it will sell more products or deliver more loyalty, some of the most successful gamified systems are in health and wellbeing, including getting children to eat their vegetables, incentivising adults to lose weight, or helping people quit smoking.

What are the benefits of using gamification techniques for behavioural change?

Games are a powerful medium – they get under our skin, they are real to us and the actions we do in games can trigger the same emotions as doing in real life. Games offer levels of engagement and immersion beyond any other medium, often simply by being more interactive and requiring our active participation. Gamification, alongside other proven behavioural insights/economic techniques, can provide users with positive feelings of accomplishment and reward that are usually not experienced in more traditional forms of engagement or communication – when used correctly that is! Gamification can significantly increase engagement and user participation in an experience, so users feel like they have a sense of control over the process, instead of feeling like a passive participant who is simply being directed to do things for no real reason or benefit.

The specific benefits of using gamification as part of behavioural change include:

  1. Motivation and task success: people are motivated to do things they enjoy doing more, therefore they are more likely to work hard and successfully complete their tasks.
  2. Creativity: gamification engages creativity in ways that traditional training methods cannot.
  3. Lifelong learning: gamification provides an engaging learning environment whereby adults can build skills through periods of deliberate practice and incremental challenges.

It is clear that gamification is not just a trend – applying these techniques across sectors such as marketing, education and wellbeing is getting more and more recognised as a successful method of positive change. Applying them well can deliver truly life-changing results and many research institutes are spending valuable time within this space to understand exactly what gamification techniques deliver positive outcomes and to whom. Part of a marketer’s role is to understand the customer outcome that is sought; when you start looking at it through the lens of behavioural insights, the opportunity for gamifying the customer experience to get to that point should at least be given some consideration. As I said – you don’t have to throw everything at it, but a little competition never hurt anyone…