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Motivating consumer behavior through game mechanics

Paul Anthony / December 23, 2009

Posted in: Archive

I’ve been reading this recently – a wonderful book on the cognitive habits of game players, which illustrates and explains perfectly for visual designers how to best tap into that. I thoroughly recommend it as a must read for all designers and developers, regardless of whether you are actually designing or developing a game.

For those of you wondering what exactly game mechanics are, this definition from the book perfectly sums it up:

“Game mechanics are rule based systems that facilitate and encourage a user to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms.”

For all of us this is an important skill worth learning and examining further. Often users of applications need to be encouraged to perform actions for the system to work, or in some cases for it to work better and improve the experience for others.  Startups know this all too well – I’ve rarely come across one which doesn’t require some sort of input from their users on some level. Giving to receive is fundamental within the logic of most of them.

Sometimes you’ll want a user to give you data or input which requires effort on their part or indeed is outside the scope of their normal workflow.

Smart developers are taking what would normally be classed as a chore, and making this fun or more rewarding through game mechanics. I’ve examined some of the best examples of this on the web at the minute.


Facebook’s motivational factors include gaining more friends and social acceptance. Facebook taps into our innate desires to be recognised. This icon iconsss is possibly the most important in the entire Facebook user interface. People crave attention and the like icon bolsters their own social worth. As a result they continue to update their status, their profile, or their pictures to get it. In essence it facilitates user reward.

Groups on the other hand are an expression of a persons values, style and personality. The fact that “status updates” are public means that it defines the person performing the action. In addition application joining and game playing works in the same way, with the public feed becoming the driving force behind people’s actions. For example “Jane received a high score in Farmville”. This too encourages other participants in the social network to engage with the content.

The Lewin’s Equation, B=ƒ(P,E), is an equation of behavior developed by Kurt Lewin – a Germany psychologist. It states that behavior is a function of the person and their environment. This means that one’s behavior is related both to one’s personal characteristics and to the social situation in which we are in. Facebook in this case is the environment, the social situation is your Facebook stream.


Stackoverflow is essentially a question and answer site like no other on the web. Whilst large monoliths like Experts Exchange have been around for forever – with lots of traffic, lots of activity but a rubbish user experience.

StackOverflow have been rapidly catching them over the past year. Generating insane traffic for a site in such infancy.

The reasons are multiple in my opinion. Firstly their user experience is vastly superior. Clean. To the point. Get in and get out – exactly what everyday programmers need on a day to day basis. Secondly they also cleverly reward the behaviour they want to encourage. They also do everything right from a user signup perspective, with the barrier to entry closed significantly by implementing openID and other providers.

Different badges are offered to users ranging from occasional commenters right up to site fanatic. Site fanatics are people who are return visitors and visit the site each day for 100 days. This is a genius way to encourage repeat visits to a site, especially as it gives bragging rights to visitors. It also allows even the less knowledgable members of the community (who are likely to ask more questions than answer them) to participate and gain reward.

Competitive drive is created amongst members of the community (seeking notoriety and reward), and in this case have helped the business to grow in stature.


Foursquare is a mobile business startup entirely focussed on using game mechanics to gain market share. Their users earn points, win mayorships and unlock badges for trying new places and revisiting old favorites. They track loyalty to a particular place via mobile devices, and also bounce off and leverage other networks such as Twitter by sending status updates when an event occurs. I briefly touched on Foursquare in a previous article on Google googles.

What better way to reward participation than to offer discounts or free beer? People respond to physical rewards better than any other medium, and to be able to tie this into something which exists online is simply brilliant.

In psychology the this concept is known as reinforcement and is the underlying psychological motivator in many apps using game theory.

Google Image Labeler

Google Image Labeler is a feature provided by google to solve a problem. Determining the most appropriate image for an image search is notoriously difficult, as no meta data exists within the image for search spiders / bots to parse. Short of using image processing (which is extremely intensive to do) – I’ve speculated that this may be supplemented with Exif somewhere along the line to further improve the image index.

Image labeler licenses technology from Carnegie Melon University that utilises humans to perform tasks that computers cannot. This technology also lead to spin out company Gwap (games with a purpose) which is also based heavily on game theory.

The image Labeler in this case is packaged / disguised as a game and relies on humans to tag the meaning or content of the image. It is played against another remote user from somewhere else in the world, and when both users match the “meaning” of the image, it rewards with points (and a subsequent leaderboard) capturing both users result and improving the image search index.


With Digg, the gameboard is the entire web – to play you have to find the most interesting / funny / freshest news out there, and submit it. The reward system is such that, folks who have a higher success rate (in hitting the front page) with a story, are giving a higher ranking in the algorithm which makes it easier for them to do so again.

The more stories you submit, the better chance you have of going popular. Having an eye for what constitutes a good story or article helps, as does some artistic license in some cases. Digg thrives on people spinning stories out of nothing, and in many cases is sensationalist with the headlines its users create.  It’s one of the few social networks that has a playfulness about it with regard to how the stories are submitted, with users often taking more than an artistic license with the original headline.

Digg founder Kevin Rose, talks about using game theory and the importance of tapping into Ego – in this presentation at FOWA London including more detailed information on what they’ve done to encourage users to participate. He also talks about some of the mechanisms other startups such as Twitter use to grow.

There are of course a host of other folks out there that utilise this in their applications, the key is to integrate it right from the getgo. What are your thoughts? Have you managed to integrate this technique into your application?

Let me know in the comments.

  • consumers
  • ego
  • game mechanics
  • psychology
  • slider

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