Gamification: Giving A New Framework To An Old Buzzword

Matthew LyleBlog, Social MediaLeave a Comment

TL;DR Version

  • Gamification – the application of game design elements and game principles in non-game contexts – isn’t a new idea. However, thanks to Yu-kai Chou and his ten years of research on the subject matter, marketers have a solid gamification framework called “Octalysis” to work from.
  • While most systems are focused on “function-focused design,” gamification follows a “human-focused design” process that optimizes for human motivation rather than pure efficiency.
  • The Octalysis framework consists of eight core drives that translate into gaming elements designed to motivate participation.
  • The framework can be divided into left-brain and right-brain motivations. The left-brain drives are driven by extrinsic motivation while the right-brain drives are more intrinsically motivated.
  • The framework can also be divided into white hat gamification (no urgency involved) and black hat gamification (urgency involved).
  • Using gamification does not guarantee success nor is it easy. Creating a rich gamified experience is much more than simply adding a few gaming elements. It’s a craft that requires a lot of analysis, thinking, testing, and adjusting.

If there were a Marketing Buzzword Graveyard, “gamification” would probably already be in it – right next to transparency, content marketing and big data. But just because it’s no longer the new shiny object like VR or AI, doesn’t mean marketers shouldn’t still be paying attention and utilizing it.

The definition of gamification at its simplest form is the application of game playing elements (like point scoring and competition with others) to non-gaming contexts, usually to get an intended result.

Gamification first gained popularity in 2011. That year, technology research company, Gartner, released a report stating, “more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” Eighteen months later, they released another report saying, “By 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives due to poor design.” If you’re like me, you like a good challenge. I’m not going to let the 80 percent statistic scare me off, but rather fuel me to make sure that anything I work on falls in the 20 percent success column.

Google Trend Search: Gamification

The selling point of gamification is that it focuses on “Human-Focused Design” which is music to any planner’s ears as one of our biggest responsibilities at an agency is to represent the consumer voice. Most systems are “Function-Focused” — designed to get the job done quickly. For example, a factory assumes its workers will do their jobs because they are required to. However, Human-Focused Design remembers that people in a system have feelings, insecurities, and reasons why they want or don’t want to do certain things and, therefore, optimizes for their feelings, motivations, and engagement.

I found myself fortunate enough to be one of the 300-or-so attendees that were able to make it into Yu-kai Chou’s session “Actionable Gamification for the Win” on the first day of SXSWi. Chou was not shy about his credentials; he has been named the “Gamification Guru” by the Gamification World Congress (who knew such a thing existed?) and contracted by global powerhouse brands like Google, eBay and Yahoo! to share his research.

Chou’s company, Octalysis, is also the name of his gamification framework that identifies (you guessed it) eight core drivers that motivate people to take action. Some of the drivers are very similar to another framework that we often use at Hahn Public, Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion. I’ve provided an image of the framework below, but I will also go into each one in a little more detail and provide an example or two. However, if the image does it for you, feel free to skip down to under the summaries.


Chou’s Gamification Framework: Octalysis

1. Epic Meaning & Calling

The core drive of meaning capitalizes on the individual’s belief they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

Example: Apps like Waze and GasBuddy rely strictly on users to provide the data needed to make their apps valuable. Wikipedia is another example of a product that relies on a community of users to keep their information up-to-date. These user communities are so active because they feel they are contributing to the greater good.

2. Development & Accomplishment

This core drive plays off of humans’ internal desire to make progress, develop skills and overcome challenges. As probably the most overused gamification feature – points, badges and leaderboards – it’s important accomplishments are not just given, but earned.

Example: Foursquare incentivized check-ins by unlocking badges for certain accomplishments, such as the “Swarm” badge for checking into a place that has 50 plus other users checked-in or becoming a “Mayor” of a location by having the most check-ins.

3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

The empowerment core drive describes users engaged in a creative process where they have to repeatedly figure out things and try different combinations. People not only need ways to express their creativity, but they need to be able to see the results of their creativity, receive feedback, and respond in turn. The longevity of the popularity of chess, Legos and Tetris are good examples of games that have provided users endless creative opportunities.

Example: Starbucks was able to enhance the loyalty of its customers through ‘My Starbucks Idea’ – a crowdsourced platform that allows customers to submit their Starbucks ideas ranging from different drinks to new technology and have their ideas voted on by fellow customers. In the first five years of the program, 277 ideas from over 150,000 submitted were brought to life.

4. Ownership & Possession

Ownership core drive explains how when someone feels like they own something, they innately want to make what they own better and own more of it. This core drive can be seen in medieval times when Kingdoms constantly tried to capture rival Kingdoms and, more recently, with stamp and baseball card collecting.

Example: In today’s world, this drive explains a person’s reluctance to abandon a social network (especially if it serves their needs and understands them) if they have spent a lot of time building up their profile. Many bands were reluctant to leave MySpace after the mass user exodus to Facebook because of this. This might also explain why LinkedIn pushes users to create more complete profiles using the profile strength cues. In addition to other reasons, they know once someone has spent a lot of time investing in their profile, it will be harder for them to ultimately walk away.

LinkedIn: Profile Strength

5. Social Influence & Relatedness

Under this core drive is all the social elements that drive people: mentorship, acceptance, social responses, companionships, as well as competition and envy. Humans tend to draw closer to people, places or events they can relate to.

Example: Did you know that Amazon’s recommendation engine “Customers who bought this item also bought…” accounts for sixty percent of purchases? People innately want to behave like those similar to themselves.

6. Scarcity & Impatience

This core drive is also one of Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion. According to this drive, humans want something because they can’t have it. We’ve seen numerous companies hold back inventory to create this sense of scarcity with the hope of creating increased demand for the product. The core drive also explains the limits that we often find on sale items at grocery stores. Chou referred to it as the “magnetic cap.” Basically, when we are told that we can only purchase a certain amount, we try to reach that maximum. In a study of eggplant sales at a grocery store, it was found that the average customer bought between 6-7 eggplants when there was a limit of 10 and only 4-5 eggplants when there was no max.

Example: When Facebook first launched, it was restricted to only Harvard University. It slowly began to open up to other college universities and institutions requiring a university e-mail address to create an account. Those who didn’t attend a Facebook school were eager to gain access to the platform and quickly jumped on the opportunity once it became available to them. Google tried to duplicate this effect with their invitation-only access to Google Wave and Google+ which resulted in eBay postings trying to sell the invite codes.

7. Unpredictability & Curiosity

If a person doesn’t know what is going to happen next, their brain is more engaged and they think about it more. This is the primary drive behind gambling. It can also explain why sometimes we can’t put down a good book or keep watching the next episode on Netflix until we’ve binged watch the whole season.

Example: Chase’s “Picks Up the Tab” campaign – in which they picked up the tab of one customer every five minutes – provided customers with a sense of unpredictability. With the idea of potentially getting their purchase free in the back of their heads, Chase customers had an incentive to always use their Chase card.

8. Loss & Avoidance

This core drive is based upon the avoidance of something negative happening.

Example: Many airline reward programs drive behavior by requiring that you have activity on your account every 12 to 18 months or risk the chance of losing those accumulated points.


Even though I loved the categorization of the 8 Core Drives, the next two sections are what really impressed me about Octalysis framework.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain Gamification

If you split the octagon in half vertically, the core drives on the left side of the framework are more left brain focused – appealing to logic and calculations – while the right side is more related to right brain activity like creativity, self-expression and social aspects.

Interestingly, “Left Brain Core Drives” have a tendency of being more based on extrinsic motivation. Users are motivated because they want to obtain something, whether it be a goal, a prize, or anything you cannot obtain. On the other hand, “Right Brain Core Drives” have a tendency of being based on intrinsic motivations. Users don’t need a goal or reward to use their creativity, hangout with friends, or feel the suspense of unpredictability; the activity itself is rewarding on its own.

This is important because many companies aim to design for motivation based on extrinsic motivators, such as giving users a reward at the end. However, numerous studies have shown that once you stop offering the extrinsic motivator, user motivation will often decrease to much lower than before the extrinsic motivator was first introduced. Thus, Chou stated it is much better for companies to design experiences that motivate the Right Brain Core Drives, making something in of itself fun and rewarding so users continuously engage in the activity.

Ocatalysis: Left vs. Right Brain


White Hat vs. Black Hat Gamification

Additionally, the top and bottom of the octagon also represent two different categories. Chou referred to them as “White Hat Gamification” and “Black Hat Gamification.” The top half are the white hat gamification elements. These drives let you express your creativity, make you feel successful through skill mastery and give you a higher sense of meaning. In sum, they make the user feel good.

On the bottom half are the Black Hat Gamification elements. These drives – such as always doing something because you don’t know what will happen next, constantly being in fear of losing something, or pursuing things you can’t have – while extremely motivating can also leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth. The rise and fall of Zynga games can be attributed to this. Most of Zynga’s games were built on Black Hat Gamification which provided a lot of motivation, but not necessary a good feeling. Thus, when users were ready to leave a game, they wanted to because they were no longer gaining enjoyment from the game.

Chou recommended using Black Hat Gamification drives for short-term, one time actions and White Hat Gamification for more sustained, long-term initiatives.

Octalysis: White Hat vs Black Hat Gamification


Finding the Right Gamification Formula

While gamification might seem like an easy addition to add to any product or campaign, the reality is that it’s not. Some of the world’s largest brands like Nike, Facebook and Google have released products and campaigns built on gamification elements that have either failed to accomplish or sustain the intended behavior. Despite introducing NikeFuel points which allowed users to unlock achievements, share results and engage in competition with other users, Nike’s FuelBand was discontinued after just two years on the market.

Creating a rich gamified experience is much more than simply adding a few gaming elements. It’s a craft that requires a lot of analysis, thinking, testing, and adjusting. The key is understanding the intended user and designing a product or campaign focused on their feelings, motivations and engagement.


Can you think of any products or campaigns that incorporate gamification elements? Leave a comment with your favorite (or least favorite) examples below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *