Gamification in software was and still is a popular technique to motivate users to do certain actions. Who wouldn't want a shiny new badge? But how effective is it really in the long run? Is there a better alternative on the horizon? We think so. Keep reading to find out!

We’re currently experiencing a “social phenomenon” as billions of people around the world are joining online communities and social networks. But we’ve only just begun to understand how to create real value with online communities. Even though the adoption of social technologies is increasing, people have yet to figure out who to achieve the full potential benefits due to challenges with, for example, low member engagement and weak incentivization.

In fact, we’ve found that one of the most significant barriers to long-term community survival is not enough member engagement. It’s quite simple really: if members dislike the community experience, then they will discontinue their participation. This, then, leads to an inactive platform. Users need an engagement boost and they need to be rewarded effectively for their contributions to the platform. One method to do so is called gamification.

What is gamification? How successful is it? Find out!

The early days before gamification

Early web-based forums date back as far as 1994 but they only really took off in the early 2000s when free and open-source software like, for example, phpBB was created. These open platforms were the first step towards an Internet where people were not just receiving information but also interacting with each other in a personal way; by helping each other through forums, discussing specific topics and meeting like-minded people.

The personalization of the interactions also meant sharing who you are online, or at least it meant creating a virtual online identity. And since these early communities had quite a few active members, it was important that they were recognized for their contributions. A sense of achievement is a powerful psychological driver for humans. We want to feel that our time is well spent, that we are included, and have achieved something at the end of the day. Below is an early example of how users were recognized for contributions; people were able to display their number of posts (1,707) and later on they could earn a certain status based on the number of posts and replies they had. In this example, the statuses were member geek, true watchgeek, senior member, senior geek, super geek etc. Go, geeks!

phpBB gamification community
This is what the phpBB community used to look like.

Receiving and maintaining this status became an important activity and reward for members, and it was a reason to stay active in forums. Usually, the status of the user was displayed with each post, so other users could easily see the level of the users and how respectable their standing was in the forum.

However, most gamification at this point was being used in games, of course 🙂! Can you think back to your first high score in an arcade game or PC game and how that made you feel? You had pretty good motivation to go and beat that score, right?

Gamification 2.0

Although the term "gamification" first appeared online in the context of computer software in 2008, it did not gain popularity until 2010 when social/reward aspects of games were introduced into software. CNN Money explains gamification quite thoroughly: 
 

“Since the advent of video games, skeptics have questioned their inherent value: why do players spend hours accruing virtual points working towards intangible rewards?

Chalk it up to basic human behavior, which game makers have been trying to understand and appeal to for decades. The more effective a game resonates with users, the better it's sales.



So it's no surprise to some gamers -- including yours truly -- that the very same game-play mechanics that hook players are slowly wending their way into other parts of the economy, too.

With "gamification," companies study and identify natural human tendencies and employ game-like mechanisms to give customers a sense that they're having fun while working towards a rewards-based goal. In doing so, they hope the added value will enable and reinforce positive behavioral change across a wide spectrum of non-game-related issues -- health care, finance, philanthropy, general lifestyle.”

 

Gamification can occur in various forms from basic to extensive, which may include storytelling, creating a unique user experience using game mechanics or by using simple reward systems. Most of us are already familiar with the LinkedIn profile completeness check:

LinkedIn Gamification
LinkedIn profile completeness; an example of gamification.

Nowadays, gamification is used to improve user engagement, organizational productivity, learning, employee recruitment, and more. And in most social software systems community members can earn rewards in exchange for their active participation in the community.

For example, our friends at CMNTY have an excellent guide on how to set up user ranks, badge leaderboards and point leaderboards in their software.

gamification in CMNTY
Gamification using user ranks, badge leaderboards and point leaderboards in CMNTY.


So, members are currently earning points, badges, ranks, and appear on leadership boards etc. And they are doing so for dozens of communities that they belong to. In the end, however, they end up with a number of points, badges and other items scattered all over these platforms in an uncontrollable manner. Handy? Perhaps not.

For example, I apparently have 21 (!) badges at TripAdvisor and I am a level 4 contributor. So that’s great but do I really care about that? I have no idea about the actual value of all these badges, and even though I am labeled as a senior photographer, I have no idea what that really means. Even better question, what kind of value does it bring me? A discount on my next restaurant visit? Free museum entrance on my next city trip? TripAdvisor is doing great with hundreds of millions in revenue, but I need something valuable in return for my work and dedication. Maybe something better than yet another badge...
 

gamification in TripAdviser
The points and badges I earned in TripAdvisor.


Let’s look at a different challenge using the same example; what if I want to bring my ‘senior photographer’ status to another platform? This issue is that I can’t. I will have to start from scratch, which is frustrating and, in the ‘real world’, it would be unacceptable. Our reputation usually precedes us, which is good because then people know how to talk to you, why they should trust you, how to best appreciate and value you.

The Mozilla Open Badges project tried solving some of these issues by using badges packed with verifiable data and evidence that can be shared across the web. Their Badge the World project is great but still doesn’t solve the problem concerning what users can do next with all these badges in different communities.

The idea by CMNTY to integrate points earned with a webshop is already a great step in the right direction in order to make points more functional in the real world. However, we need to be able to do this easily on a large scale with an open system, that isn’t necessarily software specific, and is ideally not centralized around a single organization either.

A proposal for Gamification 3.0

I often tell people that they can only burn an idea if they have a better one. And we have a better one.

Around the same time that gamification for software technology was developed, another technology called Bitcoin began to see the light when Satoshi Nakamoto created the bitcointalk forum in 2009 (although bitcoin technology was first described in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta).

If a new system should exist, the activities and points earned by users need to be stored somewhere; somewhere safe. Currently, this space is the database of the community. There are, however, some problems with this space if you want to use this data outside of that specific community:

  1. How do other communities get access to that data? You could create an integration so that one community platform can read the database of another community. But what if there are hundreds of communities with thousands of active users? The number of integrations would be crazy, so we need to store it somewhere outside of the communities
     
  2. Who has power over the points? It’s easy when you can exchange your points in the same webshop. But what if users want to exchange them in a different webshop? Or if the webshop wants to accept points that were earned in a different community? It should also not be possible to just create points out of thin air. So, they need to represent a monetary value that can’t be tampered with.

And this is where Satoshi Nakamoto comes in again. They were the first to apply blockchain technology that does not store data in one single database, but stores all information in something called a public ledger. Instead of keeping all information central in one place or decentral in a few places, distributed technology allows all information to be stored in all places (otherwise called nodes) in the network.

gamification in distributed communities
The differences between centralized, decentralized, and distributed networks.

The possibilities with blockchain technology are endless. For example, users can earn points (or tokens!) in different communities and collect them in one wallet (a mobile app, for example). Next, any eShop can connect with the wallet using an API, except the tokens would be used as the payment, as a contribution, or as a sign-up fee for an event or online course. Your wallet could also serve as your reputation. As you enter a new community and provide access to your wallet (which you can choose not to do as well, of course), the new community can see how active and trustworthy you have been in the past. No more starting from scratch. Even problems such as determining the ROI of a community would become easier when the important actions of users are tokenized and valued; all actions combined show the value created for your organization in a simple overview. 

 

Our proposed Gamification 3.0 solution is, therefore:
 

  1. Create an open standard where points or tokens are stored on the blockchain instead of being central or decentral.
  2. By using tokens instead of points we can add real value (digital currency) to the points as a sort of Bitcoin.
  3. Let each community decide how these tokens are being divided between their members.
  4. Community members store earned tokens in their wallets, which they can bring along to other communities.
  5. Tokens are accepted in your webshop, as payment for access to the community, or anything that creates a sustainable token economy and community.


Of course, there are many challenges lying ahead for our Gamification 3.0. Developing the technology will take time and money, and major efforts in usability (UX) will have to be conducted to make this system easy to use and understand for users. Moreover, systems to reward tokens need to be automated (maybe using artificial intelligence) and checked so that the system is not abused.

Despite that, we think this is a major step in the right direction when it comes to incentivization. Although people love to connect, it is wrong to assume they will automatically contribute to a community. And, in the future, this solution will not only be applied to online communities but any type of social technology.

 

Stay tuned for updates on our blockchain solution. We’re excited to share it with you!

 

Further reading

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