Data Science

Gamification from a Company of Pro Gamers

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.



For a good number of installments I have been writing on the science of relationships. Today, I want to start a new mini-series on “gaming science.” Why? Well, this is becoming a popular topic and coincidentally, there was a Gamification Summit last week in San Francisco. Although I didn’t attend (locked up behind too many equations as usual), several Lithium representatives were there, including one of our cofounders.


If you didn’t know, Lithium is actually a company founded by a group of professional gamers. This gaming heritage gave us a unique perspective on the recently popularized idea of gamification, partly due to the success of social games in business (e.g. Farmville, Foursquare, etc.). However, there is still much confusion around terms like game mechanics, gaming dynamics, game theory, gamification, etc., so let me try to clarify some of these concepts today.


Not too long ago, the “G” word (for games) seemed to have a negative connotation in the corporate world. It was seen as a little too relaxed and irrelevant to business, so gaming was never really discussed in the business context. I suppose it was traditionally believed that if you are playing games then you are not working. However, as Dr. Stuart Brown so eloquently states in his TED talk, “play is not the opposite of work.” This is the foundation of gamification.


What is Gamification?

chess_332948_5742_small.jpgAt the most fundamental level, gamification is the use of game mechanics to drive game-like engagement and actions. The logic is dead simple. People love to play games. But in everyday life, we are often presented with activities we hate, whether it is boring chores or stressful works. Gamification is the process of introducing game mechanics into these abhorred activities to make them more game-like (i.e. fun, rewarding, desirable, etc.), so that people would want to proactively take part in these tasks.


What are Game Mechanics?

So what are game mechanics? They are principles, rules, and/or mechanisms (much like mechanics in physics) that govern a behavior through a system of incentives, feedback, and rewards with reasonably predictable outcome. Some of them are so predictable that they can almost be seen as a kind of behavioral or psychological reflex, much like the patellar reflex of your knee when tapped by a physician. There are many game mechanics, and new ones are being discovered and constructed by game designers every day. has compiled a list of well know game mechanics (some of these are actually gaming dynamics, see below), but there are myriad, because humans can be motivated in practically infinite numbers of ways.


Game mechanics are just the basic building blocks. They can be strung together and combined in interesting ways to drive a very complex sequence of actions suitable for different contexts or desired results. The outcome of this? You can pretty much gamify anything.


For example, gamification of education can make children want to go to school and learn. Gamification of work can make people excited about work and boost productivity. The Lithium founders, being pro gamers themselves, have discovered ways to gamify community participation so that members of Lithium-powered communities are much more engaged and motivated to participate.


What are Gaming Dynamics?

The basics sound great right, and it appears we are ready to change the world now! As always it’s not that simple, because game mechanics are not enough. Why? Well of course, people are different and they are motivated by different thing in many different ways. Game mechanics that work well for one type of players may work poorly for other types. Moreover, people get bored with routines after a while, so this is where gaming dynamics comes in.


Gaming dynamics are temporal evolution and patterns of both the game and the players that make the game (or any gamified activity) more enjoyable. Early game researcher, Richard A Bartle, has identified at least four type of gaming personality: Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, and Killer, and different gaming dynamics are required for different types of gamers. For example, killers require a gaming dynamics that are much faster than those for socializers. An engaging game will tend to get progressively harder to challenge the achievers inside everyone of us, so we don’t get bored. The appointment dynamic, used in Farmville, can coordinate different players that are rewarded by different game mechanics to collaborate together. The progressive-unlock dynamic, used in Foursquare, adds serendipitous surprise to the more routine points and achievements game mechanics.


chess_332949_7522_small.jpgAre you starting to see the difference between game mechanics and gaming dynamics? Point and achievement are game mechanics used to motivate behaviors, but how and precisely when the badges are unlocked over time and the precise reward schedule are gaming dynamics. Clever game designers can create new gaming dynamics by combining various game mechanics over time to make game play more interesting and engaging. This is the reason why so many people are confused about the distinction between game mechanics and gaming dynamics. Some people even treat these two terms synonymously, but really they are two different things.


Players can also go through various gaming dynamics too. The simplest is the player’s level-up journey: novice — experienced — expert — master. Gaming dynamics is all about timing! A well designed gaming dynamic brings players to the next stages at the right time so the players feel accomplished. On the other hand, poor gaming dynamics tend to lose players along the way, either due to boredom or creating overly-complex challenges, and therefore make the game less engaging. Another player gaming dynamic I’ve written about is the control — arousal — flow dynamic (feel free to check it out at your leisure).


What is Game Theory?

Now, what about game theory? The surprise to most of you may be that game theory really doesn’t have much to do with gaming or gamification. It is actually a well established branch of mathematics that tries to describe the decision process in any strategic situation, including games. Game theory is often used to analyze complex problems in economics, social dilemma, conflict/resolution, political science, social psychology, etc. The great mathematician, John F. Nash (the subject of the Hollywood movie: A Beautiful Mind) received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research on Game Theory. Despite its promise and utility, most realistic problems in this world are often too complex to be analyzed by game theory, so Charlie Eppes (from the TV show Numb3rs) and real world mathematicians still have a lot of work ahead of them.


Even though game theory is not really about gaming/gamification, it is sometimes used by hardcore game designers to analyze how players make decisions in certain real-time strategic games. In a well controlled setting, game theory can reveal principles that give us a better understanding of how humans think and act. This is an active area of research in behavioral economics, a subject explored by Dan Ariely in his popular book: Predictably Irrational, which investigates some common flaws in our decision process.



Alright, I hope this post gave you a sense of what all this buzz about gamification is all about. Personally, I feel that gamification can be a big deal, because it is a very effective way to drive actions. In other words gamification can be seen as an effective mechanism or vehicle for influence. I’ve seen it in our community data. There are community superusers who would spend more than 30 hours a week participating in a community. Part of this can be attributed to the gamification of community participation. So don’t ever underestimate the business value of fun.


Now that you have an introductory understanding of the various G-words, we can dive into some of the more interesting topics about gaming next time. For example, what gives game mechanics their magical power (i.e. the power of turning an abhorred activity into a desirable activity)? How can we design and affect the efficacy of certain gaming dynamics? All these are very important topics that can have significant business impacts. In the mean time, I welcome any discussions around this topic.




What overlaps do you see between using gamification in work settings and implementing internal knowledge markets?

Data Science

Hello Larry,


Thank you for the question.


I think there is a lot of overlap between using gamification in work and implementing a knowledge market. But I would say that gamification of work is more general. You can gamify knowledge transfering as in the case of a knowledge market, and this would certainly expedite finding solutions from within a segmented company.


But you can do more with gamification. You can gamify marketing, communication, sales, HR, relationship building, productivity, creativity, etc. You can virtually gamify anything, even though not all of them may be profitable to the company. Gamification of knowledge transfer using the economics of a market as rewards is only one of many ways that gamification can be use in work place.


Alright, thank you for the comment and see you next time.


Great article! This really inspires me to read more about gamification in terms of driving productivity and achieving results. Interesting that you say that you can gamify anything, though not all of them may be profitable to the company. I would like to add, as a P&L owner, that the return to the bottom line from increased retention is worth more than you think.

Data Science

Hello Laura,


Thanks for the nice comment.


Yes, gamification is very powerful. But it is also very hard to do it right so you get good results. I will be writing more about the gaming science next time. So, stay tuned...


Don't get me wrong. I totally understand the value of retention. When I say not profitable, I'm talking about things like gamification of keeping people's desk neat, keeping the common kitchen clean etc. These activities can be gamify, so that work place become more orderly, but they don't always lead directly to profit for the company.


Anyway, thanks for the nice comment. Hope to see you on lithosphere next time.


Nice article, Michael. When I started to read up on gamification sometime ago, there seemed to be some backlash from (people whom I assume are) some of the thought leaders/early entrants to this space, against the idea that "everything can be gamified". They seemed to feel that people were going kinda overboard, and viewing gamification as this "magic dust" that could be sprinkled on activity in order to motivate/engage people. What do you think about that - are there some things that are just "too lame" (or whatever) to be gamified, or is it just a matter of employing the right gaming dynamics? Thanks and I look fwd to the next article. I'm playing a litte catch-up here.

Data Science

Hello Mike


Thank you for the comment.


I do believe that pretty much everything can be gamified. But that doesn't mean the result will be what you expect or want. For example, you can reward community members for participation by giving them points for posting. But the result may be too much spams and useless content in the community. And people just don't want to stay b/c they find the community useless.


Well, I certainly don't think gamification is some "magic dust." There are a lot of science and psychology behind it. That is why I wanted to start this series on the science of gamification. There are right ways to do it and wrong ways to do it. Not all games are fun and rewarding to play. Likewise, not all gamification efforts are successful. As in my reply to Laura (above), some gamification may not be profitable nor useful for enterprise. People just have to do the same cost-benefit analysis before investing in any gamification effort. So I guess some people may say that those non-profitable/useless activity may be, in your words "too lame," to be gamified.


Alright, I hope this addresses your comment. Thanks again for commenting and see you next time.



Hi Michael,


Firstly, I just wanted to say a big thank you for your posts and articles! Your work has been a big inspiration for us here at Netview, and its helped us pass the time while we're trying to tough out the rest of the winter in Canada!


Your quite right in terms of how psychology is behind all this 'magical dust', classical conditioning especially springs to mind, but I'm sure other theories are influential as well, looking forward to see your take on this.


My one quick question to you is whether you think the age of the participants will factor into whether they will be hooked through the gamification process? As surely, someone like myself growing up playing something like super mario brothers etc... and learning the "gaming" process at an early stage in my life, will make me more responsive to the gamification process versus, someone a bit more mature and didn't have the luxury of electronic gaming entertainment  might be more resistant and hard press to adopt gamification.


But all in all, I do agree with you that gamification is the way forward and a lasting trend, as the wide spread use of social technology permeates all arenas of our lives!


Really looking forward to your future articles!






Great blog! I found it yesterday night and I enjoyed it so much that I read it all in one sitting (well, at least the first page). To offer another perspective, I do not believe that anything in business can be gamified. There must be some inverse activity threshhold where consumers just get absolutely turned off by corporations and small business trying anything to gain their eyes. For example, a user on twitter suggested the use of gamication in banks. The mere idea of that occurring turns me off immediately because of the industry itself. If I'm already at that point, what conditions would have to be met for other consumers to be turned off by gamification in business areas they enjoy (ie farmville, foursquare)?

Data Science

Hello Netview,


Thank you for the affirmative comment and the question.


Yeah, Next week, I will try to publish a post on the first factor: The motivation. There are a lot of theory on that, and conditioning and reinforcement is definitely one of them that I will cover. Due to the large volume of research on this topic, I will have to simply and summarize. Stay tuned.


For your question about participant's age. I think it depends on how the gamification processed is designed. Not all gamification is like a game. It just has the right incentive, rewards at the right frequency. Really good gamification can be designed in such way that people don't even know that it has been gamified, but still feel great doing the work they do.


If it is designed like a video game, then yes. Some older people may think it's not serious or kind of dumb. But in general, I don't think that age play a big factor. Because gamification appeals to the innate psychological needs of humans. In fact, they even work in other animals. It is a very primal and biological response. I think at the end of this series, I will try to have some perspective form neurobiology, since I've been a neuroscientist before. There are a lot of interesting connections there too.


Gamification is verry powerful. And it can be use for the right thing as well as the wrong thing. So we must be careful about it.


Alright. I hope I've address your questions. Thanks again for asking. And I hope to see you around next time.


Data Science

Hello Hunter,


Thank you for the comment and voicing your opinion.


Let me try to clarify. First, I said "pretty much anything can be gamified," NOT "anything can be gamified." I certainly believe there are thing that cannot be gamified. I just can't quite characterize what kind of things cannot be gamified yet.


Second, gamification is just the process of applying and incorporating game mechanics/dynamics to problems other than games. So really pretty much anything can be gamify. But I would agree with you totally that not everything should be gamify. And even if you do gamify everything, there is no guarantee that it will be successful. 


I think the hype in the industry now have planted an unconscious association between gamification and success. In reality that is not the case. If you are not careful, gamification can fail, or lead to unexpected and unwanted results as I mention in my reply to MikeD (above). That is what prompted me to start this mini-series, so people can get some more objective perspective on this topic rather than just hype.


Although games has the power to make people take actions against their self interest in the short term, usually that won't last long. Successful gamification in the long run also has to give value back to the players and let the plays to realize the long term gain that are often overlooked and clouded by the instantaneous satisfaction. So if they want to have a long term successful gamification strategy, they should focus on "what in it for the players (consumers)". For example, using your example in the banking industry: If a bank gamify the saving behavior for impulsive spenders who over-spend, I don't think that is such a bad thing. Wouldn't you agree?


Alright, I hope I've clarify some of the confusion around the termology. And thank you for your valuable opinion. Hope to see you next time on lithosphere.




Sorry for the miscommunication, I was responding directly from your twitter. I fully agree with your intentions and I am glad that you aired an objective perspective to gamification. Most of the information on the subject elsewhere is purely about the hype and not the background behind it. Although I wrote a differing thought about gamification in business, I do believe that it would be very beneficial to consumers if businesses incorporated gamification properly. If biz took a path of effort that aimed for depth instead of shallow attempts, we could all win. And yes, if banks made it a point to incorporate gamification for the benefit of the consumer, I could definitely see it working. I suppose another question is can they incorporate it properly?

Data Science

Hello Hunter,


Nice to see you back.


No problem at all. Communications happens so fast that it is easy for people to mis-understand and mis-interpret each other. Happens all the time on twitter especially, due to their 140 char limit.


I'm glad that we agree at the end. If brands incorporate gamification properly, it can definitely be a win-win situation for both the brand and the consumers. But as you said, the question is, can they do it right? Well, I guess this is where a little science can help. Although gamification is very new, the psychology of human behavior is not new. There are many psychological models and a long history of researches with a lot of data that we can tap into. I certainly hope that having a solid foundation grounded in rigorous academic research would advance the field and benefit everyone sooner.


Thanks again for coming back. Hope to see you again next time.


Hi Mike,


Excellent article! Can we use some sort of methodology to gamify a business process/activity? What would you suggest on this? Thanks.



Sanjeev Kumar

Data Science

Hello Sanjeev,


Thank you for the comment. 


You can definitely gamify business process/activity. You just need an analytics/metric that tracks all the business process and activity, so you know everything about who did what process, when, and where. Then you can ward them properly. Gamification involves a lot of metrics and analytics.


I briefly talk about this in a later article: The Future of Enterprise Software will be Fun and Productive. I recommend you check out that article too.


Thanks again and hope to see you around. Have a nice Thanksgiving holiday.


Hello Michael!

I have 2 questions:

  1. What if a significant number of companies will implement gamification? Can a large number of "games" cause fatigue among consumers?
  2. Do not reduce a gamification (a "game") the sense of responsibility of the employee?

I understand that gamification is not a game, so I'm talking about the "game" in quotes

Thank you for this article and answers!


Data Science

Hello Ishayahu,


Thank you for asking the question.


These are great questions. In fact, it is so great that I've already written a post specifically to answer your first question. Please see the following 2 posts for my answer:

  1. The Gamification Backlash + Two Long Term Business Strategies
  2. Sustainable Gamification: Playing the Game for the Long Haul


I'm not sure what you are trying to ask in question 2 as the grammar doesn't make sense to me. If you can clarify what you are trying to ask, I'll be glad to answer.


Hello Michael!

I'm reading your posts now)

So this is what I mean by 2nd question: if we use gamification at work, does it mean that employees become less responsibility? Maybe because we emphasize a "fun" in their job they start to think about it like a "game"?

I hope, now my question will be clear))

Data Science

Hello Ishayahu,


Thanks for clarifying your question.


In this case, the answer is NO. Employees would not feel less responsible because of gamification at work. It really depends on what you gamify. Remember gamification is about changing behavior. It is NOT about game, not about fun, not about competition, not about rewards or badges, plus a tones of misconception about gamification. So you can even gamify employee to be more responsible, more careful, more accountable, etc. These are the behavior that gamification is able to change. The specific gamification techniques that gamification vendors are offering out there is not what gamification is about.


Since you seem to have some mis-understanding of what gamification is really about, I recommend you read my chapter on gamification. This is just the introductory post of the chapter:

     My Chapter on Gamification: From Behavior Model to Business Strategy


Alright, I hope this helps. See you next time.


Hello Mike,


nice long QnA, in fact beneficial info. I'm a first year phD student. i'm reading something on gamification area/topic/problems/issues. but i am intereseted to look the gamification aspects in whether they do bring extrinsic/intrinsic reward to patients who are using the virtual community as their health a.k.a consultant/sharing session with other patient/specialist  in certain disease like cancers etc. but the problem is i'm not quite sure whether these issues are somthing worth to be study and is it possible to further look on this issues. can you help me sort this out. your opinion would be much appreciated.




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