Link to podcast episode:  6 Steps to Effective Gamification | with Kevin Werbach

Jesse Lahey: Welcome to the show Game Changers.  This is the show for CEOs, HR Executives and other business leaders to learn about internal gamification.  Over the course of the series, you will hear examples and pitfalls, discover how to assess and when it’s an appropriate strategy and learn to evaluate gamification partners and game design ideas.

I am Jesse Lahey, and in this first episode of “Game Changer,” we’re featuring one of the best known experts in the emerging field of gamification, Kevin Werbach.  Kevin is co-author of For the Win:  How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business.  He is a professor at Wharton, one of the world’s top business schools, and he created the world’s first MBA Course on Gamification.

Kevin is the founder of the Supernova Group, a Technology Analysis and Consulting Firm.  He is considered a leading expert on emerging trends in communications and technology.  Kevin, welcome to “Game Changer.”

Kevin Werbach: Thanks so much for having me.

Jesse: Kevin and I recently got to know each other on the podcast “Engaging Leader, Episode 38.”  Kevin provided a great overview of gamification and the theory behind its effectiveness.  I encourage listeners to check out that episode and we’ll put a link to it in our show notes here.  In this episode of “Game Changer” we’ll talk about what business leaders need to know if they’re thinking about actually implementing gamification.

First, Kevin could you start us of with an example of a gamification that has successfully engaged employees?

Kevin: Well, there are lots of companies using gamification.  The first thing to say is, there are plenty of examples that are either gamification or similar to it that we just take for granted.  For example, contests that motivate employee by giving them incentives if they hit certain targets or if they win that competition.  Those are like gamification but generally those haven’t been designed with fun in mind and haven’t been designed really taking advantage of the [inaudible 00:02:54] of game design.

So, one example I’m familiar with is a startup called KEAS, which focuses on employee health and wellness.  They partner with enterprises and with healthcare companies and insurers to try and help employees be more fit and companies want that of course because it lowers their healthcare expenses.  KEAS found that the most effective way to do that was to put people in teams and challenge them in a game-like environment to have the highest improvement in their health and wellness.

They use a variety of mechanisms, challenges and missions and badges that you can earn and so forth that are gamified mechanisms.  They found that that’s been incredibly effective and motivates people to do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise.  Even if you give people the data, what they found was that, just knowing that this is something that make you healthier doesn’t make you change your behavior but the gamified system does.

One other example to give is Zappos, the online shoe retailer that’s now part of Amazon, a company that focuses a lot on fun in their workplace.  They put in something they called the “Face Game” which is when you log in to the company intranet, you get shown a picture of one of your co-workers and then it says “All right, who is this?” and you have to pick who it is.

If you get it wrong, then it takes you to the page of the company online directory and it says “This is Michelle.  This is where she works and here is some of her background.  Would you like to send Michelle an e-mail and invite her to lunch?”  That’s all about getting employees to know each other better, increasing camaraderie which is something that is important especially to a place like Zappos.

A key element of their performance is that the company is creating that sense of being on a team and working together.  It’s hard to do as the company grows and so they use this little simple game as a nudge to get people to find out about each other and to be interested in working together especially across departmental and functional wise.

Jesse: Now in your book, you say that gamification is a fusion of art and science.  Why do you say that?

Kevin: Gamification is about design and creativity.  So, doing a good game requires you to think about all of the aspects that we would normally think about in doing a good work of art, whether that is a painting or movie, you have think about a story or a narrative, you have to think about the visual appeal of it — all those things that really target people’s emotion.

But then, doing gamification effectively is more than just making something that looks pretty.  It involves leveraging data and analytics to provide feedback to the user and to provide feedback to the designer of the system.  What makes gamification effective is being able to track all of the behaviors that happen in the system, all the things that people do, and understand the patterns and tweak the system based on that information to make it more effective.

Jesse: So, you are saying that you need a process that helps fuse the art of gamification with the science of gamification.  You call that process design?

Kevin: Right.  I am borrowing from a whole movement called “design thinking” which is about applying design concepts in general.  So, if you go to a product design company, company like IDO in Palo Alto and say “I want you to make my new product,” they have a bunch of people who will make the thing look pretty but really their expertise is in bringing together people who have lots of different skills — both those kind of soft creative skills but also hard-edge skills about process, about understanding structure and about understanding how to iterate, how to build a prototype, understand it and get feedback on it and then build a better prototype and evolve the system that way.

That’s the process of design and there’s a whole literature in design around making things human-centric, how to build things that focus on real peoples problems, and so forth.  What I talked about in “For the Win” and in the other work that I do in gamification is taking those same insights that people have used to talk about design thinking in business in general and applying them specifically around game design because game design is a kind of design and we can learn from the way game designers build great games.

They don’t just think about the art; they have to think about how to make it work with all the people that are in that game and how to have the game scale and how to get the game work as a technical system.  We can learn from all that in building business-based gamified systems.

Jesse: Now, you lay out in your book a framework of six steps that are important in gamification design.  Can you walk us through those six steps?

Kevin: Absolutely.  So I call them the Six Ds because they all start with the letter D and it just so happens, design starts with the letter D.  The six steps are again within the context of the design process.  So, design has to be iterated.  You can’t think, “I’m going to start at this point and then I’m going to build the finish product, then I’m done.”

You’re almost certainly going to get it wrong.  You don’t know what the right product is until you put a prototype out there and get feedback from real users.  In game design we call that “play testing.”  Game designers, even people designing very sophisticated video games would often build a paper prototype — literally pieces of paper and dice and things like that and give it to a bunch of people and say, “All right, this has got the fundamental game play, what we call the mechanics of the game.  Does it seem like it would be fun?”  Then you get feedback and only based on that feedback, do you find the problems and ways to evolve.

So, I’m going to give you six steps but it’s within a context of understanding that you don’t just do this in a linear process.  You think about all these things but you are constantly revising and iterating.  People will tend to make the mistake of starting at the end, saying “All right, I want to build a gamified system.  I’m going to get some leader board and then I’m going to give people points for doing this.  I’m going to create these avatars and so forth.” That is the last step.  The last step is implementation.

The first step is DEFINE your business objectives.  What’s the goal here?  Gamification is not about creating something that people love.  That’s part of it but if you create something that people love that doesn’t actually solve your objective whether that’s having your employees be more efficient, having your employees have a better sense of enjoyment at work, increasing performance based on some performance metric, then you’re not building a system that’s successful for a business.  So, step one is define very precisely what your business objectives are.

Step two is DELINIATE Your Target Behavior.  So, what are the concrete specific steps that you would want people to take?  The question is what’s the group of people?  That is the next step.  What specific things would you want them to do in order to achieve that business goal you set out on the first step?

Third step is DESCRIBE Your Players.  It is important to think of them as players.  They’re not just users, they’re not just employees, they are people who are voluntarily playing your game, who need to feel that enjoyment and engagement and that desire to proceed in the game.

Game designers have a variety of different templates and frameworks.  We’re thinking about different player types.  It’s not just demographics and site *** [00:10:32], it’s what motivates people.  Do people love exploration?  Do they want to find new things or do they care about achievements, about getting to the top of the challenge or do they care more about socializing, for example?  Define different categories of your players and think about different aspects of the gamified system that may be rewarding and engaging to those different kinds of players.

Fourth one is DEVICE your activity loops and this is basically just the structure of how the gamified system works.  But it operates at two levels.  At the micro level, there is what we call an engagement cycle.  That is basically, what is the activity?  What’s the feedback?  What do people see about how they did?  Games give you lots of feedback which might be your score or it might be something that’s flashing or something that happens.

How do people see what they did and learn from it and then how does that create a motivation that then leads back in a cycle to a new kind of action?  That’s the micro level activity.  At the macro level, it’s focusing on what’s called the “Player Journey.”  How do people go from being newbies — people who don’t know how to play the game — to being sucked in to the experience, to getting increasingly good and successful in the game  to ultimately being masters and expert players of the game?  You think about that as a journey.  You think about how the gamified system relates to people at different stages.

Fifth one is step back; stop what you’re doing.  DON’T forget the fun.  Time and time again I have seen teams building gamified systems that get so focused on the weeds, they get so focused on the structures and mechanics, and drawing diagrams.  They forget that this has to be fun.  If people don’t want to do it, they’re not going to do it.

You need to step back and say, “All right, would people actually find this fun and engaging?  If not, what can I do to make it feel more fun?”  Again, by not dropping all the structures and the analytic pieces, but how to make it an experience that people would want to do.

Then the final step, step six is DEPLOY.  Find the appropriate tools, whether that’s software platforms or other kinds of mechanisms.  Pick this specific game mechanics and game elements and then, go and build the system.

Jesse: With that first step, DEFINE your objectives, your business objectives, it seems like as you pointed out in the book that if you don’t do that well, you can end up with a game that might otherwise be designed effectively.  It might work really well but might get you the wrong outcomes.  Do you have an example of where that might have happened?

Kevin: Well, there are lots of examples out there and there are plenty of them are cases where people — especially, we’re talking about people in a workplace employment context — people had fun but that was the point.  I mean it’s nice if your employees feel that they’re having more fun but if your goal is for example, about improving output of a certain product, then just having fun may actually be distracting.

They may be spending more of their time playing the game than actually doing work.  We see lots of examples like that.  There is one example that I talk about in the book and elsewhere about Disney where they put a leader board into their hotels for their housekeeping workers — the maids and the laundry staff and so forth.  What happened was people reacted incredibly negatively because what they saw was it was tracking their performance, how quickly they were doing their tasks and ranking them and showing who was at the top.  The lesson they took from that was people at the bottom were getting fired and people freaked out.

They got so upset that some of them stop taking bathroom breaks because they were so worried and upset.  It destroyed employee morale.  It created this very competitive backbiting environment and actually performance went down.  That’s an example of not really focusing hard on the outset about what the goal is and then what it takes to achieve that goal, and building a system that in fact, makes things worse.

Jesse: Just a quick pause from this interview with Kevin Werbach to tell listeners about a game we’re playing to have some fun throughout this series.  First, we are giving away a copy of Kevin’s book, For the Win:  How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business.  To get started, simply like our “Engaging Leader” Facebook Page.

That would automatically enter you for a chance to win the book.  If you had previously liked our page, just post a comment on the page.  From the next 50 likes and posts on the “Engaging Leader” Facebook page, we’ll select one person at random to win the book.  Liking our page also unlocks the first clue you need toward a bigger prize, a $100 gift card from Amazon.

The first clue is the game board.  In each 15 episodes of the “Game Changer” there will be other clues that help you guess our secret phrase.  You’ll need the game board from our Facebook page in order to figure out which clues go where.  From those clues, if you can be the first person to guess the secret phrase, you will win a $100 gift card from Amazon.

Everyone who guessed it correctly will be honored on our Game Changer Genius Board.  So, to get the game board, Like us on Facebook and click on the Game Board tab.  You can go directly to that tab by visiting

You know the Disney example reminds me a lot of your step three there as well, DESCRIBE your players, and how different people are motivated by different things.  Some people might get very motivated by competition but that’s not fun for everybody.  That would actually be a turn off for other people.

Kevin: Absolutely.  Again, we’re all very complicated creatures so there is hardly anyone who’s never motivated by competition.  There’s hardly anyone who’s always motivated by competition.  As an aside, gamification is about learning from game designers but game designers themselves make these mistakes all the time.

For example, one of the most successful games of all time was the SIMS.  Lots of companies and game designers looked at the SIMS and said, “This will never work.  There’s no objective.  There’s no competition.  You don’t win.  You just hang out with friends and decorate your house and chat with people and stuff.”  It turned out that, no, actually people love socializing.  They love showing off their things that they built and so forth and that was incredibly powerful.

So, even game designers miss this sometimes.  Yes, competition is a powerful thing.  It’s a very powerful thing at work but you want it to be healthy competition.  You want it to be a competition where people still feel like they’re part of a team and don’t feel like this is a situation where they have to win and everyone else loses.

Again, that goes back up again to the first one about business objectives.  Typically, as a manager your goal is not to find the one uber-employee because you’re dependent upon the team working together.  If there are people who are at the bottom who maybe should be doing something else or maybe need some re-training or some help to achieve their potential, the competition can help do that.  But you do not want this kind of Glengarry Glenn Ross situation where the lesson people take away is it’s all about the competition.  It becomes really powerfully demotivating to a lot of people who actually could be great, valuable contributors if you exploited the other kinds of motivations that they have.

Jesse: In your fifth step, DON’T forget the fun, you talk about how there are several different types of fun that appeal to different people or different points in time.  Can you give us few examples of what types of fun might be relevant to gamification?

Kevin: Fun is this great word because people typically have never thought about what is fun.  What makes something fun?  They usually say, “Sure.  Fun is something that was fun,” or they will say something like, “Fun is lying in a hammock without a care in the world,” and so forth.  I’m like, yes, that’s fun but that is also boring at some point.

If you ask people to describe the things that they have found fun, more often than not, they’ll describe things that are challenging, or they’ll describe things that involve socializing and interacting with other people.  There are researchers who studied games and talked about different categories of fun and there are several different versions of this. But basically there were categories of fun that are about to challenge.  What’s fun is having a hard challenge.  Why do people solve crossword puzzles?  Millions of people do the New York Times crossword puzzles.  No one pays them.  They don’t do it because it’s easy.  They do it because it’s hard.

To paraphrase actually a line from John F. Kennedy speech about the moon landing, “It’s the challenge.”  Sometimes, again, it’s about socializing; sometimes it’s about explorations.  Trying to put yourself in a different situation.  It’s part of what people love about games.  Now, you can be a knight that’s going through a dungeon or now you can be Mario or whatever it is; trying on a different masks, different kinds of roles and characters.  Games let us do that and that’s something else that people find fun on a different dimension.

So, again, there are lots of different ways to look at this and no game and no gamified system will be equally fun in every way.  You have to make choices and trade-offs.  But a good system will either be hyper focused on the right kind of fun for the task.  Again, if your system is one where, the classic kind of sales environment, we really just care about performance; you got a group of people who are used to competing, competing hard and play to that, then you might want to focus on a more achievement-oriented kind of fun.

But if what you’re trying to do for example is promote innovation, get people to feel comfortable all throughout the organization, coming up with great, new ideas outside the box or new products or new innovations, then you probably don’t want that kind of cut-throat kind of fun.  Then, you want the more collaborative kind of fun.

Jesse: Kevin, if a business leader wants to move forward with gamification, what are the basic options for doing that?

Kevin: There is a variety of technology platforms.  There’s a number of companies like Badgeville, Punchbowl, Gigya, IActionable and others that make gamified platforms where if you want a white label software system that will manage all the analytics and give you the various game mechanics, you can go and use one of those systems.

There are also some that are focused on the enterprise.  There is one called which is now part of that’s an employee recognition system that’s based around gamification.  They have a variety of competitors, as well.  So, you go ahead and start looking, there are now literally dozens of company that offer gamified solutions.

Also many of the major consulting firms including specialized consulting firms in areas like employee engagement and recognition and sales had gamification solutions up to the big major consulting firms like PWC and Accenture, Club Gemini are now developing gamification practices.  But you don’t necessarily do all those things.

If you spend some time studying game design, the book that I wrote, For the Win is designed to be a brief introduction has links to a variety of other resources.  My online course on Coursera which is free to anyone, it’s running now but there’ll be another session probably in the fall, are designed to give some basic frameworks.

But doing gamification, if you take those six steps I gave you and think about how to apply them in your own context, you can do a lot without necessarily buying a bunch of expensive technology.  It really depends on the nature of the project you have and the nature of the organization you work, what kind of resources you have and what kind of scale are you talking about.

Jesse: So, if I get to sort of say that back to you, first of all you might want to think about are you going to go a technology-based approach or non-technology based or a hybrid of the two.  Then you might want to think about are you going to buy something or are you going to build something and you need somebody to help you do that.

If you are going to buy, you can look at platform software solutions such as Badgeville or packet solutions for vertical markets like KEAS that you mentioned earlier.  Then, there is a total custom programmers out there that would help you with the technology based solutions, as well.

Kevin: Absolutely.  It’s similar to if you ask me a question about how to do social media in the enterprise.  There is no one answer.  I can give you everything from some very sophisticated systems down to just have a guy open a Twitter account for your business.  All those would potentially be the right answer depending on your situation.

Jesse: Kevin, where can people find out more about you and your work?

Kevin: As I said, I teach a class on Coursera, which is one of the massive open online course platforms on gamification.  You can register to be notified when the next session is available.  If you go to Coursera which is C-O-U-R-S-E-R-A dot org then you look for the gamification course.  I also have a website at that collects a bunch of the work I do.  Again, my book “For the Win” which is available both in paperback and also all the e-book formats online.  It’s a digital first book so all the online sites,  Amazon, Barnes and Noble and so forth will have it, is again a good starting place for understanding this different ideas and how to find ways to go deeper into them.

Jesse: Kevin Werbach, co-author of For the Win:  How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business.  Thank you for joining us on “Game Changer.”

Kevin: Thanks so much.  One thing that I would say to find me is my Twitter handle is @kwerb, so follow me there.  Thanks so much, Jesse.

Link to podcast episode:  6 Steps to Effective Gamification | with Kevin Werbach