We’re back! In this post we are going to cover 4 more game mechanics in gamified applications. We will break down Story, Feedback, HP/Stamina, and Challenges. Once again, we’ll give examples of how these mechanics work, what makes them effective, and either an example of how we have used them to help clients achieve their project goals, or a brainstorm of a potential use case.
As the gamification mechanics that we are talking about today will be analysed with the SDT (Self Determination Theory) framework, we’ll cover some key concepts in this quick review.
SDT has a focus on three psychological needs and explains how the fulfillment of those needs can impact personal motivation. An increase in the fulfillment of these needs will help move an activity from being externally motivated to internally motivated. External motivation is where a person performs an activity due to pressures from outside themselves, and internal motivation is when a person performs an activity because they enjoy it or find value in doing that action.
Competence is a person’s need to feel like they have the ability to do well at the activity they are engaged in.
Autonomy is a person’s need to feel like they have a choice in what they do and that the choice matters.
Relatedness is a person’s need to feel like they are a part of a community and that they contribute to the group.
With a quick review of Self Determination Theory under our belt, let’s break down some common gamification mechanics.
How is the story a gamification mechanic?
Stories as a gamification mechanic is when a designer will add a storyline that progresses along with the user. This could be classified as a progression system, but has the added benefit of tapping into the innate draw stories have over us.
A story system doesn’t have to be directly told to the user. You can also have a significantly deep story that is initially hidden from the player. An example of this kind of storytelling would be in the Myst or the Dark Souls Series. Within Dark Souls, the majority of the story of the world is told through item descriptions and optional character dialog. There isn’t any narration to the player, except through the opening cutscene which sets the world and the player’s goal. The purpose of the story in Dark Souls is to provide a deep mystery that is an optional bonus for any player who chose to explore it.
A more classic example of a story based system would be a point and click adventure such as Space Quest or King’s Quest. These games use story to give direction to players as well as being a draw for players to enjoy.
There is a third kind of story as mechanic as well — it’s collaborative storytelling, which can be found in tabletop RPGs and Improv. With a tabletop RPGs, players usually bring their own characters and choose how to interact with different situations. Players may help particular characters, who then in turn returns the favor later in the story. Alternatively, they may have fought and defeated that character leading to an entirely different story playing out.
Effectiveness of stories in gamification
Depending on the implementation of your story system, it can provide additional value. As a baseline, humans are natural storytellers, and we are drawn to stories. A well written and enthralling story has proven to be some of the most engaging media ever. As a caveat, any story in a game also carry the same risks as stories used in any setting, but let’s dive into what the mechanical benefits there are. A good story often engages people by being unpredictable, covers relationships between characters, have clear goals with failures and successes. There is a reason people still read and write stories in the digital era. By being a naturally compelling part of our history, people find stories to be enjoyable to follow along with.
If you go towards the hidden story approach, the user can explore and find bits of story they string together over time. From there, you get to piggyback on the existing benefits of the rewards as a mechanic, where the addition of rewards that build on top of each other reinforce the value of other pieces. By having your rewards provide worldbuilding and an engaging story, it makes them more attractive for users to follow. With this kind of mechanic, your world building and story doesn’t have to be real time. For example, a player could be collecting journals of an explorer as they follow them along, or discover snippets of lore about why the world has the names and buildings it does.
A collaborative story can be incredibly engaging, which will create a story that people will share in the future. The benefits from this method are an increased sense of competence, relatedness and autonomy by the user. Users who are engaged in an ongoing story where choices matter and impact future events and characters in the story hits a home run for each component of SDT theory. Relatedness comes from the shared storytelling and being able to help their fellow players. When players are able to make choices that leave an impact on the world they feel a real sense of Autonomy. Competency can depend on the Game Master or central storyteller and how an action is resolved. For example, if a player wants to jump over a river how do you determine the result? Some games use dice, but you could also use any number of skills or knowledge checks.
Lastly, a storyline to follow can provide users with a sense of relatedness. If players are engaged in your story, then you get the motivational benefits of rewards as continuing the story becomes reward for users every time they do an action that allows them to experience more of the world.
How stories are used in an educational game
Dialect is a card game designed by Kathryn Hymes and Hakkan Seyalioglu. The goal of the game is to explore creating a language in isolation and what it means for that language to then be lost. It is an excellent example of using storytelling as a gamification mechanic to teach the players about what it really means to lose a language. The game starts with setting a reason for the players to be isolated from the rest of the world. Players then create new words depending on a prompt card and some aspect of their isolation. Throughout the course of the game players will develop their own dialect, which will essentially die at the end of the session. It shows what can be lost when a language goes extinct.
What is feedback?
The feedback system is how you present to the user what impact their actions have within your application. The implementation of a feedback systems work has a huge impact on how any other game mechanics affect your users. This is because the way in which you set your feedback will determine how the user understands their actions. As we are pulling mechanics from games we are looking at how games will display feedback.
For feedback systems, the scale of importance of the feedback is important. Has the user accomplished a goal that would take some time and dedication, or did they make a common action that would increase their points? On the other hand, too frequent feedback can turn an intended reward into an annoyance in some cases.
How does feedback motivate users?
Feedback is one of the most important considerations when you are working at gamifying an application. Why? Because without users having any point of reference, on their actions, they will be robbed of the chance of engaging with your mechanics.
Imagine you are playing a Mario-like game and you jump on what looks to be a new enemy. They flash green, so what does that mean? Did you hit the enemy? Are they invulnerable? Did they heal? Is there a weak point you need to hit that isn’t indicated? From this example do you want to play this game? Would it matter that later on it has some amazing set pieces you get to experience if the gameplay keeps prompting confusion like that? I know I wouldn’t play that game because I can’t tell what’s happening. My actions don’t seem to matter, and I can’t tell if I am doing better or worse.
How feedback promotes engagement
Let’s take a look at how the use of an effective feedback system helped researchers to develop a game that led to multiple scientific breakthroughs in biochemistry. Foldit was designed as a puzzle game where players try to fold protein structures as small as possible. Their score is updated in real time, so when they move parts of the protein their score will either go up or down. The choice to have a real time feedback system like that gives players the tool to understand what how they are progressing towards a solution. Afterwards, players would have their solutions evaluated in the game and the highest scoring solutions would be tested by researchers to determine if the proposed protieve fold was a native state. They also have two different leaderboards which organize people into two different groups. Soloists and Evolvers, who either develop their own solutions or improve upon others. Giving users feedback in this distinction between play modes gives users a categorization to follow, and promotes both methods of play. As such, the Foldit project has been running since 2008, and has formed 21 scientific papers.
What is a HP/Stamina system?
An HP/Stamina system is one where you are looking to restrict user actions that will return over time. The most common example would be an energy system where users take actions that have a cost of energy. The goal of this mechanism is to have users use your app on a daily basis without using it for a long period of time each day. This kind of mechanic requires specific intent to use effectively. When designed poorly, these systems can reduce user enjoyment if they want to use the app for a long time. To mitigate this risk and promote more daily user activity, you can look at introducing daily rewards.
Effectiveness of HP/Stamina
So HP/Stamina mechanics are designed to limit the amount users can play your game. Why can it be an effective mechanic for gamification? Let’s break down the different benefits for limiting user actions.
Use of a HP/Stamina system in Habit Trackers
There are lots of different habit trackers out there, but they all tend to use a hidden stamina system. When forming habits, an important principle is that each day at max you can complete your daily goal once. A famous example of daily habit tracking effective comes from Benjamin Franklin. He sought to improve himself in 13 different virtues. Everyday, he would mark on a grid if he met his goal for each virtue. Over time, while he would fail in some virtues, he had fewer instances of failure and improved overall. The restriction of only completing or failing a habit once per day is what makes tracking impactful. If you had multiple chances at failing to meet your goal each day, it wouldn’t help you build a habit. Scientific research shows that you need at least 18 days of working at a habit to truly develop it. Hence, if these tracking principles are used in the design of a stamina or HP system, a gamified app can help users develop a daily habit gradually.
What are challenges?
Challenges can be similar to achievements, but can provide a greater degree of signposting. Quests in games such as World of Warcraft are an excellent example of a challenge. Giving the player several different tasks gives the player separate goals and the ability to choose how they go about completing the tasks. You can also lean challenges into being a more difficult option for players to strive for. These can be having users use less resources, or restrict some of their actions to provide a more interesting experience.
How challenges adds value in gamification
In gamification, challenges are a great way to provide scaffolding for your users to make progress towards an overarching goal. By making a challenge multi-part, you not only provide an end-goal like an achievement, but you also direct the player on how to achieve the goal. An example of what this looks like is a quest in a roleplaying game, where the player has to go to meet with a hunter, then talk with a herbalist, then defeat a griffin. If this resulted in just a single achievement, this could lead to players attempting to fight a powerful griffin while being underprepared. By making it a quest (series of challenges), players get directed to characters and shops that will help them prepare for the big fight. While you could have made each step separate achievements, you would end up with a massive list of achievements. Setting challenges as a multi-step quest provides an excellent form of signposting and can be combined with rewards and achievements to provide users with great guidance and goals for them to follow.
Challenges can also be used to show players how they can increase the difficulty level so that they can remain in a flow state. An example in the same roleplaying game setting would be to pass a level without harming an enemy or to beat a level entirely in stealth. The best designed versions of this are where users have a large variety of tools to use to accomplish this challenge, and the level is designed in a way where all the tools are not required.
You can also have specific challenge levels or areas that more experienced players can engage with if they want a more difficult challenge. Depending on the number of these more difficult options you have, it may be more effective to have achievements for beating one, half, and all challenge areas then an achievement for each.
Challenges in a gamified engagement
For this example, we are going to look at how Gleam.io uses challenges to improve social media engagements. When you enter a Gleam.io sweepstake, you are presented with a list of challenges you can do for additional tickets into the sweepstakes. As the user’s goal is to maximize their chances in a given sweepstakes, the list of challenges gives users a direct strategy to increase their odds. While none of these tasks are difficult, they follow into more of a quest style of challenges as described earlier.
When each challenge be clearly identified as to what needs to be done, users get a direct sense of what their task is and how to finish it. The Gleam.io feedback system provides users a clear indication when they have completed each task. With this quest-like structure, it’s no wonder that with over a million contests they’ve had over 3.5 billion entries. For scale that means for every contest, they had roughly 3,000 interactions which bolstered the hosts social media coverage across all platforms.
I hope that you have found this series informative on using different mechanics in gamification. It’s been a fun exercise writing out why each different mechanic can be useful in gamification. There are many other mechanics that don’t have as much research behind them, but would be fun to speculate on their effectiveness. If you’d like to read such blog posts let us know by leaving a comment!
Review of several studies about gamification in the wellbeing space.
Johnson, Daniel & Deterding, Sebastian & Kuhn, Kerri-Ann & Staneva, Aleksandra & Stoyanov, Stoyan & Hides, Leanne. (2016). Gamification for Health and Wellbeing:A Systematic Review of the Literature. Internet Interventions. 6. 89-106. 10.1016/j.invent.2016.10.002.
Self Determination Resource
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2021). Self Determination Theory. Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/
Benjamin Franklin virtuous