Gamification for Business Apps: Improving Engagement With Fun and Competition

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Mark Dabbs

31 May 2018 - 7 min read

Gamification for business apps started becoming popular around 2013.  But, gamification has been around a lot longer.  America’s Army is one of the most popular and successful examples of gamification. It was released in 2002 as a full-blown game and recruitment tool by the US Army.  That’s pretty serious business.

Before America’s Army, the US Marines, under General Charles Krulak, authorized the use of wargames for improving “Military Thinking and Decision Making Exercises.”  One of those games was Doom, which was modified into the much scarier “Marine Doom” – all back in 1996, before smartphones, iPads and wifi connections.

Obviously, vast differences exist between what the Marines and us civilian-folk deem safe for work.

What is Gamification?

Gamification for business apps is a marketing technique that uses game design and gaming psychology to encourage audience engagement by emulating a game-like environment.  The technique that works well with mobile apps. It doesn’t mean that you turn your app into a game.

Why use games?  People like them! Mobile games like Game of War and Candy Crush Saga generate 6-7 digit revenues monthly.  Zynga made over $1 billion on its first version of Farmville. This popularity alone warrants understanding more of what goes into games to make business apps more interesting, fun to use and potentially much more profitable.

Creating Win-Win Scenarios

Everyone likes Winning.  The starting point of any effective gamification effort requires creating Win-Win scenarios for your audience and your business.  The audience for gamified business apps typically includes students, customers or employees. The first step of gamification involves understanding what motivates them and how that can be advantageous for your business goals.

With so many genres and types of games, like first-person shooters, strategy games, puzzle games and dress-up games, you need to choose a theme that:

  1. Fits the motivations and goals of your audience
  2. Correlates to your business goals
  3. Matches your brand and tone

Playing a game might be easy.  Designing one or applying the motivational techniques of games to encourage user engagement with a business app? That’s much more complex.

Gaming Psychology and Bartle’s Player Types

Understanding your audience’s motivations plays a major part in how to gamify your app.  This also means understanding that different people like different types of games. Also, people play particular games for very different reasons.  These points get to the heart of why people spend their time and money on games. Why not use gamification to get people to spend time and money on your app?

This brings us to the Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types.  It explains what different players want from games according to four major archetypes (Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers).  Bartle isn’t the only way to do this. The 16 personalities of the Myers-Briggs test could also be used. There’s also the Predictive Index (PI), Adaptive Resilience Factor Inventory, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso El test, and Traitify.

The video below explains the origins, development and major factors of Bartle’s Player Types.

If you don’t have the time to watch the video, these very brief Bartle descriptions may provide some ideas of how your app can be gamified.

  • Achievers like to beat the game.  They love getting the highest score on a leaderboard or being recognized for mastering everything your app has to offer.
  • Explorers pride themselves on discovering everything about an app, trying out complex features, finding bugs and easter eggs.
  • Socializers play games as a way to have fun, meet others and make friends.  Quite often, they like to help others with tasks and can be great community builders.
  • Killers thrive on action and competition in ways not suited to most business apps.    Many games often have rules in place to deter the negative aspects of this archetype or set aside environments specifically for them (player vs. player).

Game Design…

Once you decide on the game theme for your app and how it will appeal to your audience, you start working out details.  Game design encompasses everything – rules, victory conditions, storyline and all of the pieces like dice, cards or game board needed for play.  Fortunately, with mobile apps, all of the pieces are digital (no need for dice pouches).

While gamifying a business app may be a lot easier than creating a mobile game, you still want it to make sense and fit your business and brand.  While still serious business, you also have an opportunity for some fun and to exercise your creative muscles.

Unleashes Creativity for Your Business App

Now’s a good time to look at some of the pieces your audience will enjoy!  We’ll start with a list of items that your app can include so users will love your app – and use it continuously.

  • The Players – The person using your app is the Star of the Show, the Hero or Heroine.
  • The Moderator – You are the moderator.  You decide and narrate the process and outcomes of all player interactions with your app and its personas.
  • The Storyline – You get to write the plotline and flesh out the whole “world” of your app.
  • Personas – Better known as Non-Player Characters (NPC’s), a good example would be a theme-appropriate caricature of a customer service representative.
  • Interactions – Use of visual indicators and narratives to help guide users in their app discovery process instead of bland instructions.
  • Experience Points and Levels – Players receive frequent small rewards in experience points as they complete small tasks.  As they gain experience points, they earn ranks or levels (a form of recognition). In turn, levels bring additional rewards in the form of new abilities or access to more app features or unlocks.
  • Awards, Badges, and Titles – Rewards for special achievements.  A special achievement could mean using a certain feature 5, 50 or even 50,000 times or logging into your app over 3, 30 or 300 consecutive days, or making use of every feature in your app.
  • Leaderboards – A way to offer recognition to players with the highest scores, suitable if you can find a competitive element for your app.
  • Avatars and Customization Options – Many games make character or avatar creation an elaborate affair and let players add extra details as they advance.  People love this!

Continuous Rewards

Big Tip! According to Sid Meier, it’s almost impossible to reward new users frequently enough during their first fifteen minutes of gameplay.  Sid Meier created an entire pantheon of successful games, including Civilization (I-VI).

Gamification efforts can be as simple or complex as you desire.  It is easy to get carried away with it. The best advice is to stick to a Minimum Viable Product in the gamification effort.  Start with the essentials of what fits the motivations of your audience, your business goals, brand and tone.

Gamification for Business Apps – UI and UX Design

User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design are essential elements of successful mobile applications and mobile games.  Designing beautiful User Interfaces that deliver an awesome User Experience is at the heart of our company. An entire section of our blog is devoted to Design, including a comprehensive UX checklist.

Many of the elements of successful UI/UX design are essential to good game design – and the gamification of business apps.  Even if you are not interested in exploring gaming psychology, user personas factors very heavily into UI/UX design and use cases.

Why will someone use your app?  What functions will they use most?  Is it clear how to access or perform each function?  How can you reduce their most used functions to the minimum number of taps, swipes and other interactions?  What should happen when transitioning from one screen to the next?

All of these questions and many more are vital to designing an app that people love to use. Gamification is a way to take everything to the next level.  Many people are more passionate about their entertainment than they are about anything else.

While we’ve covered a lot of ground about gamification for business apps, but there’s one more major topic to cover…

In-App and Virtual Currencies

Many freemium apps make enormous amounts of real money selling virtual currencies.  These currencies can be used within the app’s native storefront to buy virtual products, sometimes real products and services.  This is a complex issue, as it requires defining if and how in-app currencies are different from various cryptocurrencies like BitCoin and Etherium.  There are also legal and regulatory issues to address. Our recent blog article on virtual currencies looks at all of these issues and more.


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