Fun Is Not the Holy Grail of Engagement

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Gabe Zichermann’s article Top 5 Ways to Make Your Site More Fun. Hallelujah! I am very excited to see more people finally connecting the dots between successful interactive entertainment software (video game) design and effective engagement design in software and websites for business. This is the kind of stuff I preach to clients, colleagues, and my (polite but bored) boyfriend on a regular basis.

Game Design for Business Apps

Game-inspired engagement and motivation techniques that seemed obvious to me 10+ years ago are now being recognized as useful tools for user experience design in all kinds of business applications. I’m sure many game designers feel some sense of “duh, we knew this already” but that’s why the development of business-friendly encapsulations of staple game design techniques ( like Zichermann’s Funware concept) are exciting.

Zichermann is doing a great service by framing discussions of rewards programs and social network sites in terms of how they use game mechanics effectively. He is distilling a lot of tremendously valuable information about what works in interactive software design to non-gamers and people outside of the somewhat myopic games industry.

People who design websites, business apps, marketing campaigns, and fundraising events can now learn why game mechanics get results.

But Is Fun the Point?

However, I do have a minor quibble with the focus on “fun” as a main reason to use game mechanics in your website or application. My objection here is pretty much an extension of one I have with game designers in general: the obsession with entertainment that only culminates in a warm, fuzzy feeling of achievement or at least a satisfying resolution (winning, saving the day, completing the so-called Hero’s Journey, finally saving up enough points to buy a virtual item you covet, etc.). The focus on fun alone is also why game design, as an artistic medium, has not yet produced a Schindler’s List (or even a Life Is Beautiful), though at least we got Train.In game design, it’s largely presumed that fun is a positive experience with nothing but good, productive stress, and many an overly-serious Game Design book has been written trying to explain how FUN is crafted. People think of games as the candy in our media diets, not the whole grains or the steak.

The problem with fun, is that successful, effective entertainment does not need to be fun. People can be deeply engaged, motivated and, ultimately, entertained by experiences and media that is down-right disturbing, sad, and leaves us with more questions than answers, more tension than resolution. Moreover, people can be entertained by games, media, and experiences that are patently dull, repetitive, and frustrating as hell (for example, the grind to get xp in your favorite MMOG… sure it has a pay-off at the end, but it isn’t always fun while you’re doing it).

Interesting to me is that even when people seem to understand the trend of pervasive gaming, gameification of everyday life, they still focus on the element of fun. As if life, work, and everything important in the world can or should be primarily fun. I suppose with rose-colored glasses on, everything might have fun potential, but realistically, I don’t think every experience does have the potential to be fun. The feeling goes double for a lot of the mundane transactional chores we do in marketplaces for goods and services.

Rather, I think the savvy marketer will employ game mechanics to promote engagement and motivate key behaviors, with fun regarded only in proportion to how the consumer feels about the product and exchange of value. Big-ticket purchases like airfare and hotel rooms are considered both expensive and interesting choices by consumers. Household staples like toothpaste and toilet paper… not so much. The gratification your market will get from the game marketing you employ will most likely be a function of how much interest or expense the customers already associated with your product (before they even play your advergame or participate in your rewards program).

Motivation for the Win

The holy grail of engagement design, game design included, is not fun. The holy grail is motivation. How do you make someone WANT to keep doing something? There are many ways, and game mechanics are some of the most tried-and-true techniques software designers have to keep end-users doing whatever it is you want them to do.

If you’re making a mainstream video game, then fun is important. If you’re designing a rewards program for the loyal users of Charmin toilet paper (in order to sell more TP), then what you really want from game mechanics is motivation that drives your measurable, performance marketing campaign. Fun and whimsy doesn’t come into it as much as you might think.

Besides, what do you think will happen to the “fun factor” when every damn thing you buy or use wants to make that experience into a game? Do I want points and levels every time I buy more toilet paper, or is that just adding another distracting layer of complication to my already complicated life? Think in terms of motivation and choose your game mechanics accordingly, rather than trying to “gamewash” everything in sight.

Gamewashing = More Work Than Fun

Apparently, I just coined the term gamewashing. And by gamewashing, I mean applying game mechanics to shoehorn gratuitous fun into utilitarian experiences nobody cares to enjoy. The net result is often that the game and meta-gaming adds more busy-work in its misguided quest to make something more fun.

Case in point: Chore Wars. I mean aren’t chores time consuming enough without adding a meta-game process that requires me to keep a log whenever I scrub the toilet or fold the laundry? I’m a hardcore achiever in games and getting XP for life work does sound tempting… but not if tracking and awarding the XP actually creates MORE work (though I am perverse enough to want to write a strategy guide for Chore Wars, you know… for people who want to put in the extra time to meta-game their Chore Wars group in order to get maximum XP for minimum actual work). The longer I dwell on it, the more I think Chore Wars is just a brilliant way for one person (perhaps the neatnik or parental type who fusses the most over chores) to motivate others to do more than they were doing previously. In which case, it’s more of a social exploit, or a persuasive marketing game that people can use to influence their family, roommates, or co-workers. Chore Wars is certainly not a game one plays for the personal satisfaction of playing, though it has loads of entertainment value as comedy fodder.

Challenge = Motivational, Not Fun

Ever played a game well past the point where it was actually still fun? You kept playing because fun is just a positive side effect of the deep engagement—the motivation—created by any game, or any experience (since this whole concept of engagement goes far beyond games). We keep doing stuff, even when it is not fun, because something motivates us. Sometimes the challenge of the game experience feels quite frustrating, but we persist because we are effectively motivated to beat the challenge. Thus, experiences of frustration rather than fun, can sometimes be a big part of why a game is effective at engagement and motivation. This reality runs counter to what you might expect (especially if you think successful games are 100% focused on fun).

Nobody will argue that Tetris is not a successful, effective game. But unless you’re a real glutton for punishment (or expert player), Tetris is simply not fun at the higher, fast-paced levels. It pisses me off. But it also makes me want to become a better Tetris player, so I keep trying. One can argue that a frustrating challenge is a type of fun, but when I’m tense and exhausted from getting soooo close to beating my high-score, only to fail yet again… fun is not the first “f” word that comes to mind. Sometimes good games are not fun 100% of the time. Sometimes good movies, books, and life itself are not fun 100% of the time. But they can still be engaging and entertaining despite the lack of wall-to-wall fun (especially in retrospect, where the real “assessment” of value is made by the participant).

So remember the most addictive (yet frustrating) game you’ve ever played again and again. Or, if you are not a gamer, remember the most challenging romantic relationship you’ve ever had (more than likely, there were plenty of times it was more “engaging” for you than “fun”). Sometimes we need to build engagement without cultivating fun (for example, if your website and community is about bereavement or bankruptcy… maybe fun is not quite the right experience to shoot for).

Game Mechanics Don’t Enhance Everything

And it’s also fair to note that the mere presence of game mechanics alone does not create fun.

Coke Rewards is a successful rewards program that offers enough value that I don’t mind saving the codes and asking my kids to enter them (they also get to claim the points). However, I would not describe the experience of participating in Coke Rewards as fun. Entering the codes is a chore. It’s a chore I am happy to delegate to kids who are still young enough to thrill at a free pop redemption, but it’s not a chore I would spend my own time on, regardless of the points system, sweepstakes, and many well-designed features. There is moderate motivation in the program (stronger if you are broke or a freebie/coupon hobbyist) but generally, it’s more work than reward. Coke sure gets a lot out of it though, in site engagement, page views (ad views), and collection of some market research data. It’s gameified, and effective, but I do not think most participants are having fun the majority of the time they are participating in the Coke Rewards program.

There are also many applications and experiences where you just can’t shoehorn a genuinely fun experience into them because the engagement and motivation is too directly task or outcome based for the user. In these cases, any active game mechanics are only getting in the user’s way. Passive game mechanics might be useful, but there is no such thing as an entirely passive game system (at some point, to even be experienced, the game system needs some amount of attention from the user, else it is invisible and not really experienced at all).

As Zichermann says in his article, Quicken doesn’t leave you feeling elated and I suspect it’s because most people would be pretty depressed if they realized using Quicken was a highlight in their day. Remember that little bastard Clippy who tried to add some fun and personality to MS Office apps? I know he was part of an elaborate help feature that was supposed to assist you with MS Office tasks, but most people just found him (and his other fun, cute cartoon friends) an annoying interruption that actually created more work (you had to click to make him go away).

Don’t add so much “fun” to your application that you get in the way of people trying to USE your website or application. Again, it’s really the motivation and engagement that you want, not necessarily the fun.

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4 thoughts on “Fun Is Not the Holy Grail of Engagement

  1. Hi Kelly:

    Super interesting response.

    A couple of days ago, at the New York Tech Meetup, I got to give a talk about Game-Based Marketing (my new book) – . At the outset of the discussion, I asked the ~700 folks in the room how many of them thought “playstation” vs “Foursquare” when I used the word “game”. The ratio was 10:1, as you might expect.

    The reason for asking the question was to illustrate the semantic evolution of the word “game”. In the space of a year, Foursquare (and its ilk) have redefined what game means to some people, and that effect shouldn’t be understated.

    Similarly, our notions of what’s fun (and its corollary – work) are in flux. Just because something doesn’t seem amenable to the addition of fun (and the game mechanics that power that emotion), doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. Whether it’s fitness (Wii Fit), learning/memory exercises (Brain Age), or even just checking in for a social network, I’m confident we won’t be drawing many of those hard and fast lines going forward.

    While you might be concerned that fun can interfere with the utility of an application or website, I urge you to consider this: what if fun is the principal utility of your website or application? It’s not an adjunct, but core – not a nice-to-have, but a requirement. Much as a frequent flyer program is essential to any airline, so too game mechanics are likely to become elemental in most industries.


    1. Gabe, yes I 100% agree that for some industries fun and game mechanics for “gameplay” will be required soon because customers will expect it. I think we are definitely on the same page there (and btw, I ordered your book Game-Based Marketing yesterday… should get it next Tuesday).

      I recently consulted and designed a Facebook game for a NYC fashion community site/blog called StyleHop. Their primary value to consumers is peer-generated, crowd-sourced fashion advice but they also have a strong b2b element because they were using casual games featuring real-world, currently available styles to solicit rankings and reviews from their mostly college-aged female audience. Their site is currently under construction (they were in public alpha for a long while though and have amassed 3 casual game titles, plus the one I designed for them). Their market is definitely the type where games can make a huge difference in engagement because retailers traditionally lose so much $ on mark-downs because they rely on buyers to forecast by gut instinct and past trends (a lot of styles just don’t sell or are in a greater demand than expected… either way everyone loses sales). StyleHop leverages social gaming to gather that kind of real-time, extremely hard (if not impossible) to gather consumer opinion + geographic info so that a retailer in Des Moines can check out what’s hot with local women versus what Miami women are buying, etc. Across the board, it was a smart use of game mechanics and fun gameplay for business.

      I think my concern comes in when I picture people jumping on the game bandwagon in odd ways that ultimately might damage their brands or add superfluous nuisances for their customers (who might not all be interested in or positively impressed by the addition of game systems). I see a lot of companies floundering trying to tackle social marketing with transparency and a genuine voice, trying to join conversations instead of just spamming their sales pitch, and I can imagine that without a lot of careful consideration on the part of marketers, game mechanics will soon become one of those things companies just “want to get into” and don’t really understand why or how (having been active in Second Life for 6 years, I’ve seen some pretty half-ass marketing builds that you know started with “hey Steve, there’s this new virtual world thingy. I don’t get it, but we should be there!”). There is some tact and common sense involved (like obviously nobody wants points and leaderboards at a funeral home), but also a solid understanding is needed of WHAT you want people to do (the business value of adding the game mechanics) and which mechanics will get results.

      The biggest risk for most businesses getting into funware is probably overdoing it or making extra work/a chore for their customers who do not want to participate in the game elements. Something like Foursquare was designed from the ground up to appeal to a certain playful demographic but there are tons of existing businesses that will literally be tacking on the game mechanics, just like the added a rewards program or new marketing campaign or a casual web game. Game mechanics work better when they are implemented as core features, but realistically, most businesses are going to retrofitting and hopefully will be careful how they go about it. My Charmin TP example was dumb but I can honestly see well-meaning marketers trying to shoehorn games into all kinds of experiences that are so trivial to consumers that the gameification is really going to be annoying more than engaging. It’s kind of like the reward program at my local supermarket. The reward is gas discount points and I don’t own a gas-guzzler myself so it doesn’t benefit me in any way. This makes me feel a) left out (I shop but get nothing from the reward program) and b) annoyed because they ask me for my card and try to sell me a card every single time I shop there. For many users, a gameified online experience that pops out of the blue will feel that way: this isn’t for me, I don’t like/get this, why is this in the way of what I wanted to do here (even if it’s not literally in the way, as the rewards cards at my supermarket literally didn’t prevent me from shopping).

      I guess my response is more of a “cautionary addendum” than really a contradiction to your major points, Gabe. 😀

      1. Kelly – awesome! I know David Reinke @ Stylehop quite well – I’m excited that you worked on the site. Should we do a case study? Drop me a line via twitter (@gzicherm) or on my email (twitter id at gmail) and let’s chat some more!

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