Pokémon What? – Using Game Design Theory to Get More of What You Want


Gamification is not just about making life fun, it’s about using our intrinsic reward system to make long lasting change. Now imagine for a moment that you had the power to change the way people behave, what would be the first thing you would change? Getting people to really act on climate change, motivating people to eliminate hatred in the world, or maybe you would like to see people out and engaging with society. It may surprise you that a company whose focus has historically been to encourage people to stay at home and play video games has just created a worldwide phenomenon motivating people to go out and interact with the world in the hope of catching make believe characters (I am going to be in so much trouble when my son finds out I said this), called Pokémon. More importantly how can you and I use apply game design techniques (Gamification) to change behaviours within the workplace, at home or in our daily interactions within our community?

Pokémon What?

SepArt1The Pokémon Go phenomenon has infiltrated nearly every corner of the globe. This game requires the player to catch characters like Pikachu, Lickitung and Jigglypuff by flicking virtual Pokéballs at them. Sounds easy right? The catch is that these Pokémon are in parks, at monuments and even in churches. In fact the more people around hunting Pokémon, the more Pokémon there will be. Players are also rewarded with eggs that can hatch into legendary Pokémon like Mewtwo or other cool stuff. However to hatch these eggs players need to walk either 2km, 5km or 10 km. This free game is actually motivating your Vitamin D deprived children to go out and interact with the world.

How it is that Pokémon Go has been able to motivate people to change behaviours so quickly? To answer this we need to understand how Game Design Theory uses our biological desires to succeed.

Game Design Theory

Good game designers understand our biology in particular our in-built rewards system. This system refers to a group of structures that are activated by a rewarding stimuli. In these circumstances the brain responds by increasing the release of the neurotransmitter Dopamine. This complex neurotransmitter, controls our responses to natural rewards, such as food, sex, and social interactions. However it’s even more subtle in that we get a Dopamine hit not only when we reach a goal, but also when we make progress towards that goal. In simplistic terms, activation of the reward system says to your brain to replicate the action again. It also stimulates you to pay particular attention to all features of that rewarding experience, so it can be repeated in the future.  The reward system is an important determinant in motivation.

SepArt2The concept of using games to help change behaviours is not a new one. Spelling bees at school, frequent flyer programs, and loyalty cards are just a few examples of how Game Design Theory has been used to engage the player in achieving goals. However the concept of Gamification to engage and motivate people to achieve goals, is now being used in everything from enhancing workplace performance to changing societies driving habits. In Sweden they installed a speeding camera in a school zone with a twist, everyone would be photographed. However, those who did not exceed the speed limit would go into a lottery to win a portion of the fines collected from those who were speeding. During a three day period over 25,000 cars were captured. Before the Speed Camera Lottery the average speed was 32km/hr, after just three days the average speed dropped to 25km/hr. In three days human behaviours changed. What the Swedish National Society for Road Safety team did was tap into our reward system by gamifying the driver’s experience.

In the Speed Camera Lottery, drivers have the potential to stimulate their rewards centres through an extrinsic reward. This type of reward is something tangible given to you. In this circumstance drivers who do not speed receive a ticket in the lottery with the hope of winning money. However, drivers also receive a Dopamine hit for being a good citizen and obeying the speed limit. This type of reward is an intrinsic reward, recognising a sense of achievement or a conscious satisfaction. As Daniel Pink has identified, intrinsic rewards have a stronger influence on changing behaviours than any monetary (extrinsic) reward would have across the longer term.

What these game designers have done with traffic safety and in Pokémon Go, is to Gamify “players” experience leveraging off our biological drivers to move towards a goal or accomplishment. They are using intrinsic rewards to change behaviour (oh and to make money of course).

How does Gamification apply to the workplace?

Gamification in the workplace

SepArt3A few years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who had started a new job where on the most part everyone got along well with each other. However, there was one person in particular that, because of their personality type, had excluded themselves from group interaction. Not only had this person created physical barriers between them and other team members, they had also created behavioural barriers through their communication approach and general demeanour towards colleagues. Let’s just say that some bridges had been burnt over the years. As she needed to work closely with this person she decided to invest some time and energy into setting up a healthy and productive working relationship. So she set herself a challenge and gamified her experience.

What she was trying to do was set up behavioural expectations that she felt were appropriate within the workplace. She did this by leveraging off the biological and psychological factors that both Dean and Brian have touched on in other articles like Making Friends When You Don’t Want To and How to Talk to Teenagers and Other Life Forms. In particular she focussed on:

  • Status is a position or rank held in relation to others. In fact human beings transact status constantly as an integral part of how we communicate with each other. We do this via our voice and body language, and a large part of this communication is being carried on subliminally, that is, below our conscious awareness. In this situation rather than trying to take status from him, she would concede status though the recognition of his expertise and offering assistance. When we are trying to get what we want we are usually better off conceding status. An example of where I have had some success is with my teenage son. I would often find myself yelling at him about why he hadn’t taken out the rubbish again, to which he would respond accordingly. This never got me what I wanted as I was taking status from him. I found that it was better for me to go into his room and quietly discuss why it was important to have the rubbish taken out. This was me giving him status and in turn getting more of what I wanted.
  • Relatedness is our need to have a connection with others. To be understood and related to on a personal level. She did this by identifying things he was passionate about. Topics that interested him and even the frustrations he felt in the organisation. Then she found ways to relate to these things in conversations and through stories. What this did was to connect on a personal level. We will often see this in action at a BBQ or party where someone mentions how they love the Cowboys and on the most part, everyone in North Queensland can relate. However if the same person was to mention that they are a Manly fan they could be immediately banished from the conversation. As a Manly support I know this pain too well.
  • Quality interaction is about the amount of time and frequency invested along with the value of the conversation. This is not just about common courtesies like good morning and hello, but more about the quality of each interaction. She would take the opportunity to meet with him regularly and ensure that where possible the conversations were not just transactionally based. For example she would ask questions designed to get into the detail of the work, the biggest issues facing the business, or how his son’s first ballet recital went. Her approach was to ask more thought providing questions designed to enhance the quality of the interaction. Much like we do at the start of a romantic relationship when we want to get know everything about the other person.

Using these three concepts, she developed a set of mini goals and every time she achieved one she would recognise her success. Some of her mini goals included:

  • He would say hello and good morning to her without being prompted to.
  • She would be allowed into the inner sanctum (his cubical) when having conversations with him.
  • She would receive personalised emails.
  • Others in the team would recognise changes in his behaviours.

SepArt4Through the use of Game Design Theory, she was not only able to develop a productive relationship, but for every step she took towards this goal she was rewarded in doing so. Why was this important? Because it not only meant that she could get what she needed, respect and cooperation, but the workplace would be a happier and less stressfully place to be. However her biggest successes were a sense of achievement and feelings of accomplishment, all of which are intrinsic rewards.

Gamification is not just about making life fun, it’s about using someone’s intrinsic reward system to your advantage. Whether it be getting your habitually late staff member to arrive on time, or ensuring that your local Zamberros Burrito maker is happy to see you, gamification can help you get more of what you want with less effort.

Share with us what you have done to Gamify your workplace, employees or personal life.

For more information on how you can use Gamification within your workplace contact us at consultancy@tphumancapital.com.au, or join us at our next HR Breakfast – How to Gamify human relationships on Thursday 22 September 2016.

Click here to view the top 10 Gamification examples or Here of a great Infographic.