Gaming to Engage

Remember when gamification was the technique du jour a decade ago? The software industry pounced on the idea that game mechanics—known to trigger the dopamine releases that keep users coming back for more—could be applied to anything to encourage more engagement and usage. This meant badge systems for recognition; faux experience points and “levels” that created a sense of task progression; cosmetic customizations to the interface or avatars. When done well, they’re systems that nudge users softly in their designed directions, incentive structures that add to the stickiness of the product by manipulating human psychology.

Well, you don’t hear about gamification as much anymore…because it’s now just a core part of products. Job sites display progress bars to encourage users to fill out their profiles. Health trackers feature levels and points and graphs and badges to dress up exercise goals and as rewards for achieving them. Chat apps and social media services let their users dress up their avatars and show off special pieces of flair—and some are more than happy to sell these digital accessories via microtransactions1.

But now that everyone has already integrated gaming elements into their products, it takes something else to stand out—and a growing strategy seems to be to just build full games into the service. The goal seems less to be about encouraging users to explore a platform and make use of esoteric feature sets; instead, it’s just a way to keep users around, to give them a reason to log in and come back every day.

New York Times pioneered this model, building from their popular daily crosswords into a full games subscription product; they even acquired Wordle to bolster their games collection and supercharge this strategy. Meanwhile, Netflix has been steadily adding games to their subscription service, licensing popular mobile titles in a bid to keep subscriber counts even as they raise prices2. Now, LinkedIn is giving it a shot by adding NYT-esque casual games on the social network, to keep their users entertained for the times when overwrought professional lunacy no longer suffice.

I suspect that this trend is coming about in part because gamification techniques are so common that they are no longer effective. Users eventually got used to seeing all the random badges dispensed by every app and service they signed up for, and concluded that meaningless awards were, in fact, meaningless. It didn’t help that these systems were grafted onto usually mundane activities; the incentivized actions weren’t intrinsically fun.

So the solution is to feature actual games, with reliable gameplay that hooks users and keeps them coming back. For now, the easiest way to test this strategy is to push them into the same container as the primary app, as separate value additions to the subscription, but ultimately commodities. The next generation of games-as-retention would tie games more directly to their host platform; Netflix tried this with its Stranger Things and Queen’s Gambit gaming tie-ins—the updated SaaS version of movie tie-in games, that are ideally good enough to stand on their own as games, but also builds affinity for its associated service.

  1. Remember when people, particularly gamers, were outraged by that monetization development?

  2. Their efforts are still in their early stages, though, reminiscent of the first days of the Amazon Prime Video service.

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