person's hands holding a gold trophy aloft
PHOTO: Fauzan Saari

Social gamification may help prod people to engage in your community or collaborative effort, but can it actually help build a sense of community?

This is an urgent question to ask. It’s urgent because today’s largest social media platforms are under scrutiny for being purposely addictive and playing on people’s deep emotional needs to be seen and validated. So at the heart of what makes these platforms so addictive to the common user are the gamification elements they employ. 

But it’s not just the social media giants that should be concerned — anyone who uses a community platform needs to pay attention too.

What Is Gamification?

The basic definition of gamification is the use of the elements of games (like badges, avatars, leaderboards, etc.) in non-gaming environments. Gamification is used in many contexts, from education to work productivity. Here, I want to talk specifically about social gamification. That is, the features that reward users for interacting with one another and making contributions to a  community’s purpose.

The problem is, our understanding of how social gamification works in communities is limited even though deployment of social gamification in communities is widespread. We know that social gamification can cause problems; we’re still not doing anything about them.

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Does Gamification Work?

The funny thing is, for the most part, social gamification is not even driving the business results we need. According to 2017 research from The Community Roundtable, 21 percent of their community manager respondents’ platforms included some gamification elements. But in their words, “gamification integrations are becoming more common on community platforms, although their impact on engagement is still less clear.”

When social gamification is used to create healthy communities that encourage contribution to the common good, that’s where gamification can be powerful — yet is currently underutilized. Community health is a prerequisite to creating impact with communities. When gamification is used to strengthen the health of our communities, it can drive results. To begin, we must use social gamification as a reward for actual connection and contribution, and not just social validation or vanity. This will create healthy communities, which will have the strength to create positive change inside and outside of organizations.

If we can reward people for coming together in a way that empowers them to continue connecting for the common good, rather than in a way that shallowly rewards them for taking mostly empty actions in digital spaces, we will be taking a major positive step forward in creating impact and belonging online. Both types of activities (those that cement connection and those that socially validate users) will show up as “engagement” to platform providers, but one will create a better world and the other will continue us on the same negative and polarized trajectory.

Gamification can be powerful for incentivizing social connection and community building, but only certain kinds of gamification work, and only in certain scenarios. What are these?

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5 Key Points About Gamification in Community Building

  1. Rewards, one piece of a gamification strategy, are not incentives. They should not be used to motivate, but rather to acknowledge. Rewards (points, badges, etc.) should not be given “in exchange for” an action or to motivate an action, but rather after a positive social behavior occurs, so users don't come to expect a transactional value for the social connection. Whenever possible, rewards should be given personally and in context. That is, they shouldn’t feel impersonal and should tie back to what that person’s actions meant to the larger community. You can read more about rewards here.
  2. Games are social-specific and their usage depends on age, culture, gender, and other dynamics at play. One gamification system will not (and cannot) reward all. Dig deeper in your strategy to understand how reward systems can serve your community — don’t just create game dynamics for their own sake.
  3. Knowing that rewards will be given actually lessens intrinsic motivation for members and leads to worse outcomes on activities, but rewards given after activities are complete have no impact on intrinsic motivation.
  4. Gamification should be used to recognize a contribution to the group, community status and commitment. It should not be used to recognize all people equally regardless of these characteristics, otherwise, the reward becomes meaningless.
  5. The most helpful elements of gamification for creating social connection are avatars, stories and encouraging people to form teams to get work done. And in contrast to what many think, competition may not always be at odds with community building, if it is used to push the entire community forward. According to CodinGame community manager Thibaud Jobert, “it's the competition (points, coding contests) that foster the most social connection inside [my] community.” When competition is used to cement teams, learn and everyone is contributing toward a shared outcome, competition can create community. 

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A Thoughtful Approach to Gamification

Very few communities today employ gamification this thoughtfully, without going overboard or incentivizing the wrong activities. We can deploy gamification carefully for greater impact.

If you are a community builder working on a platform that you can’t control or change, clamor internally for changes from your product team or with your platform provider, or turn off certain functionality that doesn’t help drive your community forward.

If you’re building a community platform, be thoughtful about what your platform’s reward systems do and what you reward users for doing. Currently, most platforms are failing to align community activity with impactful organizational or social change. The closer you can get your platform to being able to measure to the actual impact your community leader’s need to have to justify building a community, the better we all will be.

And if you’re picking a community platform right now, instead of listing “gamification” as a technical requirement, dive deeper into the ideal behaviors your members will take to deepen connection among one another and then think of the best way to reward those behaviors. Begin with community, not technical features, in mind.