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Actionable Gamification Book Summary – Yu-Kai Chou

What you will learn from reading Actionable Gamification

– How games are designed to be addicting and how they leverage human motivation.

– How to use game design to motivate people to do specific tasks.

– Why leaderboards and badges are only the start of game design.

Actionable Gamification Book Summary 

Is the ideal gamification resource for understanding the psychology behind what makes players tick. Actionable gamification distills the key principles behind game design and distinguishes what works from what doesn’t. Gamification doesn’t just apply to games, it can be applied for app development and marketing. 

Read on for the key ideas from this book.

The Key Idea:

Human-Focused Design means designing for human motivation first, before you look at  function and efficiency. 

In essence, don’t create something that users can do without first looking at why users would want do it in the first place.


Gamification – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:

Games have the amazing ability of keeping people engaged for long periods of time, build meaningful relationships between people, and develop creative potential.

Interesting Insight – When a buzzword becomes popular or everyone talks about something. Be Cautious.

Because, when interest and excitement in an industry hits critical mass, there will always be people and agencies proclaiming themselves as experts, to capitalise on that buzz.

As a result, many gamification professionals focus only on the superficial layer of games. Yu-Kai Chou calls this the shell of a game experience. It is commonly used in the form of what he calls the PBLs: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards.

Key Takeaway Buzzword popularity leads to overuse which then reduces the credibility of the word as it fails to live up to it’s hype. 

Quote from Yu-Kai Chou – “Always be mindful that gamification is not a cookie cutter solution; it always relies on thoughtful design based on context and the profile of the players within your system.”

Human Motivation at the Core of Good Design

The truth on Game Mechanics:

The truth is, simply incorporating game mechanics and game elements does not make a game fun.

An interesting example from the book using the trojan horse as an example:

“It would be foolish for a modern army commander to say, “Hey! The Greeks sent a big wooden horse to the Trojans and won the war. Lets send our enemies a big wooden horse too!” In this case, he clearly doesn’t understand the true design behind the Trojan Horse, but he only copied the outer shell of it.”

Key Takeaway Copying without understanding the design leads to misuse and zero results. 

How a good game designer thinks:

“Okay, how do I want my users to feel? Do I want them to feel inspired? Do I want them to feel proud? Should they be scared? Anxious? What’s my goal for their intended experience?”

Key Idea – Give the user a reason to care about taking part:

You are more motivated to do something if you can understand the bigger picture. When you understand why you are doing something you.

Gamers are engaged when there are elements of strategy and challenges that they have to use strategy to overcome. The points and badges are an added bonus depending on the context. 

The CORE DRIVERS of Human Motivation (The Octalysis Framework)

Epic Meaning & Calling is the Core Drive that is in play when a person believes they are doing something greater than themselves and/or were “chosen” to take that action. 

Development & Accomplishment is our internal drive for making progress, developing skills, achieving mastery, and eventually overcoming challenges. The word “challenge” here is very important, as a badge or trophy without a challenge is not meaningful at all. 

Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback is expressed when users are engaged in a creative process where they repeatedly figure new things out and try different combinations. 

Ownership & Possession is where users are motivated because they feel like they own or control something. 

Social Influence & Relatedness incorporates all the social elements that motivate people, including: mentorship, social acceptance, social feedback, companionship, and even competition and envy. 

Scarcity & Impatience is the Core Drive of wanting something simply because it is extremely rare, exclusive, or immediately unattainable. 

Unpredictability is the Core Drive of constantly being engaged because you don’t know what is going to happen next. NOTE – This is what Nir Eyal refers to as variable rewards in his book Hooked.

Loss Avoidance is self explanatory, is is the core drive of being motivated not to lose something. 


Always look to give people reasons to do things:

“Our product is great! Users can do this; users can do that; and they can even do these things!” And my response to them has been, “Yes, you are telling me all the things your users can do. But you have not explained to me why the user would do it.” 

Remember —- When people say they will do it “tomorrow,” more often than not it means “never.” — If you have this problem, you will need to discover how you can generate some urgency into a situation.

Core Drive: Epic Meaning & Calling is best communicated during the Discovery and Onboarding Phase of a Player’s (users) Journey. You want to communicate early on exactly why someone should participate in your mission and become a player.  

“The powerful thing about Epic Meaning & Calling, is that it turns otherwise passive users into powerful evangelists of your mission. They are even highly forgiving of your flaws.”

Example of this is Waze — When it takes people to the wrong location: instead of deleting it in anger, many people start to panic. “Oh no! The map is broken! I need to go fix it!” 

Core Drive: Epic Meaning & Calling’s weakness lies in the difficulty of implementing believability, as well as the lack of urgency within the motivation. 

“Our brains have a natural desire to achieve goals and to experience growth in order to feel that real progress is being made.”

Explicit Vs Implicit Gamification

Explicit Gamification involves strategies that utilise applications that are obviously game-like. Users acknowledge they are playing a game, and generally need to opt into playing. 

Implicit Gamification is a form of design that subtly employs gamification techniques and the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis into the user experience. 

Potential Uses of Gamification:

Product Gamification  

Workplace Gamification  

Marketing Gamification  

Lifestyle Gamification 

Interesting Definition of a game – Jane McGonigal, renowned game designer and Ph.D. in Performance Studies, defines games as “unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle.”

McGonigal points out that challenges and limitations are what make a game fun. For example, if golf was just a game without any limitations, every player would just pick up the ball and put it into the hole to win. 

Why a product should avoid making someone feel stupid or confused:

A product that makes users feel stupid, no matter how great the technology, is often a failing product. From my experience, if a user spends four seconds on an interface and can’t figure out what to do, they feel stupid and will start to disengage emotionally. 

If you have played the popular hit game Candy Crush, have you ever wondered why when you don’t make a move for a few seconds, the game shows you a “Glowing Choice” (Game Technique #28) of a possible solution that is often not the optimal way to match the gems? 

The truth is, Candy Crush understands that, feeling a sense of progress and ultimately losing is much better than feeling stuck and confused. 

KEY INSIGHT – Usability vs Motivation:

“While usability focuses on making users complete their tasks more intuitively, assuming users already want to do that activity, Octalysis Gamification focuses on the motivation to do those tasks in the first place.”

How to use leaderboards, badges and points more effectively:

But if through your creative skills you solved a unique problem that not everyone could solve, and as a result received a badge to symbolize that achievement, you feel proud and accomplished. 

Note: Badges should reward actual achievement not be used as a manipulative marketing gimmick.

Yu-Kai Chou Consultative Insight – “Therefore, when I work with clients on gamification, I never ask them, “Do you have badges?” I ask, “Do you make your users feel accomplished?”

As mentioned earlier having badges (or any game element in itself) does not mean users are motivated towards the Win-State. That’s why the key insight and takeaway from this book is to focus on the 8 Core Drives instead of game elements. 

When you set the rules you communicate your values:

Remember – When you set the rules, you are establishing an interaction and communicating your values. Users are smart. If you start rewarding points for purchases they know this relationship is transactional.

Users have no interest in a game if they know the game designer is just trying to benefit themselves instead of caring about their community.

Designers need to signal something other than self-interest to users.

A example:

If you reward the most points or status to people that comment on your site. You signal that engagement is worth more than anything else, which communicates that you value interacting with commenters. 

— This tells users that the key of this game is “engagement.” I want you to be engaged, learn a lot, and participate in a community. This becomes a game worth playing. 

Jes’s Note: Fantastic idea for increasing comments and feedback 

So, when you design Status Point systems, make sure you base it on something meaningful – something that the users themselves want to engage in. 

Always focus on how you want your users to feel, not what game elements you want to use.

Creating A Leaderboard that works and motivates:

  1. First, you always want to position the user in the middle of the leaderboard display, so all they see is the player ranked right above them, and the player ranked just below.
  2. Another variation that has proved successful is to set up Group Leaderboards where the ranking is based on the combined efforts of a team.
  3. The next variation is to set up constantly refreshing leaderboards, where every week the data would refresh and the leaderboard will start tracking progress anew; hence no one falls too far behind
  4. Finally, it’s a good idea to implement micro-leaderboards, where only the users’ friends or very similar people are compared.

Meaningful Choices = Increased Engagment:

When you design a great gamified system, you want to make sure that there isn’t one standard way to win. Instead, provide users with enough meaningful choices that they can utilize drastically different ways to better express their creativity, while still achieving the Win-State. 

It is important to create a setup where the user is given a goal, as well as a variety of tools and methodologies to strategize towards reaching that goal. 

Boosters (Game Technique #31) Have you ever played the game Super Mario and felt blissfully excited when you picked up a mushroom or flower that made you stronger? 

That feeling of being empowered with new, but limited power-ups is exhilarating and is an extremely strong motivator towards the desired action. 

This combined with Milestones in games lead to playing overtime as you want to take these new skills for a spin: Once players level up (their “stop-time milestone”), they naturally want to see what these new skills are like. This is when people plan to stop playing at 11PM but end up playing till 4AM in the morning. 

KEY IDEA – Freedom vs the feeling of freedom:

In the Art of Game Design – Schell describes that, “we don’t always have to give the player true freedom – we only have to give the player the feeling of freedom.

According to Schell, this can be accomplished by: 

1) Adding constraints to player choices 

2) Incentivizing players to take certain choices that actually meets the player goals 

3) Create an Interface that guides the user towards the Desired Actions  

4) Adding visual designs to attract the player’s sight  

5) Provide social guidance 

Great Rule of Thumb – If all hundred players play the game differently, then you have a great amount of meaningful choices. 

Meaningful Choices is to allow players to choose between playing it safe, and go for a small reward, or take a big risk, and try for a big reward. This type of dynamic, which Schell calls triangularity, is seen in many successful and engaging games. 

The effects of Ownership:

Once you feel a sense of ownership over something, its status elevates and it begins to motivate your behavior differently. Also, trial promotions and “money-back guarantees” work the same way by letting consumers own the product first without any friction. 

One of the most effective ways to use Core Drive 4: Ownership and Possession is through Collection Sets. Say you give people a few items, characters, or badges, and you make it clear this is part of a collection set then people are highly motivated to complete the set. Think stamps for coffees.

Give Clear Measurements and Feedback

When users are monitoring the state of something, they naturally want that state to continually improve. If you are constantly looking at the progression of some numbers, you automatically grow more engaged with the success and growth of these numbers. 

“What gets measured, gets managed” Peter Drucker

Social Gamification:

Key Idea – Using Mentors or Social Environment to drive motivation:

Yu-Kai Chou when first signing up to an RPG online: “I received a message that said, “Hey, [User X] has been assigned to be your mentor. He will contact you the next time he signs-in.” The message in itself was interesting. By indicating the mentor could not talk to me immediately, it was more convincing that he was an actual player.”

When you design an environment where people are prone to be envious of others, you want to make sure there is a realistic path for them to follow to in achieving what they are envious about. 

Social pain is real pain – we don’t like letting people down:

How many times have you tried to withdraw from a volunteer group, team, church, or even a relationship, but had an extremely hard time because you didn’t want to upset other people? 


The painful second and third order effects of competition:

When we implement competition in the workplace, we need to thoughtfully analyze the risks as well as the benefits, in determining whether there might be any significant and long-term harm to the employees and ultimately the enterprise. 

Jes’s Note – Competition can lead to corner cutting, sabotage and cheating. Implementation of incentives isn’t as simple as offering an incentive for increasing a specific measurement. 

Interesting Idea for interview process to gain extra buy in from interviewee:

Saying things like, “If you manage to get an offer here, I will be your mentor and help develop your potential” would make your company much more attractive, whether the interviewee is hired or not. 


Creating mentor systems on Tech Platforms – A win win?

In general people would love to have the opportunity to speak with experienced mentors who can not only help solve their interface problems, but also serve as great exemplars who they can aspire to become. 

Jes’s Note – Think about platforms like Shopify. How could a mentor system improve uptake of their software and more sales? A win-win. 

This way, veterans get status perks and bonuses, the newbies get their questions answered and feel like they are part of a larger community. Also, the site saves a massive amount in support costs (monetary and time costs) whilst having more engaged and professional sellers on their platform. This is powerful.

How to effectively use share buttons (brag buttons/achievements)

You want to implement the Brag Buttons at the Major Win-States when users actually feel awesome about what they have just completed. 

In gaming, Trophy Shelves can often be seen as crowns, badges, or avatars. In many games, some avatar gear or items can only be obtained after reaching difficult or exclusive milestones, such as beating a certain boss, 

Jes’s Note: These are Achievement Signals. Should be well known in community of game so that you don’t have to mention 

Yu-Kai Chou’s Game Techniques for inspiration:

Social Treasures (Game Technique #63) – Social Treasures are gifts or rewards that can only be given to you by friends or other players. 

Narrative (Game Technique #10) – Most games start with a narrative that gives the player some context about why they should play the game.

Humanity Hero (Game Technique #27) – If you can incorporate a world mission into your offerings, you can gain even more buy-in during the Onboarding process.

Beginner’s Luck (Game Technique #23) – Beginner’s Luck focuses on the Calling part in Epic Meaning & Calling. Calling makes people think they are uniquely destined to do something. 

“Glowing Choice” (Game Technique #28) – of a possible solution that is often not the optimal way to match the gems? — the Glowing Choice technique is about applying an overlay item that shines like a bright star in the midst of a complex environment.

A game design technique Yu-Kai Chou calls Conformity Anchors implements this effect into products or experiences by displaying how close users are to the social norm through Feedback.

Boosters (Game Technique #31) -Have you ever played the game Super Mario and felt blissfully excited when you picked up a mushroom or flower that made you stronger? 

Milestone Unlock (Game Technique #19) – One of the most successful design techniques within games is something I call the Milestone Unlock. When people play games, they often set an internal stop time in the form of a milestone

Build-From-Scratch (Game Technique #43) – When you create a product or service, it is often desirable for your users to increase their vested ownership in the process of its creation. This is why it is useful to have them involved in the development process early on – to “build from scratch.”

Mentorship (Game Technique #61) – Having a mentor helps employees better connect with the culture and environment in the workplace. This can effectively increase overall work satisfaction and lower turnover rates. 

Using Social Comparison to motivate:

Opower has discovered that, the best way to motivate households to consume less energy is to show them a chart comparing them to their neighbours.  

Jes’s Note – Who are the users competitive with (comparing themselves with?) can you leverage this competition to create motivation to act?

Using Scarcity to motivate – Game examples and techniques:

Farmville deploys their Dangling techniques at the very start. And continues to regularly show you an appealing mansion that you want but can’t have at this point. The first few times, you just dismiss it, as you inherently know it wouldn’t be resource-efficient to get it. 

As long as there is a realistic chance to get the reward, the Scarcity through exclusivity is enough to engage you. 

This leads to a game technique Yu-Kai chou calls Anchored Juxtaposition. With this technique, you place two options side by side: one that costs money, the other requiring a great amount of effort in accomplishing the Desired Actions which will benefit the system. 

The most effective rewards are often Boosters (Skill improvements or performance enhancers) that allow the user to go back into the ecosystem and play more effectively, creating a streamlined activity loop in the process. 

Magnetic Caps are limitations placed on how many times a user can commit certain Desired Actions, which then stimulates more motivation to commit them. 

Pro InisightA great system designer should always control the flow of scarcity, and make sure everyone in the system is still striving for a goal that is difficult, but not impossible, to attain. 

Appointment Dynamics use a specific recurring schedule where users have to take the Desired Actions to effectively reach the Win-State. 

Note: Think happy hour in pubs.

A Torture Break is a sudden and often triggered pause to the Desired Actions. Whereas the Appointment Dynamic is more based on absolute times that people look forward to 

Key Insight for Design – Evolved UI – short for “Evolved User Interface”. The problem with most user interfaces is that they’re too complex during the Onboarding stage, while too basic for the Endgame. 

Using Uncertainty in Game Design:

When public speaking the pro’s know it is important to give a pitch that continuously serves unexpected and unpredictable information to keep people engaged. 

A book of Lenses, even goes as far as defining the word “fun” as “pleasure with surprises.” Why is the “surprise” element so important in fun? 

In games, there is “loot” or “drops,” which are random rewards that appear once the player achieves a Win-State such as opening a treasure box or defeating an enemy. 

Easter Eggs are effective in two ways: They get great word-of-mouth exposure because everybody loves to share something exciting and unexpected that happened to them. 

Jes’s Note – Surprise and shock lead to naturally wanting to share. Think about gossip, it’s always related to a surprising bit of information.

When you design your experience, ask yourself if there is a way to build controlled randomness into the experience?

Ideally, if you use variable rewards, you should make sure the action to obtain them is relatively short and easy, such as pulling the lever on a slot machine or refreshing your Facebook home feed. 


Cool idea for installing a desired behaviour with your product:

Chase Picks Up The Tab program, whenever a Chase customer swipes their Chase debit cards (the Desired Action), there is a very small chance the customer will get a text from Chase that says (paraphrased), “Chase just picked up the tab! Your $5 will be credited back to your account. Have a nice day.” 

Yu-Kai Chou – “From my own observations, our happiness is almost exclusively determined by our expectations matched against our circumstances.”


How you could apply variable rewards on an e-commerce site:

Imagine as you click around a website, there is a little popup widget that says, “Great! Your actions have earned you 500 credits!” As you click on more places, it will continue to say, “Great! Your actions have earned you 1500 credits!” 

Note: Reward for effort 

If you only reward people when they do undesirable actions, you simply encourage them (and all their coworkers) to do more of these actions. 

We generally know that play must be voluntary. If one is forced to do something, even if it was a game, it is no longer considered “play.” 

Level the Playing Fields using uncertainty:

In fact, in the game design industry it is known that one of the best ways to make a game easier (penalizing hardcore competitive players but benefiting mainstream casual players) is to add more randomness and chance to the game. This is why popular family board games increases role of chance and downplay skill. Makes it fun for all family. 


Left Brain vs Right Brain Core Drives: 

Left Brain Core Drives are by nature goal-oriented.

Right Brain Core Drives are experience-oriented.

Extrinsic Motivation focuses on results.

Intrinsic Motivation focuses on the process.


This is an oversimplification but I like the framework.

A useful test to determine if something is extrinsically or intrinsically motivated: If the goal or objective were removed, would you still be motivated to take the Desired Action or not?

This is a great question that allows you to differentiate motives. 

The Left Brain Core Drives are result (goal) focused, while the Right Brain Core Drives are process (journey) focused. 


The problems with current education system:

Many students who neglect school and get in trouble all the time aren’t like that because they are stupid or dislike learning. They just don’t see the purpose of learning the subjects that are taught in class.

Jes’s Potential Solution – All lectures or lessons should begin with high level application or use to give people a reason to care. If you can see why you are learning something , it becomes infinitely more interesting.


Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards and Motivational transition:

Rewards enhance focus and increase performance towards straightforward tasks that require less creativity? 

Therefore, as Michael Wu of Lithium points out, it is better to attract people into an experience using Extrinsic Rewards (gift cards, money, merchandise, discounts), then transition their interest through Intrinsic Rewards (recognition, status, access).

Many companies make the gigantic mistake of asking users to invite all their Facebook friends at the beginning of the Onboarding Stage, which happens right after the user signs up. 

Pro Insight – Once the user hits the first major Win-State, that’s the best time to ask them to invite their friends or rate the product. 

Give them a good feeling before you ask for the share.

Make Something easy to use at start:

“This is especially an issue during the Onboarding Phase when users don’t have enough motivation to commit much energy into figuring things out. As a result, it is still a high priority to make the activities so easy that users do not need to think hard about committing the actions is still a high priority.”

Questions for empowerment and creativity:

You should ask yourself, “Is there a way to allow my users to take multiple routes but still reach the same goal? Are there places that I could allow them to make meaningful choices to craft their own experiences?” 

The end reward is often nice (Core Drive 2 and 4), but it is often the process of strategising and progressing that is truly engaging the individuals. 


Black Hat Gamification Vs White Hat Gamification: 

White Hat Core Drives are motivation elements that make us feel powerful, fulfilled, and satisfied. They make us feel in control of our own lives and actions. 

In contrast, Black Hat Core Drives, make us feel obsessed, anxious, and addicted. While they are very strong in motivating our behaviors, in the long run they often leave a bad taste in our mouths because we feel we’ve lost control of our behavior. 

Yu-Kai Chou – “With a good understanding of White Hat and Black Hat game design, you can begin to analyze and predict the strengths and longevity of any motivational system.”

From my personal experience, investors generally only close deals quickly when they are convinced that they will lose the deal if they don’t commit.  — Power of urgency.

Key Insight – With White Hat motivation alone, people will always be intending, but never actually doing.

Great Idea – There’s always a huge efficiency loss when you’re a pioneer (but luckily a status and influence gain).


The first steps of the designing process:

Define Desired Actions the first step is to define the Desired Actions for the Users, which become Win-States once they commit to the actions. 

Every designed element needs to motivate users towards these Desired Actions. If it does not, the element is a distraction and should be thrown away. Every Desired Action, when committed, leads to a Win-State. 

“When designing, it’s great when lots of ideas go into the top of a brainstorming funnel. However, it is usually a bad sign when lots of ideas come out of the funnel towards implementation because it shows a lack of focus.”