White Hat Black Hat Gamification

Anyone working in the Gamification sector will tell you: It isn’t all fun and games. After all our industry is all too often stereotyped as being only about making systems more ‘fun’.

Just last year I attended the Gamification World Summit and yes there were a lot of fantastic projects focused on transforming boring systems into cool projects. There was however something else going on at the Summit: A deeper undercurrent focused on the undeniable fact that making stuff ‘fun’ just isn’t enough anymore.


Gabe Zichermann gave a great talk in which he emphasized that ‘Gamification is behavioral engineering’. He emphasized the point of approaching every Gamification project with same mindset as engineers working on an engineering project. Projects should be not only well designed but just as importantly structurally sound. Gabe’s word ring not only true but loudly: Too often the goals of our projects are behavioral goals and as well all know changing behavior isn’t always ‘fun’. My reaction to Gabe’s statement that the approach in Gamification should be laser focused on Design and Structure instead of ‘fun’ made me fist pump. As a Psychologist and a Behavioral Scientist I not only wholeheartedly agree but hope that Gamification as an industry evolves more quickly in its development in that direction.

That being said I believe ‘fun’ as a core principle in Gamification should no longer be the firmament upon which projects should be built. Yes, fun is a motivator and yes, greatly rewarding but making things ‘fun’ isn’t always the main drive and motivator behind human behavior.

This begs the question: Without ‘fun’ as the core principle for change in Gamification what drives remain to be triggered?

One of the finest frameworks around that categorizes the drives that uses experience while gaming are finely detailed in the Octalysis framework by Yu-Kai Chou. The framework yields not only deep insights into people’s various motivations but more importantly the tools by which we can trigger these motivations.


The Octalysis framework comprises of 8 core drives: Epic meaning and calling, development and accomplishment, empowerment of creativity and feedback, ownership and possession, social influence and relatedness, scarcity and impatience, unpredictability and curiosity and the final one loss and avoidance. As a Psychologist I can’t help but get excited by a framework like this. In my personal opinion it really captures a vast range of behavioral patterns that humans possess in an approachable and delightful framework. It also shares some similarities and comparisons with the popular theories of ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink and the ‘Self Determination Theory’ by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan.

One of the main reasons I get excited by this framework is the fact that in Psychology there aren’t a lot of frameworks and theories that reveal to the extent Octalysis does of the  various drives and motivators of human being. It’s also really cool in the difference it draws between these varying drives. Yu-Kai Chou states that in this framework a clear distinction can be made between ‘Black Hat’ and ‘White Hat’ drives:

  • White Hat drives (epic meaning and calling, development and accomplishment, empowerment of creativity and feedback) are the drives that trigger the sense of empowerment and makes a person feel good.
  • Black Hat drives (scarcity and impatience, unpredictably and curiosity, loss and avoidance) in contrast are drives that trigger immediate urgency but in the long term create no real sense of neither accomplishment nor fulfillment.

It’s these Black Hat drives which are interesting to me as these drives are all too often overlooked when people implement Gamification solutions. The main reason project teams bypasses Black Hat approaches is because they don’t trigger the feeling of ‘fun’ and as I outlined above that seems to be what the majority consider Gamification to be solely about.


BUT if you see Gamification instead as a tool to modify and engineer human behavior then Black Hat drives become not only powerful tools but also in certain situations completely essential. If you take a moment and think about it anyone can imagine situations in which their behavior was driven by a Black Hat motivator. Our lives consist of performing tasks and achieving objectives not because you enjoy them but because they’re urgent, essential or unavoidable.

The point I’m driving here is that when you approach Gamification as a way of modifying and engineering behavior it you will quickly realize that what drives behavior isn’t just tasks that are enjoyable or create fulfillment (i.e. ‘Fun’) but more often than not are drives that create urgency.

Changing behavior cannot be just fun and games. It doesn’t work that way in life and it most definitely cannot be the sole basis of any Gamification project.

After all we do our taxes not because we get better from at it or that we’re actually accomplishing something- we do it because if we don’t we might be fined (loss and avoidance). We buy special offers at the supermarket not because we need the products but rather they are on sale this week and there are only ten left (scarcity and impatience). We buy scratch cards not because we are certain we will earn something back but because we because there might be a prize, small or big (unpredictability and curiosity).

I’m not arguing for an over implementation of Black Hat techniques in Gamification. Just like the football club that continues to lose matches will lose its fan base so too will a system using only Black Hat methods will eventually lose its users because they won’t feel empowered. If you take anything away from this article it would be this:

Gamification isn’t just about ‘fun’. True Gamification is behavioral engineering of which fun is just one piece in a complex and beautiful mosaic of Black and White hat drives.


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