Don’t reward your players

Don’t (just) reward your players: how rewards can lead to less engagement. When you reward someone they expect roughly the same reward next time they do so. But every time they get a reward the reward becomes of less value. There’s great psychology behind this phenomena. You have to think very carefully about the way you reward your players because otherwise they won’t be engaged anymore.

Gamification is not about rewarding players. Some time ago I talked to an aunt of my fiancĂ©e about the work I do. I tried to explain to her what gamification is. In my explanation I mentioned that within the methods of gamification you reward the behavior of the player to make sure he or she keeps on displaying that behavior en thus stay engaged with the product. She, being from another generation, made a great point about my attempt to explain gamification. She said that my generation doesn’t need to be spoiled so much and that we need to learn that sometimes you just need to work hard to achieve our goals instead of going for the easy way. She said that we just get lazy because we are constantly helped and rewarded just to show some effort. I didn’t have a good reply because in a way she was completely right.

As long as the behavior has not been meaningful a reward will not lead to engagement. If something does not take effort to do than a reward will just be as pointless. The reward will not have value. If you look back at things you have achieved in your live, you will not think about the quick wins. You will think about the times you have struggled and still made it. The effort you have put in the behavior and the progress you have made is a reward on itself. Winning a tournament is not about the medal. It’s about all the effort you have put in making it to the top.

Rewards become completely useless once they don’t have value to the player. I think this is one of the greatest pitfalls of gamification at the moment. When you approach gamification superficially you’ll think its al about adding some rewards and players will do stuff. When you look at a lot of gamification tools that are said to enhance site engagement within visitors of the website you’ll see that you get rewarded for clicking every link, looking at different pages and sharing the content. This only makes the visitor click on some links and hopefully share some content. He will do that for max 5 minutes or so and then leave the site. At no point is the visitor really engaged. The reward he gets is completely meaningless because at no point has the action been an effort in any way. The visitor just got some coins for clicking some links, no difficulty in that.

When you look at ways to reward players I like to look at the SAPS model created by Gabe Zichermann. SAPS means: Status, Access, Power, Stuff. It is a hierarchy in rewarding players with Status being the highest form of reward. What I like about this model is that stuff, like coins of a new I-phone which are clear external motivators, are at the bottom of the hierarchy. The biggest internal motivator, status, is at the top. We all know that intrinsic motivators tend to be more successful and create longer lasting motivation. The cool thing about the SAPS model is that achieving something and showing it to the world should be the way to reward someone for their action. Not by giving them things.

Another thing is also at play here. Rewards tend to lose their value overtime. This effect is called extinction and is mentioned with operant conditioning (learning bij reinforcing behavior, similar to what we do with gamification). It states that when operant behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences the behavior gradually stops occurring. This sounds logical. If previously rewarded behavior is not rewarded anymore you will stop showing that behavior. It becomes more interesting when the reward you usually get is not rewarding anymore. This effect is called habituation. In short it means that you eventually get used to certain stimuli once you have been exposed to it for some time. It’s the reason why we don’t hear the traffic anymore after a while. These two effects can work in unison. Once you get rewarded for a certain behavior for some time, the reward will lose its value and this will eventually stop you from showing that behavior. You see this effect in some big RPG games like Diablo. In Diablo you get items from slaying monsters. These items are categorized in type of strength by color. Grey items are not strong, blue’s are stronger, then yellows, then orange. In the beginning of the game grey items are great. They make you stronger so you pick them up. Later in the game you’ll notice that blue and yellow items are better so you’ll start picking those up. Eventually you will not pick up the grey items anymore because they suck anyway. The reward has lost it’s value so you will stop showing the behavior. In RPG games this is a big problem because a lot of players tend to ‘outgrow’ the potential rewards and stop playing the game.
Within gamified systems the same problem can occur. When you reward someone in the beginning with some coins the player will like the reward en show the behavior once again. After obtaining several coins the coins will lose their value and you will not be triggered by getting coins anymore. This effect can stack-up very fast when obtaining these coins is to easy and there is no effort in obtaining these coins. The reward becomes meaningless and you will stop showing the behavior.

So the question remains: How should I reward my players? Sometimes not rewarding players at all can be better. Making progress and achieving goals can be enough. Creating a meaningful action and showing the player how meaningful it was or the progress a players has made can be a reward on itself. Playing Super Mario is about the journey, not about the princess. Still, implementing rewards can be of great use when stimulating behavior. When you implement rewards in a gamified system it’s always good to consider the following. Reward a player with something that is meaningful and triggers their internal motivation, SAPS is a great model to use. Furthermore, keep in mind that the value of a reward is relative to the effort one has put in the action of obtaining it. This goes hand in hand with the effect of rewards decreasing in value once it has been obtained.


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