web 2.0 badge with a number of fake titles added to itGamification, or the building of game elements into non-games, is a hot topic right now. There’s a lot of hype and a lot of doubt. As I walked into Gabe Zichermann’s session on Gamification at Web 2.0 last week, I worried that perhaps I had made a bad choice in the one session I’d be able to attend with my “Lite” badge. So I was extremely pleased when the session was inspiring, concrete and very much not about badges.

One concept in specific hit me like a slap to the face: it’s not about the game elements, it’s about the goal of gamification, “Flow”. Flow is a state of mind when you are somewhere in between boredom and anxiety. You’re drawn in, but not stressed out. You’re grooving. Hours pass and you don’t notice. When you think about it, it’s incredibly common in gaming and makes spending $50 on a game very justifiable. But when choosing to pay for a software tool we use frequently out of neccessity, we’re much more reticent to pay that much. Because we don’t find that flow.

man playing chess with a very focused look in his eyesAfter Flow lodged itself in my mind, I dug up Delivering Happiness, the book by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. Towards the end of the book, Tony talks about the happiness research he’s read, and specifically about the “3 types of happiness”.

The first type of happiness is pleasure, or “Rock Star” happiness. Food, drugs, sex: all instant gratification with little long-term benefit.

The third, most effective type of happiness is Higher Purpose, when you become part of something bigger than yourself. This could be God, it could be a company that you care deeply about, it could be raising money for hungry children. Whatever it is, it inspires the whole of your being and is the most long-lasting form of happiness. It’s also a lot of work to generate this in someone who doesn’t already have it.

But the second type of happiness ended up being the one that my brain had remembered: passion. Tony says “also known as flow where peak performance meets peak engagement, and time flies by”. This is the second longest-lasting form of happiness. And this is something that we can guide someone to much easier than we can guide them into having a higher cause.

rubix cubeSo how can we apply this to our products? We need to stop thinking about simply solving a product for people, or getting out of their way. We need to start thinking about how we can help people get into the groove with our products, even if that means adding some friction or stress to their experience. Games are fun because we are engaged in trying to beat a challenge. Playing on invincible is fun for about 3 minutes. Legitimately beating levels and earning your score is a powerful, adreneline-generating experience.

Go use your product for 5 minutes. Are you immediately and continuously challenged? If not, take the afternoon off to go play your favorite game. Figure out how it’s keeping you constantly engaged and challenged. Then go back to your product, and do the same thing there. Don’t just add some badges: make it a challenge.

(By the way, Gabe Zichermann writes the Gamification blog if you’re interested in more info about his ideas.)

Badge photo courtesy of Hennasabel.
Chess photo courtesy of Thomas.
Rubix cube photo courtesy of Gavin Golden.