Kevin Werbach: Game Developing Your Way to a Successful Business

April 9, 2013, 20:00 lecture


On April 9 the Knowledge Stream project hosted a lecture by Kevin Werbach, one of the gurus of modern gamification and expert in its application to marketing and entrepreneurship. He spoke on this subject not only to the students at the private Wharton School of Business, but also to subscribers of the educational platform Coursera.

The lecture began with an introduction by Yulia Lesnikova, permanent moderator of Knowledge Stream and curator of the project within Digital October.

“We share Coursera’s vision on education and are excited to announce the beginning of our partnership. So far we are providing subtitles for their lectures and it so happens we decided to begin with the series of videos by Werbach from the Wharton School,” said Yulia.

“In just a few weeks we will hold the first Coursera Meetup in Moscow.

Not only that, but Kevin just now agreed to join one of these events, answering any questions you may have after this lecture.”

“Hello, thank you very much!” begins Kevin in clear Russian, practically without an accent. “Unfortunately I can’t say anything else in Russian today; it’s been too long since I studied your language in college.”

“In the nuts and bolts of every game, be it a Facebook app or something else, there is a mass of motivating elements: bonuses, badges, rewards, all of which pull you into the game. All of these elements can also be taken out and implemented in other areas: business, education, health care, even environmental protection.”

“You know, when I was just getting into gamification I did a little research and immediately came up with hundreds of companies that use it, even if many of them didn’t know what it was called.”

“Take, a service that is oriented toward motivating employees in American companies to eat better, exercise more, etc. They use an incentive system similar to badges and medals. Khan Academy uses its own medals system, but students don’t take it as a game; the result is that they learn mathematics and other subjects, but they feel better and more confident with those medals.”

The other side of the medal

“What I just mentioned is that some may already know. The PBL system is built on points, badges and leaderboards. All of them are aimed at motivating, whether it’s marketing, where the incentive is to visit the site and become a client, or intra-corporation activities to incentivize employees and the development of new innovations within the company”

“Motivation is the basic factor. However, this factor is limited, so naturally you have a question: how effective will this be in my case, if it’s already so widespread?”

“Some researches say that up to 80% of PBL elements don’t work.

“We’re seeing a drop in the effectiveness of gamification even in 4square: people are getting tired of mayorships, understanding that in the end they don’t really mean anything. Of course 4square is great, but what I’m trying to say is that there’s a flipside to every medal.”

“The second problem is that incentives that don't turn into anything tangible, or that turn into something you don't want, don't work. In these cases PBL gamification won’t make people stay for long at your service, won’t make them do something over and over again.”

If it doesn’t work then what’s the big deal?

“Here’s another example. The creators of Angry Birds tried about 50 times many different ways to make their game go viral. They didn’t understand anything about gaming mechanics, going by trial and error, but in the end they offered their audience what they were willing to occupy their time with for hours.”

“So what can we take from the example of Angry Birds? That we need to look at things from the perspective of a game designer.”

“In my presentation you see the gamification pyramid: it doesn’t have any ready-made recipes, just lists of general techniques and methods which you can successfully apply not only in games, but also in business processes.”

“What you need to understand first is that the game needs to be simple, if you like, even artificially simplistic. When people join it, they don’t know anything yet and don’t want to figure out detailed rules.”

“The game’s difficulty level should gradually increase, but not linearly, as that isn’t interesting enough; instead, it should follow the so-called way of the gamer.”

“What is that? Let’s take a look at how I broke up my course on Coursera into blocks of several difficulties, structuring the content such that people in the beginning were introduced to me, testing their initial involvement. Then the difficulty was raised, while giving the listeners a minute to catch their breath from time to time.”

“And only after that I throw in the “boss,” or the final test, concluding with the creation of the student’s own gamification project, one that will be judged not by me or my assistants, but by other course participants. It looks like this has built a course that graduates four times as many people as average on Coursera.”

“The next important technique is based on motivation types. Players are divided into four key psychological categories: achievers, who go for points and bonuses; followers, who are looking for content; socializers, who need conversation and recognition among their friends; and finally killers, who love winning more than anything.”

“Killers, incidentally, are often only 1% of the audience, although they are the most involved.”

“Ideally you should create a game for all four types, and not only that, but also refocus beyond the basic classes I’ve listed to reality; you might even choose a single target group, knowing as you do your business partners, clients and coworkers.”

“The best thing for you to do is to categorize your “gamer” types, though not by gender and age, of course. Think about how to incentivize them, understand what about your system appeals to each group, where these groups intersect and who else you can attract.”

“This is what’s called a game balance. Let’s take World of Warcraft: you can select your character from ten different classes. But if one class is obviously stronger than the others, nobody will play as anyone else, so Blizzard constantly monitors the strengths and weaknesses of each class. In this way people have a choice, something you must provide as well.”

“One more element I want to talk about is the element of uncertainty, which is an important factor helping to change behavioral patterns.”

“Uncertainty is a powerful weapon, even if in fact it is not as motivating.”

“Take the lottery for example: people continue playing and buying tickets because they want the big prize even though they generally win nothing.”

Feedback is also an element of the game

“People need to show their ability, not simply in a yearly review, but here and now. Many people already understand how to exploit feedback to motivate people to complete their profiles.”

“All these progress bars that measure how complete your profile is are a mini gamification system. Why does it work? People love completion; it’s psychology, and the thirst for it pushes them on.”

“Not less important is the feedback you get from people. If we look at today’s casual games, it seems they are all built on feedback. Their creators are constantly looking, trying to test things out on people: ‘We changed this element – do you like it? How about now? Still interesting?”

“Note that the thought of how one can make someone else do something in order to achieve a result is intrinsically marketing-related.”

“Game creators are always talking about significance;

maybe it won’t be global in scope, saving the world through marketing, but it will create empathy in your clients for your product and company. Do something for your player and he will want to do something for you in return.”

“Therefore my advice is this: figure out what game developers know about gaming and apply it to your business.”


568 show Sergey
moderator, Culture section editor at
567 show Maxim
gamification coach,
566 show Ilya
gamification specialist, LinguaLeo
569 show Vladimir
PhD, Professor, RSUH

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