Gamification in online community settings—is it best for *true* community engagement?

While used by online communities everywhere, gamification isn’t always the best (or right) choice. Below we’ll get into some of the pros and cons of gamification, as well as how to use it in a way that makes sense for your online community. We’ll also look at a few alternatives to gamification, and how to gamify your online community in a way that drives authentic, true, lasting community engagement.

Here we go! 

What is gamification (in online communities)?

Whether we’re cognizant of it or not (most often, it’s fairly obvious), we’ve all experienced both the systems and the effects of gamification. From online spaces like Facebook and Instagram, to point systems associated with retail stores, airline companies, and grocery chains, gamification is ubiquitous. 

In order to better understand and recognize gamification, how it works, and whether or not it should be applied to your online community, let’s start with the basics—a clear and concise definition of the term.
According to a number of resources, including BI Worldwide, gamification is:

“…adding game mechanics into non-game environments—like a website, online community, learning management system or business intranet—to increase participation. The goal of gamification is to engage with consumers, employees, and partners to inspire, collaborate, share, and interact.”

Whether associated with an online community or not, gamification and its tactics are employed to motivate, engage, and “hook” members by creating playful (often competitive) experiences. In other words, gamification uses an understanding of human psychology to elicit emotions and positive experiences, which then provide people with an incentive to participate, achieve, and keep coming back.

To put gamification into IRL context, think about some of the apps and software on your phone and laptop. Every single one of them uses gamification to keep you motivated and excited enough that you’ll keep checking, using, and returning (again and again). Think: badges for a number of steps in a day on Fitbit; leaderboard scores on Peloton; upvotes on Reddit; flying unicorns, yetis, narwhals, and phoenixes to celebrate accomplishments in Asana. The list of apps and software that use gamification is nearly endless.

Pros and cons of gamification in online community

Now that we have a better understanding of what gamification is and how it works, let’s look at some of the disadvantages of using gamification in online communities, as well as some of the ways we can use it to increase engagement and create a positive online community environment for all.

First, a few drawbacks. 

Disadvantages of gamification

  • Gamification in online communities can often give you a false sense of who is really engaged. If you start offering rewards, the reward itself (instead of the experience or interactions) might become the objective and lead to a less authentic community experience for all. 
  • Intimidation. Online community should be a safe space and ranking people doesn’t feel that safe, especially to new members. It creates hierarchical power dynamics similar to the ones found in outdated business models and still used by many a “bullying culture” business today.
  • As an online community manager, you have to put in a lot of time and effort to carefully plan out your community gamification strategy. More often than not, this time and energy could be spent doing something far more beneficial for your community space (like nailing your distributive leadership, learning how to use Youtube Live to boost community engagement, and so much more). 

Usually gamification isn’t used as anticipated. Community members aren’t joining your online community to win, earn badges, or be rewarded with prizes and points. They’re joining your community to network, seek information from peers, learn, or lurk. Provide enough good content, events, discussions, and useful resources, and your community members will actually feel as if they’ve won because, well… they have.

Now, onto some of the more meaningful, lasting, and non-exclusionary ways you can implement gamification in your online community. No, gamification cannot do it all. But if applied in thoughtful, people-first ways, it can help increase community engagement and foster a healthy online community for everyone involved.

  1. Recognize contribution over competition. Instead of recognizing and rewarding competition and “winners” in your online community (this can feel isolating and alienating to those not “winning”), gamification can and should be used to recognize a contribution to the group, community status, and commitment.
  1. Rewards are not incentives. When using rewards in your online community, they should be used to acknowledge, not motivate. In doing so, you help move your gamification system away from transactional behavior and towards rewarding community members for what their contributions and actions mean to the larger community. Rewarding positive social behavior is not the same as incentivizing. The former creates value through contribution to the greater good of the community, while the latter puts a transactional value on social connection.
  1. Create your gamification system according to your online community, not anyone else’s. There is no one-size-fits all gamification system for online communities. In order to implement the kind of gamification system that works well for your particular community, you’ll need to dig deep into your strategy to determine how a reward system can best serve your community. Gamification for gamification’s sake is a waste of time, effort, and resources.
  2. Create competition that contributes toward a shared outcome. One of the best ways to use gamification in your online community is to implement a “competitive element” that encourages people to form teams and work towards a common goal. This, really, is one of the only scenarios where competition can help foster community.

Gamification alternatives and non-traditional methods

To build upon our little list of authentic, useful, and meaningful ways to gamify your online community, we’re going to look at a few more non-traditional gamification methods, as well as some alternatives to gamification altogether.

Keep it simple + relate it to your business. If you’re planning to make gamification part of your online community, it’s best to keep it simple, remain transparent, and create a link between the gamification itself and your business, brand, or organization. That is, make sure the entirety of your gamification system is tied to both your business and the useful content it produces for your community. If something doesn’t provide a level of value to your members, it will be neither useful nor used by them. 

Bottom line: keep the rules of the game simple and let your community members know exactly why they should earn badges, points, or participate in general.

It’s all in the name. When naming your badges, levels, and titles, think of your brand voice and be as creative as possible! Anyone can have “levels 1-3” and “beginner through advanced” badges. Giving these levels and stages and badges unique, fun, on-brand names, however, helps set you apart from other communities while also further connecting your members to your brand, business, or organization. 

Transparency (it’s worth repeating). Be clear and upfront with how gamification works in your online community. If your members know exactly what they need to do (something that’s of value to them and to the community as a whole) in order to earn—and if you keep badges, levels, and scores public—they’re much more likely to trust, participate, and contribute.

Thoughtful gamification in online communities (is achievable!)

Before you head off to explore the pros and cons of gamification for your own online community, we thought we’d leave you with a few questions to keep at the top of your mind while doing so. Because yes, thoughtful gamification in online communities is indeed achievable. We just have to be… thoughtful and intentional about it, and do what’s best for community members from the start. Ultimately, putting the needs, wants, and goals of community members first is what will lead to increased engagement, meaningful community growth, and (of course) increased ROI.

  1. Gamification is meant to drive engagement, but what does that mean after all the points have been earned? Think twice about your point system, including how, when, and why community members earn points.
  2. How do you keep your engagement and point system fair? What can you do to avoid creating divisions, exclusionary power dynamics, and alienating hierarchies? 
  3. Are you driving the right behavior with the right users? Data is powerful—always look at your data and use it to help you build the best community possible!

Work with experts who build successful communities

Mobilize is made up of community experts who have launched communities for the likes of Dropbox, United Nations’ SDSN, Dermalogica, and more. We work with you to align your business goals with a tailored community strategy to ensure its success.

Whether you’re just getting started or are looking to improve outcomes with your existing community — we have strategies and industry-tailored programs to help you get things done. Schedule a demo for a personalized walk-through of our technology and learn about our expert-led strategy services.