Show notes

In this month’s episode of UXPodcast James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom are joined by Jesper Bylund to talk about gamification. What is gamification? is it a buzzword, or just marketing? Can anything be gamified? Can a podcast be gamified?

Listen to our chat with Jesper, and give yourself a crash-course in gamification.

(Listening time: 29 minutes)



Per: OK. Welcome to episode five of the UX Podcast. You’re listening to me, Per Axbom.

James: And me, James Royal-Lawson.

Per: We’re in the kill-room.


James: I don’t like you saying that!


Per: We’re in the same place as always.

James: Yes. We’re in my studio in Stockholm. It’s the 19th of September 2011 and it’s raining here in Stockholm, really, really raining and if we’re all quiet for a second, you might be able to hear the rain the background. It’s in the …

Per: Even though it’s a soundproof studio.

James: The windows in the roof aren’t soundproof so …

Per: And today we have our first guest in UX Podcast none other than Jesper Bylund. Welcome, Jesper.

Jesper: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Per: So who are you?

Jesper: Well, who I am is kind of a weird story but well, how I ended up here talking about gamification is shortly like this. I studied economics when I was a teenager. It kind of deteriorated into behavioral economics and Austrian economics. Then I started learning at the university and I kind of fell into game design and started studying game designs, started working with the game development industry and launched a couple of games. Then I started working in the web industry and all of a sudden, there’s this hype word called “gamification” so I thought I would read up on it and realized that, “Oh my god, I’m an expert at this.” This is what I’ve been doing my entire life. So basically I started talking about gamification because I think that a lot of the knowledge out there is just hype and that’s not good enough and that’s why I’m here.

James: Yes, and that’s excellent. I studied economics too. Although 20 years ago now. I’m starting to feel like a really old man. I’m not, but with these deadlines or these milestones of 20 years since something, it’s really scary – but 20 years ago, when I started behavior economics, we called it experimental economics. It was a really new field back then but I found it fascinating.

Jesper: It was old school.

James: Because it gave me the applied science of economics. Economics is far too theoretical, far too many situations. It just never ever happened in real life whereas what we did in experimental economics was try things that really did happen and observe and learn what we can do, how we can do it. So gamification and – well, behavioral economics is fascinating.

Jesper: That’s actually a great medium because gamification is applied game design which is applied behavior user studies.

James: I was realizing as well that we’re bringing to interview, to talk and to try and disagree a little bit and… Jesper comes in and we agree straight away!.


Per: Allow me to be the skeptic then. This is just a buzzword. There isn’t like for the past year or so and me coming from the field of experience design isn’t just – this is just another way of trying to explain what experience design is.

Jesper: It could be. Actually, gamification is a term that is stupid in many ways but game design goes back like from the 70s or something like that. It’s about studying how users behave in the game and why they behave in certain ways in the game and then learning from that to create better games.

So we have this broad-based knowledge about user behavior and how to affect user behavior and how to make people think something is fun. We can apply that to most things but user behavior is – sorry, user experience design is from the other way around because you start off with the product or you start off with whatever and then you try to find out how people work. We did it the other way around. We studied people and then we went, “OK, yes. So how can we design this into a game?” So yes, it is a buzzword and it’s from two different industries. We are based on two different schools of thought.

James: So what we’re saying there is experience design is top-down.

Jesper: Yes.

James: Taking a result and working backwards to see how well it fits together whereas gamification is bottom up.

Jesper: Well, it started like that. Now as gamification starts coming into the web industry, it has to become top down because …

James: … you’ve got an existing website so you can’t just start from scratch every time.

Jesper: Yes, but that’s how we started out. That’s where our science and our schools of thought come from.

Per: Right. I would argue though the experience design can come both ways as well of course based on creating a customer journey map and actually seeing how a person moves in life through a  given scenario and then building something out of that.

Jesper: OK.

James: With a customer journey map, you’re still looking at what’s happening.

Per: That’s true.

James: So you’re still not start from… talk about – I guess what I was saying there is that you can start conception from scratch and nothing existing anywhere. No existing customers, no nothing and you’re designing something from that point …

Per: That’s right. That sounds beautiful. That sounds like a dream.

Jesper: Just like when you think about Tetris. Tetris is a game that you cannot ever reach the goal. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the futility of doing stuff but it’s fun. It’s awesome. You want to build this tower. You want to make as much points as you can but it’s really about the emotion of futility. That’s what the game is about.

Per: Right.

James: Yes. And something here is to – to take it beyond games because you’ve got games which are for entertainment.

Jesper: Yes.

James: And what we’re really talking about here is business so we’re moving in …

Jesper: That’s why we call it gamification.


Jesper: Well, serious games is actually a sub-cultural game design which is about applying games to teaching or learning. So it’s specifically for learning. It’s called serious games because we started with things like firefighter simulators, advanced warfare simulator and stuff like that. That’s where it comes from but serious games is not the same thing as gamification because gamification is – it’s basically the marketing branch of game design but I have answer about what you said though with games aren’t that straight forward, as you think, because we can all imagine what game is. We can all conjure up this image of this is a game. You just add this and this and this and it’s a game. Tada!

But if you try to boil that down to what a game really is, it’s not that straight forward. We don’t really know where the line is drawn on the sand because there is none. If you add points to stuff, is it a game? No, it doesn’t have to be. But if you do something that’s fun, is it a game? Yes, probably. When you guys clean your floors, I mean when we tried to – what’s it called? Mop your floors …

James: Yes. Mopping your floors.

Jesper: Almost every person in the world divides that floor into, “Oh yes, I just completed ten-eighths of half of the floor.” They kind of like compartmentalize what you’re trying to do and this is actually creating a game with yourself because what you’re setting up is a rewards structure for you to …

James: You’re setting – you’re targeting goals and then rewarding yourself …

Jesper: Yes.

James: … in some way.

Jesper: Which is a game. For you, this is a game but no one can join the game. That would ruin the game. It’s actually doing work.

James: So that sounds – well normally, I would consider a game to be when you create a set of rules for something then you enter into the game space…

Jesper: Exactly.

James: …and play that game according to the rules.

Jesper: Game space is a really weird concept because game space applies to you in your head only.

James: And all the voices aswell, it applies to all them!

Jesper: Live from the kill room.


Jesper: Awesome.


Jesper: That’s true because in the start of the game, like in history of game design, we started with board games because it was very simple. We just compartmentalize that this is the magic circle of the game.

James: Yes.

Jesper: And then we started making games that were sports and we made a playing field and said, “This is the game,” and then we made these digital ones and said, “Yes, let’s start this product and make it a game.” But then we started to make augmented reality games and we started having political struggles that weren’t real and things that don’t really have these boundaries. So the only scientific explanation to say – the only scientific boundary you can really say is when you’re constantly rewarding yourself, when you think this is fun, this is awesome, that’s a game for you but that can be anything. Yes.

James: So we’re answering a question now before we asked it. It’s like, “Can anything be gamified?”

Jesper: Yes, anything can be gamified.

James: Yes.

Jesper: Simply. It’s not because you can add points and stuff to anything but it’s because that any task that has recurring events can be rewarding and progressing.

James: So maybe then the question shouldn’t be, “Can anything be gamified?” because probably I have to agree with you that yes, you can gamify anything. So the question should be, “Should anything be gamified?” or everything be gamified …

Jesper: That’s an interesting question. Yes, because this is interesting too, too what I was saying earlier. Sorry about that. I was talking about the game seeker then and his ideas about gamification and that they’re basically user behavior modification not actually gamification. What I mean by that is that what they’re looking at is trying to change what users are doing with a product that already exists. So a user starts a service and then you add things to make them do stuff they didn’t really want to do at the start and this is possible to do it.

I wouldn’t say it’s a good idea but you can do this with the basics of gamification but not always to the results you want. So should everything be gamified? No, because you can enter into the world of emergent behavior where you have users doing stuff that is terrible and horrible and weird crap and like hacking your service because that’s a part of the game that you designed because you didn’t fully understand the rules you made.

James: And also you’ve got to have an exit strategy, I guess, because if we take the example – we’ve complained a few times now with the whole like-race – of people – of companies and organizations setting up Facebook pages.

Jesper: Of course.

James: They’re all doing things – they’re gamifying the process of becoming.. of liking a page to increase their numbers. Whether it’s Rix FM getting you to win an iPad. They’ve gamified it, giving a reward for liking it but …


Jesper: Depends on how they did it.

James: From their – I think from their perspective it is gamification …

Jesper: Yes, of course because they’re setting up the numbers and yes, this is the target. This is the goal.

James: Yes.


James: … the chance of having an iPad but what we complain about is that’s – it’s hollow.

Jesper: It is.

James: It’s not organic. It’s not building …

Per: Right.

James: … a good foundation for your page.

Jesper: Yes.


Jesper: …are you not rewarding kind of pirate behavior here because you’re going to start up spam accounts and make a bot that starts spam accounts on Facebook if I clicked and I liked on this page.

Yes, of course you are! The best example of this is a game called This Is Not A Game. It’s not a mental – yes. You know, that’s part of the game actually. It’s an augmented reality game and people get together online to solve problems that don’t really exist in the real world but are made to look like they exist in the real world. They have to solve these problems by doing things in the real world. The problem is that the problems that this game set up are catastrophes. Some of the real catastrophes happened. When 9/11 happened, a lot of people – and this is not a game, started thinking that that was the game and they started trying to solve 9/11 because that was part of the game but this wasn’t part of the game design.

The game designers had no idea this was going on but all of a sudden, they had thousands of people trying game 9/11. This is a terrible, terrible problem with trying to alter user behavior because you really want a clear goal. You really want people to know exactly where they’re supposed to be going and why and that’s not something that you can set up. That happens in the user. So emergent behavior is a terrible problem with gamification because if you add any type of rules to anything, what you’re really setting up is a rule-based structure that people would try to get around because winning is the object always.

James: So that you said yourself your own goal of staying ahead of them.

Jesper: Exactly.

James: Understanding what they’re going to do so you can adjust your future game plan to take into account of how they’re going to react later.

Jesper: Yes. But how do you do it if you have a million players?

James: Yes.

Jesper: Or worse …


James: … with that number of players and that’s such …


Jesper: … You don’t even know who these people are. Especially not if you do this online. I mean if you try to set up a game for winning an iPad, how do you make a game that you can’t cheat in? Well, online, you can’t. It’s not possible because it’s digital. You can always game the system in some way so you have to do it partially analog in the real world.

James: … or it can become games, because you might do a little competition or something – you expect maybe 2000 people to participate and then something happens – the trigger – and this then goes viral or whatever and …

Jesper: Exactly.

James: … and it then grows to a level which was way beyond the original expectations and that increases the chance that it would be gamified. Wasn’t there – let’s think about what’s is called – the free lunches – that il pilato was it? [Pannini] That was doing here in Stockholm …

Per: Right.

James: … before the summer. It make me think about that now and that started off by there were going to give away so many free lunches each time if you liked a certain page of stuff. I saw friends on Facebook. They were liking – they were doing things again and again and again to cheat the system and to get more free lunches.

Jesper: Exactly.

James: Because they realized it was a way of getting free lunches.

Jesper: Of course and then the thing is the object of the game has become just getting a free lunch.

James: Yes.

Jesper: It doesn’t matter if you actually get the free lunch. What matters is you beat the system. You won. It’s awesome and this is the problem with games in general. That’s why marketing people shouldn’t just accept the term “gamification” and go like, “Yes, yes. We should solve this,” because what will happen is you will probably break your customer.

James: That’s what we said about exit strategy earlier that …

Jesper: Yes.

James: ..if we take the Rix FM example again when they’ve got 20,000 people to like their Facebook page because they had a chance of winning an iPad.

Jesper: Yes, yes.

James: That was a competition that finished in – before summer.

Per: Yes.

James: What happens now?

Jesper: Exactly?

James: The game has ended.

Jesper: Yes.

James: But now you’ve got 20,000 people who liked your page who aren’t there because they like Rix FM, they’re there because they played a game and it has ended.

Jesper: Yes. Well if you have a magic circle of the game space and you don’t move the game space, the game is still running. So for the people playing this, the game is still running. The program is you’re messing up because what Rix FM is doing now is that they’re spamming people who entered the game.

James: Yes.

Jesper: That didn’t really like Rix FM in the first place so what’s happening is they’re actually building a negative emotional bomb to this brand now.

Per: Right.

James: And while we’re going there, you say it’s poor community management because the game has created the community.

Jesper: Yes.

James: They think they’ve ended the game but they haven’t, because the community still exists and they’re still playing the game.

Jesper: Yes.

James: And they’re going against …

Jesper: Yes.

James: Like you said, going against probably all their targets.

Jesper: Yes.

Per: But backing up a bit, you were …


Per: Gamification, a lot of people will say that – a common misconception is that it’s about badges and check-ins and stuff like that but on the other hand, we all checked-in here this morning. We all love becoming a mayor of a place.


Jesper: Well, social media behavior is really interesting because most social media experiences don’t actually look at why people do this. They just know that people do it.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: So what’s happening is rewards come in like a set number of possible rewards. It’s all about how you as a person think about the world and one of these very basic rewards, one of the largest rewards is social recognition. So why you’re sharing stuff is based on your type of reward structure, what’s going on in your head. What you really think is interesting about the world is probably mostly based on what kind of social rewards you get for this so sharing everything in social media. Social media generally is based on the fact that you’re constantly getting rewarded for doing stuff because people see it. You get social recognition. Congratulations. Whoa, yes! I feel better.

James: I agree with you… what you think is right, what you’ve read is inline with what I think.

Jesper: Yes. So this is basic gamification. I mean the largest gamified product in the world is Facebook.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: The second largest is probably Twitter.

Per: Yes… and it’s not because of Farmville. It’s because of the way that Facebook is built.

Jesper: Exactly.


James: … and YouTube is the other massive one there. You’re loading up videos that – to get attention …

Jesper: Exactly. Now the thing is game designs were not the heart of the design process for these products. So the products themselves are really poorly made to reward people. For instance in Twitter, you can’t see retweets. You have to either check into their website and go to their special page and look at your retweets. Or you have to install Boxcar on your iPhone or something like this just to know that people are retweeting your tweets.


James: … there as so many ways of retweeting as well.

Jesper: Yes.

James: So even then you’ve got problems measuring.

Jesper: Of course, of course. And this is the basic reward of the system. This is your game but they don’t know that.

James: And followers, although followers has already been gamed …

Jesper: But followers is not the same thing though because followers and fans are not the same thing as social recognition because followers and fans made one choice once.

James: Yes.

Jesper: Think of it as reward points. If you get a follower, you get a reward point. If you get a retweet or a reply, you each get a reward point.

James: Yes.

Jesper: So retweets will happen more often than followers.

Per: Very good point, yes.

James: But one, but the followers is, your could argue, an earlier stage of the game.

Jesper: Of course.

James: So, you know, you want to – if you think you can get more retweet points, you’re going to increase your followers to increase the chances of getting retweeted …


Jesper: … we can actually tie this back into marketing. Yes. If your aim is to increase your fans or your followers, you will increase that but you won’t have more engagement and you wouldn’t understand why. What’s happening is they don’t care about what you’re saying. They care about the game or the marketing strategy that you got to make them come there but if you increase engagement instead, you will still grow just not as fast but these people will be engaged. They will like the game you’re actually playing. They will like your product or what you’re talking about or something like that.

James: This is a really good point to do with staying on topic as well.

Jesper: Yes.

James: When you have a Facebook page or a campaign, or something, you’ve got to stick to what it was in the beginning …

Jesper: Yes.

James: … or you’ve got a very, very different, difficult journey ahead of you to try and change direction …

Per: … to find your niche and decide what that’s going to be so that people listen to you.

James: Yes. It’s like my Semlor page on Facebook, using the Facebook example again. There are 20,000 people that like that. If I started talking about beer …

Per: Yes.

Jesper: Yes.

James: You know, I think I’m going to get so many negative comments and they’re going to wonder, “What the hell has happened?” That way, someone has switched out your World of Warcraft for a Hello Kitty game.


Per: James is talking about his semlor page on Facebook but we should explain what that is. A semlor is a Swedish – I don’t know.

James: It’s kind of like – it’s to do with Shrove Tuesday and whereas in England we have pancakes. In Sweden, we have these semlor buns.

Per: We’ll add a link to it in the show notes.

Jesper: Yes, yes.

Per: So let’s reveal why we actually brought Jesper here and of course that’s we wanted to get more listeners to UX Podcast. So how do we actually gamify a podcast?

Jesper: So, to answer that, I have to really, really quickly explain how gamification works.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: And don’t worry. This just takes a minute. The thing is you will spend the rest of your life thinking about this. So, well, you each understand rewards. Now if you do something and you think that’s interesting, you get a reward. It’s very simple but what you want to do with the gamification is you want to make these rewards really, really fast. You want to get these rewards often and you want to make the pacing of getting rewards interesting. So you can’t just give rewards in a linear space. You can’t get rewards – each time you click a button you get a reward. That will be really boring.

James: This is like the diagram with the flow in the middle… and ability and time

Jesper: Yes, exactly.

Jesper: We want people to enter into flow which means that they always know how to get the next reward but they have to work a bit to get that reward and getting that reward can’t be completely transparent. You have to have some kind of margin for error, some kind of analog that makes it still interesting, interesting for you to try to get that reward because the reward in itself doesn’t make it interesting. It’s the achievement of trying for it that makes it interesting. So what you want to make is actually a podcast that is probably really short. Congratulations. Try to do that. With the really good points and probably start it off with something like a hard problem or hard questions or something and then add in all the information they need to unlock or understand that question.

James: I was just going to say that – wouldn’t an idea then be to get access to the next episode of the podcast?

Jesper: No, no, no, no. No, you’re trying to make it a game.

James: Right.


Jesper: So what you want to probably make is that they can choose the reward but the reward is understanding. The reward is in the next episode.

James: Right. Yes. I see you’re right …


Jesper: … the question, “What is gamification?” and then we talk a lot about the foundations of gamification, then they have to make up their own minds in the end of the show. That will be really rewarding but for people who don’t care about the problem, they will turn off. That’s how a game works. They’re might check-in for the next episode or whatever but to make this reward quick enough, you’re going to have to do this really fast. So we’re talking about a couple of minutes but the best reward, most interesting reward, the only reward that makes anything special or whatever is the …

Per: Sex.

Jesper: Sex. yes. No, it’s the moment of understanding.

Per: OK.

Jesper: Yes. So that is what fun …

Per: The “eureka” moment like …

Jesper: Yes, yes, exactly. The “eureka” moment is where fun is. So that’s why you can’t make it digital. You can’t just switch it on and off because if you do that, there’s no “eureka” moment. You always know how to do it. It’s not fun.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: But if it’s analog, you can always almost get there and then you get there and then it’s like, “Yes! Eureka! I got it!” So ideas are actually the best game ever. The problem is they’re not quick enough so most people don’t want to play.

Per: I can relate to that when I’m programming because I’m not really a developer but I do some on the side anyway.

Jesper: Yes.

Per: Sitting up at night for hours and hours trying to solve a problem and finding out that it’s that semicolon and then when you do. That’s a fantastic moment and time just flies away and you’re having fun actually just like that semicolon …

James: yeah, I’ve spent years of my life hunting for that kind of moment moment. All programming is basically that.

Jesper: Yes, we all do. The things – that’s the – this is the physical aspect of fun, of all fun. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the same in sex. It’s always, always about this moment of understanding because it was, “Yes, I got it,”  “Oh, yes, I understood that,” “Oh, I got that,” “Oh, I understood that,” every time.

Per: If you push that button, this happens.

Jesper: Yes, you know. Exactly, exactly but it only works when you didn’t understand from the start. So you can’t do it again and think you’ll be fine.

James: It’s an element of surprise.

Jesper: No it’s not.

James: The element of unknown.

Jesper: Yes.

James: Not surprise.

Jesper: So you understand that this – I don’t understand this.

Jesper: When you understand it.

Per: And that’s why people love info-graphics and stuff like that. All of a sudden, they can get overview in understanding something that they couldn’t understand …

Jesper: Exactly. This applies to everything so all the rewards I was talking about. I divided rewards into five player types, Richard Bartle’s player types and social recognition is one of them. So the reward here is understanding that, “Oh, other people find that is interesting as well.”

Per: Oh, yes.

Jesper: So you understand that people find it interesting. That’s the reward.

James: So this is probably why people find traditions ultimately very hollow. You know, at Christmas, a lot of people hate, you know, Julafton because it follows the same routine every year…


James: Because it’s a tradition.

Per: Yes.

James: So you’ve got no …

Per: Yes.

Jesper: And this is also why routine is the exact opposite of fun.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: This is why people hate routine because routine destroys fun of life. It does. It destroys basic fun. It’s the opposite.


Per: We need to add gamification into our marriages.

Jesper: Yes.


James: … This is why marriages fail because they aren’t gamified enough. This is why kids are nursery school are much better than kids maybe at school. When they’re in school, it then becomes a routine that they have to do and then you’ve cut off all the free play.

Jesper: Then you do the same thing and you go like, “Oh yes, we did this last semester. I don’t want to do this again.” There’s something new at the end but you don’t really care because you’re already turned off by it and actually the gamification of relationship. I was talking about this yesterday.

If we always grow as people – now we always grow as people. We always do but if we grow too close, so we always know where each other are, where we are, you know. I always see you growing so you can’t ever say something new to me. That would be really boring but if you go off and do something interesting and come back and tell me about it, that makes you more interesting to me because I learned something. So this is why I can’t get a girlfriend because …

James: You game it.


Jesper: Basically, yes. No. Actually, that’s true. We get these understandings of – no, this is just another way of looking at life like everything you’ve learned. It’s just another point of view but if you understand the basics of reward in anything, you get kind of bored with – you know, we always set up these social games with people around us all the time. We set up these things like a sales pitch or a first date or whatever but if you understand the rules of the game, it’s really fucking boring.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: Because you go there and you know it.

Per: Yes.

Jesper: Yes, this is how it works.

James: And this is also probably why we’re …

Jesper: Spending far too much time talking about this …

James: … why me and Per are self-employed consultants

Jesper: Yes.

James: Because we probably – if we realize it or not, realize that the game didn’t move on quick enough all the way we want it by being employed or being stuck in organizations. So we became self-employed to give us that aspect of unknown to what we do.

Per: Yes.

James: Even though at times it doesn’t earn us as  much money…

Jesper: You get the choice of the rewarding yourself when you want to.

James: Yes.

Jesper: So tying in to what I asked before …

James: Yes. OK. Everything can be gamified but should it? We’re probably saying here that our podcast shouldn’t be gamified.

Jesper: Probably not.

James: Because us delivering interesting content is gaming it enough for our listeners.

Jesper: Yes.

Per: I was thinking of it – before of what we said about social recognition and actually if people could see the other people who are their friends who are like also listening to the podcast, that would probably do something for us.

James: Oh, yes. Definitely.

Per: Let’s start coding.

Jesper: Yes. So I hope I gave you like more food for thought.

Per: Oh, definitely. It was really great having you here, Jesper and …

Jesper: We got through like two of the questions. So …

Per: Yes, we did. We did …

James: On the whiteboard infront of us.

Thank you for coming. Thank you very much. This is James Royal-Lawson.

Per: And Per Axbom.

James: Yes.

Jesper: And I’m Jesper Bylund.

James: Yes.

Jesper: Signing off.

James: Bye-bye.

Per: Ciao.


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