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Why Purpose is important for your gamified project

A Series In Design & Game-Based Learning Tools And Toolkits

Purpose is an incredibly important psychological motivator, especially when you are creating (gamified) projects that require a high level of engagement. In our continuing series on game-based learning tools and toolkits, for this week I’d like to explore the motivational lever of Purpose.

If you’ve been following this series of the past few months, then you will likely realise that I’m jumping ahead a bit. I felt that perhaps I would give a sneak peek to some of the core mechanisms behind gamified solutions and leave the organisational exploration pieces for a different day. As with any good learning exercise, it’s more useful to now and then see what the inner-workings are of the various tools and how these can aid and support the main applicable aspects of the overall frameworks and tools.

For this piece then I’ve chosen what I consider to be the first and the foremost motivator: Purpose. The driver of purpose is one of the most important intrinsic motivators when it comes to behavioural psychology and getting individuals to become engaged in an activity.

With Purpose, we’ll look at a few things:

  • What it is,
  • How to use it,
  • What mechanics there are,
  • When’s it’s successful,
  • And when it fails

And as a final piece, I’ll leave you with a few actionable steps that you can take to consider what purpose is for you and your players.

What is purpose?

Purpose is a general term that we use when we want to describe something that connects to a larger goal in our lives. Generally, purpose is something that lives both inside and outside of us. We feel it connect with something in us, but it has to be something that can be situated beyond us. Purpose at its basis gives us meaning and reason to move forward, to get out of bed in the morning and give our best.

When we consider what purpose is for a player, we can define it as the difference between when a player believes in the experience they are undertaking, versus a person who is just there, going through the motions, to get whatever reward or outcome was promised or they expect. One is completely engaged in what they are doing and the other is simply going with the flow.

The engaged player will remain loyal and continue to come back, the other user as it were, will likely only be there for that one-time thing and then move on. Purpose gives meaning to the actions that the player is taking. It creates value for them and that value is a sign of the investment they have into the gamified initiative that you have developed.

Purpose therefore also creates the sensation of being part of something greater than yourself, the point of restating this yet again is that purpose is unique for each person. Each of has a different sense of it and its depth differs for each person. The trick to finding what the right alignment is between your organisation’s purpose and that of your players.

How to use purpose

As purpose is one of the strongest intrinsic motivators that you can use, it thus also becomes one of the most difficult to implement and use correctly.

Unfortunately, purpose isn’t something that you manufacture for your players. It has to be a natural connection. This connection is the alignment between you and your players. Discovering and understanding what your players purpose, or rather what they desire out of their experience with you, and aligning with that will help in creating a synchronised relationship with you and your players.

As Daniel Pink mentions in his book Drive: ‘[The science shows that] the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive – our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.’

Purpose thus offers true intrinsic value, the meaning to our actions as said, and pushes us to undertake tasks that we would usually consider beyond our scope. Purpose can therefore be seen as a framework, a scaffold if you will, on which players can ground their actions and understand or rationalise the value of their undertakings.

One thing you must be careful when considering this is that you do not try to quantify purpose for the player. As I said, purpose is unique for each person, and assigning an extrinsic value to it for your player will deprive it of its worth.

The mechanics of purpose

There are a great many mechanics and elements when discussing gamification, and many of them can be assigned to purpose. Objectives, goals, challenges, etc. are all worthy mechanics that can be associated with purpose. They do after all target the main purpose of purpose as it were. But the one mechanic that I want to discuss when we look at purpose is the one that creates meaning for it and your player, and that is Narrative. And specifically narrative and theme.

When you design and develop your gamified solution, you can have either narrative or theme, or both. As long as one of them I can pretty much guarantee that your players will be engaged with the experience, so long as you have used them correctly. Saying that I, unfortunately, cannot give you a direct method of how to use it correctly. This will depend entirely upon what product or service you are offering and what the story is that you weave around it.

To help though, I can give you an example of a company that was successful in constructing a worthwhile story around their service.

A few years ago Chipotle, a US Based restaurant chain, made an advertisement that they called Back to the Start. In short, the advert shows a huge industrialised farming compound and a farmer who realises that he should go back to a more sustainable and animal-friendly way of producing his goods.

The advert being a very simple and amusing animation was incredibly successful. And the reason that it resonated so strongly with audiences is that it wasn’t an in-your-face sales pitch about Chipotle. It was an authentic message about what they do and how they go about delivering their product.

The story created a strong connection with their customers because it was a real and authentic one from the company. It was more explaining to the customer what they do rather than what the customer should buy from them or why.

If you use the mechanic of narrative and/or theme, then you must make sure that it is an authentic story, if it is a piece of complete fiction then your players will see through it and you will alienate them. For example, if a car company were to continually state that it’s products are environmentally friendly and the stories that its adverts weave are those of the company and its cars being green, but then it turns out they have been cooking the books and their cars are large polluters. The outcome of something like that I do not need to explain to you.

If you are considering creating a narrative to leverage the full extent of the motivator of purpose then I can recommend that you start with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This narrative framework will give you a good basis on what is required to create a story. You cannot get more formulaic than this, as most Hollywood films are based on this framework. And to an extent, you will likely see some success if you start with it.

When the purpose is successful

If you would like more examples of when purpose has been successful and how various mechanics used with it have been effective, then you don’t need to look much further than with public awareness and service games such as Foldit, FreeRice and the United Nations Minesweeper.

Each of these ‘serious games’, as you could call them, have an intrinsic purpose in them, to improve the world and the lives of those who live in this world.

If you haven’t come across these before then I’ll give you a quick description of each.

Foldit is essentially a puzzle game where you are required to discover how best to fold proteins so that they can fulfil a particular function. Discoveries in combatting cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and so forth have been made possible due to this crowdsourced puzzle game.

FreeRice is a quiz game that asks questions of you, and the more you get right the more rice you help donate to impoverished parts of the world. So learning and being more knowledgeable contributes to helping feed the hungry.

And finally, the UN’s Minesweeper is a game about increasing awareness about areas in the world where mines are still a plague. It simulates the experience having to walk through a minefield and thus enables people to help with clearing these areas, mostly through donation.

Each of these games has a theme or narrative of some sort. Some it is quite a clear narrative such as the Minesweeper game, whereas Foldit is more of a theme around solving puzzles and uncovering answers. Each uses it uniquely’s choice of mechanics to help align their purpose with those of their players and each has been successful in doing this. I would recommend you look at and have a play with each of these games to get a feel for how and what they do.

When purpose fails

As stated before, purpose fails when you miss one or all three of the following aspects:

  • Authenticity
  • Alignment
  • And Choice

When you are inauthentic in your purpose, then whatever you are trying to do when inevitably fail. You should not pretend to be something that you are not. Like many cigarette companies, they would likely be more successful if they were simply honest and authentic about their product.

If you are not aligned with the purpose of your players then you will either never gain them as loyal supporters or they will slowly leave you. To stop this you will need to research them and likely speak to them to discover what it is that they want and how you can work with them to find some point of connection.

And lastly, choice is important when using purpose. The worst thing you can do is to force choice or to restrict from your players. The outcome of either of these increases in severity from them simply dropping off, becoming bored but hanging around and not giving you value or they become combative. If they become combative then they will likely vocally and loudly criticise you, and highlight all the negative aspects. In a world of social media you cannot afford to have this happen, so be careful and remain aware and attuned to the state of your players.

Final thoughts

As a final thing I would like to leave you with some steps that you can take when considering how to use purpose or what purpose is for:

  • What does your organisation’s brand represent? What is your Purpose? Do you have a story that explains that Purpose? Reflect on why you do what you do as an organisation.
  • When customers come to your company, what is it that they want from it? Think about what the benefit is that you are providing to your customers, rather than any features of the product/service you sell. Does this real benefit link to any higher purpose?
  • Does your company’s purpose align with those of your customers? Try to find as many links as you can between yours and your customers’ purpose, as these will become the foundation for your gamification solution and the story that your brand should tell.

I hope that these questions will help you gain insight into how you can purpose for your organisation and perhaps aid you in creating a better relationship with your players/customers.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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