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Creating Meaningful Intrinsic Gamification Systems | Interview with Javier Velasquez

“I have a deep passion for games. Not only the passion of he who plays them but the one of he who wants to know how they work, why they work, why they are important and what is their potential impact on the world.” – Javier Velasquez.

Today, we are going to interview one of the most interesting personalities in the industry of Gamification. Javier Velasquez, hour guest for this interview, is an entrepreneur, a teacher, a public speaker, a Gamification designer, and consultant, and the founder of Free To Play Gamification.

Javier’s experience and passion have led to innovative changes in multiple facets of the Gamification industry. He has developed his own Gamification Framework, called BEM (Behavioral-Experiential-Meaningful), which centers the attention on motivational needs, how to translate them to information and semantic design under the context of the language and rules of games, to create systems that tap into intrinsic needs through playful feedback and interfaces.

Without further ado, let’s start the interview.

Hey Javier! Before we start, can you please tell us about yourself, what intrigued you about Gamification and what your personal experience has been so far?

In 2012, I founded a board game publisher called Azahar Games. My first game, called Xanadú, had moderate success (in terms of the industry, for me it was beyond my expectations), so I started taking game design seriously, researching as much I could on the topic.

That led me to Gamification, and that hit me on a nerve, as I found a way to study game design in a context that could actually positively impact the world. My first Gamification project was developed in 2013, and since then, I have been designing and researching non-stop.

Q1- What does the term “Gamification” mean to you exactly?

I don´t understand Gamification as a design tool but as a disciple. This means, a paradigm of design that should have its own field of study, and a corpus of theories and practices to be studied. As any design discipline, it studies the relationship between users, systems, and environments, but with the novel aspect of bringing game design theories to the front of the process, accompanied by theories on motivation, behavioral sciences, semiotics, and so on.

So, in my POV, Gamification studies the practical application of game design theories, modulated by recent psychological studies on human motivation and behavior, in the product, process, and service design.

Q2- When and how did you start Free-to-Play (F2P)? What was the idea/concept behind this?

I founded F2P back 2014, one year after being experimenting with the concept. It was the early days of Gamification when it was all about incorporating game elements into non-gaming platforms, and it was heavily reliant on operant conditioning and reward cycles.

Since then, the concept has changed a lot for us, and now F2P is built around the idea that game design principles can be applied to other fields of design to create better products.

Q3- What are the essential steps of making Gamification a “fun” element for users?

I never use “fun” in my design process, because of its semiotic ambiguity. Fun is a loaded word that might not express what you want to achieve with your system. We talk about creating attraction and positive engagement through eustress and conflict, which resonates better with what should be, in my opinion, a better definition of game design.

In that regard, we use a design paradigm that begins by understanding the systemic motivational map of our users, through the lens of our BEM framework. Then, we continue to find feedback and mechanical schemes that resonate, amplify, or solve both approach and avoidance drivers. We check possible biases that press current behaviors and try to find competitive motivational schemes that could enhance the system.

Q4- To what degree is Gamification customized for different companies in specific industries, and as a result, a different customer base?

I prefer a tailor-made approach to our Gamification designs, not only between industries but between projects. The reason is that a particular design of efficient farming could, potentially, be useful in productive scenarios, but would hinder human relations in a social-building context. In this sense, the customer base is always changing: sometimes it’s captive, like in mandatory course taking in L&D, and sometimes it fluctuates, like in a loyalty scheme program.

Q5- Is there any research behind Gamification? If so, how can one conduct their own research?

The research in Gamification is extensive, but not everything out there is good. Some meta-analyses suggest that Gamification research has been too focused on the effect of particular game elements on different contexts, but this ignores a more systemic approach to game design, where you cannot anticipate how a particular element (let’s say, badges) can affect motivation in the presence of different game mechanics. 45% of all research is done on education, where academics have a closer interest in the impact of using it, but there is also a lot of research done by consultants that will not see the public eye.

My tip would be to stop focusing the analysis on individual elements and try different approaches of design, in terms of game schemas. But also, it is to be noted that most research measures behavior with a narrow approach.

Tackling the problem as a behavioral scientist might help a lot, as you should not consider only what behaviors arise, but also, when did they arise and what was the game status when a certain behavior happened. Contextual and informational analysis is key for better Gamification research.

Q6- What are some of the common pitfalls when adding Gamification?

The most common pitfall is relying on reward cycles as the main source of engagement, as it brings all the known pitfalls of extrinsic rewards. When you understand Gamification as a skinner box, you might lose track of what makes apps like Tinder or Habitica great: the mechanics and feedback elements.

If you are using Gamification to “improve” a broken system, it will have little effect, as the underlying design is still flawed. Gamification, in that case, should analyze the system to understand why it drives avoidance, and the project should be committed to change rules and algorithms to suit their audience better. So, having Gamification as a quick fix almost always has nocive effects.

Q7- What Gamification trends are you seeing now, and what do you predict for the future?

We are moving towards understanding Gamification more on a systemic level. It will grow from a behavioral trick to a field of study with several schools and paradigms of thought, or so I hope. But it is clear that the best minds in the field are migrating from using reward schedules with “gamified labels,” to more strong-feedback approaches.

Understanding how an artificial set of rules placed over corporate or learning environments can affect the system as a whole will be a big field of study.

Q8- If you could give one piece of advice to anyone entering Gamification, what would it be?

Don’t think Gamification is an easy to implement design tool. Great game design is hard to accomplish, and even experienced designers sometimes can have trouble getting their games right.

Gamification takes into account several factors and variables, and, if done properly, there is much you can learn from it, but avoid easy solutions and low-hanging fruits. Especially, be wary of farming mechanics that rely on behavior->points->redemption cycles, as they lose their engagement power by the 3rd month or so.

If you are new, seek guidance or help from experienced people on the field with solid frameworks and theoretical and practical backgrounds. That can be the difference between success and a system full of pitfalls and backlashes. If you can’t find or afford the help, avoid embarking on high-risk Gamification systems with many unknowns, and try first your design in controlled situations for at least 5 to six months before a major roll-out. Many nocive effects of bad Gamification are only evident after the fourth month!

Q9- Name a few mentors, influencers or friends that you think have helped you understand or increase your knowledge about gamification?

I have been accompanied in this journey by Lina Parra, my partner in crime, Ana Maria Velasquez (my sister) and David Castañeda, my pupil but also a friend.

I closely follow the work of Rob Haisfield, of Kerstin Oberprieler, of Andrzej Marczewski, David Chandross, Scott Nicholson, Amy Jo Kim, and Monica Cornetti.

Q10- Could you share a picture of your workspace with our readers?

My workplace is wherever my computer is really, but this is my design desk, full of bits for board game design and Gamification modeling. It is usually messier, of course. I can’t say I have a routine, as there is much to do in every project, which I think keeps me engaged in my work. I don’t even have a proper sleeping schedule, which should be something I should change in the future. But I can tell you my day is a ride and I’m happy to be able to ride it.

Workstation of Javier Velasquez

Javier Velasquez Workstation

Thank you, Javier, for taking the time out to give us insights and information on how truly amazing the industry of Gamification has become in the last couple of years.

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