Interview With Yu-kai Chou

Yu-kai Chou is arguably one of the most influential gamification experts of our time.

He is a gamification pioneer and international keynote speaker. In 2014, Yu-kai was rated #1 Gamification Guru by the World Gamification Congress.

We are very excited for the release of Yu-kai Chou’s upcoming book: “Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards.” The book is a deep exploration into what makes a game fun and how to apply those fun and engaging elements into real-life productive activities.

Yu Kai- Chou Book Cover

Here at Captain Up, we are lucky enough to have him as our Behavioral Scientist and here are some questions we asked him: 

CU: As a gamification pioneer, I am sure people often ask you “how can games really create value in the real world?” How do you respond to that?

YKC: The one thing that is very clear is that games create motivation. There is no “purpose” of playing a game, and you never “have to” play a game. You have to go to work, pay your taxes, do your homework, but you never have to play a game. The moment a game is no longer fun and engaging, people leave and play another game, check their emails, or go on YouTube. But we know people spend hours every day playing games when there is no purpose at all. The question is, where is that motivation directed? If the motivation is directed towards things that create value in the real world, then games, or I should say game design, can create value in the real world.

CU: What is the most practical use of gamification?

YKC: The sweet spot of gamification is within things that are:

1. Extremely important,
2. Boring and unmotivating.

Things like Health and Wellness, Education, Training, Banking, Finance, and Sustainability are all sectors that I do a lot of work in. For instance, my work for the company Morf Media is to make SEC Compliance Training fun and engaging for financial institution employees. The regulations span thousands of pages, change all the time, and are a huge demoralizing distraction for these employees who are already stressed about their other projects. However, it’s also very important, because every day the employees are not compliant, it spells huge risk for the company. Therefore, my job is to help them make this training fun and exciting, to the extend that when the employees finish one training module, they are anxiously waiting for the new module to come out. We’re seeing a lot of good steam.

Other topics are things like Lifestyle Gamification – helping ourselves become more productive, more motivated, and more passionate about things that help our own lives is also a very important field.

CU: Tell us about Lifestyle Gamification and how is it possible to convert our lives into games?

YKC: Lifestyle Gamification is really what got me into my profession about 12 years ago. I was a heavy gamer and excelled at making my in-game characters excellent. After I quit the game, I felt empty and wondered why didn’t I spend the same amount of energy to make myself excellent?

At that point, I started seeing everything I was doing as a game. Before that, everything I did was a “requirement,” which meant I did the bare minimum amount of work to achieve my desired results.

When I saw everything as a game, of course I don’t just do the bare minimum – I put my heart and sweat into it to become the best that I could be. Since then, I developed a process of Lifestyle Gamification that follows these six steps:

1. Find your game.
2. Choose your role in the game.
3. Plan out the skills you need to learn in the game to play your role well.
4. Develop strong allies that are playing the same game.
5. Take on quests that help you learn the planned skills and prepare yourself to get close to completing the ultimate game objective.

I plan to dedicate a whole book on this topic titled 10,000 Hours of Play in the future, though it would take a while, considering I just finished my first book Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards.

CU: How does Gamification encourage human motivation?

YKC: Gamification encourages human motivation by appealing to what I call the 8 Core Drives. These are the 8 Core Drives that motivate everything we do, and without these 8, we virtually have no motivation to do anything.

Games have mastered how to utilize these 8 Core Drives to get us to spend hours on something with no true purpose. When we implement gamification design, we are essentially bringing those 8 Core Drives into other environments.

These 8 Core Drives are:

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling
  2. Development & Accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback
  4. Ownership & Possession
  5. Social Influence & Relatedness
  6. Scarcity & Impatience
  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity
  8. Loss & AvoidanceGamification-Octalysis.0031

CU: The most popular use of gamification elements includes badges, rewards, and levels. In terms of engagement, what makes it so successful at increasing engagement?

YKC: The reason why badges, rewards, and levels are popular is because they all appeal to Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment. It is a Left Brain Core Drive, which means it utilizes Extrinsic Motivation, but it is also a White Hat Core Drive, which means it makes people feel good and powerful. The reason why Left Brain Core Drives are easier to implement is because it is generally easier to put a reward or goal on a desired action, as opposed to actually making the activity fun. Due to that, companies have utilized these popular game elements often.

CU: Being a hardcore gamer allows you to feel accomplishment, however this is a temporary feeling. How can gamification become a lifestyle that will be meaningful long term?

YKC: The key with games is that, after feeling a short burst of competency and accomplishment, the gamer is often reminded she hasn’t done anything important in real life. Often times this results in guilt, denial, or depression. Gamification improves this situation because the time spent is actually on productive causes instead of mere escapism. Among gamification, it is also important to strike a balance between White Hat and Black Hat Core Drives.

  1. Gamification-Octalysis.0041

White Hat Motivation makes a user feel good, powerful, and in control, but it does not instill a sense of urgency. Black Hat Motivation makes a user feel urgent, obsessed, even addicted, but it leaves at bad taste in the user’s mouth and he may drop out after a while.It is the balancing between White Hat and Black Hat Core Drives that take many years of experience to master as a game/gamification designer.


CU: Making the most of gamification requires planning and strategic thinking. What 5 questions would you tell someone to think about before beginning implementing their gamification elements into their product?

YKC: At the beginning of every gamified campaign, I ask clients to define 5 things that are critical to the campaign’s success.

  1. Business Metrics, which leads to Game Objective
  2. Users, which become Players in the campaign
  3. Desired Actions, which lead to Win-States
  4. Feedback Mechanics, which generate Triggers towards the Desired Actions
  5. Rewards, which become Incentives that are embedded into each Win-State

Together, I call this the Octalysis Strategy Dashboard and it makes sure a campaign is not just fun and creative, but actually actively improves business metrics and can be quantifiably measured.

I usually refer to the defined Octalysis Strategy Dashboard multiple times a week, and it is essential to make sure the power of the 8 Core Drives gets directed towards activities that generate intended results.

CU: What are the main differences between human-focused design and function-focused design?

YKC: Human-Focused Design is a design methodology that optimizes on human motivation and feelings within a system. This is a heavy contrast to Function-Focused Design, which is geared towards optimizing for efficiency and ease within the system.

Most systems are Function-Focused, and it makes sure that tasks are streamlined and efficient, assuming the user has motivation to complete the task. This is like a factory, where you assume workers will complete their tasks (sometimes a bad assumption) and simply maximize output.

Human-Focused Design is like a theme park, where you design it to be really fun and exciting, and as a result you can predict that people will automatically want to line up for hours and hours just to enjoy the experience. What’s interesting here is that, in the case of a factory, you are paying people to do the activities; in the case of a theme park, people are paying you.

Since most businesses struggle in generating motivation and traction, Human-Focused Design often accomplishes the goal more than Function-Focused Design.

CU: I recently read your post about the gamification framework called Octalysis.  Can you briefly explain this model?

YKC: As I mentioned a bit above, the Octalysis Framework is Human-Focused Design that breaks motivation down into the 8 Core Drives. Since everything we do is based on one or more of these 8 Core Drives, if there are none of those 8 present – there is no motivation and the activity does not happen.

The 8 Core Drives are graphed on an Octagon Shape (hence the name Octalysis) and the placement signifies the nature of the motivation – whether it is Black Hat, White Hat, Intrinsic, or Extrinsic.

What we have covered is mostly Level I Octalysis. There are actually five levels in total, which eventually factor in the 4 Experience Phases of a Player’s Journey, different Player Types, and more of the secret arts of behavioral design.

I published the Framework in 2012 and since then it has been translated into over 16 languages and I have had the pleasure of teaching it across the world, including at Stanford University, TEDx, South by Southwest, and companies like Accenture, etc.

CU: How do you help clients design effective experiences using game design elements?

: It’s actually a very systematic approach. Once the Octalysis Strategy Dashboard is determined, we make sure that the Player performs the Desired Actions, which leads to the Win-State and ultimately impacts the Business Results. We make sure that each Feedback Mechanic actively measures progress towards the Win-State and triggers the 8 Core Drives towards more Desired Actions, and we make sure that the Rewards/Incentives are all based on the 8 Core Drives and are well embedded within each Win-State. Often when that is done, a list of appropriate game design elements would emerge, which are implemented into the system.

Once we have done that, then we can start to think about the experience through the 4 Experience Phases: Discovery, Onboarding, Scaffolding, and Endgame.

Usually clients either tell me what they are doing and I either provide 1) advisory consulting on where the experience is broken, where are users all dropping out, or where everyone will say, “Wow! Amazing!” and then never come back again, or 2) work with my team to do research and design the experience for clients. We usually deliver concept wireframes for client designers and engineers to build. Sometimes it also attaches to a Reward Schedule.

CU: Today, two hot product categories in terms of implementing gamification mechanics are e-commerce sites and productivity apps: How do you think e-commerce gamification can revolutionize online shopping experiences?

YKC: Well, in many senses, gamification has already revolutionized shopping. eBay was one of the first successful examples of e-commerce gamification. If you think about their competitive bidding system, five-star feedback system, and a path to level up for sellers as they earn their gold star, red star, purple star, and eventually become a Power-Rated Seller. utilizes Core Drive’s 6: Scarcity & Impatience as well as Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity to drive daily excitement from users and was sold to Amazon for $1 Billion.

Even Amazon uses many Human-Focused Design and gamification techniques with ratings, power reviewers, social proof through peer-reviews, and many more.

Since shopping is beyond just “acquiring items,” it is important to make it a FUN activity that people enjoy doing. Gamification helps with making the experience more fun and more engaging.

CU: What advice can you give regarding the power of e-commerce gamification?

YKC: Today, e-commerce sites can dramatically improve their metrics by:

1. Adding a theme to the site to incorporate Epic Meaning & Calling
2. Make users feel a sense of growth and progress whenever they do a Desired Action
3. Give users meaningful choices and the ability to use their creativity to try different combos.
4. Add collection set rewards as well as provide users interesting analytics on their behavior that compares to others’ average behavior.
5. Allow more social shopping via Social Treasure/Gifting, Group Quests, and a great deal of social feedback whenever a user commits the Desired Actions.
6. Add limited offers and fun themes that generate more excitement.
7. Add more unpredictability and surprises into the experience. Put in some Easter Egg rewards that delight the user.
8. Instead of providing users with many cool offers, it is more efficient to show that the users have already obtained the offers, but if they don’t take advantage of it soon it will be lost.

CU: What can you recommend regarding Lifestyle Gamification through productivity apps?

YKC: The thing about Lifestyle Gamification, is that everyone is motivated differently, and an app that works with one person may not work for another (this is why designing for the right Player Types is so important). Also, it is extremely difficult to implement Black Hat Gamification on yourself, since it is very difficult to withhold things from yourself, penalize yourself, or surprise yourself with unpredictability.

Productivity Apps need to really create a great balance between Black Hat that generates motivation and behavior, as well as White Hat which creates lasting behavioral change.

Also, one needs to break down all tasks to very small pieces. The higher the “cognitive ease” of processing the activity (you already know what is the first step and how/where to do it), the more likely we will begin the activity. Scarcity, Social, and Mystery Box surprises will be very efficient in making sure users have a strong drive to come back often.

Finally, data input is the biggest challenge for all productivity apps – how do you track an activity has actually been done? Most of them require manual input, which adds friction to the Desired Actions. When a user completes an activity, she technically has reached a Win-State and should be rewarded physically/emotionally/intellectually when that happens.

However, the app asks her to do data-entry work instead, which doesn’t feel very reward-like. This means that whatever happens immediately after the user inputs the information must be so delightful that the user is trained to want to come back very often.

The specifics of Lifestyle Gamification can fill up an entire book, but these are some important thoughts to consider when using productivity apps to turn your life into a game.

We hope you have all learned something new from this interview with Yu-kai Chou – we definitely have!

If you would like to hear more from Yu-kai, check out his TED talk here: Gamification to improve our world.