Never Fear Gamification again…

Never Fear Gamification again…

The civil war in Burundi had been going on for a decade. Thousands of people killed and many more uprooted from their families and villages. With a new peace accord signed, all of a sudden there was hope. Hope for an end to the slaughter. And here I was, standing in front of a group of rebel leaders in the jungle east of the capital. We had just tried to convince them to give up their arms and join a new national army.

These guys had massacred thousands in cold blood. They were armed. Heavily. AK 47, RPGs, grenades. Their faces grim. My knees were shaking, my skin was sweaty. This was real fear. Not anxiety, but fear: a strong emotion caused by the threat of death or even torture. Would we be next on the casualty list?

My days as a Dutch Diplomat hav been long gone, but those feelings of fear remain in my system, emotionally from the trauma, and intellectually as a behavioral/gamification designer. After being held hostage at gunpoint [3 times] in my life, even though they say the Dutch are emotionally tough people, that strong feeling of fear still affects my decision making process to this very day.


What is fear? Where does it live? How does it motivate us? And how do we use fear in Octalysis Gamification?


Where does Fear Live?

1_house_of_fear_escapeYour Amygdala must be the scariest place in your body. This almond-shaped part of the brain is where fear responses gets formed. It controls your reactions when in fear or arousal (this is where Fear and Greed/Passion come together!).

Fear comes in two stages (see also: How to Unblock Your Reptilian Brain). First, a short-route directly from the Thalamus that allows us to prepare for danger before knowing exactly what that danger is. Normally you freeze (as movement often provokes predatory attacks in the wild). Secondly, a longer, more precise route that comes from the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is involved in the final phase of fear: you react to danger and choose a course of action (so then you fight or flee).


Fear and Anxiety

So fear is direct and leads to immediate physical responses. Anxiety is often confused with fear, but is different. Anxiety is a feeling of being at risk, but from no imminent danger. Post 9/11 people felt anxious even though there was no immediate threat to them.

However, some of our physical reactions to anxiety are very similar to fear as they are both generated by the Amygdala. Anxiety leads to a higher heart beat, sweaty hands and a cautious physical stance to the environment. But: the more real the threat of danger is, the faster and more intense the response is normally. For the sake of this article we will treat Fear and Anxiety similarly.


Octalysis Gamification and Feardesign fear

As a general rule, we use users’ Fear motivation (through Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance) only moderately. Loss & Avoidance is at the bottom of The Octalysis Framework, which means it is the ultimate Black Hat Gamification Core Drive. It is very effective in its motivational force but users often don’t feel good about after performing the Desired Behavior. When used too heavily, people will burn out and drop from the system altogether.


The key principle here is proportionality: when users have invested many hours in the experience they will be motivated to avoid losing their progress (lest they did all the activity for naught). In Octalysis we call this a Sunk Cost Prison – you can’t leave because of what you already built up in the system.


There is one exception to the proportionality rule, which is a Game Technique called FOMO Punch. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. This is especially effective if the experience is designed such that continuing the experience results in higher status or not continuing leads to missing out on life achievements or experiences.


When you design for fear/anxiety, make sure that the threat is real and present. Only then will users act on their fear motivation. In the below two statements, which do you think will people react more strongly?


“Hey, one of these years a tsunami will come and destroy your village”


“Hey, a tsunami is on its way and will reach your village in an hour”


Remember: fear is a response to an immediate threat so the threat should be now or almost now…


Fear a la Carte

Followers of Octalysis by now know that different users react differently to different stimuli. Fear is no exception. Why is that? And why should we care?


Well, research by David Zald at Vanderbilt University has shown that dopamine is one of the main hormones released during fearful moments. His research shows also that some people’s brains lack what Zald describes as “brakes” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. These people really enjoy thrilling, scary, and risky situations. Other people’s brains, however, may “brake” a lot and hate being in scary and risky situations.


So when we design for thrillseekers and risk takers, it is generally fine to infuse the experience with some Loss and Avoidance. However, risk-averse people will leave your experience like a sinking Titanic. So make sure you know who your main user groups are! If you are not really sure about the risk profile of your users, you can do either of two things:


  1. Use other, less risky Core Drives more. Core Drive 5 Social Influence and Relatedness works well very often as our need for social connnectedness often leads users to take steps to prevent being seen as being outside the norm.
    1. Stick to the Octalysis 30/15 Rule:


Never have your users lose more than 30% of what they have invested, and ideally never more than 15%. If they lose over 30% of what they have invested, than the odds of them feeling demoralized and quitting becomes extremely high”


And the Rebels?

Well, we managed to stay off the casualty list. Because of the talks in 2003, the rebel groups came down the mountains with their soldiers to form a new national army with their former enemies and since then created 12 years of peace.

I guess the rebel leaders had too much invested in their struggle to not want to level up to become real generals. Let praise be, to the Sunk Cost Prison!


If you want more information on how we can design balanced Octalysis Gamification, please contact us:

Joris Beerda:

Yu-kai Chou:

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