How I inspired a gamification system that's used by millions of students

Keeping users engaged is incredibly important for businesses. Whether your business is software, service, or retail products, it’s the users who engage with your businesses products and services the most who will pay the most money and who you’re least likely to lose as customers.

Since increasing user engagement leads to higher revenue and customer retention, understanding and implementing the best methods to engage your users is well worth doing. However, creating systems to command people’s attention today above all of their other available options is incredibly difficult.

People can devote their attention anywhere they like, so the only applications that wind up commanding frequent and deep user engagement are applications that have taken a systematic approach to engaging users.

Other businesses you compete with might not provide useful examples of how this process works.

The secret to creating great user engagement is finding the products and services best at creating deep and lasting user engagement and applying their methods to your products.

Who engages their users the best? Video games.

Learning how the best-selling video games keep users engaged and applying their techniques dramatically increases user engagement for applications outside of gaming.

5 years ago, I helped inspire a gamification system that engages millions of students every month and is still being used today.

A Platform with Promise

In 2011, Salman Khan had already built an impressive library of video lessons for Khan Academy that many thousands of students were using succeed in school and prepare for standardized tests.

Khan Academy’s users loved the short videos Khan created because they quickly explained topics students needed to learn without forcing them to navigate the unnecessary complexity found in traditional resources like textbooks.

As an early fan of Khan Academy, I appreciated how Sal’s work helped me and my siblings learn faster and more completely. My appreciation for his platform led me to want to help expand Khan Academy’s reach to a larger audience.

I had a few ideas about how to grow Khan’s impact. Some of those ideas were just simple outreach maneuvers (spreading posters, introducing students, and introducing teachers), but I had another idea that turned out to be much more impactful.

An Addiction Leads to an Idea

In 2003, I began playing Halo, a video game series that would go on to consume way too much of my spare time. I started off playing Halo 1 for an hour or two at most during the week with my friends in high school, but by the time I entered college at Stevens in 2005 the much more addictive Halo 2 came out and I was suddenly playing on more days than I didn’t play. I was addicted.

Halo 2 was easily the most popular game on my college campus and amongst my friends. We played several days a week for several hours at a time.

We’d run ethernet cables down the halls connecting our rooms together for LAN parties, so we could play without sharing the same screen so the experience would be more competitive and dramatic.

The depth of user engagement in Halo 2 seemed unreal. Millions of people shared this addictive hobby and many played for thousands of hours online in multiplayer.

Productive hobbies and good use of time gave way to playing a game with no real life consequences.

Given all rational consideration of how someone should spend their time, I spent way too much time playing Halo. Playing so much made me acutely aware of my addiction. I needed to stop playing. But I also needed to understand why I became addicted in the first place.

Adults at the time often called for a general ban on video games altogether. They said things like “all these video games do is addict our kids and waste time”.

These statements didn’t sit well with me. Not because they weren’t true, but because they glazed over how this addiction process worked. That people’s behavior was being so heavily influenced without much interest in why shocked me.

My experience was that certain games were much more addictive than others and there were definitive reasons why.

So because I liked deconstructing ideas to understand how they worked, I deconstructed why Halo 2 was so addictive and how that process could be applied elsewhere.

What I found was that Halo 2 was so much more addictive than other video games because of the strong connection with how its users were rewarded with varying stimuli during gameplay. The psychological stimuli, timing, and perceived randomness of players in-game outcomes and how they were delivered to users made a significant difference.

Instead of intentional narrative or game choices creating the basis for addiction, so much of what made the game addictive was accidental. I confirmed this by reaching out to some of the game’s developers at Bungie and asking about the details I noticed. Their answers were telling. They, like most everyone else, thought the game’s story and general game choices had been responsible for the game’s success.

I, however, saw a system of rewards and randomness. These rewards were distributed to users at frequencies that were highly stimulative and psychologically addictive, yet most everyone seemed to think visual and artistic game choices were the cause of the game’s insane popularity.

I knew the cause of the game’s popularity was from something else.

Many other games had beautiful visuals and strong narratives, but Halo had developed a cult following unlike any of these other alternatives.

Halo’s popularity had little to do with artistic choices.

The reason why Halo 2 was so addictive was because Halo 2 hit the right balance between randomness and control. Players were rewarded for their efforts and skill in multiplayer gaming, but often they were penalized when they should have won.

A Mechanism for Addiction

To understand why games that seem to reward people unfairly are so addictive, you need to understand something called intermittent variable rewards.

Intermittent variable rewards are forms of positive stimuli that aren’t easily predictable. Because these rewards aren’t predictable people instinctually perceive these rewards as scarce resources that are worth pursuing.

Intermittent variable rewards are the reason why people continuously scroll through social media feeds, why texting is more popular than calling, why phones send notifications as the primary way they engage people to keep using them, and why people are more distracted today than ever before.

I knew the psychological reward system Halo 2 used so effectively to increase user engagement could be applied elsewhere to create a similar impact.

Khan Academy seemed like a perfect candidate. It had a positive mission, a large following, and needed to boost user engagement to ensure students succeeded.

I posted on Khan Academy’s Google group forum and explained to developers how Halo 2’s reward system created such high levels of engagement and how a reward system might work and be applied for Khan Academy to foster student engagement.

How Halo 2 and Khan Academy engage their users

Users experience visibly differentiated progress in Halo 2 through visible rankings of player skill and in Khan Academy through a progress dashboard on the profile screen.

Users experience increased progress requirements through increased required skill levels and certainty of them. In Halo 2, this is determined by wins, losses, and KD ratios respective of team/adversary. In Khan Academy, this is determined by video completion, the total number of correct exercise answers, and completing exercises.

Users experience intermittent variable rewards in Halo 2 from streaks and momentum in matchmaking and in Khan Academy from streaks and momentum in practice exercises.

In both cases, users are rewarded with medals that visually display their success.

These medals vary in difficulty and correspond to different measures of user behavior. This difficulty and produces perceived scarcity and randomness.

How Halo 2 shows progress in multiplayer gaming:

How Khan Academy shows progress with its badge system today:

How Halo 2 provides intermittent variable rewards to players:

How Khan Academy provides intermittent variable rewards to students:

How to create deep and sustained user engagement with gamification

The key to producing deep and sustained user engagement is combining short and long-term feedback loops and incentives for users to engage with your product.

To keep users engaged now, use intermittent variable rewards. Create short-term feedback loops with timing mechanisms that overlap with each to other to deliver positive stimuli that seem unpredictable.

To sustain user engagement over long periods of time, create long-term incentives to engage. Show users their progress completing tasks through visual indicators. Show user’s completion percentage or highlight their incomplete tasks.

To sustain user engagement, it’s important to offer psychological rewards that seem more meaningful and more scarce.

Constantly barraging users with rewards or stimuli quickly loses its effectiveness engaging users if how it’s delivered is not carefully thought out.

Instead of overwhelming users with stimuli, selectively deliver stimuli to users in response users to them achieving increased requirements. This prevents users from losing appreciation of rewards they receive from engaging over time from regular use.

Users will continue to engage with products when the rewards they receive from engaging match their instinctual perception of these rewards as scarce resources.

How to Create Effective User Engagement Rewards

Make user engagement rewards accessible and ramp up smoothly. Users should be rewarded during their initial use-case scenario. Don’t hide rewards or make them non-obvious.

Use visible progress indicators to reward users with a positive sense of status and self-image.

Use a fixed scale of measurement that users can rely on to judge their progress.

Increase progress requirements over time to increase user satisfaction. Raising requirements according to an exponential scale prevents dopamine homeostasis.

Use intermittent variable rewards to sustain user engagement during product use. Provide systems of overlapping feedback that add a degree of perceived randomness to how you stimulate users with rewards.

Khan Academy’s Results from Implementing Gamification

The system Khan Academy’s implemented for gamification to engage its users has proven to be a success. Khan Academy still uses the gamification system I helped inspire more than 5 years later.

Today, Khan Academy is used by millions of students every month.