Gamification: Let the Games Begin!

Following the boom of video arcades and the emergence of home computers, many Millennials like myself were playing computer games not long after we could crawl. I remember playing games like Chuckie Egg on my dad’s ZX Spectrum from the age of  five or six and later a whole host of DOS games on floppy disk. This early exposure to technology and confidence that we can figure things out for ourselves has led to a certain amount of resistance to using help if we think we don’t need it.

ZX Spectrum classic game Chuckie Egg which was released in 1983.

Similarly, while my generation consider themselves tech-savvy, we aren’t a patch on our younger and counter-parts from Generation Z; the kids born with a smartphone in one hand and an iPads in the other. The bad news is this so-called iGeneration only has an 8-second attention span (at least according to market research) which makes them a slightly problematic audience. However, there is a perfect solution for appealing to the younger generations, the game-loving tech know-it-alls with short attention spans, and the answer is gamification (apologies to any haters of jargon if that word made you shudder!).

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, gamification essentially means adding the typical elements of game playing such a point scoring or a reward scheme to a non-gaming application (typically social media and e-learning sites but occasionally help service desk sites) to encourage user engagement. To be more scientific than that, researchers discovered that playing games and scoring points causes the human brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine which in turn leads to brain stimulation reward (BSR). This is the phenomenon in which the regions of the brain are stimulated following a reward-based outcome such as eating food when the body is hungry or drinking when the body is thirsty. The same reward pathway has a key role in behaviour such as drug addiction where the person compulsively seeks the reward of using a particular drug. So in layman’s terms, gamification is a way of getting your users addicted to your application, whether that be an e-learning site or even a help system.

Gamification Examples

One of the best known examples of gamification is Tripadvisor where users are rewarded for engagement the marketing team. Travellers become hooked by the reward scheme, which sees posting reviews and photos rewarded in the form of points and badges. It’s clever really, Tripadvisor gain free content which boosts their revenue (which was $1.246 Billion in 2014!) by giving out points and badges that are about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Evidence of an addict: Some of the author’s Tripadvisor badges.

As you can see from the screenshot above, I developed something of an unhealthy addiction to Tripadvisor myself. I receive emails prompting and encouraging me to post,

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A great example of an e-learning app with gamification applied is Duolingo. The site was launched in 2011 by university computer science professor Luis von Ahn, who is also the creator of crowd-sourcing bot-tester CAPTCHA, and has grown exponentially to the extent that it now has 120 million users worldwide, with gamification being a large driving force behind its success. User engagement is predominantly led through rewards such “lingots”, given for completing a language lesson, that can be used as a form of virtual currency to buy power-ups, practice and bonus skills within the app:



Users are also encouraged to take a lesson each day to continue their “day streak”, consecutive days in which they’ve used the app and gain experience or “xp”, which again is a common aspect of gaming; a character gains experience for time played and missions completed. When lessons are completed for a particular subject, it turns gold, which again is a form or reward, and when the user completes a level or language they also receive an award (as shown below):

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Further user engagement is encouraged through a user forum called a discussion stream where users can post comments and earn up-votes in a similar format to Reddit. Interestingly, when a user posts, the languages they are studying in Duolingo, their level for each language and their day streak is also displayed alongside their name. This gives each user a certain status within Duolingo and encourages user participation by targeting the competitive nature of each user. E.g. By taking more lessons, they increase their status/stature in the user forum.


Noob vs Pro: My profile above (beginner French & German, no streak) alongside a guy who is learning 19 languages including Welsh, Russian and Turkish as well as a 643-day streak. Woah!

Another example of gamification where users are rewarded for input and participation is the web’s largest programming community, Stack Overflow. Users receive different badges for posting questions and answers which fall into three categories: gold, silver and bronze depending on how well-received it is by other users.

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As a user acquires more badges, their reputation on the Stack Overflow also improves. The user profile below is the top-ranking programmer on the site, having provided an impressive 3,555 answers and reaching more than 600,000 people. This user’s ranking make him  more credible and trustworthy in the eyes of other users.


Skype, which I looked at it in my first help review blog, have used a similar but more basic gamification model in their Skype Community where users are encouraged to gain ‘Kudos’ and top the ‘Most helpful’ board:

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The most helpful and active Skype Community users are also recognised or rewarded by being made ‘community ambassadors’, denoted by the star shown next to “techfreak” in the screenshot above. As well as having status in the community, these ambassadors also get to attend monthly meetings withe a representative from Skype, again taking user interaction and engagement to another level.

Applying Gamification to Help

Although gamification clearly works for e-learning and other social media applications, in terms of driving user engagement it’s not so easy with help and documentation. Aside from the obvious cost implications involved with designing and developing your own points or rewards scheme or paying for an external gamification platform, it’s not particularly easy to apply it to standalone documentation. Yes, I suppose you could divide it up into sections or lessons with points or levels awarded for each completed but sometimes people only refer to documentation for one particular answer so I’m not convinced gamification is the answer here.

The best working model I have seen is in the examples above, in which user forums and communities are created and essentially crowd-source the answers to questions that might otherwise be covered by your documentation, help desk or support staff. That’s probably the best way forward in terms of encouraging users to interact with your documentation: run a user forum, encourage engagement through up-voting, offer good question and answer rewards, and promote user status or level upgrades to produce content that is time saving, good quality and most importantly, fun!

Help Review – Skype

The first help system I decided to look at was Skype, which I thought would be interesting from a technical writing and personal perspective because it’s an application I use every day to contact developers and other colleagues based in different offices across Sweden and Europe. Launched by Scandinavian entrepreneurs Niklas Zennström and Danish Janus Friis in 2003 and bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion (£6 billion) in 2011, the communication tool is now used by more than 300 million users worldwide. Although it is fairly intuitive and easy to use, I was curious to take an in-depth look at the documentation behind such a globally popular application, especially considering the diversity of its users.

First Impressions

To access the help system while using Skype you need to click Help and then Go To Support. This will launch the Skype Help homepage, an external site, shown below:


My first impressions were it is very clean and user friendly (there’s even a blurry friendly-looking customer service bloke in the background) with a prominent white search box and six main help topics clearly marked out with the same blue icon buttons used in Skype. While hosting the help on an external site does result in a break in user experience, the help pages retain Skype’s bold and colourful branding, with bright blues and loud yellows, so they don’t feel too far removed from the software itself.


By clicking the Windows Desktop ∨ drop-down menu, the user is able to select what kind of application (Android, iPad, Mac, Skype for TV etc) they are using to access Skype and the help adjusts itself accordingly. I thought that was pretty neat.

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Another cool feature is if Skype users are having connection issues etc., by clicking Skype service status, they are taken to page with live status updates, which Skype have named Heartbeat. This is where Skype web engineers post updates, highlighting the time and dates, so users know if there is an issue which they are working on.

The stand-out feature for me though is Skype’s tutorial videos because they’re so good. Simple and to the point, between 30 and 45 seconds, they’re very watch-able, well narrated and easy to follow for people who learn by watching something being done rather than by reading. The videos can be found about halfway down the page by clicking See all guides:


The clip below is the introductory 36-second video, hosted on Youtube, which informs users how to get started by adding contacts:

This is something I’ve earmarked to add to my own documentation when I can get the software and find the time. The technology users of my generation don’t want to read through pages and pages of boring text, they want to either Google the answer or watch the video to quickly learn how something is done. Bish-bash-bosh. If done well, as shown here, I think videos are one of the best tools for explaining basic or even complex concepts quickly and efficiently.

Hidden Features

There are several features in Skype that are slightly hidden and not particularly prominent in the help. One of these is commands that can be typed to allow the user to change settings or learn more about the participants of a chat conversation. The most helpful of these is:

/help – typing this in the chat will produce a list of available commands that can be used.


These can be used for things like finding a specific text in the chat, leaving a conversation, finding out the number of people in the chat group and the maximum number of people who can join, or even finding out user profile information about a person in your chat group. They’re slightly buried but these can be found here in the Skype help.

The other popular hidden feature are emoticons, which are a fun way to brighten up a conversation and let people know how your feeling. Interestingly, the help does document the main emoticons and their shortcuts as well as the “Hidden emoticons”, shown below, which include (drunk) and (smoking) emoticons among others:


However, the real hidden emoticons, which appeal to the immature inner child in myself and fellow colleagues, aren’t documented at all. To quote Skype, “Shhh, don’t tell anyone!”, but these include such delights as a mooning emoticon (mooning), an emoticon face mouthing “What the f**k?” (wtf) and the finger (finger), a good one for when someone in Skype chat deserves a good slap.


I guess by not documenting them they just become more fun for immature techy geeks like myself and my colleagues to find and use to entertain ourselves.

Quality Control

A feedback option at the bottom of most of Skype’s help pages is a great form of quality control and measuring the quality of the documentation. It also gives the user a way to interact with the technical authors who wrote the content.

If you click Yes it thanks you for your feedback, if you click No then you are able to leave feedback but selecting a predefined answer or by clicking Other, entering your own opinions on why the help failed you. It’s a pretty simple but effective way to get feedback from your readers:

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As well as the feedback option, there is also another fallback for readers in the form of the “Still need help?” and “Haven’t found what you were looking for?” links at the bottom of each page which takes the user to the Skype customer service contact details. It also provides a link to the Skype Community, a forum where Skype users can both post questions and answer them to receive “kudos” and rankings, in a similar reward scheme to Tripadvisor. Skype moderators also answer questions but it’s a good way to crowd source user experience and knowledge to find the answer to certain questions.


While there are certain drawbacks in hosting help externally, rather than embedding it, I think Skype have done an excellent job. It’s stylish, innovative and fits with their product relatively seamlessly, the only negative is the break in user experience. The help itself isn’t 100% comprehensive but when I tested out the search feature, it returned answers to my questions most of the time, with only one or two failures to find an answer. However, those are both minor negatives in what is largely a positive experience. As user-facing documentation goes, this help system is hard to fault and deserves a lot of credit for its fun and innovative features.