Why Games Are Fun: The Psychology Explanation:

“Fun games operate on the principle that our actions will definitely bring us closer to the goal. If you go and slash rabbits (action), you will definitely gain experience points (relation), and you will eventually level up (goal).

This is the reason so many people, including myself, have failed at difficult, uncharted things like entrepreneurship. There’s no guarantee that our next step will bring us closer to the goal. For example, we could easily invest 6 months into building a product that nobody wants to buy. Now, that specific problem can be ameliorated through processes of customer development, but the general problem still exists.

“If we get a job, we’re probably going to get paid for our labors.

“If we build a product and take it to market, we’re probably not going to get paid for our efforts. So where’s the motivation? It requires a lot of risk, and the human brain is not wired to consider long-term rewards! The nucleus accumbens, which may play a large role in the distribution of the phenomenon of pleasure and reward seeking, is part of the ancient limbic system, which motivates lots of behavior. Long-term goals require premeditated planning by the prefrontal cortex.”

[Emphasis added.]

I think there’s an opportunity to apply game mechanics to:

  1. Starting a startup.
  2. Managing employees in a startup.
  3. Managing teams in general.

Please steal this idea and let me know what you come up with. This would be a great project for a business school Ph.D.

Topics Entrepreneurs · Ideas

19 comments · Show

  • Sudhanshu Aggarwal

    Could not agree more Nivi. From someone who has been and entrepreneur and now working as Product Manager at a gaming company, it is very easy to see why social gaming is soo hot. Gaming touches on the very basics of human psychology and as Jesse Schell has mentioned in numerous talks and his book, everything will likely become a game.

    Applying these concepts to starting and managing a team would be a great solution to ensure that everyone is having fun and stays motivated while working towards the long term goal.

  • Fred Schechter

    Beautiful idea Nivi!

    An MMO structure would be best, then they’re team coding games! Building the structure as an incubator (or under one,, hint) would be perfect. Then work = points. Following that, partner “bonus points” would be given in game a la sendlove.com type mechanics.

    Business structure could easily fit under an existing incubator, so ownership of each “software work unit” would be all sweat equity (a great game name), obviously the incubator sitting on top gets a nice cut (And pay’s it’s server costs). Point allotment is simple and “code sections” parsed out and running (easy to check) seems to be a way to go. The questions are how to assign points for the graphic design elements, and project management elements. Additionally, is all marketing expected to be viral (or can that be via sweat equity points with analytics tied to an affiliate style marketing push)?
    Such an exciting idea!!! Cheers Nivi!

  • Tim O'Neil

    Having worked in games for a decade and a half (and having worked with some rather sadistic and Machiavellian personalities) this topic has come up many times.

    I’ve dubbed this approach “The HRpg Method” – although its never made it past the napkins, its always a fun brainstorming exercise. In fact, it might make for a good interview question…

  • fdeth

    I have a solid concept of a product that adds gaming elements to team management. I need some help building a prototype. Anyone interested?

  • Brendon J. Wilson

    Couldn’t you consider this to be the goal of the Lean Startup movement? After all, the idea of getting something together quickly, testing it out, and iterating in response to feedback seems to be designed to overcome the problem of uncertainty. Even if your initial attempt fails, it fails quickly, and there’s at least motivation that you might learn something along the way, which is a result/goal in itself.

  • Chris

    This wouldn’t work as a whole. It’s far too broad to be a game that encompasses these things. To make it a game you’d have to narrow it too far to actually apply to these real world goals.

    In terms of making it game-like, that’s more doable. Setting goals, getting rewards, bonuses, options. Sorta setting up a quest system with a “Company” character sheet to mark progress for oneself. But that’s really just adding veneer and flavor to checklists, goals, and tracking.

    Not to say you couldn’t make games out of 1,2, and 3, but the main problem still exists. Even if you line out all the goals and turn those things into a game, you still might fail horribly. Kinda of a crappy game, where you do everything right and still die.

  • Gordon Mohr

    Lots of interesting ways to go with this. From last time an idea in this vein occurred to me:

    I’ve been wondering if there’s space for a sort of HN/PivotalTracker mashup, an intranet ‘news’/’stories’ board for improvised quick-iteration project management.

    Story/tasks wouldn’t decay with time, but only by being (1) finished; or (2) deprioritized with regard to others. Karma could be two-sided: points for proposing the right things, and (even more) points for actually implementing them.

    (There’d be ways to estimate effort; split oversized items; claim/merge items to avoid redundancies; calculate community ‘velocity’ over time; etc.)

    A few anchor project/community managers might have admin powers to pin certain overriding goals at top, or ‘dead’ digressions, or change the relative payoffs for proposing vs. doing, etc.

    That is, what if a community much like HN compulsively hit ‘reload’ and earned karma not around ephemeral (often attention-abusing) ‘news’, but instead around incremental goals on a shared project?

  • fdeth

    A thought on topic:

    Any MMO game is a controlled environment and one of the primary goal of the game designer is to keep it ‘balanced’ – meaning, there are a number of strategies that allow the player to level up at a certain speed. Developing a large number of diverse strategies and keeping the level-up speed constant across them – are the cornerstones of all of the game mechanics of a game.

    In the real world 🙂 you don’t have a controlled environment and you can’t lay out some predetermined paths for the ‘players’, test them and attach rewards to them – because you’ll end up with an unbalanced game system. Without the good balance the risk-reward motivation won’t work.

    Bottom line is, it’s almost impossible to build an airtight system similar to an MMO world.

    So I’m going to start small. B-)

  • Keith Smith

    At the risk of sounding self-serving, here at BigDoor we’ve created a platform that allows publishers to add game mechanics to any site or app. Developers can build on top of our platform, and the “HRpg” kind of concept would likely be a great candidate for our platform.

    As one simple way we dogfood our own platform, we’ve built an “employee game” internally that allows our employees to grant each other points and badges based on certain actions. We built this app in a day using our own platform. The “employee game” is used much more for culture building than behavior modification currently – but the seeds are there.

    If anyone is interested in building an HRpg type app with game mechanics, it would be worth checking out our platform or getting in contact with me directly.


  • Greg Leman

    Check out the book “The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack. There is an entire community built around this concept. While it hasn’t been famous outside its niche, it’s very well developed and right on target with what you’re talking about.

  • Ed Maklouf

    The problem with applying a game structure to something like a startup is standardization parameters. You can easily play a game with similar conditions to the process of building a startup, (complex football manager games are pretty close, in terms of number of variables and timing), just as you can choose to approach dating or business or even life as a game if you want.
    However if you are an entrepreneur, with a real original idea, you may want to bear in mind the key difference between a game and your three years of sweat.
    1. Complexity. Just because you have to define what you´re doing simply for angels and VC (MySpace for turtles or whatever it is) does not mean that complex aspects of your product, market, or team are not real and deserve consideration.
    2. Reality – if you lose you really lose! War looks like a game for the generals, but not so much the soldiers. It makes sense for angels and VC to want to look at commonalities between the sea of startups and extract a win/lose pattern to aid their understanding. But if you are actually doing something special, the chances are that DETAILS about your product/market fit that are not addressed in any forums or conferences have a meaningful role to play in your success or failiure. If you ignore them you may be able to play the startup game effectively, but you may find boilerplate strategies and boilerplate advice lead to unimaginative development pathways.

  • Zachary Burt

    Thanks for linking to my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Tristan Kromer

    Ha! Funny, I have been starting on the game mechanics on OKCupid for weeks now trying to figure out how to apply them to helping co-founders find one another at startupsquare.com

    It’s not always a good thing that our reptile brain is so easily manipulated, but it can be used to do some amazing things.

  • Nivi

    Good comment I got over email:

    “I love the Start-up game idea.

    “Make sure the players have to talk people into working for free for what seems like FOREVER.

    “Also… have constant popups that promise funding opportunities in exchange for money.

    “In the end they present to google who says “This is real cool…. we think you’re leading the pack in this area. We also think we can engineer around your patent.”

    “Does the player ever stop? Of course not. Starting companies is an addiction.”

  • Erik Starck

    We’re sort of doing this with our site Startup Garage:
    The idea is to be both a tool and a game to make sure you get started and get going with your idea.
    Still very much in alpha, though. Semi-old screenshot here:

  • Bret

    There’s actually a games company in Singapore that uses game mechanics to manage their development teams. I’ve already encouraged their founder to write a blog post on it, they’ve been doing it that way for over a year. It’s the only experiment I know of. I’ll let you know when they publish it.

  • Jeff Kesselman

    Well, my comment from the world of games is that the quote is a way over-simplification of the problem of fun. In point of fact no one has ever been able to successfully define “fun” in a way that meets all real-world tests.

    The closest anyone has really come up with to date is that pleasure is, in many cases, the result of tension and its release. This can be the tension of striving for a goal, the tension of the drama of a movie, or sexual tension. The problem is that too much tension for too long is actually unpleasant and different people have different levels of tolerance for tension.

    Which does get back to your core thesis, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, that it takes an unusual personality to actually enjoy the entrepreneur experience, which explains why there are so many more people in big companies then those who start small ones 🙂

  • arnaud


    I think looking at the trends from 2010 to 2011, I would see the game being hosted on a social platform such as facebook.

    the game would have the following characteristics:
    – have daily goals or specific milestones to achieve
    – have a social factor where you can invite friends to your startup, show your startup stats to the rest of the platform so you can recruit investors / partners.
    – be able to share your experience with others on the platform
    – have a mobile component to the game where people can opt to get updates about their virtual startup via mobile
    – have mobile widgets or apps for the popular mobile platforms such as iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile
    – make it real-time
    – make it open source so developers can add new goals or challenges that are specific to a business type (construction goals would be diferent to banking goals)
    – have a public forum for game players to request new features
    – make sure that the game has a fun and educational aspect. this would look similar to an MMO or a real time strategy game but tactics built in here would be useful in a real world.
    – if goals are common for business types, allow players to see how their competition tackled the goal and allow them to follow players of interest to them..

    anyway, just an idea i had yesterday