Amy Jo Kim: “A lot of people think about gamification and are focused on game mechanics. But game mechanics don’t generate long term engagement. What people are looking for is autonomy, mastery, purpose. That’s the stuff that designers design with, that’s what you should design with. Not badges and points.”

This and many other nuggets of wisdom were shared by veteran game designer, behavioural neuroscientist and psychologist Amy Jo Kim when she was in the Netherlands recently. We have created a digest of the most important topics covered during Mrs. Kim’s appearance at the Media Future Week as part of the Growing Games programme. Not everything is guaranteed to be 100% verbatim, but it’s still a good impression of what was discussed. Notes by Coline Pannier in Hilversum – April 22, 2015.

Who is Amy Jo Kim?

With a background in neuroscience, computer science, and psychology, Amy Jo Kim is part game designer, part web community architect. Her design credits include Rock Band, The Sims, Ultima Online, eBay,,, and numerous startups. She’s well known for her 2000 book, Community Building on the Web, and her work applying game design to Web and mobile services. Kim holds a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington and is an adjunct Game Design professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

1. Notes from the Q&A session

Q: How can we measure the results of “games for impact”? Can we use neuroscience for this?

A: Let’s talk about metrics:

→ Subjective metrics: At the beginning of design that’s the only stuff you’ve got (=playtests).

→ Objective metrics: Are people buying your game, are they finishing it?
Then about neurological metrics: The truth is, no real data can be found at the moment. This is not a very serious path. We know about the neuroplasticity of the brain. Changes are for instance visible and measurable in the brain of people who do long-term meditation. However, what it means when a specific area of the brain is lighting up… we are far from understanding how the brain works. By the way, if you hear someone talking about the link between gamification and dopamine, it’s a clear indication that they don’t know what they are talking about. It’s bullshit.

Q: I have this concept of a game, which is currently a board game where players are using (borrowed) Duplos to build things. We are looking at many possible options to replace these building blocks in the final game; it could be physical, VR, AR… What do you think? What is the best way to build and test a minimum viable product in order to figure out which solution has the most market potential?

A: Personally, I don’t like VR. First, it makes me sick; then, it don’t believe it will grow much further than a niche market. Imagine people watching a film together, and everyone would be watching with their glasses! This is completely stupid.

I believe that AR is much more promising. Projecting images on the environment offers more interesting opportunities. But all this is my personal opinion. In the end it doesn’t matter, I might as well be wrong, you never know. You shouldn’t listen to my opinion. You should playtest early but also test with the right people.

Some resources that would be useful:
– Read the book “Crossing the Chasm”, by Geoffrey A. Moore
– Sign up for my coaching program Getting 2 Alpha (
My program really covers the issue that you are raising. But I will share some of the content with you. First of all, one thing I have learned and cannot stress enough: You cannot leap over your early adopters, it’s a recipe for failure. Targeting mainstream markets directly will not work for an innovative product – it might be ok if you are selling an existing product like tacos. You need to differentiate early between 2 audiences:

– Early adopters: They are the ones actively looking for a solution. When they see your product, they will say something like “Finally! I’ve been looking for something like this!”
– Early majority: You can recognise them by the fact that will first look for social validation. They will ask: “Who else has used this?”
Testing on the early majority will give you negative feedback. You need to carefully select early adopters for your product and conduct iterative hypothesis testing. Be like a scientist.

Here is a technique:
1. Say that you are recruiting people for a paid study, e.g. by creating 3 different ads on Craigslist. 2. Organize speed interviews. They will be a bait for early adopters. You can screen out bad interview subjects, and with 5-minute interviews and 3 questions you can already start to identify key patterns.
3. Conduct longer interviews with the most promising subjects. I recommend to have a paid study because this is a better guarantee that people will show up.

→ You can find a speed-interview template, as well as other tools that I’m using, for free on The important thing at this stage is to ask yourself: “What do I most need to learn right now?” Write down your hypotheses and design the questionnaire to test them.

Q: I am doing research and working on a project for a client. They want to use games and gamification to reduce the stress of their employees. However in most cases employees are stressed because they are working on 4 projects at the same time and are not able to do everything. So a big part of the client’s problem is the client themselves… What would you advise me to do?

A: Yes it is a difficult one. A lot of people think about gamification and are focused on game mechanics. But game mechanics don’t generate long term engagement. Only the overall experience and the game system generate this engagement. For this kind of project you have to look at the self-determination theory. What people are looking for is: autonomy, mastery, purpose [aka competence, relatedness, autonomy]. That’s the stuff that designers design with, that’s what you should design with. Not badges and points.

One way, maybe, to increase autonomy in the context of employees at your client’s, is to break down parts of their projects into missions. At a fundamental level, this is just good project management. But then they should have the choice between different missions. Consider having a beginning “on rails” and then letting people choose. Look at the latest upgrades in Zynga games for instance. In the initial designs they were guiding people far into the game. Now they only have a few tutorial missions on rail and quickly give players the choice between different missions.

A critical aspect is who will write the content of the missions. You can’t take all the experts and have them write missions all the time. So a good way would be to have employees write the missions themselves. This could be overwhelming for junior staff members however.

2. Notes from the masterclass session

Q: What is good / quality design?

Good game design generates engagement. But don’t confuse that with a Skinner black box. Reinforcement schedules cause addictive behaviours. If you look at Zynga games for instance, you just have these loops of reinforcement but there is no long-term experience, no metagame. After a month and half, everybody stops playing Farmville. Everybody, apart from the whales, who have addictive behaviours — which they will exploit to get their money, like a casino. This is not quality design; good design is about increasing mastery.

Q: Can you tell us about your experience?

Early in my career, I wrote a book about community building. What people hire me for is to design social systems. I designed the social system in Rock Band. I worked on some breakthrough products like e-Bay, the Sims, Covet Fashion. One thing that I have noticed with breakthrough products is that the team is always ready to ask the really hard question upfront and to test it relentlessly. If the answer to the hard question is not a sound “YES”, then your product shouldn’t exist.

For Rock Band, this question was: “Can non-musicians play this game with plastic instruments in their living room, and feel like they’re playing music in a band?” To test this, the first thing we did is to spend time getting the core loop right. It shouldn’t be polished or anything, it should just work well. Then we did a lot of talking with casual gamers and observed their habits. At this stage, you should just watch and listen. Don’t pitch your idea! If you pitch your idea, you will lose an opportunity to find insights about your customers.

Use interview screening techniques to find out who are good or bad interview subjects. You can schedule 30 interviews in a week and then select 7 or 5 of them. If you ask someone “what do you like?” and they answer “I don’t know….” then screen them out. For Rock Band, an interesting question that we asked people is “What do you like about music games?” Asking about other games is a good way to identify patterns and habits.

We hear a lot about these communities but here are the 2 important things in a community:
1. It must have a purpose.
2. People must be getting something out of it.

Once you have tested your game with your early adopters, make a private Facebook group, invite them all there and tell them that they are pioneers! And then keep the community of early adopters alive; invite them to co-create your product. For example, with Happify, we hired a community manager who started with a poll, once a week. Ask questions like “what do you think of this idea?”, show them a mock-up… That’s enough to get started. Afterwards we would share news everyday about the team, the project, etc. For example “Welcome xy to the team!”

This early community is very precious. These are people who can give you constructive feedback on early mock-ups. With Happify we had around 250-300 people in the early community. However, be careful: once you get more fans, you need to start a second community! It’s really hard to change an existing one, they will have their rituals, habits, tone. Keep the early adopters’ community private and exclusive. You can build the right behaviour in the community by relying on social norms and role modeling. The way you react to bullying for instance will give a signal to all community members about which behaviours are tolerated. Don’t hesitate to kick evil people out. Then the best thing about your community is to watch how people interact with each other. Smart community managers stimulate conversation and then just shut up. To work further with your early adopters, you can also create incentive structures for ambassadors.

That’s what they did with e-Bay at the beginning. Build a reputation system, but tie it to the core business. At e-Bay I had to fight for months so that the reputation system would reward people who were making transactions. Not Pongo, this nice disabled woman who was providing tech support to other users and had a lot of positive reviews for it. Building the incentive system for e-Bay was about creating a path to mastery. Showing who the super-sellers were, so that all e-Bay sellers would want to be one of them.

Q: How do you move from the coline@inaloopgames.comearly adopters to the early majority?

I will share a sad story with you: Sifteo. My husband worked on this project; it was conceived by a group of brilliant guys from MIT. David Merrill did a TED talk presenting the technology, it was super popular. Soon they found a group of enthusiastic early adopters who had a real need for their product: parents of children with disabilities. However they chose to ignore this group because they didn’t want to have the stigma and to be associated with this specific audience. So they managed to get a deal with a big retailer in the US, they were very excited about it. But unfortunately there was no community of engaged early adopters pushing their product, and it never took off.

Keep in mind that early adopters are completely contextual to a product. I worked with this company called Pley. They rent out Lego sets. When I met them they had the ugliest website possible but already 15,000 paying subscribers. At some point they decided that they should build an online community. They conducted interviews with potential early adopters, and found out that people didn’t care about another digital community. They were already in so many communities that they didn’t have time to take care of those. What people said they wanted was instructional videos of what to build with the Lego sets that they had. A simple MVP to test this was to put a few videos on YouTube.

A pattern that was recurring also in all interviews was that people wanted reviews of the sets. At first the Pley didn’t want to have these reviews. After hearing it over and over again, they said “… Maybe we should have set reviews?”

You can contact Amy and follow her on Twitter: @amyjokim. Visit her website. She doesn’t have the time to answer to everyone, but she likes to point people towards the right resources.

For any questions on this document: Contact Coline Pannier – Co-founder, inaloop games