Gamification Expert Bart Hufen is author of several books on Applied Games and Gamification and owner of BrandNewGame. This corporation develops and produces serious games for corporations, education and governments. Recent projects include companies such as Fontys University of Applied Sciences, Foot Locker Europe, City of Amsterdam and Ziggo.

In addition to running BrandNewGame, Bart often holds guest lectures at several universities and also organizes the practical part of the Master Applied Game Design at the University of Amsterdam.


In today’s interview with Bart Hufen you will learn:

  • What to avoid when applying gamification in your organization
  • How to get started using gamification to drive behaviors
  • Various examples of success cases from organizations implementing gamification
  • How to know if your organization should use gamification to achieve goals


KELLY: Hi everyone, I’m Kelly, VP of Business Development at Social and Loyal. And we’re here with Bart Hufen, gamification expert!


BART: Hello, I’m Bart, I’m the author of a book called “A Brand New Playground” and I’ve been doing stuff around gamification for about eight years now. I do three things, I publish articles, I talk about it because it’s my hobby and we do projects of course for customers to help them to change people’s behaviors.


KELLY: It’s a hard thing to do. Let’s start at the very beginning, so how did you get into this field and how did you catch on to this idea?


BART: Well it goes back a long time, when I was ten or twelve years old playing computer games on my dad’s IBM 8086 computer. I played games like Bigger and Defender of the Crown. I was hooked on games like Police Quest and Larry into the Land of the Lounge Lizards, it’s a really old game. So I have a Master’s degree in business management and after I graduated I started working for Atari. Then I worked for Diesel the clothing company for about five years and then two years in the advertising industry and then I got fired, which was a great thing because I started new studies, Master’s in Brand Management, and the moment that I graduated I had to write a paper, which became my first book. So that was when I got involved, and because I wanted to combine my gaming hobby. I wanted to combine that with the serious challenges that a lot of companies faced, especially in the advertising industry and especially during the crisis that happened nine years ago. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we could use gaming and game mechanics to solve serious problems.


KELLY: What are the problems that you focused on from the start?


BART: Well my first book was mostly about advertising and marketing, because that was the world I knew. I hoped to do a lot in that area but there wasn’t a lot of budget in that area, and companies like Media Monks, the big international, digital advertising agency, they totally had that scene. So, the first few projects I worked on were always about change management. They’re all about changing people’s behaviors or changing their attitudes towards change, etc. After three years, I looked back and I said okay, what’s the business that made me the most profitable projects and that was change management. And that was mostly creating serious games, real games that are fun to play and where people learn stuff. And I crowned myself the title of gamification guru after I did a lecture somewhere, but I wasn’t really into gamification at all. And even nowadays I’m still very skeptical, although we did some gamification projects and some of them were quite successful but also some of them failed.


KELLY: Why are you so skeptical? What have you seen maybe from your own experience, or just seen from other people or other companies that makes it so skeptical, and why do you think other companies have failed in this gamification element.


BART: Well mostly because gamification, the essence, is not really fun for the user most of the time. Or relevant. So a computer game that’s solely there to entertain people, it’s entertaining because it’s a fun game. Such as Candy Crush or Bejeweled or Tetris or whatever type of game. A gamification system is designed to force the player to do something he wasn’t intentionally thinking of doing before the gamification system lured him into doing something. So with a serious game, you can at least build an environment that’s fun, and you can teach something in a playful manner to achieve goals, and with gamification most of the time it just distracts behavior and then sets some goals. But the goal in the game is not fun. So, I think a lot of systems are not designed for the end user, for the player, to create a relevant goal, and then create mechanics according to the motivations and the drives that a person has.


KELLY: You did mention that there were some projects you worked on with gamification that were successful. Are you able to go a little more into that and explain what you actually did for them? And why you think those were a success?


BART: Well we did two main projects, and the advantage we had is that most of our projects don’t focus on end consumers. So not for a big consumer brand, but most of the time we focus on employees in a company or students in this case as we did a project for a college. The issue this school in Holland faced was that students are dropping out early. The cost of college is very low compared to the U.S., if you are very low income you could help up with 10,000 Euros in debt maximum while in the U.S. it could be over $100,000.

So the idea of this gamification system that we developed was to make sure that freshmen in their first year would immediately start studying. It might sound a little strange to you guys but we actually had to motivate people to start studying. We developed the game concept where people had to think of relevant questions regarding a brand that you could choose yourself, and they would enter a credible question for that brand regarding one of their topics, for instance marketing, or economics, or law. The idea was that they would be advised to read certain chapters to determine the type of question that should ask. The teachers would determine the relevance of the question, if it wasn’t then they had one more chance to correct it to obtain the points. The idea was to get students immediately in the first week into thinking critically about the curriculum, regarding the topics within the book and a brand that they could choose themselves.

That was one element and the second was they could do knowledge battles with other students. We didn’t expect that to do great but that was a bad assumption because the battles were a very popular and people immediately starting battling together. We scored very good results in terms of declining the percentage of students that dropped out in the first 6 months.


KELLY: So you mentioned the points system, would they redeem these points for rewards? Do you also use badges?


BART: Yeah we had a lot of badges such as the Most Brave Team, Top Ten, so everyone would still be in some leaderboard. That worked well because they could at least all say that they were in the Top 3 for something. But again there was really no reason for them to do it. Because they didn’t get points from school or any other physical rewards. We wanted to avoid this since then the reason to play is the free game tickets (reward) and not the game itself. And this is where I’m very skeptical about gamification.


KELLY: So you mentioned the education sector and what was the other project that you applied gamification to?


BART: I can’t reveal the name of the company because they don’t allow me but it’s a big phone company, and they use it to stimulate people in their stores to give feedback during the sales process. For example, if you would be chatting to a customer, and I could hear you, listen to your conversation, I can give you points and qualitative comments about your selling behaviors. It works quite well, it’s a badge system and a points system and you can buy cool stuff for your in-game avatar in the future, we’re not finished yet, the program has already run for two years and we’re continually building stuff for them. But that works quite well, also because the guy that hired us, he believes in the strategic use of gamification. So, for him it’s a strategic choice to condition people’s behaviors with different types of tools.


KELLY: Have you seen gamification applied to any other areas of a company? Do you think starting internally is the best idea before you apply that to your consumer base?


BART: I think it’s easier if you start internally and also the more monogamous your target audience is the easier it is. So if you were to have an external audience like consumers but you know that they are all ten year old boys and they all only have one drive and motivation which is candy, then a gamification system links to a real life world where they do activities to get to the candy they want, could work excellent. But it’s more about psychology, and knowing what drives and motivates those people than anything else. And it’s not just purpose, autonomy and mastery, you have to dig a lot deeper than that.

That’s why we chose the strategic focus on employees within big companies, mostly retail, and we apply gamification to that. Also, we have our own GameStorm methodology which are actually methods to continue to improve and change companies, but we’re selling it now as the one tool to continually improve your company. I think gamification is going to be everywhere and will be the new norm.


KELLY: So how can you go about finding these drives and motivations?


BART: Well that’s the Holy Grail! We did it once for an international insurance company where we just developed our own survey of about 30 questions, literally asking about all types of mechanics and saying okay, if you were playing a game, would you rather win points or collect stuff? So we asked them these kinds of questions and were able to use the data collected to create a highly motivating digital card game, which helped employees to experience what their brand values really mean.

I think if you have a monogamous target group it’s much easier to develop something than just throwing badges at consumers saying if you buy this product ten times then you get this badge that you didn’t really want but hey here it is.


KELLY: I think that those types of programs create loyalty to a deal. So if there’s another one that pops up that’s better, then they’re going to be loyal to that one, so constantly competing against that. What we focus on is the customer experience, so instead of just, throwing some games at you or making you do certain things to help the company or buy 10 get one free, it’s the whole experience that you’re providing the user, which has the by-product of loyalty.


BART: For me, the highest goal should always be supporting the personal progress that that player wants. If I want to become a smarter person or a more capable person or a more daring person, you can help that person achieve that by playing game mechanics and letting him or her experience stuff virtually before trying it for real. Loyalty is created by shared experiences, so yes if you create shared experiences that are relevant for me and I can achieve something great over and over, every action will create more loyalty towards that something.


KELLY: If you look at the buyer’s journey, it’s clear that everything is changing, they don’t want to talk to a salesperson, they want to do everything on their own. I think that kind of ties a bit into that, they don’t want to be convinced, they don’t want to feel that they’re being scammed into something, because the second they get a sniff of that, they’re out. I’d like to wrap up here and talk about your books and your expertise, so can you give everyone some information on the books you’ve written, why should they read them and where to find them.


BART: I just released a new book in November, but that’s still in Dutch, I plan to release it in 2018 in English. But the first book  “A Brand New Playground” can be downloaded for free from And on our website, there’s a lot of blog postings about the projects we did in the past. My first book was mostly about using games as a tool for your branding, whether you use it to show proper features, whether as an inspiration for innovative pricing, subscription based sales for instance. I actually proposed to Activision to introduce a shooting game where we pay per bullet, and they laughed at me. But I still think that it’s a very sound business model because in real life you and I pay per bullet so why shouldn’t I pay per bullet in a computer game? So, it’s about product, price, it’s about distribution in a different way, so place, how do we in the game industry distribute our product. And it’s about promotion and personnel, so staff. It addresses every P of the market mix, as we call it.

Now most days I speak about using gamification and game mechanics to change organizations and the GameStorm is a method that I developed over the years and it’s actually heavily inspired by the Donkey Kong from Nintendo. The idea of the game is that you have to save the princess, but the game is hard because there’s obstacles like barrels and ladders; you have to overcome these by actions and then you score points and save the princess and get kisses. All of these are mechanics that are in the GameStorm methodology that we use to play with clients in teams of six people for half a day and we train their management team to find their key obstacles, to find their actions that are actually destructive, the current action that is actually destructive, and constructive behavior. And we calculate the points or impact of the potential change that’s on the table after four hours of play. So it’s a brainstorm method with game elements in it. And I developed it because clients never had a briefing before we started a project, so they say look here’s our Code of Conduct but it is terrible and no one reads it, can you make it fun? We needed to improve this briefing method.

So, that’s why we invented the GameStorm, and we found out with a big international sneaker retailer that they embraced the GameStorm method so much that we played it with 860 store managers throughout Europe. They all played GameStorm and it all gave them ideas to increase their conversion in their stores. And the powerful thing about this tool is that people define their own change. Management doesn’t say I want you to increase conversion, and I want you to sell more Nike or Adidas or Reebok. Just play the game, find out what your key challenges are, discuss together how those challenges came in the first place, and discuss together which top nine actions you should undertake tomorrow, and the next weeks to overcome those challenges and calculate what the impact could be of your behavior. And that’s what they did, and the year after they had the best year after. It’s interesting to see if you play this with one thousand people or eight hundred people, what the impact could be on the entire organization.

KELLY: What would be the last piece of advice for a company that wants to start implementing?


BART: The most important thing is, don’t think it’s suitable for anything and anyone. Take it seriously, take playing seriously and take gamification seriously if you want to do it. Otherwise don’t do it at all. Take the time to dive into the minds of the audience that you develop something for. We don’t like to be fooled, as human beings. It’s like when you visit Vegas and every single store that you go into people will say, Hello, my name is Peter and I’m your sales associate, etc. And I lost them after Peter, because I don’t want to meet Peter. I just want to browse the store, and if I want to buy something, I’ll buy something, otherwise it’s ciao baby. I don’t want to know about your whole store, I was just walking around. It’s very hard to remain relevant, but you have to be remarkable and be relevant, that’s two things in my book in order to get anything done at all. Don’t sell, but let people buy.


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