The Game of Leadership: What new trends in gaming can teach us about motivating followers

ken walker Jun 29, 2022


By Ken Walker

Whether on the NFL gridiron or at the controls of an Xbox, playing games is usually seen as a diversion at best and a waste of time at worst. But recently, business experts and brain researchers alike are discovering that the passions that drive winning at games can also be harnessed to motivate those we lead—and help them have fun in the process.

That’s the kind of analysis and execution Yu-kai Chou ( delivers for gamification. He’s done it places like Lausanne, Switzerland, where he delivered a TEDx talk; at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas; and before corporate leaders from such familiar names as Google, Tesla, Lego and Uber.

A current example of his work is Boneo, a rewards and loyalty program Chou’s Octalysis Group ( developed for Porsche in Austria in 2018. Expanded to the wider Volkswagen family a year later, Octalysis hopes to eventually roll it out to 90 million customers worldwide.

“Good gamification does not start with game elements,” says Chou, who sees good design as serious business. “It really starts with how it motivates our core drives. Core drives motivate us to do everything we do—in games or out of games.”

“Octalysis” draws its name from the octagon-shaped diagram Chou utilizes to explain the eight core drives behind human motivation. They start with epic meaning and calling, meaning people derive rewards from feeling they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

One example is Pain Squad, an app developed to persuade cancer victims at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children to record daily pain levels so doctors can devise better treatment methods. Pain Squad includes videos of police officers encouraging kids to join the significant battle against pain by becoming a valued member of the team.

That may sound like child’s play. But the value of applying game-like concepts to other challenges can be seen through Octalysis’ list of last year’s top 10 productivity apps utilizing gamification.

Among them were “Smarty Pig,” a personal finance tool that helps achieve purchasing goals; “Challenge Timer,” which breaks larger projects into more manageable tasks, and “Beeminder,” a productivity measurement tool. If users fail to meet their daily or weekly goals, their credit card gets dinged five dollars.

Making Life a Game

Chou is no newcomer to video games, picking them up as a preschooler. But in 2002, as a 16-year-old gamer, he decided there had to be more to life. What if he could make it more like a game?

That is a simplified version of a 12-year-long process behind understanding and mapping these motivations. The Taiwanese-born tech guru and business consultant finally published his research in 2015’s Actionable Gamification. The self-published, 511-page tome has been translated into 15 languages. Estimated sales of 50,000 copies have sparked interest lately from publishers in Germany, Vietnam, and Africa.

The book emerged from Chou’s widely-followed tech blog, with online readers regularly asking when his book would be available; he gets similar requests today for book #2. Chou says with a shrug that when he finished the first, he was already behind on all his other projects and simply went back to work.

“Some people have called it the bible of gamification,” Chou says of his first book. “But I have a high reverence for the Bible so I wouldn’t have used that term in describing it.”

Arriving Stateside at 13, Chou lived for a while in Kansas before moving to Southern California and later settling in the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area. However, the nearly two dozen app designers, web designers, and others associated with his two companies are spread out all over the world, in such places as Bulgaria, Colombia, and France.

Managing such a far-flung network has provided firsthand experience in modern leadership, a corollary to the gamification process. Leading a company or organization today relies more on motivation and coaching than the autocratic, top-down management styles that figured so prominently in the Industrial Revolution.

Leadership Speaker

Not surprisingly, Chou’s insights have made him a favorite speaker in wider circles, including many business and pastors’ conferences. The latter include such events as the 400 Gathering, sponsored by the megachurch-oriented Leadership Network; the Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast; Capacity 2019, a gathering of African-American pastors in Atlanta; and SpireConference 2019 in Orlando.

At Spire last October, he discussed how to apply the Octalysis Framework to create engaging and successful experiences in the church, workplace, and personal life. At others, he likes to review his leadership model, which rests on three pillars. He says a good leader possesses:

  • Vision: Knowing where we’re going.
  • Execution: Knowing what we’re doing.
  • Empathy: Getting people to be where we want to be.

Most leaders only get one or two out of these three, Chou says. The problem is if you only have vision, you will be considered a dreamer. Only execute and others may label you a hustler. If you focus too much on empathy, you will be cast as primarily a cheerleader.

“If you’re good at empathy and vision, you’re a good coach, but you can’t push people too hard to get people to do what needs to be done,” Chou says. “But if you lack empathy, you have a great vision and get results, but you make people uncomfortable in the process. It’s like a Venn diagram, where you determine what you have and put a name on that box.”

Leaders must be strategic in the same way good game developers understand their audience and what motivates them. Chou tells audiences too many creators think if they simply slap elements like points, badges, and leaderboards on a game that will make it fun and exciting.

Likewise, he advises Christian leaders to focus first on intellectually engaging others while building credibility and trust before trying to share one’s faith. That doesn’t mean backing away from it—earlier in his career, a potential partner wanted him to remove mentions of his Christian beliefs from his website before proceeding Replied Chou: “I guess we won’t do business.”

“People are always trying to convert others,” says Chou, a member of Forerunner Christian Church in Fremont, California. “But when they know you are about people and see that you’re a friend, when they’re having problems or are flustered, you can ask, ‘Can I pray for you?’

“They always appreciate that. They’re totally open to that. I don’t try to tell people they have to believe. I tell them what I’ve done and what motivates me to believe.”

In Chou’s case, it’s hard to argue with success.


This article was extracted from Issue 1 (Spring 2020) of the AVAIL Journal.

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