The near-win is a concept used in gamification to create emotion and motivate people into repeating a behaviour. It is often used in black-hat gamification to manipulate others (slot machines!), but it can also serve in creating fun experiences that give a feeling of uniqueness and acknowledgement to individuals, or motivate them†to try again with a clear view of how they almost reached their goal.
When I was in grade 4, our teacher would regularly pick a student’s name at random to give out candy on Friday. Anyone who had behaved during the earlier weeks would receive a ticket on which to write their name. My friends and I tried many tricks over the course of that year to raise our chances of winning: rolling our tickets instead of folding them to get the picker’s attention, putting all our tickets together under a single name thinking it increased the odds of one of us three winning, and even putting a piece of tape on them hoping they would stick to the picker’s hand. Yes, hindsight is 20/20. On one specific draw day, the winner’s name was Jeff. Not my best friend, the other Jeff in the class. Still, he went on for hours about how he almost won. I spent a lot of time trying to explain to him that tickets weren’t ordered alphabetically by first name, and how the other Jeff winning had no bearing on his own odds. It’s a discussion we had many times over the following years, and to this day I still think back on it sometimes, continuing the argument in my head, refining it, daydreaming about what would make Jeff see the light.
Even though he left the argument years ago, he won it recently.
I finally understood. Jeff was right, he just couldn’t find the words. He experienced a near-win. Winning is not simply an objective state, it is also a subjective experience, an emotion. When our teacher pronounced the first half of his winning combination, he really did feel the anticipation, get a surge of dopamine, and picture how great it would be the next day to eat candy together while playing Turtles in Time on SNES. Even though it shattered in his face in the end, he still went through all the emotions associated with winning, save the cherry on top. After all, don’t they say it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey? I think I need to call Jeff. This is where the near-win has power; it creates an outstanding experience that pays by itself. Let’s take a look at a clear case of near-win.
The concept is fairly simple: whenever you buy a meal at McDonald’s, you get stamps to put on a Monopoly map. If you complete a color, you win that color’s prize. As seen in the above picture, 30 LED TVs will be given out. What this essentially means, is that the third stamp of the green section will only be printed 30 times, yet a lot of people will have two out of three, effectively feeling the near-win state every time they peel the stamp off their latest meal. All these people feel like they have two thirds of a brand new LED TV. They want to complete this progression, and thus, are driven back to the restaurant a lot more than if it were a classic "win or try again" scratch card. Instead of simply making 30 winners, they take the opportunity to generate a lot more emotion by making thousands of near-winners. This means more people feeling attached to the contest, looking forward to it coming back the following year, and telling people around them how close they are to winning something, generating this "fear of missing out" in others.
While the near-win does generate good numbers when applied, its use is questionnable. Surely we should think of ways to engage people and create memorable experiences without relying on manipulation and mirage jackpots. Still, in some cases where good faith is implied (fundraising for a good cause, video games, e-learning) it can add flavor to the experience, drum up interest and create genuine positive emotions. So, next time you make a winner, how many near-winners do you think you can make?
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