IgamingBusiness: How gamification can fulfil its poker potential

Connective Games chief executive officer Serge Mukhanov asks how gamification could bridge the gap between long-term and recreational poker players.

Gamification in online poker is nothing new. Since the social gaming explosion, which roughly coincided with the beginning of the decline of the online poker vertical, real-money operators have looked enviously on the likes of Zynga Poker and their hundreds of millions of players.

The recognition that there is a dearth of new recreational players coming into the real-money game has caused operators to rethink their models, tweaking the balance in favour of recreational players and offering rewards and incentives to motivate new players to stay in the game.

Companies like 888, Unibet and even PokerStars offer engaging missions, “rich” table themes, side games for comp points, leaderboards, daily challenges, and so on.

Inside all of us, there lurks an achiever, or so the theory goes — it just needs to be unlocked so we can move up to the next level. Flick through any app store and it is apparent just how much this is the case.

From fitness to education, chores to gambling, we like to record our activity and hit goals in return for recognition and prizes.

Has gamification worked as a retention tool? Yes, to a degree. The problem is when it comes to real-money poker, not all elements of gamification can be applied.

The main challenge is to make playing commercial poker more interesting, but not to morph it into something completely different and risk upsetting the purists and alienating your loyal, long-term customers.

After all, is poker not compelling enough as it is? I believe it is, and it should be to recreationals, but to achieve the desired results in the game takes dedication, time and hard work.

Universal gaming
Meanwhile, the skill gap between these new players and regular players has become so great that recreationals feel they are being swallowed up and spat out with alacrity, and to them, there is no fun in that.

Of course, operators have moved to redress the balance, and the banning of seating scripts and restrictions on tracking software has made huge progress.

But I believe the powerful learning element of gamification has been overlooked as a player retention mechanism. Gamification has been proved to increase motivation to learn and to improve results.

The freemium language-learning tool DuoLingo, developed by the Carnegie Melon University, could serve as a useful model for a gamified online poker learning tool. DuoLingo allows busy people to learn languages conveniently and easily, cramming in learning during fractured moments of downtime, and it has achieved extraordinary results.   

For new players, real-money online poker can often feel a bit like you’re continually bashing into a glass wall. You’re eager to improve but ultimately you’re getting nowhere, so you give up. Let’s stop recreational players giving up.

Instead, let’s give them something to get their teeth into inside a gamified learning environment, with valuable lessons from sponsored pros, for example, that can be unlocked as they progress through their “poker education.”

In a digital world where you can now learn a language for free, perhaps the old adage that you have to “pay” for a poker education no longer holds. Perhaps it’s time to tap on the fish tank.

Serge Mukhanov began his career at Connective Games in 2007 before becoming the company’s CEO in 2016.

(Published by iGaming Business, News Analysis, November 2017)

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