GamFed Gyan #2 – Interview with Juan J. F. Valera Mariscal

It is hard to classify Juan J. F. Valera Mariscal (GamFed Ambassador, Spain). He is a psychologist by education and can speak on the subject with authority. He is a teacher at heart who can explain the most complex concepts with compassion and a smile on his face. His interest in and knowledge of gamification is clearly visible. He is a designer, an artist, and even a musician. Knowing his busy schedule, I requested him for half an hour, but he generously spoke for close to an hour and a half, sharing laughs as frequently as ideas, talking about his journey as a trainer, his work in gamification, and his belief that gamification first and foremost must be ethical. 

The interview is edited lightly for coherence and length.

Juan J. F. Valera Mariscal

Rakshith: How did you get introduced to gamification and what has your journey been like so far?

Juan: I am trained as a psychologist. In psychology, we study human beings in different situations. As human beings, we have all played at some point or the other and we have learnt from playing games. So when I was studying social psychology and games, I saw a good relationship between the experiments in social psychology and games. For example, when video games arrived, I saw that most of the behaviours that we cannot easily experience or measure in real life, it was easy to do in a digital environment. So that was one reason, I started looking closely at games.

The other reason was that I was curious. I like to analyse how social organizations work. The way social organizations are structured; you see a lot of aspects that are similar to what you will find in games. For example, the ancient Greeks started the Olympic Games as a way for people to develop the skills that would be required in the army. It was a way to learn. And for me, as a psychologist, games became a way to help people to learn.

Also, I was quite lazy to study but I was always eager to play, and very curious to learn. So why not combine the two because in psychology I found a lot of theories that would help people to learn and in gamification, I found a way to package all of these theories in an engaging manner. So you can say I mixed my curiosity, my studies, and my work together.


Rakshith: What were your top 3 gamification projects in the last 12 months?

Juan: When I have to design my training programs, I usually design some gamification for it too. Designing training programs are my primary projects. But recently I had an opportunity to work on designing an app. I designed three apps for a client on improving productivity, efficiency, and habit formation. It can be accessed on mobile and laptop. It helps a user to cultivate mindfulness, manage stress, and manage his/her energies. They are called efficacy apps.

Another big project was with a Canadian company where I was called to help design a gamification strategy for their health app, encouraging people to maintain healthy habits that would, in turn, help them to monitor and maintain healthy blood pressure levels. It is also designed to help people track their food habits, their activities, and their sleep patterns. One of the applications of the app, of course, is to predict and prevent heart attacks in patients. The app also uses artificial intelligence and can be accessed via your watch or your phone. This project was very interesting because the company was keen to implement gamification in the app that would encourage users to build and sustain long-term habits. The project, this watch, was presented in spring last year in Las Vegas. It will hopefully be launched to the public this summer.

It was also interesting for me to work in the health sector because I believe health has a lot to do with behaviour and cognition. So gamification can be a powerful tool to help prevent sickness, stop it before it arrives.


Rakshith: Was that your biggest learning from these projects?

Juan: Every gamification designer thinks about how the player will play the game, or how the user will use the gamification in the product. And that is very important. But I think it is equally important to design gamification that encourages long-term commitment or creates long-term engagement and impact. To do that, you have to pay close attention to every step in the player’s journey; put yourself in the player’s shoes and design each step of gamification from that perspective.


Rakshith: How is it different, designing for short term engagement vs long term impact? As a designer, what do you do differently?

Juan: The more the design is meaningful to people, the more they are drawn to play and to use. Generally, when gamification design is short term, it has to be more evident to the users. As a designer, I have to make it very simple for you. I have to show you the rules, the limits; I have to spoon feed you. There is not enough time for discovery. But in long-term gamification, it’s more psychological, more cognitive. As you progress in the game, I have to also help you process your previous experience in the game.

For example, say, you are playing football. In short-term gamification, if you shoot the ball into the goal, I reward you and you’re happy. But in long-term gamification, I have to convince you that scoring goals are good for your life, for your growth; that your life is more meaningful with this action. I have to create in you in a behaviour that shows me and you, that you believe your life is better with this action. You have to internalise it. In other words, from an organizational standpoint, in long-term gamification, you are creating a culture for the organization. This calls for sound principles of cognitive science and social science to be incorporated into the game.

That is the difference that, in long-term gamification, you have to think in an anthropological way; you have to build a culture in the game. You have to create a community.

CommuniCrack – a card game designed by Juan for improving communication skills

Rakshith: You were talking earlier about gamification in health. Is that an industry where you see gamification adding greater value in future?

Juan: Yes. One of the first conferences I spoke at was for a community of doctors, here in Madrid. In the beginning, they were just curious. But soon, I realised that they were doing projects in gamification that could help people to live better lives or help doctors to manage treatments of patients better. So yes, I believe that doctors are looking towards gamification to make treatments easier for patients to understand and follow. On the other hand, if you look at it from a psychological point of view, for the patients or for people in general to lead a healthier life, it requires a motivational and behavioural change. And the key to encourage and implement these changes lies in gamification mechanics.

That, for me, is the beauty of gamification. We can link gamification with different disciplines – like psychology, learning and development, design, motivation, music – but we can speak about all of them in the same language of gamification.


Rakshith: Speaking of design, you designed CommuniCARDS. What are they and can you tell us a little bit about them?

Juan: A very common concern that one raises, when one is responsible for communicating something is: What will I say? And how much I am going to say? Communicating well helps to succeed. The ComuniCARDS method entails the 5 dimensions of total communication: Logos (logic), pathos (emotion), Ethos (ethics), Agora (the place) and Chronos (the time). Having these dimensions close at the time of thinking and preparing your next presentation or communication can help you structure your communication and influence your listener. Whether I do this training for companies or for students, they primarily go back with the understanding that public speaking is not one-dimensional. It has 5 dimensions and you have to think about every one of them.

Juan explained the cards in far greater detail, but in the interest of the length of this article, I’ll cover that as a separate article next week.


Rakshith: What are your focus areas in the next 12 months?

Juan: I am working on the cards. They have become complex and I have developed a full system of rules to play them with. So turning these cards into a wholesome product and testing it is one project. The system is now called CommuniCrack.

Another is in the space of learning and development; to help train people on the job using not only gamification but also technology and if possible, artificial intelligence. That is an interesting project because if it works, the A.I. will serve as your assistant, helping you to work and learn at the same time.


Rakshith: Tell us a little about your book Gamification in the company.

Juan: The term gamification became popular in Spain around 2011-12. And there were very different interpretations of the term. People in companies where I would conduct my training programs would ask me, “I have heard this term gamification. What does it mean?” Some people had the childish idea that it was only playing and therefore only for children. Others thought it was about making games. These misconceptions still persist. But that is not true. If you look at it, Twitter is gamified. Facebook is gamified. So the book was a way for me to explain to people better, what gamification is and how it can be used in companies, especially to build a culture.

The second objective was to reiterate that you can gamify better if you understand psychology. In the book, I speak about ideas like motivation, identifying different roles, different personalities, and different assessment tools that can help you identify the right kind of players to fulfil your objectives in your company.

So, it was an attempt to introduce gamification to companies, introduce gamifiers to companies, and introduce psychology as a tool that can develop better gamification.


Rakshith: How might a forum like GamFed contribute to the growth of gamification and gamification professionals? What are your expectations from GamFed?

Juan: I think we can do a lot of things. It will depend on our own competencies and motivations. The main thing to do is to connect people and ideas. But it’s also important to focus on motivation and ethics. For example, in our country (Spain), people are not yet very excited about gamification – oh it’s hard, oh it’s costly – but there are other countries where the reaction is a lot more positive. So I think we can help each other communicate the benefits of gamification in a way that motivates users and players. Similarly, we should also be focusing on a basic code of ethics for the use of gamification. I mean, you can do gamification only after first respecting human rights. It cannot violate human rights.

We have to be clear about what the meaning of gamification is for us and what good we can do for the world with it whether in marketing or teaching or design or psychology or any other field. Only after that can we communicate it to the world. I think that is something GamFed can take a lead role in.


Juan is a gamification designer, gamification business strategist, and Professor of gamification at IEBS business school. You can connect with Juan here. He blogs here.

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