Anyone who has a procrastinating child — or was one — knows the phrase: “I’ll time you.”
Parents say it to their children to make chores seem like a game, because they know kids would rather be playing Nintendo than cleaning their rooms or folding laundry. The ticking clock gives a tedious task the slight whiff of play. And kids like to play. Everyone does.
That’s gamification in a nutshell: When you apply game mechanics (like a timer) to everyday situations where you want to motivate someone to do something.
What Is Gamification?
Gamification isn’t just something parents use to coax children into doing chores. Companies of all kinds — ranging from Tinder to Twitter, Starbucks to SAP — gamify their products, making them “sticky” to boost user engagement.
All of that has made gamification one of the buzziest — and most controversial — design ideas around.
What Is Gamification?
Gamification is all about making non-game activities feel like they’re games. It’s a way of adding extrinsic motivation — dangling rewards like carrots on sticks — to enhance participation and productivity.
While the term “gamification” was coined in 2002, the concept dates back to the 20th century, when retail stores introduced rewards programs to strengthen customer loyalty and industrial managers encouraged factory workers to see themselves in competition with each other.
In 1984 Charles Coonradt published The Game of Work, a seminal text about his experience helping Fortune 500 companies boost employee engagement and increase their bottom lines by lacing the workplace with game mechanics, such as clearly defined goals, better scorekeeping and frequent feedback.
Gamification caught a tailwind in the digital boom of the 2000s. An entire industry of consulting agencies and SaaS companies specializing in gamification sprung up, helping businesses add points, badges and leaderboards to their software.
Gamification’s popularity peaked in the early 2010s. Jane McGonigal gave her popular 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” in which she extolled the concept’s virtues. Early examples like Mozilla Badges and Foursquare’s competition for mayorship energized the industry. And Zynga, the company behind simple and addicting games like Farmville, went public in 2011, alerting organizations everywhere that video games resonated with the average person.
“About 10 years ago, gamification was a really big deal. It became trendy,” Rahul Vohra, CEO of email software maker Superhuman, told Built In in 2020. “Then it almost became a meme here in Silicon Valley.”
How Does Gamification Work?
Yu-kai Chou, an entrepreneur and experience designer, says that to successfully gamify an activity, it needs to tap into one of eight “core drives” of human motivation:
- Epic meaning and calling
- Development and accomplishment
- Empowerment of creativity and feedback
- Ownership and possession
- Social influence and relatedness
- Scarcity and impatience
- Unpredictability and curiosity
- Loss and avoidance
In Chou’s framework, which he outlines in his book Actionable Gamification, when your gamified activity hooks into at least one of these human instincts, it will feel like playing an engaging video game.
There are other frameworks to consider too. Kerstin Oberprieler, gamification researcher and CEO of gamification consultancy PentaQuest, draws upon Reiss’ 16 basic desires and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These psychological principles help inform how Oberprieler designs game-like software for clients.
One such principle is the need for purpose. We see this in the game Death Stranding, for example, in which the main character is tasked with reconnecting isolated cities after a cataclysmic event; or in The Legend of Zelda, where the main character fulfills his destiny by bringing balance to the universe.
Oberprieler said the need for purpose is especially important when designing gamified products for clients in the non-profit sector; the desire to contribute to something larger is the reason many people choose to work in that industry. The type of game element that aligns well with purpose, Oberprieler said, is one that shows off collective achievement or shares stories of impact. The type of game element that doesn’t align well with purpose are leaderboards, which rely on competition and social comparison.
“In nudging behavior, you’re tapping into psychology or changing social dynamics and culture within the system of an organization,” Oberprieler told Built In in 2020. “It’s just not going to be as simple as throwing on a few mechanics.”
Common Gamification Elements
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of mechanics and concepts derived from games that are used to gamify everyday activities and environments. Here are a few of the most common game elements seen in successful products.
Purpose is all about instilling the sense that you are specially chosen for an epic quest and are contributing to something larger than yourself. This often is communicated through narrative.
Progress refers to an indication that you are overcoming obstacles and getting closer to your goal. This often takes the form of points, levels, boss battles and progress bars.
Pressure is created by promoting urgency to take action, the fear of losing or the feeling that you can’t turn back now. Countdown timers, streaks and scarce collectibles are all examples of pressure in action.
Position in gamification means there is a way to showcase your accomplishments and compete with — or compare yourself to — other peers or players. It shows up in activities by way of trophy shelves, badges and leaderboards.
Play refers to the sensation of fun, pleasure and surprise. Typical examples of play include easter eggs, branching choices, exploration and customization.
Does Gamification Work?
As gamification rose to prominence, it drew fire from critics. Some organizations and designers had seized upon a shallow understanding of how games work, focusing on external rewards and manipulative mechanics. This is sometimes called black-hat gamification. In the eyes of some industry leaders, such practices have besmirched gamification’s reputation altogether.
“Gamification is bullshit,” wrote Ian Bogost, an academic and game designer. He refers to it as “exploitationware.”
“A lot of those early examples were really basic,” Oberprieler said. “They basically relied on these simple extrinsic mechanics, which is good because it popularized gamification, but it’s bad because they could be a little bit superficial and a little bit too competitive.”
“Gamification does not really work,” Vohra echoed. When it does work, he added, it’s only because the overall experience is designed like a game, thus appealing to the intrinsic motivation of users — not because elements like trophies and levels were slapped on. It may seem like debating semantics and splitting hairs, but for Vohra and many other game-design advocates, this distinction is crucial.
When gamification works, it’s because the overall experience is designed like a game, thus appealing to the intrinsic motivation of users.
“I am genuinely afraid that in a few years, companies will look at gamification and say, ‘Hey, we tried the points stuff and it didn’t work out. I guess gamification was just a short-term fad,’” Chou wrote. “That would be a huge loss for the world.”
When Chou works with clients on gamification, he never asks them, “Do you have badges?” Instead, he asks what they do to make their users feel accomplished. “Having badges (or any game element in itself) does not mean users are motivated towards the Win-State,” Chou wrote. “That’s why we focus on the [core drives] instead of game elements.”
Whether or not a product or service would apply the term “gamification” to what it does, many of them — from Yelp to Waze, LinkedIn to Snapchat, Nike+ to Fitbit — are popular, in part, because they are designed purposefully with game mechanics.
The game design principles underpinning a successful product or experience are often invisible to the user. People who edit a Wikipedia entry or bid for an item on eBay don’t think they’re playing a game. “This is like a doorknob,” Chou wrote, “where the best designs are the ones that you aren’t even aware of but simply use to open the door.”
Here are eight examples of gamification in action.
- Duolingo — streaks for daily lessons
- Greenlight — points for saving money
- LinkedIn — progress bar for profile completion
- Ambition — contests for sales goals
- Peloton — leaderboard for improved performance
- Starbucks — rewards for frequent purchases
- Superhuman — shortcuts for inbox zero
- Headspace — encouragement for daily use
The language-learning app Duolingo keeps users coming back to extend their “streak,” which refers to the number of consecutive days the user has completed a lesson. Streaks are represented by a flame icon, and if the user doesn’t meet their streak, the flame gets extinguished. This gamification element encourages users to check the app daily.
Greenlight is a fintech company that makes a budgeting app and debit card for kids and teens. Its app offers financial incentives each month for users who save more. This gamified element is designed to get teens in the habit of saving money instead of spending it.
The professional social network displays a progress bar — and copy that says “Profile Strength: Intermediate,” for example — to encourage users to complete their profile pages. A trophy icon also appears on the page, with a note informing users that when they fill out the entirety of their profiles, they will be an “All Star” and receive more profile views.
Ambition’s software products are designed to help sales teams meet their (ahem) ambitious goals, and it uses gamification to do so. For example, you can create competitions to hit sales goals, set up leaderboards and automate celebrations when teammates meet their quota.
The home fitness company uses gamification to encourage its customers to keep working out with its flagship product, the stationary bike. Each user has access to a Peloton leaderboard, which informs them how they’re doing relative to other users, motivating them to stay engaged and improve their position. (Plus, Peloton added an actual game to its offerings, and it looks like a cross between Mario Kart and Guitar Hero.)
The Starbucks Rewards mobile app gamifies the coffee-buying experience. More than a simple punch-card that defines many basic restaurant loyalty programs, this app creates a flywheel that encourages frequent use. Using machine learning, the app provides personally tailored special offers that encourage users to frequent the store and buy certain items in order to unlock additional rewards.
Superhuman is an email client meant for email “power users” who want to reach inbox zero. The company incorporates game design principles into its product. For example, it walks new users through a one-on-one onboarding session, teaching them keyboard shortcuts and tips to quickly respond to emails. If they’re drowning in unread emails, Superhuman wipes the slate clean, setting inbox zero within reach. When users finally get through all their emails, they’re greeted with high-definition nature photos meant to impart a sense of triumph.
Headspace employs game design principles to help its users make meditation a habit. Its streak feature, similar to that of Duolingo’s, motivates users to return to the app on a daily basis in order to keep their streaks alive. It also celebrates achievements, which gives users a sense of accomplishment, a principle it reinforces by rewarding them with badges as they progress through the app.