Gamification: A Guide to What It Is and How It's Used

Gamification will save the world, or maybe destroy it? Here’s how it works, and why it sometimes doesn’t.
Hal Koss
May 15, 2020
Updated: August 7, 2020
Hal Koss
May 15, 2020
Updated: August 7, 2020

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: When you take game elements (a timer, say) and apply them to everyday activities. The goal of gamifying a situation, typically, is to motivate someone to do something.

What Is Gamification?

The application of game concepts to non-game situations, often to nudge behavior.

Gamification isn’t just something parents use to coax children into doing chores. Companies gamify their products — and workplaces — to hook customers and engage employees.

Foursquare Swarm, for example, relies on gamification to collect and monetize user data. People use the social check-in app to log their whereabouts and share it with friends. The more frequently they check in at various venues, the more virtual points and stickers they receive. These rewards turn an everyday activity (going to a coffee shop or movie theater) into something like a game, which propels users to keep engaging with the app.

Lots of other products use gamification. Fitbit challenges its users to walk 10,000 steps each day. Audible rewards readers with badges as they consume audiobooks, inviting them to share their progress on social media. Duolingo encourages language-learners to not break their daily streaks.

Gamification isn’t only popular among consumer product designers: Plenty of HR departments rely on it, gamifying the workplace in order to increase employee productivity. DirecTV, for example, created a game-like learning program to help train its IT staff. And SAP Streamwork gamified brainstorming sessions to motivate employees to generate more ideas.

Gamification has even made a splash in the classroom.

All of this added up has made gamification one of the buzziest — and most controversial — design ideas around.

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gamification
Gamification truly caught on in the digital boom of the 2000s. | Image: Shutterstock

The History of Gamification

The term “gamification” was coined in 2002, but the concept dates back further. The retail sector has long used rewards programs to strengthen customer loyalty. And for decades, factory workers were encouraged to compete to see which shift could produce the most. (Management’s way of gamifying productivity.)

In 1984, Charles Coonradt published the seminal text on gamification, The Game of Work. Coonradt wrote about his experience helping Fortune 500 companies boost employee engagement and increase their bottom lines. He showed them how to lace 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.

"Gaming can make a better world"

Gamification’s popularity peaked in the early 2010s. Jane McDonigal 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,” said Rahul Vohra, chief executive officer of Superhuman. “Then it almost became a meme here in Silicon Valley.”

 

Why Gamification Is Controversial

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,” said Kerstin Oberprieler, gamification researcher and chief executive of PentaQuest. “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 said. 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 like a carrot attached to a stick. 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,’” wrote Yu-Kai Chou in Actionable Gamification. “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 Starbucks Gold — are popular, in part, because they are designed like games.

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gamification
Done well, gamification is about motivating users — not tricking them with badges and points. | Image: Shutterstock

How Does Gamification Work?

In Actionable Gamification, Chou identifies eight “core drives” of human motivation that gamification (when done correctly) can hook into:

CHOU’S 8 CORE DRIVES OF GAMIFICATION

  1. Epic meaning and calling
  2. Development and accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of creativity and feedback
  4. Ownership and possession
  5. Social influence and relatedness
  6. Scarcity and impatience
  7. Unpredictability and curiosity
  8. Loss and avoidance

In Chou’s framework, tapping into these human instincts is what make games — and, by extension, successfully gamified experiences — so engaging to participate in.

There are other frameworks to consider. Oberprieler, for example, whose company helps organizations increase employee engagement, 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 said. “It’s just not going to be as simple as throwing on a few mechanics.”

“It’s just not going to be as simple as throwing on a few mechanics.”

At Superhuman, Vohra says his team has identified several key factors that make a game great — “things like goals, emotions, resonance, toys, human needs, pleasure, focus, interest curves and flow” — which they integrate into their email inbox product. “Success is taking these factors, doing them well and ultimately ending up with a brilliantly designed game,” he said.

 

gamification
Which gamification elements you use should depend on the application. | Image: Shutterstock

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. But looking at a few examples more closely might help give you some ideas:

Purpose

  • What It Is: The instilling of the sense that you are specially chosen for an epic quest and are contributing to something larger than yourself.
  • What It Looks Like: Narrative, often communicated early on.
  • Example: Waze is a GPS app in which users voluntarily contribute real-time information about traffic and road conditions to help make driving easier for each other.

Progress

  • What It Is: The indication that you are overcoming obstacles and getting closer to your goal.
  • What It Looks Like: Points, levels, boss battles or a progress bar.
  • Example: LinkedIn displays a progress bar to encourage users to complete their profiles.

Pressure

  • What It Is: The promotion of the urgency to take action, fear of losing and feeling that you can’t turn back now.
  • What It Looks Like: Countdown timers, streaks and scarce collectables.
  • Example: Duolingo, the language-learning app, motivates users to practice with the app daily in order to keep their streak alive — lest their virtual flame (streak counter) be extinguished.

Position

  • What It Is: The ability to showcase your accomplishments and compete with — or compare yourself to — other peers or players.
  • What It Looks Like: Trophy shelves, badges, leaderboards and ladders.
  • Example: Spinify makes leaderboard software that sales teams use to increase employee competition.

Play

  • What It Is: The sensation of fun and pleasure.
  • What It Looks Like: Easter eggs, branching choices, exploration and customization.
  • Example: On April Fools’ Day a few years ago, Google Maps let users play Pac-Man using the GPS roads.

 

gamification
When gamification is done well, users often won’t notice that it’s happening. | Image: Shutterstock

Game Design Principles in Action

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 writes, “where the best designs are the ones that you aren’t even aware of but simply use to open the door.”

What does this theory look like in action?

How can the historically musty business software industry take cues from games like Zelda? While remaining subtle, and not feeling distractingly game-like?

Take Superhuman, the email client launched in 2017 by founders Vohra (a former video game designer himself), Conrad Irwin and Vivek Sodera. They wanted to make the fastest, most enjoyable inbox experience possible. So, they incorporated game design principles into the product.

 

Creating Concrete, Achievable, Rewarding Goals

Games need goals. And so does business software. For Superhuman, the clear goal is to get to inbox zero. To help make that achievable, Superhuman 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 closer within reach. When users finally get through all their unread emails, they’re greeted with awe-inspiring nature photos meant to impart a sense of triumph.

 

Building for Flow

Flow is when you’re “in the zone,” so focused on the present that you lose track of time. Anyone who’s binge-played a well-designed video game is probably familiar with this state of mind. Good games build for it. So does Superhuman. Its design minimizes distractions (users can’t see the rest of their inbox when they’re in compose mode), gives immediate feedback, makes the next step clear and strikes a balance between challenge and skill.

“This is going to sound crazy, [but] we deliberately increase the challenge level,” Vohra said. “That’s when you unlock flow.”

Superhuman is — counterintuitively, perhaps — built to seem somewhat difficult to master. That way, when people get good at using it, they won’t grow bored of it; they’ll be absorbed.

 

Making Fun Toys to Put in Games

Superhuman, even though it’s business software, is designed to be fun, stoke curiosity and sometimes leads to surprise. The time autocompleter, for example, is designed somewhat whimsically — its AI does its best to interpret every keystroke. So, a user scheduling an email send can punch in whatever they’d like — “01010101,” “three fortnights from now,” or “October pm 1234” — and see just how intuitive the software can get. “It turns out,” Vohra says, “that the best games are built out of toys.”

superhuman time autocompleter gamification
Image: Superhuman

According to Vohra, more than half of new Superhuman users get to inbox zero within four hours of being onboarded.

Do they realize they’re playing a game?

“They wouldn’t use those words,” Vohra said. “But what they have is the unfamiliar sensation of fun in their email. And that’s worth fighting for.”

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