Getting gamification right through psychology and gameful design

(This post was originally published in Drum Magazine on 21 Aug 2012)

Depending on who you ask, gamification is either revolutionizing marketing, triggering an apocalypse, the key to saving the world or just another buzzword. For the time being, however, some of the UK’s strongest brands including Coca-Cola, Nike and Tesco are producing painfully ill-conceived gamification initiatives. In fact, “gamification” is accruing negative baggage so quickly that academics are already shying from the term.

Why Gamification Fails 

The logic of gamification may be stated: “games are fun and motivating; therefore, making our system more game-like will make it more fun and motivating”. Based on this apparently reasonable assertion, Gamification consultants consequently apply a fairly simple formula:

  1. determine business objectives;
  2. translate objectives into desired customer behavior;
  3. assign points to desired behaviors;
  4. assign (primarily extrinsic) rewards to points;
  5. polish it off with some virtual trophies, a leaderboard and social media integration.

This process is likely to fail as it replicates game interface elements to manipulate the customer instead of utilizing game design elements to motivate a player. Points and trophies are not the elements that make games fun. Do you remember your high score in Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto or Final Fantasy? Furthermore, the focus on extrinsic rewards and manipulating customer behavior undermine primary tenants of motivation. These fallacies are rooted in thinking about customers instead of players. In contrast, applying gamification successfully necessitates laser-like focus on players’ fun and motivation.

Successful Gamification through Fun and Motivation

Rule #1: Games must be fun. What is fun varies dramatically between individuals and even for the same individual over time. However, fun during gaming may derive from combinations of exploring, socializing, achieving, learning, collecting, surprise, humor, crafting or fiero, the pleasure derived from an epic, flawless or unlikely victory. Many existing gamification initiatives focus only on collecting (all fifteen Transformers or seven codes to win!). To capture a wide audience, however, gamification requires attending to diverse play motivations – players need a world to explore, a surprising story, adversity to overcome, treasure to loot, the chance for epic wins and the occasional laugh-out-loud joke.

Rule #2: Games must be motivating. The three main elements of human motivation are purpose, autonomy, and mastery. One reason that multiplayer adventure games including World of Warcraft are so successful is their attention to these three elements – a player embarks on an epic quest, has control over her actions and is provided with everything necessary to become proficient in the required skills. To effectively motivate, gamification initiatives therefore need to give players a meaningful goal, control over their own actions and a strong sense of progression. Many games include explicit quests to maximize the sense of purpose; however, quests need meaningful connections to the real world or other in-game elements such as an engaging story. Furthermore, allowing players to choose which quests to attempt and how to go about them helps to solidify the sense of autonomy. Meanwhile. progression may be implemented as a player leveling system; however, simply moving from level 4 to level 5 is not motivating unless the level is linked to other parts of the game, such as character attributes or quest availability. Finally, note that ‘free swag’ is not among the key elements of human motivation. Brits paid £3.2 billion for the pleasure of playing games last year. They did not need to be bribed by prizes.

Gameful Design

Gamifying a commercial system requires knowledge of not only the existing system but also the principles of game design. Game design, however, is complicated. It involves combining storytelling, character development, game mechanics, aesthetics, virtual worlds, puzzles, adaptation and technology to create motivation, fun and profit. It involves calibrating difficulty so the game is challenging but doable, balancing game mechanics so no one choice makes the game trivial or impossible and designing puzzles for multiple play styles. Organisations may therefore improve their gamification initiatives by hiring or consulting video game designers. Asking employees untrained in game design to figure this out on their own is neither reasonable nor strategically sound.


Are we headed for the Gamepocalypse – a dystopic future where everyone earns meaningless points for every activity from watching television to shopping to riding the bus? Probably not, as games based on meaningless points aren’t very fun or motivating. Successful gamification depends on using game design elements to make systems more fun and motivating for platers. Fun depends on attending to various play motivations including exploring, achieving and surprise while motivation depends on attending to mastery, achievement and autonomy. As long as commercial gamification focuses on manipulating customers using game interfaces, its effectiveness will remain limited.

This piece is based on discussions at the first Perspectives on Gamification seminar, held 13 July 2012 at Lancaster University.