What is gamification?

Gameplay has a lot to teach us about motivating participation through joy. ‘Gamification’ is a new term, coined in 2008, for adapting game mechanics into non-game setting — such as building online communities, education and outreach, marketing, or building educational apps. Here are some ideas for how to do it.


Badges, trophies and points represent having accomplished something. Since antiquity, people have been honored with medals, crowns and other decorations. Wreaths made of bay laurel were awarded to Greek athletes, and worn by Roman poets (e.g., Ovid, at left).

Judd Antin, at Yahoo! Research, in a talk this summer noted, “Closer to home, the Boy Scouts of America’s iconic merit badges promote the acquisition of specific skill-sets as diverse as nuclear science and basketry. One of the first large-scale implementations of badges in online games began in 2002 with Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. Since that time, badges have become a fixture in many games.”

Achievements can be easy, difficult, surprising, funny, accomplished alone or as a group. FourSquare uses badges to promote location-sharing via “check-ins,” StackOverflow and Quora use rating systems to encourage members to write quality answers to posted questions, KhanAcademy uses cute meteorite badges to reward correct answers (see KhanAcademy “Going Transonic” badge above left), and Wikipedia encourages hardcore contributors to post barnstars and WikiLove to other member’s profiles. Many shopping and social media sites have some form of member ranking.

“This has already occurred in education for a long time with things such as merit certificates and awards,” says Australian science teacher Alice Leung, but “gamification is more than that “because the game guides learners towards those goals, and gives constant feedback.”

It’s not about winners and losers, says Leung. Gamification leads to fewer “losers” because the education is personalized for each learner, and “students feel safe to take risks in their learning.” Rather than most students having to work at the same pace, with gamification, “students work at their own pace to gain achievements.”

Judd and his colleague Elizabeth Churchill outline five key psychological functions of badges:

  • Setting goals: Badges challenge participants to reach a higher mark, and are best when they are just outside of comfortable reach, and when participants can see their progress.
  • Instruction: Badges embody the social norms of a system, exemplifying activities and interactions that are valued — i.e., what participants should do. — In a social setting, a party organizer could reward positive social behaviors by assigning roles to event attendees (e.g., matchmaker, deep talker, explorer) and awarding prizes for fulfilling their roles.
  • Reputation: Badges encapsulate a participant’s interests, expertise and past interactions — providing an easy way to gauge the trustworthiness of other people, the reliability of content, and assess whether a participant is a casual or fanatical community member.
  • Status & affirmation: Badges serve as a status symbol, advertising a participant’s achievements and accomplishments without explicit bragging. Some people are highly driven by status rewards (displayed in leaderboards, class rankings, etc.), but most people are more driven more when their work interacts with others’ and when their recognition creates enduring artefacts (e.g., school newsletters, posters, wikis, blogs, etc.).
  • Group identification: Badges bind a group together around their shared experiences, lend a sense of solidarity, and promote collaboration.

A limitation of achievements is that they are external motivators, and only a subset of people really care about external recognition, so don’t rely on achievements alone to drive interest in your project.

In a classroom setting, Leung cautions, “If gamification is implemented in a superficial way (just points and badges), it is just a layer of extrinsic motivation, which may work well for younger students but not for older students…” it needs to include “strong narratives, goal-orientated lessons and personalized learning.”

Other game mechanics

Many other game dynamics can help engage your audience. Dynamics that draw on the human psyche, create feedback loops, or lead participants to accumulate skills or accomplishments. Here are some more:

  • Appointments are specific times/places a participants must participate. (e.g., FourSquare and geocaching are based on physical places; Farmville requires players to return to harvest their crops after a specific amount of time has passed after planting; last summer, nine Smithsonian museums cooperated in a mobile game based on SCVNGR called goSmithsonian Trek, played on iPhones or Android phones.)
  • Behavioral momentum is people’s tendency to keep doing what they have been doing.
  • Blissful productivity is a sense of accomplishment, which might be missing elsewhere in someone’s life.
  • Cascading Information Theory says information should be released in the minimum possible snippets, as not to overwhelm.
  • Community collaboration rallies people to work together to solve a problem or a challenge. Learners are more motivated if their success at tasks is dependent on other group members, not just their own scores. Cooperative motivators should be stronger than competitive motivators. (e.g., DARPA balloon challenge.)
  • Countdowns give participants a short amount of time to do something, and can spike participation. Arcade games often have a countdown. (e.g., Bejeweled Blitz gives players 30 seconds to get as many points as they can.)
  • Discovery or Exploration delight participants with the surprise of something new, sparking their curiosity. The element of surprise can come from unraveling a complex subject, or challenging preconceived notions. A slick presentation will attract attention from its technical novelty, but thoughtful curiosity comes from sustained engagement that makes learners think, gain productivity, filter information, or create. Discovery works because it is mostly an internal driver, but some people can be encouraged by giving them a bonus for exploring, e.g., how many new pages they read each week.
  • Epic meaning lends a sense of achieving something great, awe-inspiring, and bigger than oneself. Meaning can drive people to participate in citizen science, or other crowd sourcing projects like Zooninverse. Meaning also comes from creating an environment that does exist, such as inventing characters, locations, objects; and from applying a skill to that environment (e.g., simulation and roll employing games). Richer learning happens when learners connect new learning to prior knowledge through their narrative structure. (e.g., The online game, War of Warcraft’s ongoing story line motivates players to devote hours to the game, and also work outside the game, where volunteers have created a huge wiki to help them achieve their individual quests and collectively their epic meanings.) What’s challenging or an interesting fantasy will vary from person to person, and vary over the course of  a person’s learning life.
  • Free lunch is when when participants feel they are getting something for free due to someone else having done work. (e.g., Groupon gives participants the sense of a great deal because other people have also signed up.)
  • Infinite gameplay does do not have an explicit end. (e.g., Casual games like Farmville have a static, positive state.)
  • Levels are a system, or “ramp,” by which participants are rewarded for accumulating points. Often features or abilities are unlocked as participants progress to higher levels. Leveling is one of the highest components of motivation for gamers. There are typically three types of leveling ramps: flat, exponential and wave function. — An example in an online community is giving frequent contributors special perks, like the capability to moderate, or the ability to unlock new content.
  • Loss aversion is the drive to avoid punishment. (e.g., In Farmville, player receive alerts so they remember to log in and harvest their crops, other games have decays of points which require active participation to maintain.)
  • Lottery determines winners based solely on chance. This can create a high level of anticipation, but can quickly alienate losers.
  • Ownership gives participants a sense of control, and fosters loyalty. In the game world, participants’ decisions have consequences; winning isn’t dependent on completely random factors. Empowering learning environments depend on making learner’s choices tied to significant and meaningful outcomes. Learners must feel they are capable of succeeding. Conversely, too many choices can swamp and frustrate a learner.
  • Points are a running numerical value given for any single action or combination of actions. They are a form of achievement, and can indicate a participant’s progression in completing itemized tasks. Points can be delivered as virtual currency. Here’s a video of adding points to a recycling bin — making it an arcade game — dramatically increasing recycling.
  • Quests & challenges – Challenges usually have a time limit or a competition, and Quests are a journey of obstacles which participants must overcome. — Learners prefer the right level of challenge, with clear goals and feedback on performance. Goals can be relevant for allowing a learner to do something new (functionally useful), feel emotional connection (fantasy relevance), or social relevance. Uncertainty also matters. If you know you will triumph, you stop caring. Uncertainty can be boosted by varying difficulty levels, hiding information, or otherwise randomizing.
  • Reward schedules are a timeframe and delivery mechanisms through which rewards (points, prizes, level ups) are delivered. Three main parts exist in a reward schedule; contingency, response and reinforcer.
  • Urgent optimism is extreme self motivation. A desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
  • Virality is a game element that requires multiple people to play (or that can be played better with multiple people).

You can combine these mechanics. In the following 20 minute video from TED, Jane McGonigal talks about the lure of the ‘Epic win,’ and how gaming can make a better world:
[ted id=799 lang=eng]

Keep in mind, gamification does not necessarily mean playing games, though there is certainly a place for games in outreach & education. Gamification is not serious games, and it is not playful interactions (see chart at left). Though, there is continuum from games with a purpose to subtly incorporating some principles of gameplay into other projects.

Gamification “really has little to do with games or video games,” rather it is about giving people proper, faster feedback says Ryan Elkins, an entrepreneur who started gamification platform company IActionable. “It helps new people learn what is expected of them and that they are on the right track. It gives experienced people reasons to continue by quantifying their intrinsic motivation. It helps provide context to users so they can make better decisions. It helps individuals track personal growth and progress with measurable goals and a path to mastery.”

No size fits all. People might be driven by (a) a desire for achievement and the prestige of accomplishment; (b) the joy and delight of exploration, satisfying their curiosity; (c) a draw to socialize and connect with other people; or (d) a thirst for competition. — Your audience (e.g., students, the public or your community) will all have their own unique motivations for learning, participating in you projects, or using your resource. — And you don’t want to accidentally alienate some of your participants who don’t care about petty tokens, or make the game elements overwhelm the core job to be done.

Two examples 

A classroom example is from Leung, who created a unit called ‘The Great Science Race‘ with game mechanics like narrative, quests and achievement badges. See her post with positive data on student responses.

The LA Times ran a story last year: “Michael Pusateri is a 43-year-old senior vice president at the Disney-ABC Television Group, but he still doesn’t eat his vegetables. So in October he joined Health Month, an online game that allows him to compete against 16,000 other users in striving toward his goals — which include cycling 80 miles a week and going on a weekly date with his wife… When he made progress, he earned life points and raised his ranking. When he failed, he lost points but could ask other players to take pity and ‘heal’ him by giving him virtual ‘fruit.’ The game prepared him for his first triathlon. ‘My wife has been after me for years to eat more fruit and vegetables and bring my lunch to work, and it was, ‘Next week, I’ll do it next week,” says Pusateri, an avid video game player and father of two. ‘Just because it was on this dumb website I actually did it.'”

Gaining popularity

Gamification is gaining traction as a word. The term was first used in 2008, and became more popular in late 2010 (see Google Trends graph at right). In online marketing circles, gamification tends to focus on achievements because they can be readily added to web sites and apps. Vendors like Badgeville, Bunchball, Bigdoor Media, and GetGlue jumped to deliver a service layer of reward and reputation systems with points, badges, levels and leader boards.

But gamification is much more, and is a useful mental framework for planning how to incentivize your audience to be active and productive.

Leung says, “You don’t fail in games. If you don’t pass a stage, you reflect back on what you need to change and improve on and you play again. This is a vital element of gaming that will vastly change students’ academic achievements.”

Sources: The structure and much of this article comes from  a list at the gamification wiki. Some background from instructional designer and blogger Dianne Rees, who writes about education psychologist Jerome Bruner’s work on intrinsic motivation in 1966, and Malone and Lepper’s 1987 taxonomy of intrinsic motivation. See also papers from a 2011 CHI workshop (PDF). 

Update 20-Oct-2011: Added several quotes from Alice Leung.

9 comments on What is gamification?

How to Implement Gamfication — Functionals

21 Oct 2011, 3:55 am

[…] Idea.org has a great analysis post on gamification and game play. Read the complete post for more ideas for how to do it. […]


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21 Oct 2011, 5:17 am

[…] In the following 20 minute video from TED, Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research & Development at The Institute for the Future (IFTF) talks about the lure of the ‘Epic win,’ and how gaming can make a better world. [via] […]


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[…] What is Gamification? Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. […]


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11 Jan 2012, 2:45 pm

[…] can encourage students, help them track their progress, and gain a sense of accomplishment. See my recent article on gamification for a variety of ideas on how to follow student’s achievements and […]


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14 Feb 2013, 10:32 am

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16 Feb 2013, 10:37 am

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18 Jul 2013, 10:35 am

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