Gamification, we have all heard the word probably plenty of times, but what exactly does it mean? What companies have already implemented this mechanism for driving engagement and what informative indicators should brand managers look out for when judging whether or not it’s for them? More importantly, what are its origins within the human psyche? And why is everybody speaking about it?

An Explanation of Gamification

According to Gabe Zichermann, a well celebrated gamification guru, the phenomenon can be explained as ‘if you can make something more fun, and include notions of play, you can get people to do things they otherwise might not want to do’ hence encouraging brand engagement and loyalty. According to Wikipedia, gamification ‘typically involves applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging’.

We must understand though that whilst personification is the art of attributing characteristics of a person onto another object, gamification is the process of implementing game mechanics into a non-game environment. Our desire for competition, pride and community is the force behind organisations that have already integrated gamified apps into their overall business strategies.

The basic psychology behind the phenomenon is to provide positive reinforcement for each action taken, but let’s tap into the psychological aspects in a bit.

Is Gamification a Fad?

This consumer engaging phenomenon is predicted to be worth $1.6 billion alone in the US by 2016 according to M2 Research forecasts. But that’s not all. Gartner Inc. predictions have shown that more than 70% of Global 2000 companies will have at least one if not more gamified applications by the year 2014. The term itself even made it into the Oxford Dictionary for the first time in 2011. Additionally, Brits have spent an astonishing £3.2 million on the sheer enjoyment of playing games last year alone. I think those predictions definitely make gamification worth looking at in more depth.

Informative Indicators to Consider

I want to provide a short section for the community and brand managers amongst you, to help you judge whether or not gamification is right for your brand.


I think the first question we ought to ask is whether you have an active community, be that online or offline. If you do, you’re already in a good position to encourage competition and socialization amongst them. Your community should be a valuable user experience where users are proud to participate. But having an active community is key!

Online / Offline

Even though most of the time gamification is bound to digital assets, some brands like Starbucks have have mastered both. The coffee giant has an app that rewards customers for repeat purchases with badges, stars and status levels to keep them engaged with the brand. Yet on the other hand they also have an offline scheme where repeat in-store purchases earns you stamps on your loyalty card. Having said that, the offline example only supports limited engagement mechanics as the only and highest reward is a stamp and eventually a free coffee.

From my perspective offline initiatives don’t have the same impact on consumer engagement simply because within the digital field the player can conveniently choose when to opt in and out (may that be from the comfort of your desk in the office  – naughty, naughty – or on the bus from your mobile device). As a result there are less obstacles than the physical requirements of offline gamification, underlining our desire for distraction or the need to find a way to relax from our usual demands of the day.

Type of Business

Obviously the above example is a low-involvement purchase whilst brands with a corporate nature (Goldman Sachs wouldn’t need to engage their stakeholders in that way) or a ‘serious’ product as provided by pharmaceutical companies or funeral services wouldn’t want to go down that road and offer their customers badges as rewards, would they? Hey, anyone up for a badge who has just arranged a funeral? Or take mortgage lenders for example: I’m sure their customers wouldn’t want to earn a badge for taking a mortgage and socialize it. However, that does not mean that fun and work should be mutually exlusive for businesses!

Key Questions

When considering gamification keep in mind that it should appeal on 3 levels: personal, organizational and societal.  If you can tick those boxes you’re on to a good start. Dustin DiTommaso  gave some really valuable pointers:

Why do you as a business want to go down that road?

 In what ways will your user benefit from this initiative?

 What are their motivations to play?

 What’s holding them back (do they have the ability to complete the task)?

 What’s their style (what player type are they?)

 What metrics are important to them?

 What are your internal business objectives?

 How do you get your users to fulfill those objectives?

 What actions do you want them to take?

Before jumping on the bandwagon carefully evaluate those questions. Additionally, you have to consider technical implications: do you have resources in place to run a gamified app for your community? Game design is a very complicated matter where designers create stories, puzzles, technology, style, feedback and mechanics into a pleasureable and profitable way. As a result you may need a professional video game developer at hand!

The Foundation of Play

Before we get into the ins-and-outs of gamification I’d like to take you through the evolution of play. So let’s start from scratch, shall we? According to Stuart Brown ‘play is not the opposite of work’ but more importantly ‘the basis of human trust is established through play signals and we start to lose those signals culturally when we grow up’. Quite frankly I could not imagine life without humor, fantasy or games. Could you? As we humans are designed to continuously play through our lives, the concept of gamification makes great sense doesn’t it?

What the Renaissance Taught Us about Play

Turning back time, in 1560 the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder revealed his painting ‘Childrens’ Play’ showing children ranging from toddlers to adolescents playing an impressive 80 different games within one painting. What moved Bruegel to produce a piece like this was not to provide an encyclopedia of children’s games but ‘his moral is that in the mind of God childrens’ games possess as much significance as the activities of their parents’.  Whereas the main motivation was to show that mankind as well as children are entirely absorbed in their foolish games and concerns, showing us again that play is the foundation of the human psyche.

Pieter Bruegel’s “Children’s Play” (from Wikipedia)

Tapping into the Psychology of Play

First of all I think it’s crucial to understand what drives human behaviour in general.  As a result we should be looking at BJ Foggs Behavioural Model outlining the 3 factors that drive us:

 Motivation (the 4 step feedback loop, explained further below)

 Ability (are the tasks presented manageable?)

Trigger (timing)

The key here is that all 3 factors ought to converge at the same time.  The trigger for players to act must come at a time when they feel motivated (to do a certain task) and also are able to complete a specific task. Triggers mainly focus on timing whilst ability on the other hand is all about making tasks more manageable and simpler. The most difficult one is probably motivation. To overcome this hurdle many researchers have suggested positive feedback. But just what motivates people to do certain things or, even better, how can we influence users to motivate them?

Let’s take a look at the basic Feedback-Loop Model to gain a better understanding. It consists of 4 stages:

Evidence (a behavior must be measured, captured and data stored)

Relevance (the information must be relayed to the individual, not in raw-data form but in context that makes it emotionally resonant)

Consequences (the information must illuminate one or more paths ahead)

Action (there must be a clear moment when the individual can re-calibrate the behavior, make a choice and act)

Action is then measured, and the feedback loop will run once more whereas every action is stimulating new behaviours driving the individual closer to their objective.

Let me simplify this, imagine you are at your local gym exercising on that treadmill and you see that you’ve already burnt 400 calories, that’s evidence given to you in real-time. The calorie count however will only have a meaning to you if the ‘data’ provided is relevant and understood by you.  The consequence stage focuses on stakes, an example would be you are Super Mario and you haven’t managed to kill Bowser/King Koopa, that would mean ‘game over’, right? This is how we know it’s time to act.

Another model worth looking at is Abraham H. Maslow’s 1943 ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ Model which explores the theory of human motivation and curiosity of human needs:

Physiological  (breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion)

Safety (security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property)

Belonging (family, friendship, sexual intimacy)

Esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others)

Self-Actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts)

Even from this 1943 model we can see that belonging, esteem and self-actualization touch base within the digital gaming context.  However, thanks to Michael Wu and Daniel Pink we have a more updated model taking gamification specific attributes into account. According to Pink modern society is highly motivated by other intrinsic motivators, namely the meta-motivators that come into the game in the self-actualization level which are: autonomy, mastery, purpose.

Michel Wu’s and Daniel Pink’s Updated Hierarchy of Needs Model

I came across the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi best-known as the architect of the notion ‘Flow’, as well as being a leading  researcher on positive psychology. His theory is that people are at their happiest when they are in ‘Flow’ mode, in other words the condition where motivation, attention and the current situation meet resulting in a kind of productive harmony and feedback.

The challenge for marketers though is to create the right conditions for individuals to achieve this state. The art though is to strike the right balance between the skill of the player and the challenge of the task level. If one or the other is too easy/difficult ‘Flow’ will not occur (I have previously written ‘The Optimal Website User Experience‘ for State of Search where I also talked about the flow notion).

Bartle’s 4 Player Personas

Until now we have discussed what drives, motivates and encourages humans to undertake a specific action. However, since each and every one of us is an individual with their own preferences and dislikes, marketers have to segment their audience accordingly. Thanks to Richard Bartle who has previously identified 4 different types of player personas half the battle is won. Understanding the way people interact with a game is crucial for designers and developers. Let’s have a look at the 4 personas as summarized by Nicholas Yee:

1) Achievers   “are driven by in-game goals, usually some form of points gathering – whether experience points, levels or money”

2) Explorers   “driven to find out as much as they can about the virtual construct – including mapping its geography understanding the game mechanisms”

3) Killers  “use the virtual construct to cause distress on other players, and gain satisfaction from inflicting anxiety and pain to others”

4) Socialites  “use the virtual construct to converse and role-play with their fellow gamers”

Let’s Find out what Persona You are, Shall We?

Zynga the creators of FarmVille have realized early on that the majority of their audience or better players are ‘socializers’ whereas their aim is to belong to a group. And looking at the numbers the company’s total revenue for its games came to $329 million for the quarter ending March 2012, a very positive outcome. So are you getting curious to find out what type of playing persona you are? Take the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology. What’s the verdict? Did you think you’d be that type?

Gamification Sequence – An Example

So far we’ve looked at the psychological attributes encouraging people to play a game. That’s all good but we haven’t yet looked at a more practical example and that’s exactly what we are going to do now!

Acknowledgement/Feedback: this is the player’s evidence that their intended action was acknowledged and registered and further gives them an idea how the system is likely to respond to the action taken. Key within gamification though is that feedback has to occur at the right time precisely when the intended action is taking place. This can be seen as a mechanism telling and showing the player what they have done as well as dealing a motivational factor to further explore other actions.

Achievements/Badges/Rewards: this could also be called the feedback fuel as these are common methods to actually provide feedback simply in the form of digital trophies. These might not mean a lot to you but certainly to the player as it can be perceived as a digital pat on the back which also creates and drives motivation.

Missions: can be defined as related series of activities, however the player’s engagement is far higher and so is the quest to accomplish a mission, hence a mission is far more complex than a badge-earning activity. However, pace has to be centered at the core again because if a mission is over-complicated it will wear the player out before it’s even accomplished, whilst missions that are too short and easy will result in boredom.

Rank/Progress Bar/Leader boards:  These are ways to give the player a summary of his/her achievements so far and often it is displayed in comparison to other players. The idea behind it is to provide social incentives for continued progress by intrinsically motivating players to become better than their digital ‘competitors’.

Competition: We humans are very competitive creatures; the use of badge collection as well as the progress bar are both ways to proclaim our status within the digital sphere and show off to our peers. A great example of this is Foursquare’s mayor reward scheme. Humans like to go back and forth trying to outperform others which has seen engagement, loyalty and time spent on the site increase (increased ad revenues, anyone?).

Gamified Initiatives

I think it’s time to finally move on and take a look at some real life examples. Firstly I would like to take a look at Foursquare followed by well-known brands that have realized and unlocked the potential of gamification integration. However, I will also give you two real life examples which had a big impact on our external world, and that’s exactly why I find the psychology of gamification such a fascinating topic.

I am aware that some highly criticize the concept but the findings of the 2 cases mentioned were truly astonishing. Regardless of your business model the following gamified innovations should be inspiring. Let’s see if you have been aware that you have been exposed to one or the other gamified mechanisms…

Let’s take a look at Foursquare probably one of the most popular gamification examples around. Instead of relying on actions of others the primary focus of this location specific social network is on a single-player game where the players ‘check-in’ at venues using mobile devices. By spring 2012 the service had 20 million registered users.

So what’s the deal? Whenever players check into a venue (requires active player selection) they receive digital badges as rewards to imply that their under taken action has been registered and acknowledged. In order to keep players motivated and as engaged as possible these rewards and feedback ought to be delivered in real time. Foursquare as a result uses 4 different integrated game dynamics for the distribution of their digital trophies including:

 Points: whenever a player checks into a venue he/she will earn points as a result/reward

 Badges: this applies in the same way however, in contrast to just earning points the player’s badges are actually displayed on his/her profile Foursquare profile for the whole community to see

 Mayorship:  this applies to those of the community who are particularly ambitious and have checked into a specific venue more often than anyone else. As a result they are then given the ‘mayorship’ title. However, in order to stay on top of the game they have to continuously check into that venue to maintain their title

 Super-User Status: this title is only awarded to those who have made a positive contribution to the community. In other words this is the icing of the cake for those who truly are engaged and active, you could perceive it as an ‘advocate’ badge.

You might think LinkedIn is all about professional relationships but they actually use a clever gamification method in the progress bar, to keep us on our toes and encourage us to add more information to our profiles for better exposure and to help them connect us to more people.

Nike gets people involved through achievements, badges, challenges and rewards, especially with their Nike+ tag app. By using these methods they gently encourage sports-enthusiasts to keep running and keep fit. Watch this video for an example:

Starbucks the US coffee giant’s app distributes stars, status levels and incentives to its players to keep them happy and engaged with the brand, as I mentioned earlier. Though they’re very much a real-world brand, they effectively use digital to encourage repeat visits. This is made easier by the prominence of mobile devices which customers often use in their coffee shops.

SalesForce when logged in to their app users are exposed to leader boards, achievements and can see how others in the community are levelling up.

American Airlines Comparable to LinkedIn, their initiative aims  to expose the user to a progress bar showing how far they have already come in the flight booking process, in other words showing the completeness of their bookings. This bar is a common website conversion tactic which many retail websites use, including Amazon. Gamification appears in more places than you might imagine.

The Impact Gamification Can Have on Your Community

Speed Camera Lottery: In 2010 Kevin Richardson won the Fun Theory contest of DDB Stockholm for Volkswagen Sweden. The idea was to challenge social issues in a funnier way, hence Richardson’s day job as Nickelodeon game division producer. His innovation has proven great understanding of human behavioural science.

The winning formula consisted of leveraging speed-measuring technologies and traffic cameras capturing all vehicles and motorbikes passing by. The subsequent speeding fines were then levied against speeders and pooled in a lottery, where a random winner was drawn from the speed limit adherents.

The results were pretty impressive as the previous average speed of 32 km per hour was down to 25 km per hour after the installation of Richardson’s speed camera, not bad, eh? Keep in mind that this was actually just the trial phase whereas no real monetary fines were issued. Mr. Richardson’s belief that traffic law should be focusing on rewards rather than punishment (can you see the psychology in that?) has proven correct and therefore his innovation has now become reality in Stockholm. Can you imagine what impact that campaign could have and how many accidents, injuries and deaths could be prevented?

Recycle Bank: Sustainability a word that is all around us and even has become integrated in businesses overall strategies. So is there a way to re-write the rules of green initiatives? I think so simply by tapping into people’s desire for reward and competition and making the world a better place. Easier said than done you think? Let’s have a look….

It all kicked off with a pilot program in Massachusetts where various households have been competing against each other to lower their carbon footprint on the environment and, as a result, the winning family managed to lower their carbon footprint by 63%. A more international take is the Recycle Bank which uses the power of gamification to improve environmental acquiescence.

Currently the Recycle Bank uses challenges, points, rewards and incentives to drive its force. When they first started out the then project in Philadelphia US resulted in a 16% recycle increase. Can you now see and understand the power of gamification when used for good purposes? If you are still feeling a bit uncertain watch the video to see how it works.


The issue is that most businesses are trained to see customers not as players but customers. When you take it seriously it can be hugely beneficial to both your ‘customers’ and your business. However, it needs to be carefully evaluated, do you have all the necessary resources in place? Firstly though you need an active community and secondly you have to understand game design which is a very complex matter.

Gamification can increase your consumer’s engagement and loyalty towards your brand and increase value for both parties. However, you ought to carefully examine your business’ product in relation to the gaming context. Does it make sense, is it relevant for your ‘customers’?

I personally believe that the future will be even more connected, more social and more fun since gamified apps can act as a great vehicle for influence.

I would like to end this post with a quote from Kris Duggan: ‘Status and virtual rewards are only as valuable as the community in which they are awarded and displayed. Smart gamification requires a deep integration of a rewards program across a brand’s entire user experience, whether that be on its main homepage, mobile app, community, blog or any other digital touch point with the brand’.