Games have power

From Tetris dominating the computer age, spawning a host of imitators and becoming a psychological phenomenon in the process, to the ancient board game Go being used to train and test Artificial Intelligence.

Power to engage, excite and enthral people.

It is little wonder then that throughout history gamification, the use of game mechanics – competition, rewards, quantifying player/user behaviour – in non-game environments has consistently been explored and utilised. Originally by accident but growing ever more deliberate with time.

Arguably the first concrete example of gamification arrived in 1908 with the formation of The Boy Scouts and their iconic achievement badges. However the way we think about it today really exploded onto the scene in 2010 when, amongst other things, Jane McGonigal gave a TED Talk titled “how gaming can make a better world”.

The premise is simple. 

By the time the average student leaves school, they have spent as much time playing video games as they have in the classroom but playing games doesn’t end there. Across the workforce, averaged over all age groups, people play the equivalent of a working day a week – and it’s going up.

It is not only understandable, but almost expected that product designers should want to tap into this potential. After all, what product wouldn’t benefit from the same commitment, passion and motivation that games instil in their players?

For almost all of the 2010’s “gamification” was a rallying cry from boardrooms to design studios with no problem too big. Poor engagement? High drop off rate? Low sign ups? Not enough cross sell? Gamification was part of the answer.

The problem is, as many are beginning to realise, gamification typically works very well in the short term followed by significant drop off in effectiveness thereafter. To understand why this might be the case, we must explore what we are trying to “game” – a user’s motivation.


A high-level understanding of motivation many of us have is that it comes from one of two sources:

  1. Extrinsic – That behaviour is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, praise etc.
  2. Intrinsic – That behaviour is driven by a desire to do so for its own sake and personal reward

By thinking about motivation in terms of extrinsic vs. intrinsic you would be forgiven for believing that gamification is a sure-fire ticket to success. After all, with this model all motivation is of equal value and gamification is feeding the extrinsic type.

However, reality, as always, is somewhat more nuanced.

Credit: Amy Bucher SlideShare

Self-determination theory, a cornerstone of modern-day psychology, shows us that motivation needs to be thought of as a continuous spectrum with extrinsic and intrinsic the extremes at either end.

This is where the problem lies with 2010’s iteration of gamification. 

Viewing motivation as a simple intrinsic vs extrinsic dichotomy makes it appear to be easily manipulated, and so designers placed emphasis on understanding how to gamify an app, product or service rather than understanding why they weren’t getting the traction they expected. 

What this did is supplement, rather than create, an environment that encourages the development of autonomous motivation. Rewards and game-elements are powerful precisely because they work with the user’s core needs and desires. Adding points and goals to a product that is misaligned to these simply misses the point. 

Yes, it works for a short time, but soon enough the user gets frustrated, stops, and crucially doesn’t come back. 

To demonstrate how powerful this can be, consider this research paper from Stanford University in 1973. They asked children aged 3-4 who liked drawing to come to their nursery where half were told they would receive a reward for drawing and half were told nothing. 

How much time do you think each group spent drawing?

Those who did not know a reward was coming spent 16.7% of the time drawing.

Those who knew spent almost half that, at 8.6%.

Now, to be clear, it is not the offering of the reward itself, but rather doing so in a way that added pressure and ultimately removed the intrinsic value of drawing for the kids. The simple act of offering a reward in the wrong way is enough to destroy motivation.

Getting it right - Strava

The ideal case study of a product which really gets this right is Strava. As of February 2020, they have an active user base of 50 million athletes and 3 billion activity uploads. Rather than developing an app and adding gamification on top to drive engagement, Strava understood their users – semi to hardcore athletes who want to push themselves 1% further each day.

Instead of a short-term gimmick, segments (effectively personalised timing points), points, power curves, community and more all work together to push athletes harder and faster. Gamifying at Strava not only pits users against each other, but also users against themselves – talking directly to their core need.

Game Design > Gamification

All of this is to say that designers should absolutely be looking at games to enhance their products. However, the era of bolting game elements onto products after-the-fact is over. 

In its place, needs to be something holistic. More like a game than gamification. 

There are five key factors to consider when building an engaging product.

  1. Goals – They are the defining features of games, but you can’t just have any goals. They must be concrete, achievable and rewarding, as well as being aligned to the customers broader need. 
  2. Emotions – Games are complicated constructs that go far beyond making people “happy” or “content”. The range of emotions is vast, and designers need to be specific about what emotions they’re designing for, as well as designing to relieve.
  3. Controls – One of the key differentiators between software and games are the controls. They are simple and immediate, getting a user exactly where they want to go.
  4. Toys – The best games use toys as a core component, enabling users to have fun on multiple levels from playing with interesting, stand alone components to being able to reconstruct products to work for them.
  5. Flow – Flow is the experience of complete absorption in the present moment, encouraging a user to persist in and return to an activity because of the experiential rewards it promises. Structuring the product around a roust flow that matches user skill with the challenge they face is key.

The 2010’s iteration of gamification is dead. 

By using a more complete understanding of motivation we can unlock the potential of game design to design, structure and build products that are compelling on a fundamental level.

If you need advice or support understanding your users, implementing gamification or simply thinking more holistically about your product or service, get in touch.

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