Gamification: How Games Are Playfully Changing Everything We Do

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Are you having fun? If you are, behavioral studies show you are more likely to learn new skills, solve problems, and successfully complete even difficult tasks. Your motivation and focus increase while you are at play, resulting in greater productivity. You may wish you could have more fun at work, and your employer may agree.

Gamification can be defined as the incorporation of game elements in a non-game setting, such as work, education, and fitness. Gamification consultants are coaching CEOs to make every aspect of their businesses more game-like in order to increase motivation, engagement, and ultimately profitability. Teachers are incorporating game play into their lesson plans in order to better engage students. Websites gamify to attract and engage Internet users. Charities use games to raise funds, and personal trainers are doing their best to make crunches fun.

'Games are the new normal.'
Al Gore, at the 2011 Games for Change Festival.

How can we define games if playtime is all the time? Game designers Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen describe games as a “system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” (Rules of Play, Zimmerman and Salen, 2003) Their description gives us our key game ingredients: players, an outcome, and an artificial conflict defined by rules.

Come Out And Play

Playing games may seem unproductive and frivolous, but behavioral scientists tell us play is an important activity. Games help us form bonds with our playmates. Playing and laughing helps us to releases endorphins, promoting health and wellbeing. As we struggle to master a game, we learn about ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and our problem-solving skills. During play we discover our playmates’ game play personalities as we reveal our own.

British game analyst Richard Bartle identified four personalities drawn to multi-user games.  His theories have enjoyed wide application within and beyond game design, because people tend to use their game play personalities both inside and outside of structured games. Bartle named the four personality archetypes Achiever, Explorer, Socializer and Killer. These names are related to the players’ behavior as well as their motivations.

  • Achievers work to reach the next goal. They are motivated by the opportunity to acquire status through points, treasure, badges and titles. An achiever will perform even the most repetitious tasks as long as there’s a prize to be won.

  • Explorers seek out hitherto undiscovered country and report back. They are motivated by the opportunity to advance and share their knowledge. An explorer will invest endless hours in research and experimentation, as long as they are learning something new.

  • Socializers converse and otherwise interact with their fellow players. They are motivated by the opportunity to meet new people and make friends. A socializer isn't particularly interested in the game, just the players.

  • Killers cause other players distress. Killers are motivated by the joy they feel knowing they’ve upset someone. To a killer, a game is a sport, like hunting and fishing, and other players are prey.

Bartle likened these game personality archetypes1 to suits in a deck of cards: ‘… achievers are Diamonds (they're always seeking treasure); explorers are Spades (they dig around for information); socialisers are Hearts (they empathise with other players); killers are Clubs (they hit people with them).’ Players tend to exhibit a dominant style, although they may switch game play styles depending on their mood or as a means to advance their main interest, be it status, discovery, friendship, or disruption.

Every game has its own ideal balance among the four personality types. For example, a few killers may provide achievers with interesting foes, but too many killers tend to drive off other players. “Making sure that a game doesn't veer off in the wrong direction and lose players can be difficult…” Bartle cautioned. But what is the right direction? Ultimately the game’s sponsor or organizer must identify the purpose of the game.

Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

Do you want more customers to patronize your bar? Do you want more visitors to your website? Do you want your sales representatives to make more cold calls? If you want to gamify a process or product, you need to select a quantifiable outcome around which to build a game.

Suppose you want more gamers to subscribe to your MMORPG2. By carefully studying your business process, you may learn that 86% of your MMORPG’s players who make it to the 12th level within the first month subscribe to your service for at least 2 years. You could do worse than select the ‘number of players who joined within the last 30 days and make it to the 12th level’ as your quantifiable outcome.

How will you encourage your MMORPG’s new members to make it to the 12th level within a month? The reward you offer should be valuable to the personality type of the players you wish to encourage. Shiny badges may attract achievers but probably won’t motivate explorers or socializers. You may be able to lure explorers with novelty and entice socializers with the promise of expanded chat functions at the 12th level. Don’t worry about encouraging killers. Unless they are being actively discouraged, killers show up in force wherever there are other players to torment.

Games People Play

Skilled designers use game mechanisms to focus play toward the game’s purpose and to adjust the balance of player personalities. A game mechanism is the functionality or the set of rules governing an aspect of a game. Some common game mechanics include:

  • Appointments. A player must log-in, participate, or arrive at a predetermined time and place to gain an advantage. Example: go to a bar during happy hour and get alcoholic beverages at reduced prices.

  • Countdown. Players have a certain amount of time to accomplish something. Example: National Novel Writing Month participants are given 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel.

  • Loss Aversion.
    Instead of being encouraged by the promise of a reward, players are threatened with a loss. Jiwoong Shin's and Dan Ariely's research3
    demonstrated that "decision makers care a great deal about options and are willing to invest effort and money in order to keep options open, even when the options themselves seem to be of little interest." Choosing among possible mates, careers, or courses of study presents people with an anxiety-inducing loss of an option.

  • Quest. A player must undertake a journey to reach a goal, overcoming a set of increasingly difficult obstacles along the way. In a fairy tale, a hero takes on a number of challenges, defending the kingdom against quarrelsome dragons, before living happily ever after. In college a student wrestles with difficult concepts, defending a thesis against querulous professors, before getting a diploma.

  • Community Collaboration. An entire community works together to solve a problem or undertake a quest. Example: Fund-raising platform Kickstarter allows investment-seeking innovators to take their projects directly to the public. Kickstarter community members can financially support the arts and sciences. Most projects offer backers incentives for their support. Thus your support for technology, dance or film may earn you a chance to drive a moon rover, take a break dance workshop, or become a zombie.

Designers use combinations of these and other game mechanisms to encourage a player to engage in a behavior of benefit to the game’s sponsor or organizer. The behavior itself may be beneficial to the player, but not necessarily. An education game can help a player master a foreign language or a complicated computer system. A drinking game can earn a player a massive hangover, or worse.


The word “gamification” may be relatively new, but social animals including humans have been playing games for countless millennia. The principle behind gamification is simple: people will engage in a behavior longer if it is part of a game. Giving volunteers tee-shirts and ‘buy ten get one free’ promotions are examples of games designed to inspire a desired trait such as productivity or loyalty. As people play, they reveal themselves as achievers, explorers, socializers, or killers.

It is folly, say gamification experts, to add a few badges to an existing website and call it gamified. Gamification is an ongoing process that involves determining what constitutes a success, discovering the specific key behaviors that lead to a success, and rewarding the players who engage in that specific behavior. Gamification promises to improve customer loyalty, employee productivity, and ultimately a business's bottom line by skillfully blending game mechanisms into everything we do.

1For an analysis of your player personality, you can take the original Bartle Test of Gamer Personality.2Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.3Keeping doors open: The effect of unavailability on incentives to keep options viable appeared in the May 2004 issue of Management Science

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