Engaging people with game elements and mechanics

As a User Experience designer, one of my main tasks is to make it easy for users to achieve their goals and perform their tasks using the service we create. We summarise this as “having a good experience” while using the application, the service, and preferably throughout all interactions a person has with a product or service. However, sometimes this is not enough to keep people engaged or to motivate them. Gamification can enhance experience to improve motivation and engagement.

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What is gamification?

A few years ago, the word "gamification" was a buzz word in the IT world. Gamified systems were in vogue as businesses and organisations sought to improve user engagement with this entertaining technique. The buzz has faded somewhat; however, gamification is alive and kicking, even in the early stages of maturity. But what exactly is gamification? Incentives such as scores, badges and leaderboards might come to mind, but there is more to it than this.

A little googling might lead you to conclude that there isn’t an unambiguous definition of gamification. In my opinion, the following comes closest to it:

“Using game-thinking and game elements to make it more engaging for people to perform tasks in non-gaming environments.”

The difference between games and gamification

It’s important to highlight that gamification is not the same as game design. It’s the application of game elements to situations and systems that traditionally aren’t games. Where the goal of a game is entertainment for the players, the goal of a gamified application is to meet business objectives of the organisation that offers this application or service. Entertainment for the user of the gamified system is “merely” a tool to achieve these business objectives.

For all applications that we design and deliver, the main goal is to meet certain business objectives. If there is no added value to the business commissioning the system or service, and there is little reason to spend time and money on this. On the other hand, these business objectives can only be met by people using the system or service. So there needs to be a reason or incentive for people to use it. Often this can be accomplished by offering the user something he or she needs and making the journey to achieving this goal easy for a user.

An online shop is perhaps the most accessible example of this: the business objective here is to meet certain sales targets, and the user's need is to obtain a certain product. If the shop makes it easy for a user to find and buy the right product matching his or her needs, this is a win-win situation for both business and user.

The added value of gamification

But what if the business objective is different and is dependent on people providing you with a lot of information that they might not necessarily be inclined to give you, such as Facebook or LinkedIn? Or, it concerns people doing the same repetitive task and the business objective is to hit certain productivity goals? How can you make your employees do more in the same timeframe? What about learning difficult things over time, like a new language? Or making new users easily understand all the possibilities of your service without them being overloaded? In that case, your users are probably in need of additional motivation or a challenge.

Gamification might provide a solution here. Provided that it is carefully designed, it affords additional means by which to engage users over a longer period of time, to make them want to use your system, give you this information or to complete a repetitive task faster. Two main factors here are fun and motivation. Yu-Kai Chou describes gamification as human-focused design, focusing on motivations, feelings and reasons why they do or don’t want to do things.

In order to explain this, let’s take a moment to analyse how games work.

Why games are fun

According to Janaki Kumar and Mario Herger in Gamification at Work: Designing Engaging Business Software, there are four basic principles to gaming.

1. The Goal of the Game

Each game has a goal, or an objective that the player must achieve in order to complete the game, or to win. For players, this gives the game a sense of purpose. Achieving this goal and winning the game makes us feel good. Examples of this include: saving the princess, scoring a target amount of points, conquering an island, gathering the most pairs or escaping a room.

2. Rules of the Game

In a game, rules restrict the ways players can achieve the goal. The rules force players to become creative in the way they play the game. Rules add complexity to a game, which is necessary to make it challenging for players. In addition, the rules enhance the game-reality, the story. Taking turns and having one move per turn, only using your feet, matching items of the same color, having a limited amount of objects to hit something are all examples of rules. Rules can become quite complex and need to be designed carefully so as to not make a game too complex, but still challenging enough.

3. Feedback

The third basic principle of a game is feedback. Players need to be able to assess how well they are doing within the rules of the game and how far they are in achieving the goal. Examples are level progression, points scored, leaderboards, health points, etc.

4. Voluntary Participation

The moment participation becomes mandatory, playing a game immediately becomes less fun for most people. When participation is mandatory, it tends to feel like work. However, if a game is truly engaging, people will want to play, regardless of whether or not it is obligatory.

The goal and rules of Angry Birds are simple. The changing scenery and construction (obstacles) are what keeps Angry Birds interesting level after level. Source: Mashable.com


Obstacles aren’t a basic principle, but they are vital to most games to keep them interesting and challenging. By adding and changing obstacles each level to increase the difficulty, the game remains interesting. Proper use of obstacles can help to avoid player fatigue and can make repetitive, simple tasks interesting. Time-limits, bosses to defeat, the competitor and small or moving targets are examples of obstacles.


Above mentioned elements are all the basic elements of games that are also needed in each gamification project. However, how do you get people to play the game? People need to be motivated both to begin and continue to play a game, to achieve its goal, to conquer the next obstacle, and to become better. Good games and gamification projects appeal to at least two of our core drives.

These core drives are the reason we as humans have developed. They have molded us into what we are today. The designer needs to take into account the type of people playing to determine which motivations to address. He or she can use this to design the game, the rules and the feedback to appeal to these core drives by picking the right game mechanics and combining all of this to produce a compelling game or gamified application.

LinkedIn uses very simple yet effective game-mechanics to nudge users to complete their profile. (Source: Linkedin)

Examples of gamification

Sounds pretty simple right? There are many good examples of gamification out there that are very successful. However, there are probably more projects that have failed. Gamification isn’t easy and must designed and implemented carefully. As always, the designers must keep users in mind, and offer something of interest for every type of user. Adding some game-mechanics to an already broken experience will not address this. A good discovery and user research is where to start if you’re thinking on using gamification for your service.

Gamification is successfully used in the core of products such as Fitbit, to stimulate people to move more. Sea Hero and Foldit are great examples of how gamification is used in research and healthcare. Duolingo does an amazing job in using gamification in e-learning, but also in its onboarding. Forest app is beautifully simple in helping you to stay focused while saving the world one tree at a time. Social-networking applications such as LinkedIn and Facebook are filled with gamification devices, to ensure that users return and continue to provide information.

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