Gamification done right.

So for whatever reason, the topic of gamification has been popping up in a ton of recent discussions for me recently — with peers, with friends, with professors, with professionals, with other game design enthusiasts…And it’s really got my thoughts on this kick.

Some people LOVE gamification. They hear the word and are suddenly all ears for the concept being gamified, or, conversely, they hear a concept and instantly think to ask if the designer has thought about gamifying the experience. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people HATE gamification. They hear the word and prepare to rip apart whatever concept they’re about to hear it applied to.

What is it with gamification that causes these strong polar opposite sentiments? Is it really the mechanism of gamifying a traditionally non-gaming experience, or is it the mere term itself attached to anything that can be described as “gamified?”

One of the first popular examples of gamification is Foursquare, which is still a prominent example today — almost always thrown into these conversations. As a Foursquare user myself, I can tell you that I hold five mayorships, have a sad 123 points this week, hold a level 4 expertise in the Trainspotter category, and am concerned to see that I hold a “Players Club” badge. As a Foursquare user with these accomplishments, I can also tell you that I frankly don’t care. I’m not competing, I’m not gaining benefits from it, and it’s not what’s providing the fun. The reward and fun that get out of using this app is discovering cool new places, remembering places I liked, meeting up with my friends, and maybe redeeming some real-world offers. Yet, Foursquare has been around for years now, and its design team has not only made the decision to keep these gamification features, but also to enhance them in the most recent builds. So there must be some kind of psychological motivation driven through those virtual points, stats and badges…right?

CalorieCountOne of the common anti-gamification perspectives highlights that virtual, non-applicable rewards are not necessary for purposes that lend themselves to real-world rewards: gamification is just this extra, fabricated layer added on with no real value or reward in it. This got me thinking about weightloss and fitness programs. One example is Calorie Count — the website, and now mobile app, which helps everyday people track their calories and nutrition. Recently, a “Calorie Camp” gamification system was introduced to the system. Users set up specific customized goals and earn virtual points and achievements for their usage. For example, one day a user might get 1 point for completing that day’s calorie log, 3 points for falling into their target calorie deficit range, and 5 points for consuming 30g of protein. After completing their log and seeing these points and achievements, they can share their report and comments on it with the Calorie Camp community. When I was talking about this with some peers, someone questioned why that points and achievement system is necessary — “Isn’t the reward losing weight?” she asked. I say, yes, the ultimate reward is losing weight and feeling better about oneself…just like the reward of scrubbing a toilet is having it be cleaned. Just because a real-world reward comes out of an experience does not mean that gamification elements should automatically be deemed this unnecessary extra layer of meaninglessness. I’d argue that it’s exceptionally appropriate when those real-world rewards only come after long-term usage over a prolonged period of time.

With Foursquare, I instantly get the benefit of trying out a cool new place with a friend. With Calorie Count, I don’t get the physical, real-world reward until at least a few weeks of usage. Those little rewards along the way serve as important motivational boosts. It’s simply a way to address the problem of needing to give users enough feedback and encouragement to keep them patient in the long-haul: it’s a design decision…a design decision that happens to fall under the modern term of “gamification.”

I’m applying this concept in my own project right now, Daorba. It’s a location-based, interactive learning experience to aid students planning to study abroad in preparing for the culture shock ahead. Students experience it at their own pace the semester before going abroad, where their home campus is augmented into the host city they’ll be staying at. Through exploration, virtual characters, and interactive challenges, users acquire a better understanding of the vital vocabulary, the social etiquette, the cultural differences, and general tips that they’ll want to know in order to make the most of their experience by feeling confident in breaking into the culture.

The experience can be coined “gamified” in the sense that they are completing quests, building relationships with virtual characters, earning “Gradimenti” (“approval”) points, and socially learning from other users too. Through user testing, I found that the psychological consequence of being socially rejected by or offending locals of their host country is what drives them to want to keep exploring, keep trying and keep learning. And it’s through these game-like mechanisms that I am aiming to create that kind of experience — here in a safe environment where they will see the feedback of lost Gradimenti points, but overcoming the challenges to gain them back will make them feel more prepared for when it’s time to truly put the knowledge to use in a foreign country. The ultimate reward of feeling more confident, accepted, courageous in their host country will not come until months after using the app beforehand in the AR virtual playground — but with enough enticement and encouragement along the way, perhaps an experience can be crafted that can help them get there.

The most refreshing perspective on gamification I’ve heard recently is from Christ Garrett from zworkbench — maker of the mobile word game QatQi. I had the pleasure of seeing him demo his latest personal development game, Book of Quests, at both Marist College in mid-April and at the NYC Games Forum at Microsoft yesterday. Book of Quests is Chris’ creative solution to a problem in his family’s household (which we probably all share): chores are boring and annoying. So, he sat down with his family and they created a points system based around some creative thematic literature, which assigned points values to given tasks. Their house is now a castle, and whoever earns the most points each week is the weekend Battle Master, who gets to choose any activity of their choice which the entire family will cheerfully do together on Saturday. Once the game rules were written out, the King of the family declared that no one had to do any chores anymore — it’s completely voluntary. His pre-teen daughters were delightfully astonished, until he flickered the idea of what he’d do as Battle Master (gather lumber or build a mud trucking course in their backyard). The game has been going on for weeks, and the house has been incredibly spotless, with competition to get to the chores first. Chris also described that since implementing this gamification of chores, chores have become more enjoyable to do, and the household has upheld a better overall mood.

This little overview of Book of Quests really doesn’t do it justice, but I really admire what the designer accomplished here. He focused on the true goals of gamifying the otherwise unappealing task of doing chores, making it something fun, productive and rewarding. Some of the awesome points he emphasized run along these lines:

  • Stay minimal…You probably don’t need technology.
  • Don’t aim to make a product: aim to solve the problem at hand.
  • Make it social.
  • Make it voluntary.


I think what I’ve ultimately concluded is that we, as the technology, media & gaming industries, get so hung up on the term “gamification” these days that we’re losing understanding of what it actually is. The mechanism of “gamifying” something has been used far before the term “gamification” really existed (or at least existed to the obnoxious extent it does today). Just look at something like flight points in airlines. I think we get so stuck on the word “gamification” and all its connotations of modern misuse that we sometimes fail to recognize when design mechanisms that happen to fall under today’s “gamification” realm are actually just good solutions to design problems.

Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of gamified experiences out there which are not at all a pivotal part of the design, and which seem to be just irrationally tagged on because they can. We all know those when we experience them because they feel…well……useless. (Because they ARE useless to the design!) …But when game mechanics are designed into situations as an appropriate way to solve a problem, like we see with Book of Quests, then that’s gamification done right. If the gamification haters look at case studies like that, but strip the term “gamification” away, maybe they’ll simply see a clever, creative design.

2 thoughts on “Gamification done right.

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