Gamification is dead. Long live Gamification!

One of the coolest things that has taken off in the digital context in the last 4-5 years is Gamification, i.e. the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts.

Games and game design techniques can effectively and positively influence a user’s state of mind (and they actually do - have you ever played Angry Birds?) because stimuli based on motivation and reward (like games are) facilitate the production of dopamine, the most important neurotransmitter influencing behavior, cognition, attention and learning. No wonder cures for depression are usually based on raising levels of dopamine in the body.

As well as behavior and cognition, dopamine plays an important role in influencing:

  • voluntary movement;
  • motivation;
  • punishment;
  • reward;
  • sleep patterns;
  • dreams;
  • mood;
  • attention;
  • working memory;
  • learning;
  • sexual gratification.

Therefore, games that are engaging are like drugs and get users coming back time and time again, thus building devotion and trust. And they do all this (and much, much more) by adding fun to the equation.


Fun is an all-encompassing, intangible yet quite unmistakable concept, the outcome of a perfect balance between all the dynamics, mechanics and components of a game, and - yes - it’s entirely designable.

What is ‘fun’ exactly? Well, all of us could jot down at least three things in our everyday lives that we associate with that temporary state of mind that relates to fun things. Here are some of the most common, taken from the University of Pennsylvania’s terrific Gamification Course which I’ve done last year:

  • Winning;
  • Problem solving;
  • Exploring;
  • Chilling out;
  • Teamwork;
  • Being acknowledged;
  • Triumphing;
  • Collecting;
  • Being surprised;
  • Imagining;
  • Sharing;
  • Role playing;
  • Customizing;
  • Goofing off.

And we could go on and on. Whatever you choose from the list, every single one of these is not simply something we do or feel (consciously or otherwise) but also something that can be designed.

But don’t just build a PBL scenario (points, badges and leaderboards) for the sake of it. It won’t work. Don’t pursue fun as if you were assembling an IKEA bookshelf but rather as you would pursue your own happiness. By trying to find a balance of all the elements that make it up. Because Gameful design is a holistic exercise in which the end result is infinitely bigger than the sum of its parts.

Business man eating Angry Birds medicine


In his paper “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research”, Marc LeBlanc defines what games are and how they relate to media in a succinct yet powerful way:

Games are more like artifacts than media. By this we mean that the content of a game is its behavior - not the media that streams out of it towards the player. Thinking about games as designed artifacts helps frame them as systems that build behavior via interaction.

Whether or not you agree with this statement is up to you, but what emerges clearly from it is that games and their affordances have a powerful influence on behavior because they are essentially made up of interwoven interactions. They actually ARE interactions.

Let’s see what we can learn from the world of games.

Gamification and user experience

Whether user experience design for you is a wide ranging discipline that can encompass as few as four big spheres (namely information architecture design, interaction design, visual design and usability design) or whether you see it as just one more fashionable label, you cannot but agree that what we are talking about when we talk about UX is human behavior. We are talking about a qualitative approach to designing things. We are talking about making things more desirable, engaging, easier to interact with and, in the end, also more profitable for our clients.

And while we’re on the subject of behaviors, there are quite a few things we can borrow from the games world and from the techniques used by game designers to build interactions. We can:

  1. try to build things that give us joy when we use them, which engage us or, more generally, improve users’ experiences, as is currently the case in Gamification;
  2. get inspired by Behavioral Gamification in which feedback and conditioning through consequences (as in classic conditioning theory based on Pavlov’s experiments) create rewards that influence dopamine release, maximize engagement and create addiction to your product;
  3. focus on intrinsic human motivations and on the core components of self-determination (competence, autonomy and relatedness) to trigger repeat usage;
  4. explore and move on to target extrinsic human motivators, like the SAPS Motivators identified by Gabe Zichermann: status, access, power and stuff.


Notwithstanding the plethora of theories around it and the way it has sometimes been used improperly just for the sake of it, Gamification has proved a great success when it is used side by side with digital marketing operations strategies, for example, in order to get “players playing” and keep them playing, i.e. building and reinforcing brand equity and customers’ loyalty. And it is precisely this which is the foundation of the success of every brand on earth.

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