Gamification as a Game Changer? A Comprehensive Guide to Gamification and How to Get it Right

Written by: Dominic Weber

Undoubtedly, Gamification has been one of the most important digital buzzwords in the past few years. It is an essential part of many successful websites and applications, it can skyrocket engagement rates to unprecedented levels and it is able to make people really love your brand. But why is gamification so incredibly powerful?

Photo 1: Holi Run as a Game-Like Experience (Start by Al Valen/  ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo 1: Holi Run as a Game-Like Experience (Start by Al Valen/ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To approach this question, a short look at the video game industry might provide some insights: It developed from an often derided industry only focusing on adolescent nerds to a multi-billion global industry, selling games on all kinds of platforms to both men and women equally. It is projected to reach a staggering $99,3 billion in 2016 (newzoo, 2016), thus outselling the global movie production and distribution market (IBISWorld 2015). According to newzoo (2016), 2.2 billion people will be playing video games in 2016.

Besides these impressive numbers from the digital world, games have always been part of human culture. In fact, the concept of gamification is based on an innate need within human culture: The need to play. The idea of a playful society goes back to the Dutch historian Huizinga, who identified play as an essential element of human culture (1938):  from football to card games, from tag to chess – games are and have always been part of our daily life.

Looking at these facts, the impressive outcomes of gamification are not as surprising as before. However, from a business and, more specifically, a marketing perspective, two questions arise: why should we use gamification and how do we implement it? Before answering these, we first need to take a short excursus on the definition of gamification though.


What is Gamification?

As with every buzzword that is used by tens of thousands of people, gamification might at first sound a bit nebulous. Therefore, we first need to understand what we are talking about – before addressing the actual design process. A popular definition in academia is describing it as using “game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding, Khaled, Nacke & Dixon, 2011, p. 1).

However, this definition might be too narrow – and does not really touch upon the essence of gamification. Werbach (2014) points out, that gamification can also occur in game-like contexts. Moreover, he highlights that purely implementing game elements doesn’t create a successful gamification experience (Werbach, 2014). A good game-like system is indeed more than the sum of its elements – it needs to be fun (Werbach and Hunter, 2012) and engage the player. A less academic definition might say: It feels like a game, but it is not a game.


Why Use Gamification as a Company?

Now that we defined gamification, the question is: why should you use it? In short: the social web. Hennig-Thurau et al. (2013) describe the changes in marketing through the web 2.0 in their famous analogy of marketing becoming a pinball game, rather than the bowling game it used to be. Therefore, they motivate the idea of the social web as an almost uncontrollable space, a space that is defined by the empowerment of its users (Krishnamurthy and Kucuk 2009).

However, this analogy unintentionally emphasizes also the importance of game-like experiences. Instead of simply shooting balls (aka marketing messages) towards customers and hoping for the best (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2013), companies are able to market in a much more specific – and elegant – way: by becoming the pinball machine. Instead of being annoyed by irrelevant e-mail newsletters, blinking banners and intrusive and sometimes even creepy personalized google advertisements, consumers engage voluntarily in game-like systems – and the underlying interaction with your brand. Thus, you create possible touchpoints with your customers, without facing the aforementioned negative reactions.

Furthermore, Gamification can resolve an issue that brands are facing in social media and the web 2.0: According to Fournier and Avery (2011, p. 193) “the Web was created not to sell branded products, but to link people together in collective conversational webs”, which makes the brand an uninvited guest. By offering gamified services that facilitate collective experiences, brands can surmount this obstacle and become a partner, rather than an intruder.

The Nike+ training system is a great example of this approach: The gamified system enables its users to “satisfy social needs through sharing of consumption related experiences” (Christodoulides 2009, p. 143). The Nike+ training app (Android/iPhone) is interwoven with typical elements of gamification: You score points (minutes), you can get badges for your training habits, you unlock recipes by progressing and you can share your success within the Nike+ universe. Nike+ also shows how game-like systems support the development of brand communities (Muniz Jr. and O'Guinn 2001) or so-called consumer tribes (Cova et al. 2007).


How to create a great Gamification system?

Getting started: Ask Yourself 3 Questions

Gamification is a great tool to attract, engage and retain customers. However, it needs to be fitted for your own use – it is not a magic wand that you can point at your service and that miraculously increases every key metric on your site overnight. To approach your design, asking the following three questions is elementary to create a system that actually suits your needs and objectives.

(1) What do you want to achieve through gamification?

This essential step is often overlooked when it comes to Gamification: Before you start designing your engaging and fun gamified system, you should concentrate on the business side first. Defining the business objectives that you want to achieve enables you to concentrate on relevant game elements and allows you to tailor the system to your needs (Werbach and Hunter, 2012). After all, gamification is, other than actual games, a means to an end – an end that needs to be defined. Therefore, it is paramount to first list your (quantifiable) business objectives. Besides the influence these have on the design of your game-like system, quantifiable objectives finally also allow you to control the effectivity of your activities to determine the success of your gamification.  

(2) What do you want your players to do?

After defining your objectives, this next step addresses your players (Werbach and Hunter, 2012): what do you want them to do? Should they engage in useful discussions on a forum? Should they go outside and run? Should they change a habit in their life? Depending on what you want your players to do, you need to choose the appropriate game mechanics. Therefore, preparing and listing the behaviors you are aiming at allows you later to easily identify pivotal elements – and to cull the redundant ones.

 (3) Who are your players?

As a marketer, this step should sound familiar: When designing gamification, it is vital to define who should play – the target group you are focusing on. Describing your is crucial players (Werbach and Hunter, 2012): finally, a gamified system addressed at giggly 12-year-old girls deploying a dark fantasy theme with blood and gore doesn’t sound too promising, right?


Hands-On #1: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Interactions (MDA)

Now that you have established a firm grip on your objectives and target audience, the actual design process begins. A good starting point provides the MDA framework that analyzes video games through their three defining elements: mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics (Hunicke et al. 2004). Mechanics are constituted through the rules and objects within and the purpose of a game. Dynamics can be understood as the actions players are allowed to engage in while aesthetics relates to the “desirable emotional responses” that follow these actions (Hunicke et al. 2004).

For instance, Habitica’s gamification approach targets your habit change – which is the purpose. It features objects such as tasks and habits, but also an avatar, monsters you can battle through finishing tasks, levels and items that make your avatar more powerful. Rules define that your avatar loses health when you neglect your daily tasks, whereas finishing tasks provides the player with in-game rewards such as experience points and gold that can be used for new objects. Dynamics include clicking with the mouse or tapping on a touchscreen, but also creating and checking off tasks. Finally, aesthetics refers to the fun you should have – reinforced through an approach that turns your boring tasks into fantasy challenges.

Of course, the game-like system used by Habitica is more complex – but these few examples provide a good overview of the framework. The MDA framework allows you to address systematically the different elements of your gamification system to create your own game-like experience.


Hands-On #2: Player’s Journey, Flow, and Storytelling

While the MDA framework provides a good starting point, it can also be regarded as quite technical. A more holistic view constitutes the player’s journey approach, which describes the game experience as a progressive system that can be regarded as stairs (Werbach and Hunter, 2012): these stairs are based on different difficulty levels, from an easy onboarding level to highly challenging levels requiring a certain mastery of the game. To reach new levels, the player needs to face a so-called “boss fight” (Werbach and Hunter, 2012) that does not necessarily feature a real game boss, but provides an extraordinary challenge within the gamification experience.

Furthermore, these varying difficulty levels also helps to provide a flow experience: being confronted with ever-new challenges that a player is able to overcome by learning and by acquiring new skills provides an authentic feeling of accomplishment and enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi 2008). Werbach and Hunter’s (2012) progression stairs can thus also be regarded as a game representation of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel.

The player’s journey framework also allows us to link back to concepts such as Campbell’s (1993) Hero’s Journey. It describes the different story points that occur during a myth importance of storytelling –– transferred to game design, you might think about it as the story arc. The player’s journey revolves around the story arc and vice-versa. While Singh and Sonnenburg (2012) argue that the brand should be the star and protagonist of storytelling in social media, gamification allows you to market your brand in a more subtle and unobtrusive, but nevertheless highly visible way.

Remember Hennig-Thurau's et al. (2013) pinball analogy and the translation of gamification as the pinball machine? In a good game-like environment, you can place the player in the center of your storytelling. Your customer drives the story forward through his actions while your brand serves as the game provider. The empowered user of the web 2.0 wants to interact and to control his actions – or, as Wind (2008) expressed it: “The era of the passive consumer is history”. Gamification allows the player to be in control, while you still create plenty of touchpoints.

Zombies, Run! is one excellent example of a brand in the new consumer era: the whole gamification system is focused on the core of the brand – namely running and zombies – without ever pushing the brand in the player’s face. Instead, the consumer is at the heart of the story – progressing in skills and advancing the story at his own pace and will, creating several interaction points each time he uses the application. Around 300.000 active users and 2.500 players paying $40 and creating over 200 real-world meet-ups to participate in the Zombies, Run! Virtual Race 2015 serve as an impressive testimony to the success of this approach (Arendt 2015).


Wrap-up: Design for Fun & Players First

This article provided an overview of some important approaches and considerations when it comes to gamification. However, there are a lot of excellent sources to deepen your knowledge and get further insights into the gamification design process. Check out Kevin Werbach’s book For the Win! or join his gamification mooc on coursera. Further gamification resources can be found in the gamification wiki and this article on offers some more background on motivation. Finally, it all comes down to two reminders when designing for gamification:

(1)   “Don’t Forget the Fun!” (Werbach and Hunter, 2012)

(2)   Put “Players First” (Electronic Arts, 2015)




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