What is Gamification?

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This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Gamification is a buzz word that has made it around the world several times. It’s one of those ideas, concepts, or strategies that everyone from business leaders, academics, and the general public have either applauded or denounced.

But what is gamification? What makes something “gamified?” How can gamification be used strategically? What are the pitfalls of gamification and how can we avoid them?

This article will answer the question “what is gamification?” Examples of gamification and some applications of gamification will be provided. An examination of gamification is covered in order to determine what makes it successful. Finally, tips will be shared and discussed on how to use gamification successfully to achieve your goals while mitigating some of gamification’s shortcomings.

What is gamification?

One of the main concepts that is often mixed up with gamification is that it is entirely related to games. However, most gamified applications bear only a passing resemblance to games. Believe it or not, games and gamification are really two different concepts.

That’s because games have formal elements, frameworks, and structures to guide the player experience. Gamification doesn’t have those elements because those elements aren’t necessary for successful gamification. Instead, gamification uses existing tools and mechanics from games and applies them in non-game settings.

Gamification drive, application, and use is informed and gauged by players’ incentives and motivations. Those motivations are addressed and served by game elements and mechanics. So in practice, gamification is about using those game mechanics and experiences to engage and motivate people to achieve goals.

Gamification helps addresses users’ achievements of goals by including and feeding that base line player motivation. In that way, gamification makes the steps needed to accomplish tasks and goals more palatable. Through this, gamification provides a layer of playfulness and interaction to the user experience. Game mechanics are integrated into and existing user experience to motivate participation, engagement, and often loyalty to a platform or service.

In order to do this, gamification design includes those game design elements in non-game settings in order to make the entire experience more fun and engaging. Thus, the experience becomes more motivating to help the player achieve goals.

Ethical gamification therefore is not about manipulating users but serving, engaging, and feeding underlying motivations that continue to delight and surprise them. At its heart, gamification is about making the experience (whatever it is) more fun.

Examples of gamification

Gamification takes the elements of game design and applies them to contexts outside of games. There are many game elements can be applied outside of games. But some of the most salient examples of gamification would be the public and visual recognition of achievement and mastery.

In this context the awarding boy scouts merit badges represents a form of gamification. The badge represents merit earned from achieving mastery over a specific domain, skill, or area of knowledge.

This acknowledgement goes further with business through the use of “loyalty programs.” These can be as simple as a punch card which gives you a free sandwich after the first five purchases to the completion bar on a LinkedIn profile.

In addition, other more sophisticated examples of gamification exist in miles, points, or status upgrades with credit cards during a shopping experience. These simple forms of reinforcement for making purchases that provide a currency towards redemption is another element that is layered on top of an existing experience.

Gamification doesn’t have to always rely on the consumer side though. The use of leader boards for sales teams is one of the oldest and most recognized forms of reinforcement for a highly competitive organization.

No matter the example, gamification rewards users through different game-like elements that encourages actions through positive feedback.#

Applications of gamification

The positive feedback provided in gamification honors players’ core drives. Addressing that core drive is the designer’s main goal. That goal should specifically include why the player is doing something and how they are doing it rather than the actual activity they are engaged with.

Gamification honors this underlying motivation by leverages individuals’ desires for status, achievement, competition, and acceptance into a social community. These desires manifest themselves in the aforementioned gamified programs such as business status; badges, and leader boards.

Thus, gamification can be a very powerful for addressing several problems from individual engagement; training and development; to voter apathy. But the mere use of these gamified elements doesn’t solve a problem outright. Rather, the correct mechanics necessary to engage and motivate the user is needed in order for the gamified program to become successful.

What makes gamification successful?

Good gamification is realized in two places. First, it must be addressed in its design. Secondly, good gamification is reflected in how well its users engage and utilized the gamified system. That’s because gamification leverages peoples’ natural tendencies for specific traits such as competition, achievement, and collaboration.

Gamification doesn’t replace these traits. It doesn’t dupe players and users into doing things that they didn’t want to do in the first place. Instead, gamification takes advantage of these human drives and uses it in order to achieve specific goals.

In the end, successful gamification is measured from an overall level of user engagement and the amount of shared influenced that the platform has had over the player and the player over the platform. That shared influence comes from players instituting their agency and demonstrated competency in the game. Likewise, the gamified system amplifies innate characteristics and drives in players to achieve personal or shared goals.

Using gamification strategically

Gamification is most successful when it provides users with proactive directives and active feedback loops through game mechanics and dynamics. These in turn lead to accomplishment of both personal and shared goals in the gamified system.

However, in order for gamification to continue to be successful in accomplishing its objectives it needs to be well designed, executed and maintained. The design phase of gamification begins not with just deciding on using game elements – but determining how the users should “feel” in the gamified system.

That feeling represents the innate drive for the users. Should they feel inspired to achieve their fitness goals? Should be proud to attain a specific and hard to achieve status? Should they be recognized publicly for their achievement? These feelings are the end drivers for players’ behaviors within the gamified system.

When implemented strategically, gamification can be used to achieve all of these goals and more in supporting and promoting user engagement.  This engagement is informed by triggers that positively reinforce promoted behaviors.

For example, a company whose end goal is to retain employees can focus a gamification initiative on promoting the behaviors of employees who have the longest longevity. That could be from maintaining a healthy work life balance, relationships outside of the office, or intricate social connections within the office.

Those traits can then be reinforced with gamification by recognizing employees who take consistent breaks; leave and arrive at the office on time; and connect and collaborate with colleagues often.

Let Learners demonstrate competency

These are just examples of how gamification might influence and help a company achieve these end goals. When using gamification for teaching and learning, it’s important that players are able to demonstrate competency. That can be achieved by letting learners choose how they will demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

In addition, students should be able to articulate the objectives of the course and what they intend to learn and achieve by the conclusion. Instructors and trainers can use gamification to provide opportunities for learners to select authentic and meaningful ways to demonstrate and show others what they’ve learned. This can often be done through public projects, demonstrations, or other deliverables which allow students to conceptualize their knowledge for others to review, reflect, and credit their achievement.

One thing remains clear whether using gamification for engagement, learning, training, or development. Gamification is a tool that is used in concert and collaboration with other systems already in place. Gamification alone is not an independent system. Rather, it is a way to structure a series of interactions which helps promote players’ own motivations to accomplish shared goals.

Shortcomings of gamification

There are still some significant shortcomings to gamification despite all of its obvious strengths. Some of it stems from organizational decision and policy makers who create some high level expectations based on the incentives that a gamified system provides.

However, these are often hollow promises as gamification is not a silver bullet that can solve all of an organization’s engagement needs. Customers who aren’t interested won’t be engaged in content that is offered.

Likewise, students cannot be motivated to learn with gamification if the structure of the class is already suspect. Gamification regularly fails in educational contexts when rewards are used improperly as a motivator to change player behavior. This specifically occurs when students act in ways that promote the gamifeid system rather than the learning outcomes for the course.

This often happens when an overemphasis is placed on the mechanics of gamification such as earning the most points, badges, and levels. This overemphasis can undermine the very nature and premise of using gamification as a system to promote learning rather than something to replace it.


This article answered the question “what is gamification?” Examples of gamification were provided as well as current applications. An examination of gamification was offered to determine what characteristics make a system successful. Finally, tips were shared and discussed on how to use gamification successfully to achieve goals while mitigating some of its shortcomings.

To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to his Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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References and further reading:

Chappelow, J. (2020, January 29). Gamification Definition. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gamification.asp

Chou, Y.-kai. (2017, May 1). What is Gamification. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://yukaichou.com/gamification-examples/what-is-gamification/

Conrad, R.-M. (n.d.). What is Gamification? Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://teaching.berkeley.edu/what-gamification

Cronstedt, J. (2017, November 30). What Is Gamification, How it Works & How It Can Help Your Business. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://medium.com/@jcron_89878/what-is-gamification-how-it-works-how-it-can-help-your-business-19f98f1a9d4e

Workman, R. (2014, February 6). What is Gamification? Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/4541-gamification.html

Eng, D. (2019, June 4). Formal Game Structures. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/6/04/formal-game-structures

Eng, D. (2019, September 10). The Player Experience. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/9/10/the-player-experience

Eng, D. (2019, October 29). Gaming with Motivation. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/10/29/gaming-with-motivation

Eng, D. (2019, August 20). Play is Work. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/20/play-is-work

Eng, D. (2019, August 6). Meaningful Choices. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices

Eng, D. (2019, June 18). Feedback Loops. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from  https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/6/18/feedback-loops-in-games-based-learning

Eng, D. (2019, October 8). Game Dynamics. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/10/8/game-dynamics

Eng, D. (2020, February 6). Game Mechanics. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/2/6/game-mechanics

Eng, D. (2019, November 5). The User Experience. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/11/5/the-user-experience

Guta, M. (2017, July 7). What is Gamification and How Can It Help My Business? Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://smallbiztrends.com/2017/07/what-is-gamification.html

Harry. (2020, February 3). What is the Definition of Gamification and What Does it Mean? Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.growthengineering.co.uk/definition-of-gamification/

Holloway, S. (2019, June 12). Four Ways to Bring Games to Your Classroom. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://tophat.com/blog/gamification-education-class/

Seamans, M. (2019, August 13). What is Gamification? Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://leveleleven.com/2019/08/what-is-gamification/

What is Gamification? (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/gamification

What Is Gamification? (2020, April 1). Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.bunchball.com/gamification

What Is Gamification? Everything You Need To Know To Get Started. (2016, July 7). Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://blog.captainup.com/what-is-gamification-everything-you-need-to-know-to-get-started/

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (https://www.sps.nyu.edu/professional-pathways/faculty/20495-dave-eng.html).

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points (https://www.buzzsprout.com/855127) and consults at University XP (https://www.universityxp.com/community) on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming (https://www.banditosgaming.com/): a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

Find out more at www.davengdesign.com

Fun Fact: He has been seasick in every time zone.
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