What Is Gamification? Everything You Need To Know To Get Started

The term ‘Gamification’ was coined back in 2002 by Nick Pelling, a British-born computer programmer and inventor, and hit the mainstream thanks to Foursquare in 2009.

By 2011, it officially became a buzzword when Gartner added it to its ‘Hype Cycle’ list.

Now, in 2015, Gamification is hotter than ever.

People are looking to implement Gamification in almost every aspect of their lives.

More and more business are looking to gamify different aspects of their work: Either to increase user engagement or better motivate their employees.

Gamification is everywhere!

What do you really know about Gamification? 

After searching for a thorough beginners guide to Gamification, listening to dozens of TED talks about engagement, and diving deep into the gaming community, we found that there seems to be a lack of articles that simply cover the Gamification essentials.

So we’ve created this short but coherent guide for anyone who wants to easily grasp the basics of Gamification.

(Now would be a good time to bookmark this article as your go-to 101 about what Gamification is all about!)

What is Gamification?

Before we dive into the elements, motivations and psychology, let’s start with a simple definition. Back in 2002, Nick Pelling, defined the term as: “Applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast.”

These days, the commonly used definition of Gamification is:

“The application of typical elements of game playing (such as point scoring and competition) to other areas of activity.”

Yu-Kai Chou, a leading gamification expert and author of ‘Actionable Gamification’, defines gamification as:

The craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities”

Typically it is used as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.

You can see gamification elements in almost every field: Education, business, life coaching, apps, and more.

It has the power to transform a user experience by surrounding users with a gamified system that both stimulates and entertains them.

Why has Gamification become so popular?

Because it is such a great solution to one of today’s most painful challenges – user retention.

Offering incentives to users and encouraging them to accumulate rewards throughout their journey can instantly boost their involvement with your service.

We tend to think of Gamification as a loyalty program on steroids.

The longer users spend interacting with your brand or product, the longer their lifetime value for your business will be (cha-ching!).

But…why do we love gamification?

It might sound simple, obvious and perhaps even too plain, but gamification is FUN!

There is often a common misunderstanding between Gamification and Games. They are not the same thing.

Games are a form of competitive play in which there are rules in place to determine skill.

Gamification takes the best parts of games (being the game-like mechanics that motivate us) and applies them to non-game entities to encourage us to carry out certain behaviors.

It engages us and allows us to leverage several of our natural human desires: socializing, learning, mastery, achievement, and status.

Gamification is light-hearted. Certain behaviors which initially seem difficult, boring and tedious can be made fun.

We are motivated to perform certain actions and engage in certain behaviors in return for rewards.

Rewards trigger the release of dopamine in our brain. Endorphins and dopamine are responsible for feelings of pleasure and these chemicals come out during positive game-playing experiences.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp said that dopamine is “the brain circuitry which propels us to explore new avenues for reward in our environment.”

Therefore, Gamification is a source of happiness in which we are fulfilling our human motivations.

Applying gamification to your product can actually affect your users’ physicality and make them happier and motivated.

3 Key Ingredients Of Gamification: Motivation, Mastery, and Triggers

Game mechanics are based on three main components:

  1. Motivation
  2. Mastery
  3. Triggers

Motivation is the “Why?”

Motivation is what makes a user care about what they do. It is the reason or reasons that one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.

Wherever there are people, there are people to be motivated, hether it be employees motivated to take part in additional training programs, sales people motivated to grow revenues, or patients motivated to adopt healthy lifestyle choices to prolong their lives.

No matter what the circumstance, Gamification can be applied to motivate people.

B.F. Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism claimed that human behavior is a result of the effects of environmental reinforcements and learning. A lot of Skinner’s research on reinforcement and operant conditioning can be applied to understand motivation.

B F Skinner

However, Skinner’s theory disregards innate needs and uses only external conditions to motivate people to carry out particular behaviors.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation “drives behaviors that result in internal rewards, like enjoyment, positive feelings and happiness.”

It refers to behavior driven by internal motivations. Yu-Kai Chou explains that it is derived from the Right Brain Core Drives.

One way to add intrinsic motivation into a user’s experience is by making the experience social.

This can be done by adding in-group tasks that require teamwork, and encouraging community interactions between players.

Another way to add intrinsic motivation into an experience is by adding unpredictability. Unpredictability adds thrill to a user’s experience and prevents them from getting bored and leaving the game.

Nir Eyal confirms in his book “Hooked” that “variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users”. Obtaining a reward is extrinsic, however when you make the reward variable, you add a layer of intrinsic excitement.

Another tip by Yu-Kai Chou regarding intrinsic motivation is adding more meaningful choices and feedback.

You want to make sure game players have the freedom to make as many meaningful choices as possible. You want to allow them to reflect their style and their preferences.

If there is only one path to reach the win-state then there are no meaningful choices present for the user to express his or her creativity. This will demotivate players as our brains hate it when we have no choices.

Mastery is the “How?”

Mastery is the set of rules and the knowledge/skill needed to accomplish a specific task.

Game mechanics should be based on skill and persistence not just on random luck.

The path to mastery is an important concept of successful Gamification. We want to feel as though we are mastering a skill as we progress through a game.

As humans our brain wants to be challenged – as we increase in level, the difficulty of the game should increase too.

If the Gamification strategy does not lead to a sense of mastery in a particular context, then it is not an effective strategy.

Triggers are the “When?” and “Where?”

This is the actual implementation of recurring opportunities for users to win and fulfil their motivation.

The actions you designate will act as triggers for a positive feedback mechanism. When we do something and our actions lead to positive outcomes we form a habit and repeat this action.

Good and effective triggers are a crucial part of a successful gamification strategy.

Often people are motivated and have the ability to carry out particular actions but something is stopping them. Users may be distracted, they may doubt their motivation to continue or perhaps they don’t think they can achieve the end goal.

Good triggers are designed to solve all of these problems.

Professor B.J. Fogg outlined three types of triggers: Facilitator, signal and spark.

Behaviour Model Triggers

Spark as a trigger: Sparks can come in various channel forms. The important thing is that the trigger is associated with a target behavior and is presented to users at an exact moment that they can take action.

Facilitator as a trigger: This is the type of trigger appropriate for users that have high motivation but lack ability. The aim of a facilitator is to trigger a behavior while making the behavior easier to carry out.

Signal as a trigger: This trigger works best when people have the motivation and ability to perform the target behavior. It does not seek to motivate, just serves as a reminder.

To learn more from BJ Fogg, this paper presents a new model for understanding human behavior: A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design.

Loyalty Programs

One crucial aspect of Gamification is loyalty programs, such as frequent flyer cards, club cards, punch cards and coupons.

The goal of these loyalty programs is to strengthen the connection between the client and the product or brand. This connection is created because of behavioral psychology.

It happens in 3 simple steps:

  1. The loyalty card is presented to the customer.
  2. The customer performs the action (usually the purchase).
  3. The customer receives the compensation/reward (in form of discount, coupon etc).

This process repeats itself again and again.

Every time customers go through this process they invest time and money, binding themselves more strongly to the product or brand

This process sounds well and good – but in reality most loyalty programs fail. This is where Gamification rolls in!

Gamification does not only offer value but provides an exhilarating experience for users, full of surprises.

Brian Burke from Gartner Research said “Sustainable gamification can convert customers into fans” and he sure is right.

In today’s world, people are not satisfied with just the bottom line, savings, they want more, they want fun.

There are 7 essential ways to keep your core group of customers happy:

  1. Communicate with your customers
  2. Give customers a personalized service
  3. Make customer care a key part of your business strategy
  4. Develop a brand around your company, products or services
  5. Provide customer incentives
  6. Give your top customers ‘special treatment’
  7. Have fun!

Check out this post to read more about these 7 ways to build customer loyalty using Gamification.

Leaderboards: A little competition never hurt anyone!

Leaderboards are designed to encourage players to stay in the game. The idea of rising up a leaderboard can act as a powerful motivator.

It is important that the leaderboards never discourage players. An effective way to avoid discouraging the low achievers is by refreshing leaderboards regularly.

This gives players the chance to start again, without feeling that they are slipping so low down the ranks they have no chance of winning. Once they have lost their motivation to succeed they will stop trying.

Naturally we all love a little competition right?! Leaderboards are the perfect way for players to show off their achievements and encourage progression.

“Our customers leverage Leaderboards to challenge users to be more active and engaged. To make sure as many users as possible are motivated, we recommend using Leaderboards either to show top users for a given time period, or top users for specific types of actions.” -Uri Admon, CEO, Captain Up

Read more about Captain Up’s Leaderboards

Progress Bars

Informing users of how close they are to completing a set of tasks will encourage them to keep going.

Dr. Brad Myers from the University of Toronto found people prefer to have progress indicators. As human beings we are naturally driven when we have clear goals in mind to accomplish. Knowing how far away that end goal is will keep your users playing.

LinkedIn have really nailed the progress bar. Showing the profile completeness percentage drives people to take steps towards 100% completion. They also encourage people to do so with a simple one-liner: “Users with complete profiles are 40 times more likely to receive opportunities through LinkedIn.”

Captain Up customers have also had great success with our progress bars, affecting their sales and bottom lines, user retention, and user lifetime value. It is so effective, many of our customers choose to present the progress bar throughout users’ visits to their sites.


Apps Using Gamification

In today’s era there seems to be an emerging trend between the Internet and gaming. Gamification is now a powerful tool to teach, persuade and motivate people to carry out certain behaviors.

You would be surprised by the extent that game mechanics are intertwined with your daily life. From grabbing your coffee on the way to work to going for a run, Gamification is everywhere.

In “Changing the Game,” David Edery and Ethan Mollick wrote “Companies of all shapes and sizes have begun to use games to revolutionize the way they interact with customers and employees, becoming more competitive and more profitable as a result.”

Let’s take a look at a few apps that are using Gamification to motivate their users:

Starbucks app

Starbucks know exactly how to please us coffee addicts – and they do it oh so well! The more coffee you buy, the more stars you get rewarded.

With every coffee purchase you make, stars fill up your cup. You can see how many stars you have earned as well as how many stars you still need, to earn your free drink.

Perhaps Starbucks doesn’t serve the best coffee in the city but they have definitely hit the nail on the head with their rewards program. They know how to prevent their customers from buying their coffee elsewhere!


Starbucks Gamification


Nike+ logs your physical activity and helps users reach running goals. The more you run, the more rewards, trophies, and surprise gifts you earn.

The application allows your to track your runs and challenge friends while pushing you to reach a new personal record.

Let’s be honest – if it manages to motivate us to put our trainers on after a long day of work, it must be doing something right!


Looking to quit smoking, cut out junk food or stop drinking profusely?

This app will help you kick out that bad habit.

It manages to do so by increasing your personal resilience physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. SuperBetter tracks your progress and gives you daily and weekly tasks that will help you succeed in giving up that bad habit or addiction

SuperBetter App

Looking To Learn More?

If you liked what you read so far, this is only the beginning!

There are many ways to implement Gamification and we’ve gathered some resources that will help you learn more about it.

To learn more about the importance of Gamification and why it is so critical for your business, here are 10 resources to help you start your journey :

  1. Game Over: Common Gamification Mistakes To Avoid
  2. How To Use Personalization To Crush Your Competitors
  3. Top 20 Gamification Experts To Follow
  4. Gamification Course With Expert Yu-Kai Chou
  5. An introduction to gamification (Video)
  6. The Gamified Blog
  7. Yu-Kai Chou’s blog
  8. Seven Core Concepts for Creating Compelling Experiences (Video)
  9. Nir Eyal – Hooked (Book)
  10. Best TED talk about Gamification and education


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