How Gamification Works

Game designer and author Jane McGonigal is one of the leading names in gamification.
Marc Bryan-Brown/Getty Images

In a February 2010 presentation, Jane McGonigal, game designer and research and development director at the Institute for the Future, stated that "World of Warcraft" players have spent 5.93 billion years playing, solving problems in their virtual environment. McGonigal explained her goal to harness the focus of such gamers to solve important real-world problems. She describes gamers as becoming the ideal versions of themselves within a game, with the ability to focus their enjoyment and confidence to resolve conflicts in the game environment. McGonigal believes that if people worldwide could play more, not less, in the right game scenario, their experience could help solve some of the world's biggest problems like hunger, poverty and global conflict [source: McGonigal].

"Gamification" describes turning real-world situations into games. Gamification is a neologism -- a newly invented term that's becoming commonly used. The word gamification was likely born in the realm of casual conversation to convey the idea of turning something into a game. People like entrepreneur and author Gabe Zichermann, though, have given gamification its own unique definition. Zichermann, a respected authority on gamification and its applications, defines the term as "the process of using game thinking and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems." In short, he describes gamification as "non-fiction gaming."


In his 2010 book "Game-Based Marketing," co-authored with writer Joselin Linder, Zichermann defines a related term he coined: funware. Funware describes the everyday activities we're already engaging in that we consider a game. Zichermann explains that business should look for ways to apply funware in their marketing. Funware, he says, is the core component in applying gamification to business [source: Zichermann and Linder].

Zichermann, McGonigal and other gamification innovators met at the first Gamification Summit in January 2011. The conference included talks, workshops and panels featuring leading experts in applying games mechanics in business. The conference, held at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, had a sold-out crowd of nearly 400 with even more attending over the Internet via live video stream [source: GamificationCo].

With interest enough to sell out the first-ever conference on the topic, gamification is a fast-growing concept, affecting business, education and home. This article looks at why gamification is so important and the different ways gamification is changing our lives from the classroom to the gym.



Why gamify?

Gamification helps schools and businesses grab the attention of gamers like these.
© Arcurs

As stated earlier, gamification involves engaging the audience and empowering them to solve problems. Scientific research into human behavior, both from a psychological and a physiological standpoint, confirms that game play is both compelling and rewarding to the player. Before we look at this research, though, let's clarify what people mean by the often-misused phrase "game theory."

There are two theoretical models we could refer to as game theory. The first is the mathematical game theory, which developed out of the work of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in the 1940s. Their 1944 book "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" fueled the work of many economists of the time. Included among those economists were the authors' contemporaries Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes, whose conflicting schools of thought have formed the basis of economic debates ever since [source: Leonard].


The other model of game theory is evolutionary game theory, which looks at competitive versus cooperative behavior in nature from a psychological perspective. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a common game scenario psychologists use when describing the evolutionary game theory premise. In the Prisoner's Dilemma, two men resist arrest for a crime. When police finally capture the men, they place them in separate rooms for interrogation. Police offer each prisoner the same rewards and punishments. If one confesses and the other doesn't, he'll be set free while the other is imprisoned for 10 years. If they both confess, they each get 4 years. If neither confesses, they're each still left with charges for resisting arrest, which carry a one-year sentence [source: Easley & Kleinberg].

Though gamification was born out of observations of modern approaches to marketing, it is also an application of concepts derived from both of these game theories. From the mathematical side, gamification is about developing an economic system around the game where you can calculate your rewards based on interaction with that system. From the psychological side, gamification requires recognizing whether the target audience would feel more rewarded by competition or cooperation.

Beyond the game theories, there are biological motives for gamification. Our brains are programmed to respond to other people. For example, increased amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin seem to correlate to feelings of cooperation and fairness in game players [sources: Crocket, Singer and Steinbeis]. In contrast, research links low serotonin with depression, aggression and antisocial behavior [source: Crocket].

So, why gamify? Because, according to gamification's proponents, people want it both physically and psychologically. Games that are enjoyable and bring a sense of reward make us feel good. Next, let's look at how enjoying a game has the added advantage of making us smarter.


Education: It's All Fun and Games

Educators can use games to help engage students in learning.

In Jane McGonigal's talk mentioned earlier, she cites a Carnegie Mellon University researcher who estimated the average young person today in a country that has a strong gaming culture will spend 10,000 playing online games before the age of 21 [source: McGonigal]. The weekly average playing time for all players ages 12 through 68 is roughly equivalent to working a part-time job [source: Seay, et al.]. McGonigal equates that to a child's hours spent in a classroom from fifth grade to high school graduation assuming no absences. This means people spend as much time mastering games as they do mastering their education.

Educators have long known that using games to engage students in learning can improve their experience and deepen their understanding. Teacher conferences are great places for educators to learn about new games and the curriculum around them. Some games are short-term activities targeting a single topic while others last over several days or weeks covering a variety of educational goals.


For an educational game to be a success, though, students have to feel a sense of reward in playing it. The challenge can be that what's a reward for one student is a non-reward or even a deterrent for another. For example, a gold star and applause from classmates is a reward for those seeking teacher's approval, but not for those concerned that peers will make fun of them for sucking up to the teacher. In addition, an extra 10 points on a test grade might be a big incentive for a student who wants a boost from a C to a B, but it's not much of a motivator for students who consistently make As.

As stated earlier, an enjoyable game experience itself often becomes the reward over prizes received by winning. If we look at this in terms of educational games, we might find ourselves joining educational scholar Scott McLeod of Iowa State University in the question, "Do most educational games suck?" In a post at, McLeod posted side-by-side screenshots of some educational video games he had found and some computer games kids might play at home. In the post, McLeod invited comments from readers as to whether they agreed with his impressions of the games, such as whether simplicity or lower-quality graphics in educational video games affected the quality of the learning experience they provided. Those who commented generally expressed some level of agreement with McLeod's assessment, adding that there's a difference between playing games for the purpose of learning and learning as a result of playing games [source: McLeod].

In her book "Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education," researcher and author Nicola Whitton proposes a possible solution to educational games that don't make the grade. She states that game makers should start by recognizing the key elements that make up any game: competition, challenge, exploration, fantasy, goals, interactions, outcomes, people, rules and safety. Whitton describes the importance of each of these elements and the reason why each one is an essential component even within games specifically designed for education [source: Whitton].

We've just seen that gamification can help shape our minds. Now let's look at how it can help shape our bodies, too.


Fitness: A Winning Way to Better Health

"EA Sports Active 2" for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii can help you gamify your fitness plan.
Electronic Arts, Inc.

Sports, by definition, are games. However, you don't have to be an athlete to turn your fitness into a game. You can gamify your efforts to eat better, exercise more and achieve a certain fitness level. Just as sports have challenging but attainable goals, you'll need to set such goals for yourself and keep a scoreboard to track your progress. It also doesn't hurt to set a few small milestones and rewards you'll give yourself for accomplishing them.

Weight Watchers has been gamifying weight loss since the 1960s. Currently, the program consists of keeping a journal of your food and exercise throughout the week, tracking their point values in the Weight Watchers system, and weighing in once a week to check on your progress. During a weekly meeting, a member might receive small rewards such as stickers for each five pounds lost. For some members, though, the incentive to keep playing is just watching their weight and clothing sizes go down each week. That scorecard helps them stay on track as they work toward their ultimate reward, their goal weight.


Game consoles are also gamifiying fitness. The Nintendo Wii was the first big success of the group with its "Wii Fit" game and the motion-detecting game controller and Balance Board. Nintendo sold over $1 billion worth of "Wii Fit" games, and stores consistently sold out of the title for several months after its release [source: Schell]. "Wii Fit" puts your Wii avatar (Mii) in the game, and displays scorecards and encouraging messages for each separate activity and your overall progress. In response to the growing popularity of immersion gameplay, Microsoft's Xbox and the Sony PlayStation have also developed and marketed motion-sensing devices and introduced their own fitness games to take advantage of those devices.

If you find it easy to set goals and motivate yourself to achieve them, you'll have no trouble gamifying your fitness experience. Some of us, though, need the extra nudge of a competitor or accountability to a teammate. When you share and compare your fitness experience with others, you add that next level of play.

You could get this social experience from joining a local fitness group or an online forum where members share their goals and progress. Some companies have gone a step further, tying a video game to team support and competition. One example is "EA Sports Active," a video game for Wii, Xbox or PS3 that uses motion-detecting devices to wear during your workout. Besides introducing a wider variety of fitness activities than the "Wii Fit," " EA Sports Active" also includes an online community to track your progress and interact with others who are using the game to meet their fitness goals [source: EA Sports].

Now that you're up and running, let's look at one of the oldest and most widely used games in business: customer rewards programs.


Marketing: Sign Up for Our Customer Rewards

Delta's SkyMiles program is a widely recognized example of gamified consumer engagement.
Screenshot taken by HowStuffWorks staff

Marketing is all about creating buzz around a product. That means people are talking about it, whether or not they've bought it. Some people eventually get caught up in the excitement and shell out the cash or swipe their credit cards just to buy the item or service everyone's talking about.

Gamification is helping businesses create that buzz with a greater return on investment than ever before [source: Zichermann]. One way they're doing this is through customer rewards programs. Chances are you've used one of these programs, perhaps by getting a discount rewards card at a grocery store chain or starting a punch card at a local coffee shop. These programs feature some reward currency (like points) that you can accumulate with each purchase and, eventually, exchange for something you want.


If you grew up before the 1990s, you might remember one of the earliest customer rewards programs: S&H Green Stamps. Before the Internet and the ease of online shopping, S&H Green Stamps was an efficient rewards program that many businesses participated in to encourage customers to shop at their stores. With each purchase, you'd earn some number of actual stamps, each a little smaller than a postage stamp. Later, you'd browse the latest Sperry and Hutchinson (S&H) catalog, select your desired item, and exchange your stamps for that prize by mail or at an S&H Green Stamp store.

Today, customer rewards provide instant feedback and options to track your progress online. For example, Best Buy's Reward Zone program lets you earn points for every purchase, check your points online and decide on the reward threshold you want to reach before Best Buy sends a reward certificate. In addition, if you forget to take your Reward Zone card to the store with you, the cashier will look up your account and credit you with the points you earn that day.

Like S&H Green Stamps, some current customer rewards programs extend over multiple businesses. A credit card company, for instance, might offer frequent flier miles on a particular airline for every dollar you spend using its card. While the credit card and airline are separate companies, their game-based marketing partnership helps each of them earn more business.

Some businesses are using existing social networking tools like Foursquare and Gowalla to gamify their marketing. Both of these games include non-value rewards (like badges) you can earn by using a mobile device to check in at each of your destinations. Businesses capitalize on this by offering a reward that appears on the screen as soon as you check in. Claim your reward by simply showing the server or cashier the prize details displayed on your mobile device.

Gamification can help businesses reap lots of rewards, but it also has its challenges and drawbacks. Next, we'll look at some examples of gamification gone bad.


Current Challenges and Future Prospects for Gamification

Gabe Zichermann stated that "engagement is the new metric" for marketing success. However, he also emphasizes that gamification itself does not always lead to that engagement. Zichermann points out that the game always favors its creator, or, to use the popular casino adage, "The house always wins." With that understanding, game developers in game-based marketing scenarios must still find a way to get people engaged easily and keep them engaged long-term [source: Zichermann].

In his talks and writings, Zichermann cites examples of companies that attempted to gamify their customers' experience with a program that came up short of gamification's ideal scenario. One example is Nike's Nike+ program (pronounced "Nike plus"), created so runners could share their activity with others. For someone who was not already in shape to run a couple of miles, though, the scoreboard provided no reward for introductory efforts and was actually a disincentive to continue using Nike+.


Another example, which Zichermann calls an almost-success, is the Chase Picks Up The Tab program. The program rewards existing Chase customers at random for making a credit card purchase by crediting their accounts the amount that was charged for that purchase. Zichermann argues that the barrier to participate in the program is too high: applying for a credit card, including giving up extensive personal information, so that you can become a Chase credit card customer. Even then, the rewards are as random as casino slot machines.

While Zichermann makes excellent points as to why these examples were not ideal gamification scenarios, others think that Zichermann and like-minded entrepreneurs are attempting to steer gamification in the wrong direction. The gamification skeptics argue that the tactic is just a rebranding of the concept of manipulating the audience. Such coercion, they argue, is a negative influence on economic activity, whereas cooperation leads to a positive outcome. Another concern is that it's a short-term gimmick with no chance of long-term success. Even Zichermann recognizes that once you've gamified a behavior, taking away that reward system causes players to discontinue that behavior [sources: Doust, Brown, Zichermann].

The increased interest around gamification will likely lead to a continuous stream of successes and failures in gamifying our lives. As with any new trend, the more experience people have with it, the more we can conclude about its future. Will a refined approach to gamification become a long-term part of how we interact, or will the concept evolve into something completely different as we find better ways to accomplish the same audience engagement and problem solving?

We've just explored how people have applied gamification in business, school and the home, and we've looked at few reasons why gamification is and isn't a good idea. Now, just by clicking to the next page, you'll be rewarded with lots more information about gamification.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
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  • Corcoran, Elizabeth. "Gaming education: Classic ed-tech games and build-your-own methods are now joined by the 'gamification' movement." O'Reilly Media, Inc. Oct. 27, 2010. (March 28, 2011)
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