Three Principles for Successful Gamification

 “Gamification, by definition, is about applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. Tap into people’s natural desire to compete and play, and it results in high levels of engagement.” 

—“Gamification Comes of Age,”

Like many in this field, I have been thinking a lot about gamification recently. What a great way to hook an audience, the market, a group of passers-by. Add a few badges and a point competition and voila! everyone wants to buy your soap. As it turns out, however, successfully gamifying an activity—that is, actually tapping into that “natural desire to compete and play”—is a little more challenging.

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss the theory of gamification. First, however, let me address that most immediately pressing question: How do you make a non-game activity “more fun and engaging?”

Here’s what I think:


Facilitate: The game needs to aid in the process: an obvious yet surprisingly difficult concept. What is your ultimate objective? Encourage flossing, educate firefighters, sell more t-shirts: whatever it is, be very clear about what it is you want to do. Then make sure the game mechanic itself actually promotes that activity.

 Incentivize: Do not assume that people will participate just because it’s a game. Make sure that everyone involved has a reason for participating in this game. “Everyone” in this case really does mean everyone: from active players, to game facilitators to innocent bystanders. How each individual participates will vary of course; this does not mean that everyone gets a prize (see below). Instead, you want everyone to have a solid, compelling reason to be involved. Incentives can include:

Reward: Because this is a game, some of your participants will probably win. However you define a winner, the prize they receive must be both desirable and appropriate to the game. While badges and points may occasionally fulfill both of these conditions, often they won’t. Selecting an activity-specific, highly motivating prize is key to successful gamification.

Here’s an example. Recently, I was asked to (theoretically) gamify a sports bar.

Giants gamification gamification digital game design gamesFacilitate

First, the objective. The bar  ultimately wants to sell more drinks. They do this by bringing customers in and keeping them there. The more enjoyable, the more fun the bar is, the more drinks the consumers will purchase. So we need a mechanic that supports this goal. Again, this one sounds like a no-brainer. How many bars use lures like bingo or trivia nights? Yes, these may be successful, and consequently help a bar’s bottom line. But is it as successful as it could be? Trivia and bingo don’t maximize the gamification factor because they do not facilitate the pursuit of the ultimate objective. We want a game mechanic that will create fun in a way that aligns with the selling of drinks—and in this case, because it is a sports bar, it should also align with the watching of sports.

Let’s create a game mechanic that enables supporters of one team to bet drinks against supporters of another team—all while watching the game played live. To simplify the identification of who supports whom (and to prevent bar fights), we enable patrons of a bar in one city to bet against patrons of a bar in another city. So if the Giants are playing the Tigers, patrons of Go Giants SportsBar in San Francisco bet against patrons of the Car City Lounge in Detroit. At the end of the game, one bar or another is going to get a lot of free drinks.

Facilitate also means keep it simple. In this case, one game facilitator in each bar, be it the bartender, a volunteer, or paid staff, uses a simple interface app on the iPad to take wagers, take payment for the drinks in advance, and distribute drinks at the end of the end of the game.


Patrons betting enjoy the process of feeling heightened competition and have the opportunity to get free drinks. The game facilitators are also paid in free drinks. Or simply by cash from the bar.  They may also have the opportunity to get tips. Bartenders and bar-owners not only sell more drinks during and immediately after the game, but they have an added marketing hook. If the game is fun, and people want to repeat it, they now have potential future sales.


Appropriately, the winners win drinks—drinks paid for not by the bar, but by the losers in the other bar.

What do you think? I welcome any comments and/or critiques of these principals or the example above. This is, after all, a conversation.  Again, next week, I’ll pontificate a little more around the theory of gamification. Meanwhile, if you are interested, here are two useful, and opposing points-of-view on what kind of use-value gamification promises (or doesn’t promise) us.

Jane McGonigal’s influential Ted Talk on gamification

A  post from the blog of  Self Aware Games, a California game development team

11 thoughts on “Three Principles for Successful Gamification

  1. Very nice write up. Several quotable lines. An important one for me:

    the more you can invoke and then leave room for a player’s own native imagination, the more compelling the experience can become.

  2. The guys at The Hyperfactory originally came up with a betting concept where friends at sport matches could give each other odds via a mobile app, whilst actually at the game. It could pretty much be on anything within the game, the next play, the next person to score etc. Everyone loved it except for the organisation with the national monopoly on sports betting.

      • To fashion an abstraction and framework of mechanics that define quantitative metrics, and then defining artificial rewards recognized within a narrow scope.

        Abstraction: to represent as a collection of objects delineated by a limited number of predetermined qualities.

        Framework of mechanics: a set of rules consistent with itself without necessarily implying fitness of applicability to any other framework, including unknown, intangible or non-trivial ones.

        Quantitative metrics: a series of numeric measurements where one number or range of numbers is comparably better or worse than another number or range of numbers.

        Artificial rewards: being unable to represent in legal form as a substitute for tangible goods or intangible services, yet considered inherently positive and valued within the framework of mechanics.

        Narrow scope: poorly applicable or relevant in determination of competence, judgment or expertise in a similar activity context, or difficulty in justifying true worth to a layperson or stakeholder, or anyone unfamiliar with the framework, abstraction and reward trifecta.

        Finally, I don’t like gamification because some things just aren’t attainable. Lowering the bar leads to dilution. Raising it recognizes meritocracy that would have existed without the abstraction of the game system.

        The player is the “game maker’s apprentice,” the acolyte of the game designer, who teaches the player – through the game – how to master and do well at the game. To master the game is a win-win for both.

        Is life just a series of games? Shouldn’t we then make everyone game designers, creators and producers? Everyone is excited to play; who is being played?

      • Ettis,

        I am finally prepared to answer your monounsaturated comment on the meaning of gamification to you.

        I think the difference between how you see gamification, and I fear Josh, too, is best illustrated by a question on the dating site, OkCupid:

        When conducting yourselves with others, do you prefer to be:
        |=| Truthful
        | | Tactful

        You see, your answer tells me you are a man of knowledge and a man in search of truth, in this case proper function. Here is where you learn you are not in control of the system. To strengthen your best students may require the same plan of action as to maximize their numbers- avail merit to those who would not have it without gamification, as was your parent’s act in taking care of you before you knew you existed.

        The game is the journey, for you and for me, for all of us. It is our mutual responsibility to co-create a reality filled with streamlined experiences rather than choppy and disjoint ‘tools’. When done correctly it becomes a legacy as few applications ever have been.

        My specific points of disagreement:
        1. You keep calling them artificial rewards. I don’t agree they are artificial but rather ingrained yet ignorable ‘all this time’.
        2. You say ‘without the abstraction of the game system’. We are talking about working with computers, right? ‘Without the abstraction of the game system’ doesn’t exist anymore.

        What I loved:
        1. Your definition of quantitative metrics, stressing comparability, is well said.
        2. That you said ‘Shouldn’t we then make everyone game designers…Everyone is excited to play.’ LOL! That doesn’t make any sense- that’s two opposite roles. Designer and player.

  3. Pingback: Gamification, Motivation and Work |

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