What is... | September 18, 2013

What is gamification?

Why do teenagers seem so transfixed when they play video games for hours on end? Chances are that part of the motivation is a desire to clock up more points, win badges or other elements common to many games.

“Gamification” – a relatively new buzzword – is when these addictive aspects of gaming are applied to other parts of life. Gamification can make activities more fun, social or engaging. But beware, as well as encouraging positive habits, it can also be used in less comfortable ways. And the “players” may not even be aware of it.

Game on
Games often involve points, levels and challenges – perhaps a leader board featuring the best of the best. These elements might offer a sense of success and progress as players work their way through.

Game mechanics don’t have to be complex and gamification can involve simply adding game elements to other areas of life. Anyone who has filled out a LinkedIn profile or a Google+ page will be familiar with the “progress bar”, a percentage-based indicator of how complete a profile is. Although it may not be obvious, a progress bar is actually a basic game mechanic. Users are motivated to invest more time and effort into their profiles simply to reach 100% completeness, the result being given the title of "All Star", a reward in status without which many users may not have bothered.

Pavlov’s dog was right
The term gamification was coined by British-born computer programmer and inventor Nick Pelling back in 2002, and despite it only gaining popularity in the last few years, the psychology behind it has been around for much longer. Gamification comes down to basic rewards principles.

The classic example of Ivan Pavlov's experiments with dogs demonstrates how animals (humans included) are highly influenced by rewards and feedback mechanisms, often without being consciously aware of it.

American academics Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus describe in their classic and influential book Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games (published in 1983) how games have the potential to foster addictive behaviours because they use "uncertain schedules of reinforcement". Games reward and punish participants in unexpected ways, leading to excitement and pleasure when played. 

Are loyalty cards part of a game?
Airlines offering frequent flyer programmes are arguably players in this push for gamification. Customers earn airmiles (points) for flights and move from up the tier levels perhaps from bronze to silver or gold (moving up to the next level and unlocking privileges). At times, there might even be the chance to complete a challenge, such as “take three flights in the next 90 days” to earn bonus airmiles. Coffee cards, supermarket clubs and other retail schemes also have hallmarks of gamification.

Gamification is also used to encourage regular exercise or weight loss – and is used in money management apps.

Set the rules
Gamification is set to become more popular, with consultancy firm Gartner predicting that by 2015, more than 50% of organisations that manage innovation processes will gamify the processes. A lesson is to be wise to who is setting the rule of the game.

Collecting airline frequent flyer points might be a savvy bonus for people who will be travelling anyway, can get a good price with the airline and enjoy that company’s service. In that case, it is as if the shopper has control of the game.

On the flipside, a traveller who gets swept up in the game and books flights in the hope of gaining additional status might like to take a moment to rethink their strategy.

EmotionPeer effectsPsychologyIrrational

Joe Gladstone
Joe Gladstone

Behavioural economics researcher and consultant