Game Smarter, Part I: Finding Gamification

For some reason, September has always felt more like a new year than January ever did. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent 20 years of my life going to school, because September really was a time of new beginnings, and January was just when you went to school in the snow.

But back to school time means millions of lucky little souls are getting ready to get their learn on, some for the first time! This got me thinking about education, games, educational games, and gamification.

Image result for whatcha thinkin about
Oh, video games, gamification, and education stuff…

Gamification is one term in particular that is gaining a lot of recent traction, with it being buzzed around some professional circles as a way to engage workers and increase productivity. But what is gamification, and does it really work in a real-world context?

Defining Gamification

There are three mains parts needed for gamification to work:

  1. Motivational affordance, or the game design element or mechanic being utilized
  2. Psychological changes, brought about by the game design
  3. Behavioral changes, resulting from psychological changes

Theoretically, of course, elements of gamification can and should be used as building blocks, in order to craft a motivating and rewarding experience from the ground up. Gamification isn’t an end in and of itself, but it is rather a means to motivate and reward people for completing a non-gaming task.

we can do it

And this brings us to definitions. Part of being able to study the effectiveness of an intervention or the theoretical soundness of an idea is the clear identification of what that particular “thing” is. Whole journal articles have been written on just trying to define what exactly gamification is (Huotari & Hamari, 2012), and to defend the use of the word itself over alternative phrasing.*


For the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the term “gamification” as originally intended. Gamification is using game mechanics, game design techniques, and other gaming “ways of thinking” to engage people and solve problems outside of a video game experience (Deterdine et al., 201; Huotari & Hamari, 2012).


Regardless of whether a person wants to use the word “gamification” or not, the end results is that the elements of gamification can be used as the building blocks to craft an experience from the ground up, making it engaging and motivating for the participant, and therefore more likely to be completed.

Before we continue, I also want to make clear another phrase: non-gaming purpose or non-gaming goal. A gaming goal would be finding an item in-game, earning an achievement for actions taken in-game, or completing the main story quest of a game. A non-gaming goal would be using an achievement system (i.e., a game element) during a non-gaming task (e.g., when using a to-do list).

Gamification vs. Gaming

Some confusion arises with the term “gamification” because, I think, it has the word “game” in it, so it is mistaken for being a game in and of itself, rather than using elements of a game for a non-gaming purpose. So what’s the difference between gamification and gaming?

playing a game

A game is a complete experience that stands on its own. It has been designed for its own purpose, and has its own context, rules, and sets of experiences and expectations.

Gamification is, instead, a sum of parts. It uses elements of game design and some characteristics of games. Gamification takes design elements from games and utilizes them in a non-game context. For instance, when you role-play in a meeting, you are technically taking part in gamification. When you use Epic Win app as a to-do list, you’ve gamified your list. When you compete with your friend or relative using a pedometer or FitBit, you’re gamifying your exercise routine.

Gamification vs. Playing

Of course, where there are games, there is play. Like with gaming, play is different than gamification. Play is a broad, loose term that often implies more freedom in actions. It can incorporate improvisation behaviors and meanings, and lack the structure generally associated with video, card, or board games.

Image result for children playing

In contrast, gamification is not improvisatory. The gamified task is planned and often has a controlled design, in order to most effectively use the game design elements to motivate and reward behaviors.

Working for “Free”

We know that the elements used in gamification are highly motivating and rewarding, because it is predominantly those elements that  make video games so compelling.

To say that another way, the gamifying elements make us do work willingly and for free. After all, when we partake in a game, it is because we have, among other things:

  1. Agreed to the rules of the game
  2. Agreed to complete a difficult and arbitrary task
  3. Agreed to the reward system in place within the game


We usually turn off a game when we no longer agree to one of those miniature ontracts. For instance, we might feel the game has broken its own rules and is no longer fair, no longer like what the game is asking us to do, or – perhaps more relevant to gamification – the rewards are not motivating enough for us.*

The individualization of motivating factors is important. Just like how every task can’t have the same type of motivation or reward attached to it, different people are motivated by different rewards, and so that must be taken into account for optimal gamification success, as well.


This article has already gotten pretty long, and we still have quite a bit to cover! So, now that we’ve established what gamification is and some basic rules for it to be successful, I’ll pose a few questions to you to think about before part two comes around:

Do you think all tasks can be gamified? What are some potential hazards of gamifying behaviors or tasks? Do you think that gamification is a worthwhile endeavor, or does it provide too much of a “crutch” when completing tasks? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena
**Extra content available on this topic on Patreon!**


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Deterding, S. (2012). Gamification: Designing for motivation. Forum: Social Mediator,  July-August, 14-17.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining “gamification.” MindTrek, Sept. 28-30.

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014).Does gamification work? – A literature review of empirical studies on gamification. 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Science

This slideshow could not be started. Try refreshing the page or viewing it in another browser.

, 3025-3034. doi: 10.1109/HICSS.2014.377

Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2012). Defining gamification – A service marketing perspective. MindTrek 2012, October 3-5, 17-22.

Nicholson, S. (2012). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI.


  1. My wife and I have gamified chores with our kids. If they complete something on the list they get points (or for negative actions on the list… lose points). Every 150 points they gain, they get $10 and when they reach 10000, they can choose to get something or go somewhere special.

    Of course gamifying the chores, schoolwork, and behavior isn’t a perfect solution and it doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the fact that in real life sometimes you just have to do things regardless of scoresheet and reward but, one step at a time right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great way to motivate kids to do their chores, and really cool that you and your wife do that. Of course, one step at a time is right! That’s one of the issues with gamification: the world is not gamified, and the world can be pretty not motivating or rewarding sometimes, so on top of motivating and rewarding task completion, coping skills for when it doesn’t happen also need to be presented, I think! But yes, one step at a time haha


  2. Well, I certainly feel more educated already. Your Patreon notes rock and are totally worth giving up freemium games for too, as always. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of this series! 🙂 And yay, questions:

    Do you think all tasks can be gamified? – I think most tasks can be gamified if you try hard enough. I’m sure I could come up with a reward system for dragging myself out of bed in the morning, haha.

    What are some potential hazards of gamifying behaviors or tasks? – You can’t expect to be rewarded for every single chore in life. Some annoying things in life you just have to do, and if you expect to be rewarded for everything, you’ll wind up unmotivated and disappointed.

    Do you think that gamification is a worthwhile endeavor, or does it provide too much of a “crutch” when completing tasks? – If gamification works for someone, go for it! Just don’t force it on every chore, task, and/or behavior.

    Look at me pretending I know what I’m talking about, haha. *wanders off*

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Excellent! So you’ll be all set for next week, then! 😉

      Look at me, being impressed at your answers! I think you have some really good thoughts here, and not just because I happen to agree with them (haha). When you come up with a reward system for getting out of bed, kindly pass it along! And you make a good point that it shouldn’t be forced onto anyone. One of the most important points is that it’s something people want to do, after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. For reasons, Gamification’s something I’m currently spending a bit of time delving into.

    I think it’s definitely an interesting area, and when it’s deployed well, it can be quite cool. My one real concern, however, is that Gamifying work-ey stuff could result in a bit of unintended blowback on Games themselves.

    Afterall, the thing that makes Games compelling and addictive is that we *choose* to buy into the challenge/reward aspects – and it’s usually something we do for fun – so if we spend all day doing tasks at work that’ve deliberately been made to seem and feel “Game-y” (and that, really, we’re forced to do), I’d be worried that coming home and actually Gaming would feel like less of an escape from the day-to-day.

    I mean, if you’ve spent all day at work collecting gold stars, or power-ups, or grinding XP or whatever, the last thing you’re going to want to do when you get home is more of the same, right!?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is definitely one of the pitfalls of gamification. Personally, I think picking and choosing when to use those types of techniques is key, otherwise, like you said, it stops being special. Not only would video games lose some of their allure, but if *everything* was gamified, there wouldn’t be anything that makes the tasks that *need* (for want of a better word) to be gamified, versus the tasks that are just dandy but are gamified anyway.

      …if that makes sense.

      And you’re right! The last thing you want when you get home from work is more work!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been through a couple rounds where management reads a magazine and decides something sounds new and shiny so they try to work it in. Have had mixed results on that. The best ones gave points and had some sort of concrete reward tied to it. They had a challenge, a visual indicator of progress, and something satisfying at the end. The worst ones made it into a competition. It worked for those with an internal competitive drive, for a short while, but then that motivation burned out long before the competition did and those who don’t enjoy that competition were even less motivated to do what they were supposed to be motivated to. So yeah, definitely takes user acceptance of a few different factors to be effective, much as you described.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One size definitely does not fit all in this case. I think if the gamification keys into things that most people will find rewarding (thus enhancing intrinsic rewards), they’d probably be more successful than trying to impose external rewards that might not be for everyone.

      Like anything, latching on to a poorly-interpreted buzzword helps no one when it comes to gamification….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Neat topic. I think many things can be gamified. Thinking back after reading this, Waze does this. During navigation it places random collectibles on the road, you get points for obtaining this and can unlock different things like a new icon for your car, or different voices for navigation. I’m not sure if it still works this way, but it did at some point in time.

    I think a big risk of gamification as many people have already pointed out. Alot of times, life won’t reward you with points or whatever for doing certain things. In real life scenarios, the regards are mostly self gratification. At least for me I find this to be the case. I could see people losing motivation to do anything if certain things weren’t gamified, but that’s a very extremely scenario where it’s just part of everything.

    You ever watch Black Mirror? They have a couple shows that tread on things like this happening in the future as technology keeps evolving. Pretty trippy stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever used Waze, but that’s an interesting mechanic. I’m surprised it hasn’t caused accidents, honestly…

      You’re right that gamification does have some pitfalls. I tried to address some of them in Part II, but you’re right that people could become dependent on it.

      I don’t watch Black Mirror, but the thought of gamification, technology, and marketing in the future is a pretty terrifying one.

      Liked by 1 person

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