Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps by Gabe Zichermann, PDF, EPUB, 1449397670

Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps by Gabe Zichermann

  • Print Length: 182 Pages
  • Publisher: O’Reilly Media
  • Publication Date: August 22, 2011
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1449397670
  • ISBN-13: 978-1449397678
  • File Format: PDF, EPUB




Gamification may be a new term, but the idea of using game-thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences isn’t exactly new. The military has been using games and simulations for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and the U.S. military has been a pioneer in the use of video games across branches. Three hundred years ago, Scottish philosopher David Hume laid the groundwork for understanding player motivation with his views on the primacy of the irrational self. Since the 1960s, authors have been writing books that explore the “gamey” side of life and psychology, while since at least the 1980s, Hollywood has been hot on the trail of gamification with movies like War Games.

And behind all this is our general love affair with games themselves. Play and games are enshrined in our cultural record, emerging with civilizations, always intertwined. We are also now coming to understand that we are hardwired to play, with researchers increasingly discovering the complex relationships between our brains, neural systems, and game play (hint: play and games help you get smarter, faster). There’s even an emerging scientific idea that games can help you live longer by staving off dementia and improving general health.

Therefore, seeing business and product designers embrace the concept of gamification should come as no surprise. As our society becomes more and more game-obsessed, much of the conventional wisdom about how to design products and market to consumers is no longer absolute. To further engage our audiences, we need to consider reward structures, positive reinforcement, and subtle feedback loops alongside mechanics like points, badges, levels, challenges, and leaderboards.

When done well, gamification helps align our interests with the intrinsic motivations of our players, amplified with the mechanics and rewards that make them come in, bring friends, and keep coming back. Only by carefully unpacking consumer emotions and desires can we design something that really sticks—and only through the power of gamification can we make that experience predictable, repeatable, and financially rewarding.

We wrote this book to help demystify some of the core concepts of game design as they apply to business, written from the perspective of what a marketer, product designer, product manager, or strategist would want to know. In that regard, we are indebted to the work of notable game designers who helped clarify and amplify the process of game design, making it into a quantifiable art and science. We have leveraged their work and refined the concepts to focus on those elements that are most relevant to business. We extracted good and bad patterns from both famous and lesser-known case studies, and we tested our concepts on countless (valiant) real-world customers to arrive at the set of demonstrable, high-impact ideas presented in this book.

When used together with the Gamification Master Class (also available from O’Reilly, at and the supplemental videos, exercises, challenges, and resources available at, this book becomes even more powerful. You can take a concept for gamifying your product, service, or idea and bring it to fruition using the techniques we describe. Gamification by Design takes a unique approach to this exciting, fast-moving, and powerful trend, and makes it practical. We hope you’ll find it as useful as we enjoyed writing it.


We want to recognize the game-design writing and work of key thinkers, including Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (Morgan Kaufmann), Jon Radoff’s Game On (Wiley), and Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design (Paraglyph Press). We are also lucky to have been able to access and distill the insights of Sebastian Deterding, Susan Bonds, Jane McGonigal, Amy Jo Kim, Ian Bogost, Nick Fortugno, Nicole Lazzaro, Rajat Paharia, Kris Duggan, Keith Smith, and Tim Chang. And a special thanks to the folks at Badgeville who sponsored Chapter 8, providing insight into their groundbreaking product, as well as practical coding and design tips that can be used in any implementation.

We’d also like to recognize the efforts of Jeff Lopez, Danyell Thillet, and Joselin Linder, who each contributed in their own way by helping us research, refine, and produce this work. And, of course, to the O’Reilly Media team, including Mary Treseler, Sara Peyton, Kirk Walter, Keith (Steve) Thompson, and Betsy Waliszewski.

Gabe would like to thank his mother, father, (not-evil) stepdad, sister, and brother (why say in-law?), without whose support none of this would have been possible. Also, thanks to Veronica Cseke and the Fraizingers (Mary, Izzy, Rochelle, Shoshanna, and Elliot)—proof that family need not always be related by blood. And extra special thanks to Jason Evege, one of the most driven and inspirational people he’s ever met.

Christopher would like to thank his family, especially his mother and father, for their limitless patience and encouragement of a child who would never stop asking questions—and then debating the answers. And special thanks to Pablo López Yáñez, for always supporting and encouraging an adult who hasn’t changed all that much.

—New York City, 2011


Summer. At dusk, children run between trees and fireflies, shouting through laughter and squealing, “You’re it!”

Math class is ending. A cheer erupts as the teacher tells her students to put their books away. She splits the class into teams. In twos, they approach the chalkboard and face off for the love of numbers and grade-school honor.

It’s Saturday night. A roomful of suburban mothers are playing Mahjong. As the tiles click and scores get recorded, they laugh, complain, and bond.

It is no wonder that the simple idea of a game can induce some of life’s strongest and most satisfying memories. After childhood, games were relegated to the fringes of our lives—the downtime, the fun between the drudgery of work, the opposite of real life.

But the tides are turning. Games have begun to influence our lives every day. They affect everything from how we vacation to how we train for marathons, learn a new language, and manage our finances. What we once called “play” at the periphery of our lives is quickly becoming the way we interact. Games are the future of work, fun is the new “responsible,” and the movement that is leading the way is gamification.


Bandied about as the marketing buzzword of our time, gamification can mean different things to different people. Some view it as making games explicitly to advertise products or services. Others think of it as creating 3D virtual worlds that drive behavioral change or provide a method for training users in complex systems.

They are all correct. Gamification brings together all the disparate threads that have been advanced in games for nongaming contexts. In this way, we unite concepts such as serious games, advergaming, and games-for-change into a cohesive world-view that’s informed by the latest research into behavioral psychology and the success of social games.

For our purposes we will define the term gamification as follows:

The process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems.

This framework for understanding gamification is both powerful and flexible—it can readily be applied to any problem that can be solved through influencing human motivation and behavior.

Take broccoli consumption. There are a lot of children in the world that consider broccoli to be a real problem. In fact, 70% of us have a gene that makes it taste bitter. This genetic adaptation (found on gene Htas2r38) is likely linked to the fact that cruciferous vegetables (which include broccoli and cabbage, among others) historically blocked the uptake of iodine to the thyroid. Thus, in environments with low amounts of natural iodine, our perception of bitterness in these vegetables actually once protected us.

It took about 10,000 years to domesticate these vegetables so they became safe to eat. However, statistics show that it takes the average child 12 years to go from hating broccoli to loving it. And research shows that if you possess the Htas2r38 gene, you still perceive the bitterness—even into adulthood. So what has changed? Certainly not the broccoli-eating taste buds. Yet something is different, and that difference lies in perception. The palate changes, and bitter is no longer bad.

But what if we wanted to change kids’ minds about eating broccoli in fewer than a dozen years? We could certainly force them to eat the vegetable, but they would be likely to strongly dislike or rebel against the order. We could try to convince them to like it using facts, reasoning against their taste buds, or with social proof—“Mikey likes it”—but these methods are unreliable.

The two workable approaches—used by parents for generations—are to make a game out of it (e.g., the “airplane” landing) or to slather the broccoli with cheese sauce. Approach #1 tends to stop working after a while—there are only so many airplanes a child will consent to land. And approach #2 tends to produce a love of cheese sauce, and outweighs the health benefits of getting the kid to eat broccoli in the first place.

The obvious solution is to combine the two ideas. Make eating the broccoli both more fun (with a little game) and more rewarding (with a little cheese sauce, or dessert afterwards). The interplay among challenge, achievement, and reward not only allows you to train children to eat their broccoli, but it releases dopamine in the brain, intrinsically reinforcing the action as biologically positive.

In other words, by turning the experience into a game—including some reward for achievement—we can produce unprecedented behavior change. And when we amplify this loop with social proof and feedback, the sky’s the limit for viral growth. Heck, your kids might even show their friends how to turn broccoli into dopamine and chocolate cake (for dessert, and only after they eat their veggies) if you’re lucky…and good.

Or, consider a surprisingly similar but business-related challenge: professional service marketplaces. There are numerous online sites—including major sites like oDesk ( and specialized ones like Behance (—that help marketers connect with skilled developers, and where competition for customers and the best practitioners can be fierce. Once the novelty of marketplaces wears off, how do the respective parties decide to choose one over the other? How do the markets ensure loyalty and engagement among their fickle and price-conscious users?

One such marketplace, DevHub (, thinks it’s found the answer: gamification. By deploying some of the basic tenets of the discipline—and with the judicious use of game mechanics such as points, badges, levels, challenges, and rewards—DevHub has quickly differentiated itself as a market leader. The company has raised various engagement metrics, such as time on site, by as much as 20% over pregamified levels. With a clear emphasis on making things more fun and rewarding, DevHub has broken the dour cycle of quoting, bidding, coding, and follow-up necessary to run a successful web project.

Make no mistake, the core work is unchanged, and nothing has fundamentally shifted in the mechanics of designing a website. Only the perceptions of DevHub’s users have been altered—for the better. Understanding our potential to experience the same things in two ways is the first step to understanding the power of gamification.


The term “engagement,” in a business sense, indicates the connection between a consumer and a product or service. Unsurprisingly, the term is also used to name the period in a romantic couple’s relationship during which they are preparing and planning to spend the rest of their lives together. Engagement is the period of time at which we have a great deal of connection with a person, place, thing, or idea.

There is no single metric on the Web or in mobile technology that breaks down or sufficiently measures engagement. Page views and unique viewers don’t quite answer the question of who is engaging with our products, services, ideas, websites, and businesses as a whole.

We would be better off thinking of engagement as being comprised of a series of potentially interrelated metrics that combine to form a whole. These metrics are:






Collectively, they can be amalgamated as an “E” (or engagement) score. The relative proportion, or importance, of each of these metrics will vary depending on the type of business you are in. For example, a café might care more about frequency and recency, but less about duration; whereas a dating site may live or die by the duration of each interaction. See Figure 1 for an image of this concept.

The importance of E is obvious given the current prevailing theory. What is being proved as we move toward a more peer-to-peer, viral, and social marketing environment is that traditional brand marketing isn’t working anymore.

Rather than the antiquated idea of pushing consumers to “buy more!”, engaging users in order to generate revenue is the marketing model of the future. Simply put, engagement does not follow revenue. Instead, behind engagement, revenue follows.

Figure 1. Some sample E proportions that might be appropriate in the contexts of a café, a dating site, and e-commerce.

This is clearly demonstrated in the model of hugely successful social game companies such as Zynga. One of their key innovations in the field of marketing is that Zynga views customers in terms of a funnel, with a large potential target population at the top. Those users are generally not paying to interact with a product, service, or brand, but as they progress down the funnel, users are self-selected based on engagement. Their corresponding spending and commitment to the experience increase in tandem. In this model, the most loyal customers pay the most, while the average (or novice user) is being slowly drawn into the ecosystem. It is a reversal of the classic customer acquisition and loyalty model, and a very powerful view.

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Did you know that in a typical social game, more than 90% of the users don’t pay anything at all? The remaining group may pay thousands of dollars per month to play, based on their level of engagement. But no matter which group you’re in, the social game designer considers you a player.

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The word most frequently used to describe engagement, particularly in a marketing context, is loyalty. In fact, to a great extent, engagement and loyalty are synonymous. However, when you hear the word “loyalty,” it conjures up several meanings. One meaning is the type of loyalty that a dog feels toward his master—an unfailing obedience that allows the dog’s owner to do no wrong in the eyes of the pet. However, blind acquiescence is not the kind of loyalty we’re interested in developing throughout this book, and is a fool’s errand in most business contexts. With few exceptions, we cannot and likely should not attempt to get absolute fealty from our users.

What we will look at is a form of loyalty that gets users to make incremental choices in your favor when all things are mostly equal. When products, price, or place are grossly unequal, gamification—and the loyalty it engenders—is much less meaningful. But when you have great product-market fit, gamification can provide a powerful accelerant to your efforts.

As with broccoli and children, if given enough time and incentive, we can overcome our natural programming. Not to put too fine a point on it, but why wait?

What Gamification Isn’t

As we begin our journey into what gamification can do, we also need to be clear about what it cannot do. At least in the scope of this book, gamification is not merely about slapping some badges on your website; you need to take a more thoughtful approach, as advocated here. Also, if you expect gamification to fix your business’ core problems—bad products or poor product-market fit—it will not.

Moreover, this book will not help you build a world where your consumer’s avatar is chasing gremlins with an AK-47 in order to save the spaghetti sauce your company is trying to sell in outer space. It will also not teach you how to build a Facebook game where users match colored jewels to get discounts on insurance. While these may be viable options for some businesses (in 2003), we posit they are not really the best techniques for building long-term engagement or loyalty. Simply put, building actual games-with-a-capital-G is not this book’s purpose.

Instead, we will share an understanding of the design process used by some of the world’s biggest brands and hottest startups to gamify their customer interactions. We’ll start by looking at what drives users to play and the core psychology that makes games so compelling. We’ll separate the wheat from the chaff within the social and video game design rubric, and share what’s relevant from the discipline with you, the builder. And finally, we’ll show you—in concrete terms—how to architect and implement various core elements of gamification on the Web and mobile platforms, including some practical implementation concepts from one of the world’s leading gamification technology pioneers.

Our objective is to give you the tools, techniques, and process-thinking you’ll need to design gamification into your unique experience. It’s not unlike learning how to bake—and a cake metaphor is apt considering the dialogue about gamification today. While we can spread gamified “icing” on your product or service with relative ease, unless the underlying cake is also delicious, most users won’t want to take a second bite. Exactly the way a great baker creates treats through the interplay of structure and sweetness, so too must a well-designed gamified site marry substance with reward.

To achieve this, we will explore how—with a keen understanding of your customer—baking gamification into your business can produce the ideal product. Through the basics of gamification, player motivation, game mechanics, and their implementation, you will be handed the recipe that will take your business from everyday to gamified. We’re going to make something absolutely irresistible.

Put on your apron, and hold on to your toque. Gamification is about to change everything.

Chapter 1. Foundations

As we mentioned in the Introduction, game mechanics cannot solve fundamental business problems. It will not rebuild poor infrastructure, nor will it heal disastrous customer service. And unless your actual business purpose is making games, it is unlikely that the result of gamification will give your product the full viral power of Zynga’s Facebook games, such as FarmVille and CityVille.

As you arrive at the concept of gamification, you might bring with you even more preconceived ideas. For example, perhaps you believe that location-based services like Foursquare serve no real purpose beyond their game elements. Simply put, Foursquare allows players to “check in” at locations using mobile devices, and in doing so the player can earn badges, signal their location to friends, and keep track of where they’ve been. If someone checks in at a location more than any other player, he is deemed “mayor” of the establishment and is recognized as such by fellow players, the business, and the game itself. But as we delve into this sweeping phenomenon, it will be clear that there is more on the line than badges and mayorships—the desire to be connected drives the player’s location-based journey.

To some extent, it is the sheer simplicity of Foursquare and similar games that have made them successful. Gamification can fix large-scale, complex problems, but that doesn’t mean its application needs to be large-scale and complex. Gamification that is simple, rewarding, and fun can be equally or more effective. And in focusing on game mechanics that meet these criteria, you will be amazed by how much can be accomplished.

Finally, for the purposes of this book, we are going to try and refrain from using the terms “customer” or “user,” and instead use the word “player” from this point forward. By thinking of our clients as players, we shift our frame of mind toward their engagement with our products and services. Rather than looking at the immediacy of a single financial transaction, we are considering a long-term and symbiotic union wrapped in a ribbon of fun.

The Fun Quotient

Let’s start here: everything has the potential to be fun.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “No way. How about going to the dentist? Going to the dentist isn’t fun!”

Or maybe your first thought is, “Waiting in line is boring. Waiting in a line is the opposite of fun.”

We’re sure you can think of an endless array of things in life that are just not fun. Surgery, for example, or changing a baby’s dirty diaper, or clipping someone else’s toenails. However, some of the most popular games of the past five years have used incredibly banal ideas as their thematic hooks. In fact, four of the most popular games in the past decade include such thrilling activities as planting crops (FarmVille), waiting tables (Diner Dash), diapering a baby (Diaper Dash), and doing other people’s hair and nails (Sally’s Salon).

Another highly rated online game has its players perform one of the most stressful jobs in our society (which boasts one of the highest career-related suicide rates in the entire world): air traffic control. In the blockbuster game Flight Control (see Figure 1-1), players are expected to guide airplanes safely to a runway without killing any of the hundreds of passengers onboard.

Figure 1-1. Flight Control is an immensely popular iOS game that puts you in the shoes of an air traffic controller—a high-stress job. Why is this concept fun?

So, why did these brazen game designers pitch games based on banal activities to a room full of executives? And why didn’t every single one of them get laughed out of the building? The answer is simple: it is the mechanics of a game—not the theme—that make it fun.

At any casino in the world, a player is overwhelmed by myriad slot machines. From Wheel of Fortune to Harley-Davidson, slot machine branding is as outwardly different as a juicy steak is to a bunch of organic carrots. But the machines are not different. In fact, other than the logo, those machines are almost identical mechanically: push the button, pull the arm, and let the cherries align to win. With all due respect to Wheel of Fortune, it is not the game show’s logo that keeps players at those machines—it’s the underlying mechanics.

This does not mean that the brand is an unimportant feature. In fact, it is the way we dress the game mechanics that attracts most people to pull that lever in the first place. While some might think that nearly killing hundreds of imaginary passengers in an air traffic control-related incident is as exciting as it gets, others will be drawn in by the muscled heroes of a Harlequin romance novel. Although the underlying game mechanics hook the player, what brought each of them into the experience was different—and more than likely made to pique a particular interest.

Fun Is Job #1

In the past 20 years, there have been no major blockbusters in educational software/games—the field otherwise known as edutainment. Software focused on children, the demographic with the biggest claims on fun, are not getting it where they arguably need it most—in learning. Does this mean that it’s impossible to educate by having fun? Is school forever consigned to be boring?

The famous geography game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (see Figure 1-2) was the last blockbuster hit in educational games. It was inarguably a tremendously fun way to learn about country and province capitals, as well as the major exports and waterways of places far removed from the classroom. Since then, thousands of educational software companies have attempted and failed to create another sensation.

Figure 1-2. “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” is among the best-selling educational games of all time, and was popular among teachers, parents, and students alike.

So, where in the world is the next big hit? Games aligning entertainment and education like Civilization and SimCity have taught millions of people history lessons and the basics of urban planning. These are not pedagogical games. They weren’t designed to be educational. But they use history and real city schema as a backdrop to explain ideas; thus, education becomes a byproduct of fun.

This is precisely the opposite of what has happened to educational software. In fact, once teachers and parents got involved, they systematically extracted the fun from the game. Kids could smell that shift from fun to work a mile away. And Carmen Sandiego’s position as the last megahit of edutainment is mostly a reflection of this simple fact: it was the last time parents, teachers, and children agreed on a video game. (To be fair, some companies have had limited success building educational games in specific verticals.)

So, can children learn from games? Absolutely. Research by Dr. Arne May at Germany’s University of Regensburg clearly showed that learning a new task produces a demonstrable increase in the brain’s gray matter in mere weeks. And brain scientists the world over agree that games’ challenge-achievement-reward loop promotes the production of dopamine in the brain, reinforcing our desire to play.

The real question then, is: will children learn from a game if it is not fun? Judging by the state of the educational software industry, they will not. In other words, if you start with the education and put fun second, learning doesn’t seem to work the same way—or as effectively.

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Want to learn more about the state of educational games? Meet inspirational teachers—like Ananth Pai, shown in Figure 1-3—and see how they’re using games and gamification to change behavior. Visit to get exclusive videos and exercises, and to interact with the experts.

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Figure 1-3. Ananth Pai is a pioneer in gamifying education. Visit to see videos and get more information about Mr. Pai and his work.

The Evolution of Loyalty

Loyalty, as we’ve already mentioned, will be defined for our purposes as encouraging an incremental choice in your favor when all things are mostly equal. Loyalty and consumerism share a long and varied history. While there are likely ancient examples of loyalty programs in one form or another, we will begin with loyalty programs in America.

With the growth of urban centers in the 19th century, markets and local merchants began to thrive. People arriving in town to buy their weekly supplies were often plied by one seller or another to buy, for example, 10 pounds of sugar and get their next pound free. Thus a 10:1 ratio came to form the basic structure of loyalty programs. In fact, it is such a canonical example that 95% of all loyalty programs today remain “buy 10 get 1 free.” Figure 1-4 shows a slight variation offered at Café Nero.

Figure 1-4. Café Nero’s novel approach is to offer buy nine, get one free.

The problem with this model is that it gives things away for free to the people most likely to pay you regardless. Social game designers do not abide by this fundamental flaw. While there is nothing wrong with offering a reward or thanks to your most loyal players, their purchasing habits might not be negatively affected without the freebie. However, new or novice customers certainly will be affected. Over time, an excessive dependence on “free stuff” or discounts habituates players to constantly expect that as a condition of purchase.

The 10:1 model remained the standard until the 1930s when S&H Green Stamps was launched. S&H’s program allowed participating merchants to reward players with stamps when those players made specific purchases. Those stamps, shown in Figure 1-5, were then collected in a book. Once filled, those books could be redeemed for free stuff from a catalog or at an S&H Green Stamp store (at various rates, depending on the desired product).

Figure 1-5. S&H Green Stamps brought a “virtual currency” to retail in the 1930s.

What S&H understood was that with the introduction of a virtual currency, people lose track of value. They can no longer identify how much those individual stamps are worth. While “buy 10 pounds of sugar, get 1 free” precisely values that free pound of sugar, with the advent of Green Stamps, valuation became vague. Buying a shirt earns you 16 Green Stamps, and pants are worth 20. A transistor radio is valued at 60, but a trip to Hawaii is 6,420. How much is that stamp worth, again?

While consumers had little concept of value exchange, S&H knew exactly how much those stamps were worth at any time. Thus, the first virtual currency was created.

Loyalty programs continued in a similar fashion until 1981. First, American Airlines introduced AAdvantage, followed in short order by United’s Mileage Plus and TWA’s Aviator. With the development of the frequent-flyer program, businesses discovered that loyalty is less about free stuff than it is about status. If you’ve ever tried to redeem miles for a summertime vacation in Europe, you understand immediately that the free flights are not the core of the system’s value proposition.

In fact, people are quick to make the connection that joining one of these programs means standing in a shorter line for just about everything. They also understand that players get more upgrades, faster phone and Internet customer help, and better overall service. None of these things costs the business much, but each one powerfully drives brand loyalty among their players. Figure 1-6 displays such loyalty programs across a range of products, from airlines to rental car companies to grocery stores.

Figure 1-6. Airline loyalty programs, launched in the 1980s, shifted the focus to status.

Frequent-flyer programs remained the best loyalty program model until recently, when virtual rewards systems began popping up online and on mobile devices. A game such as FarmVille doesn’t even pretend to offer real-world prizes. There are no faster lines, no five books of stamps for a model airplane, no free bags of sugar. In fact, the notion of redemption of any kind has been dropped completely. No redemption. Not a pin, not a cup of coffee. Nothing. The cost of producing customer loyalty has dropped precipitously. It used to be 10 cents on the dollar—buy 10 get 1 free. Now, for applications like FarmVille or Foursquare, costs are nearly zero.

At the same time, the value of status is rising. In the old days (pre-2008) if a person preferred Cuisinart over KitchenAid, for example, how was that bias expressed? How did she get her friends to understand this loyalty choice? First, her friends needed to be standing in the kitchen near the product itself. Then, a conversation would have to introduce the subject. This process was called word of mouth marketing.

In short, the message of the word of mouth marketing industry was: build a great product and consumers will talk about it. There was no process, and word of mouth marketing was a hit-driven business.

Alternatively, a company like Zynga has a very good idea of how their word of mouth marketing works, because it’s part of the phenomenon of social networking. On Twitter and Facebook, players of FarmVille constantly express their loyalty by posting about the game, inviting other people, and working to improve their play experience through baked-in social rewards. If your product is not in this social media “loyalty stream,” it is not part of the discussion. Loyalty is no longer private. It is no longer a matter of standing in a kitchen next to your favorite mixer. It is public, and millions are viewing it.

Status at the Wheel

In the fourth season of the show Deal or No Deal, a young woman finally won the coveted million-dollar prize by randomly selecting the suitcase in which it was contained. If asked, you probably couldn’t think of her name—even though it took four seasons of the popular game show for someone to get that win.

Another reality-show contest winner has a decidedly more familiar name. Christian Siriano is a fashion designer and the winner of the fourth cycle of the Heidi Klum–hosted series, Project Runway. If you don’t know his name, perhaps you know his catchphrase—when displeased with something, Siriano refers to it as “a hot mess,” a phrase that has since entered the American vernacular.

Whereas the million-dollar winner of Deal or No Deal came and went as quickly as a buxom blond opened the suitcase, Christian Siriano’s name has remained. What was his prize? $100,000. With his winnings he can’t afford to start a fashion line in New York City, Paris, or London. Let’s be honest, he can’t even afford more than a few items of high-end clothing for that amount of money.

Similarly, the winners of Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Chopped all compete for negligible prizes: a Chopped champion brings in a mere $10,000, and Hell’s Kitchen winners get a job as their prize where, ostensibly, they will need to continue working for Gordon Ramsay (that’s some prize!). So, what are these players really competing for? It is unlikely they are taking themselves away from their families and undergoing rigorous competition over the course of months in order to win a little money and some steak knives. What is their motivation? What did Christian Siriano get when the camera’s turned off?

After the show, Siriano went on to design a 15-piece collection for Puma, develop a make-up line for Victoria’s Secret, and write a book. While his stint on Project Runway did not win him riches, it granted him fame, recognition, and status in spades.

If you don’t have a ton of cash to give away as an incentive (who does?), status is an excellent alternative. It is a great driver of loyalty, not to mention a player’s fiscal behavior (and, over time, you can bet it is a whole lot cheaper). A gamified program with a status benefit needs far fewer monetary, physical, or even real-world-redeemable rewards. Status is, as American Airlines understood in 1981—and most of us clearly grok today—an extremely powerful reward. But is it everything?


SAPS is an acronym that stands for status, access, power, and stuff. Simply put, it is a system of rewards. Conveniently, it lists each potential prize in order from the most to the least desired, the most sticky to the least sticky, and the cheapest to the most expensive.


Status is the relative position of an individual in relation to others, especially in a social group. Status benefits and rewards give players the ability to move ahead of others in a defined ranking system. Importantly, this ranking system need not be based on the real world at all—it works perfectly in a purely constructed environment. Some examples of status items include badges and leaderboards. Although we talk about them in greater detail in future chapters, here is a brief introduction to these two core mechanics that affect and measure status:


Badges are a known status item. They can be given out virtually or physically. However, they must be visible to other players in the game; otherwise, their meaning and valuation is limited.

Levels and leaderboards

Levels and leaderboards are another way to indicate that a player has more or less status or achievement in a given game; they can be a powerful tool in your quest for engagement.


Gilt Groupe ( is a social website geared toward flash sales of high-end fashion. The top 1% of Gilt players receive a scented candle and card in the mail as part of their induction into Gilt’s top-tier loyalty program, Gilt Noir. Other than this package shown in Figure 1-7 (with a retail value of less than $30), these top players’ prize is a 15-minute head start for all sales. For Gilt, the prize doesn’t cost a thing. But to the player, that extra time to pull in the best bargains is exceptionally meaningful, because supplies in each sale are limited.

Figure 1-7. Gilt Noir gives top buyers 15 minutes of early access in online flash sales, as well as this lovely welcome package.

Consider how seemingly revolutionary this is in the context of most loyalty programs. Instead of offering top customers discounts or giveaways, Gilt Noir members are given early access. This is a process-driven version of the informal programs long at work at high-end fashion houses like Bottega Veneta or Gucci, where top buyers and celebrities get first dibs on cool new products.

Other ways to provide access as a reward to your players can include lunch with a CEO, priority or VIP seating, or the earliest possible appointments.


Awarding power to your players offers a modicum of control over other players in the game. For example, a good player might be asked to serve as a moderator on a forum.

Not only will players work for you for free, power benefits to them are huge. Most forums, as well as World of Warcraft, successfully offer positions of power for which their players vie on a daily basis.


While this list indicates that “stuff” is the least important reward or prize, we are not against freebies. If you have great items to give away, and if players are expecting to receive free items, stuff can be a strong incentive.

Once the item has been given away, however, the incentive to play is finished. In other words, stuff is only good until it is redeemed, which is the exact length of time your players will engage in the game.

Of course, some might argue that they’d rather get, for example, a free ice cream than be badged “Ice Cream King,” and, off the cuff, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. However, it is important to remember that, “off the cuff,” no one is yet in the game. Once he is, the value of becoming an “Ice Cream King” might mean that he has reached a new level in game play that allows him to enter a contest to create a new ice cream flavor. Or, maybe it will allow him to skip to the front of the line every time he comes in to buy an ice cream cone.

It’s always the depth of meaning of the game that matters, not the monetary value of the prize. Remember, no matter what that tangible prize is, you need to disclose its value (or be sure the value is inherently known to your most loyal customers). As a result, players tend to value the interaction accurately. To illustrate this point, say that a regular coffee drinker just earned her 11th latte for free. After buying 10 lattes for $2.50 each, she knows what the 11th is worth.

How do players value status, access, power, and stuff? They cannot accurately price those benefits, so—in general—they tend to overvalue them. For example, when assessing the importance of not having to wait in line, most people overvalue their time saved. Similarly, they don’t know how to quantify the six minutes they got to meet and chat with Lady Gaga backstage after winning a call-in contest. But the gamification designer understands these values, and the price is almost always cheaper—and the reward stickier—than giving away free stuff.

The House Always Wins

That truism underlies the last basic lesson of games in the real world: no matter what the player thinks, the house will always win a well-designed game. Just as any honest casino manager will tell you, while the illusion of winning is vital to motivating use and play, actually winning is much harder than it seems.

Broadly speaking, this has implications not only for players, but also for those of us charged with building and designing great user experiences. As markets gamify and consumer demand for fun, engaging, and creative experiences increases, you have a fundamental choice: either be the house, or get played.

Trust us, you want to be the former.

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Want to dive deeper into understanding the foundations of gamification? Access exclusive videos, exercises, and discussions at today.

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Chapter 2. Player Motivation

The player is at the root of gamification. In any system, the player’s motivation ultimately drives the outcome. Therefore, understanding player motivation is paramount to building a successfully gamified system.

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Let’s Play a Game

Quick: grab a piece of paper or open a text document. Write down the three most fun things you did in the last two weeks. There are no right or wrong answers. Set your list aside until you’ve read this chapter. Then, revisit the list and ask yourself, “How similar am I to my canonical player?” Visit for more exercises and supplementary materials to go along with this book.

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We already know that games are generally good motivators. By focusing on three central components—pleasure, rewards, and time—games have become one of the most powerful forces in all of humanity. Uniquely, games are able to get people to take actions that they don’t always know they want to take, without the use of force, in a predictable way.

Powerful Human Motivators

From Greek mythology to daytime soaps, it is clear that sex—or the drive to have it—will make a person do almost anything. Paris’ abduction of the lovely Helen of Troy led King Menelaus to begin the Trojan War. So, like games, sex has the unusual ability to make people do things that are not necessarily in their best long-term interest. However, unlike games, sexual attraction is hard to predict and control, making it a less useful tool in engagement.

Similarly, violence can yield unparalleled coercive results. Putting a gun to a person’s head will likely get him to accomplish any task you request. However, chances are he won’t enjoy a second of it, and he certainly won’t come back for more. The force fallacy—that punishment can accomplish great results—is a powerful, flawed belief.

Games, however, hit the sweet spot. They marry the desire-drive of sex with the predictability of duress—except without force and, when successful, driven entirely by enjoyment. This pattern is also why games have a dark side: people addicted to slot machines can look as though they haven’t seen the sun in months, and World of Warcraft players are sometimes accused of neglecting their real-life duties for the sake of a virtual reality. But there is also a bright side to games, in that they are improving people’s health, the way they learn, and the way they live.

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The Force Fallacy and Gamification: Speed Camera Lottery

Speed cameras throughout the world are designed to quickly photograph speeders and send them a ticket in the mail along with the evidence of their crime. In many Nordic countries, penalties are based on the speeder’s income, not the speed she was traveling at the time she was caught.

Against this backdrop, and as part of a competition called The Fun Theory, San Francisco-based game designer Kevin Richardson designed Speed Camera Lottery (see Figure 2-1). The concept is simple: instead of just issuing outsized penalties to speeders, photograph every car that passes the checkpoint, and those observing the limit are entered into a prize drawing to win the fines of the speeders. The modified camera gave instant positive feedback in the form of a thumbs up.

The effect was immediate—speed dropped at the checkpoint by an average of 20%, and consumers thought the idea was fantastic. This is a great example of game-thinking at work: turning a negative loop into a positive one for the greater good.

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At the heart of the success of games is an idea called flow. Our understanding of flow is derived from the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor who is noted for his studies of happiness and creativity. Achieving flow—or being “in the zone”—indicates a player’s state between anxiety and boredom, meeting his own motivational level in that experience.

When a jazz musician is playing her saxophone, or a runner is training for a race, she exists in a state of suspended animation. She is calm and focused. A writer, mid-stream in narrative, forgets the outside world for a moment. It is safe to suggest that almost everyone has had that experience of losing track of time and space while playing a game, cooking, working out, cleaning the house, or talking on the telephone.

Figure 2-1. Speed Camera Lottery turned speeding tickets into lottery tickets for drivers who obeyed the speed limit, reducing speeding and improving driver satisfaction.

Meanwhile, game designers are obsessed with creating this state. They are always looking for ways for the player to be at one with the game. It is a constant quest to bring someone within the system only to guide him, seamlessly, into the highly prized state of flow. But how?

The designer must create a careful interplay of system and player, relentlessly testing those interactions to find that point between anxiety and boredom, as depicted in Figure 2-2. There is a broad spectrum of psychological phenomena that becomes important in this process of guiding a player to master a system. One such phenomenon is reinforcement.

Figure 2-2. The state of flow is achieved when a player is placed between anxiety and boredom over a period of time.


Reinforcement studies how we convert an expected reward into player action by varying the quantity and delivery schedule of that reward. Pioneered by researchers like Pavlov and B. F. Skinner, and extended into human studies, understanding the power of reinforcement is key to structuring the right reward systems.

If a mammal such as a lab rat is given a pellet of food once an hour, during the 59 minutes between receiving each pellet, the animal will invariably go off and do something else in its cage. Only at the 60th minute will it come back to get the dispensed pellet.

This structure is similar in form to many Industrial Era jobs. A worker gets a paycheck every two weeks. What happens in the interval between paychecks is completely aligned with that end result. In other words, the worker will only do exactly what is required of her during the days in between to ensure that she will get her biweekly direct deposit. No more, no less. This is called fixed-interval reinforcement. Not surprisingly, fixed-interval reinforcement schedules tend to yield low levels of engagement.

On the other end of the spectrum is variable ratio, variable schedule reinforcement. In this model, the lab rat doesn’t know how big the reward will be or when it will happen, but it knows that at some point it will come. Therefore, that rat will press the dispensing pedal in its cage endlessly until it gets its reward. It is exactly the model used in slot machine gaming, as well as for almost every other archetypal gambling model. Another name for this behavior modifier is operant conditioning, and it is undeniably addictive to mammals. As illustrated in Figure 2-3, higher responses equal more engagement behaviors.

Figure 2-3. Different kinds of reward schedules produce different levels of behavioral reinforcement in mammals.

While operant-conditioning experiences can be dangerous and unappealing to many, using them judiciously within a broader game-like experience is a powerful force for driving player behavior. In practice, you should plan to include some amount of slot-style rewards in your experience, regardless of the context. The key is to not overuse their power.

But unlike rats in a cage, most humans are not required to play, let alone play with real engagement. So, what drives us to play in the first place?

Why People Play

A good working theory for why people are motivated to play games maintains that there are four underlying reasons, which can be viewed together or separately as individual motivators:

For mastery

To destress

To have fun

To socialize

In a 2004 paper entitled “Why We Play Games,” Nicole Lazzaro, an expert on player experience and emotions in games, outlined four different kinds of fun:

Hard fun

Where a player is trying to win some form of competition

Easy fun

Where a player is focused on exploring the system

Altered state fun

In which the game changes the way the player feels

Social fun

During which the player engages with other players

In 1964, the famous social science best seller, Games People Play (Grove Press) by Eric Berne, M.D., exposed a series of games organically cultivated through common social interaction. The book, which focused heavily on the social engagement of “housewives” (an arguably outdated construct to be sure, but en vogue for its time), managed to recognize some interesting insights about social game play. In one of the book’s most compelling examples, Berne talks about a game among the women whereby they go around and talk about the ways their husbands upset them: “He leaves his socks all over the place,” one bemoans. “He hates my cooking,” says another. “He forgets my birthday,” laments a third.

But what would happen if someone in that circle chose not to play the game? According to Berne’s research, if a fourth housewife says, “Actually, my husband is a good guy,” there is a decisive and chastising consequence to her action. The fourth housewife won’t get invited to the next party—plain and simple. The prize in this game is to win a follow-up invitation.

Berne leaves us with an emerging understanding of the social games that exist organically in the strata of our society. Even language indicates that we’ve been aware of these “hidden” games for some time: a person is called a “player” when he can get a lot of dates in the “dating game”; a government official “runs” for office in a “contest”; someone who is socially unsuccessful is labeled a “loser.”

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Exercise: Your Player’s Story

Write the story of the canonical player of your game. As you design your system, you will focus on this player and what might appeal to him. What is his story—from his demographic to his psychographics? Write in one paragraph who he is.

Example Players:

Susan is a 32-year-old fifth grade teacher who lives in an urban community. She is mostly able to live within her means with the help of a credit card and, occasionally, her parents. She enjoys going out to clubs and concerts. She cooks for her friends and hosts dinner parties whenever she can. She is very fashion-conscious and easily spends a quarter of her paycheck on clothing and beauty products. She is obsessed with Facebook.

Chris is a 22-year-old recent college graduate who lives with three roommates in a suburban city. He works at a local radio station as a paid intern, as well as part time at a bar and grill as a line cook. He is in a band and is definitely interested in girls, although he’d trade a date in a second to hang out with any of his “boys.” His favorite possession is easily his iPhone, although he would never admit it.

Ron is a 53-year-old salesman who listens to Rush Limbaugh or NPR—depending on who is telling the more entertaining story—during his many hours on the road. He also enjoys listening to jazz. He and his wife are planning to take a tour of Wine Country this fall. He is hardworking and motivated. He has two daughters who are doing well academically—one of whom is going to graduate high school at the end of the year. He worries about paying for college, although he’s been saving for it since his children were small.

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Player Types

The more you know about who is playing your game—both current and prospective players—the easier it is to design an experience that will drive their behavior in the desired way.

One rubric that can help you understand your players is to leverage the work accomplished by Richard Bartle in understanding player types. In his seminal work, developed by studying players of MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games), Bartle identified four types of players. Since then, the number has expanded from 4 to 8 to 16—however, the four types shown in Figure 2-4 remain arguably the stickiest, and therefore the most interesting for our purposes.

Figure 2-4. Bartle’s player types.


An explorer, in brief, likes to go out into the world in order to bring things back to his community and proclaim, “I discovered this thing!” In a sense, the experience is the objective. One example of a game suited to the explorer player type was Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System. A player had to play 100 games or more to find every hidden level behind every pipe and block, and bring that knowledge back to his peers for kudos.


People who like to achieve are an integral part of any competitive game. They drive a great deal of projects, services, and brands. The problem with designing exclusively for this player type is that it’s difficult to develop a system where everyone can win and achieve. And for achievers, losing at the game will likely cause them to lose interest in playing it.

Moreover, a common bias we’ve observed when working with clients to gamify their experiences is that the majority of system, site, and product designers are high-achieving people. So, you naturally infer that the majority of players are similarly inclined. This turns out not to be true at all. The majority are socializers.


This player type is made up of people who play games for the benefit of a social interaction. Games focused on socializers comprise some of the most enduring games throughout history—dominoes, bridge, mahjong, poker—the thread tying them together is that each is an extremely social experience. To be clear, it isn’t that socializers don’t care about the game or winning—they do. To them, the game is a backdrop for meaningful long-term social interactions. It’s the context and catalyst, not the end in itself.


Also known as griefers, killers make up the smallest population of all of the player types. However, they are important to understand. They are similar to achievers in their desire to win; unlike achievers, however, winning isn’t enough. They must win and someone else must lose. Moreover, killers really want as many people as possible to see the kill, and for their victims to express admiration/respect.

Bartle did not intend or develop these four player types to serve as a personality inventory. But with decades of game-thinking under our belts, it is easy to see how they can be useful when considering the players of gamified systems. And by placing the player types on an axis, we can see how they range from acting to interacting, and from people to environments.

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People are not exclusively one or another of the four player types. In fact, most people have some percentage of each. In all probability, a person’s dominant player type changes throughout her life—and even varies from game to game. But it is a compelling way, as a game designer, to see how people are motivated to play and interact in a gamified system.

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If you take Bartle’s test to figure out your player type, you will notice that, as we mentioned, they are mutually inclusive. In other words, a player can have characteristics of all four types at the same time. However, most people are not. For the average person, the breakdown might look something like this:

80% socializer

50% explorer

40% achiever

20% killer

If the scores were mutually exclusive, however, and a player could only be one type, we learn that the vast majority of people—as much as 75%—are probably socializers. In the context of the runaway success of games like FarmVille or poker, that statistic should not come as a particular surprise. Explorers and achievers each make up about 10% of the population, and killers account for 5%.

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We’re working with researchers at California State University, East Bay to turn Bartle’s test into a personality inventory. Help define how gamer personalities mimic our personalities in the “real world.” Visit and click on the Bartle Test link for more info and to determine your player type.

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By bringing together many of the understandings we’ve developed in this chapter, the underpinnings of the social game movement suddenly become more apparent.

Social Games

The video games that have informed so much of our game-thinking over the last few years are actually the exception and not the rule. From the beginning of the modern computer/video game industry in the early 1970s until the 2000s, most titles were single-player or “two people in a room” multiplayer. So the new “social games” movement, led by titles such as FarmVille—and including slightly older games like World of Warcraft—really resemble the broad arc of historical games, rather than a new concept in itself. In fact, nearly all of our games throughout history—with the obvious exception of solitaire—have required other people to play.

Most game developers and technical designers are unlikely to resemble the players for whom they are designing. Like you, they tend to be an achievement-oriented breed, more so than the average person. It’s a big bias to overcome when designing gamified systems. When they are thinking about game design, they are likely amassing points, seeking status, even killing to win. But they are not the average person.

The average person is looking to socialize—not win. Although achievements are nice to earn (and make players feel great), they are not the principal driver. If designers begin by thinking the game is about achievement, they will at some point realize they are excluding a big chunk of the audience. The average World of Warcraft player is as dependent on the guild (team) with which he fights his battles as he is on the battles themselves. Excusing himself from a family dinner to avoid letting down his team for a 7 p.m. raid is a far greater motivator than the raid itself. The raid could wait until after dinner. Most of society plays for the camaraderie and community of the game more than the actual win.

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The Power of Team Play and Social Pressure

NextJump is a high-growth marketing company with a fitness-oriented CEO named Charlie Kim. In an effort to get the staff more fit (and reduce absenteeism/health care expenditures), Kim had gyms put into every office, and devised a novel challenge—the top employees checking in to workouts at the gym would split a cash prize. About 12% of the staff began to work out as a result of this offer. Then, NextJump changed the design, introducing geographically-based team play and leaderboards that pit the NYC office against Boston, and so on. Top teams this time split a similarly sized pot. Soon after the change, nearly 70% of NextJump’s employees were working out regularly, mostly driven by each other to “not let the team down” and “beat the San Francisco office”, etc. The power of team play to motivate users is—when done right—unparalleled.

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Exercise: Rank Your Top Five Player Actions

You can download this and other exercises at

Before we can begin designing for engagement, we need to know what we want players to do—that is, what social actions we want them to take. This is best expressed in the form of social verbs. Rank the top five actions you most want your players to take. (You can also add your own actions, but be sure to use a verb form—but don’t use “buy” or “consume”.)















Show off










Considering an auction website, here’s an example ranking of your player’s actions:



Show off



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Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

Another aspect to understanding player motivations is by questioning where motivations come from. Broadly speaking, psychology has divided our motivations into two groups: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations are those that derive from our core self and are not necessarily based on the world around us. Conversely, extrinsic motivations are driven mostly by the world around us, such as the desire to make money or win a spelling bee.

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Exercise: Five Player Actions on Bartle’s Chart

Once you’ve ranked the five most important actions for your service, place them on Bartle’s player type chart. Where do the actions overlay on that chart? In the sample auction site we used in the previous sidebar, Exercise: Rank Your Top Five Player Actions, the list seems to focus on achievers/killers (compete, show off) and socializers (compare, rate), with a little bit in the explorers category (explore).

For an auction site, it makes sense that this is where most of the players fall. Collectors want to win the item. Sellers want to “win” as much money as possible. Especially in the last minute, an auction is very achievement/killer-oriented.

Take note if you don’t have any actions in the socializer quadrant. You are probably missing something about the experience, which is problematic because socializers are the most universal type. You may not always have a lot of players who fall in the killer quadrant, but you will always have socializers.

If you are running a site dedicated to music, perhaps your list of actions and where they fall on Bartle’s chart would be markedly different. You might find that more of your action points serve socializers and explorers, rather than achievers and killers. Music is an inherently social activity, but an explorer is drawn to the component of music that allows her to brag to her peers, “I discovered this musician.”

Hint: If while doing this exercise you aren’t developing a particular product or service, we suggest you imagine that you are creating for traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade or a site for music lovers to talk about their favorite artists. Either way, think about the kinds of interactions that work best for your target player.

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When it comes to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in a gamified or motivational design context, there are three schools of thought:

In Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive (Riverhead Trade), he attests that cash is a weak reward for getting players to complete complex tasks. The research he rounds up shows how an extrinsic motivator like cash doesn’t work when people are given lateral-thinking tasks. In other words, when cash is introduced as a motivator, people’s performance on creative or complex tasks drops. Thus, he contends that cash rewards are bad for incentivizing creative thought.

While we agree that cash is not always motivational and in some cases is actually demotivational, other extrinsic rewards can be astoundingly motivational for players. For example, long-term social status rewards can be particularly effective at nurturing creativity and play.

Dr. John Houston, a preeminent researcher in competitiveness, found that exceptionally competitive people can be self-destructively competitive. His research showed that people—principally achiever/killer types—with a high level of competitiveness compete even when there is nothing to be gained. Moreover, they tend to compete even when there’s a clear disincentive to do so. When told that they must collaborate with a partner, hyper-competitive people will continue to try and figure out how to win, even against a collaborator, even when there is nothing to win.

Overjustification/replacement bias argues that replacing an intrinsic motivation with an extrinsic reward is a fairly easy thing to do. Research suggests that when a child who plays the piano simply because she enjoys it is introduced to competitive piano playing, many changes in her behavior can occur. For example, if she begins to win competitions, then subsequently loses, she will stop playing piano. That is, extrinsic rewards crush intrinsic motivation, which never returns. The challenge for overjustification as a design constraint is that it’s not obvious that we care to preserve intrinsic motivation if the player is failing. That is to say, if a player is really intrinsically motivated as an accountant, but he’s not good at his job, why would we want to preserve his intrinsic desire? Overjustification generally doesn’t negatively affect players with good performance or strong personal motivation, though some extrinsic rewards can readily be seen as manipulative or negative if used in the wrong context.

One obvious conclusion of the intrinsic/extrinsic behavioral questions is that once you start giving someone a reward, you have to keep her in that reward loop forever. This consideration informs the total cost of ownership question for gamification and should be part of your calculations (though you need not budget for it immediately).

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Exercise: How Competitive Are You?

Are you a hyper-competitive killer type? Take Houston and Smither’s Competitiveness Test to measure how competitive you are at

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Old Beliefs

In our research on competitiveness, overjustification, and incentives/rewards, we came across a series of old beliefs, many of which were broadly held, that question some of the core tenets of gamification. Here are some of those beliefs, as well as thoughts on placing them in context.

Old belief #1

Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic rewards.

Does it even matter? Or more importantly, can an intrinsic motivation be counted on? The crux of the problem is that by sitting around waiting for people’s intrinsic drive to become better, to do more, or to help other people, we find that we don’t always get the desired results. But when we make the motivation extrinsic, we shift that locus of responsibility from hoping it happens to a structure and process for making it happen.

Gamification works better if and when we can align intrinsic motivations and extrinsic rewards, and we should strive to achieve that wherever possible. But our new belief is that we should accept players and their motivational states as they are, and try to help them get to where they would like to go, as well as where we’d like them to be.

Old belief #2

Intrinsic motivators create greatness, while extrinsic motivators are nothing more than pellets dropped for rats in a cage.

Our fundamental observation is that when something is designed well, it feels intrinsic to the player. He perceived that it was intrinsically driven whether or not it was (just as a good sales person can convince the buyer it was his idea to buy that set of encyclopedias in the first place). Further, a player might not know something was intrinsic to him until he discovered it through an extrinsic motivator.

As designers, we must keep a watchful eye on our players. We have to attempt to know some things about our players and their wants, even if they might not know them yet. A good example is the motivation to lose weight—Americans, by and large (no pun intended), struggle with obesity. Most of them want to be healthier and skinnier. But despite the intrinsic desire, the process is disconnected. A designer, however, would say that what is missing is a well-designed reward and incentive loop for losing weight.

The new belief is that we are helping people, to some extent, reach a higher potential—and to discover things about themselves that they didn’t already know.

Old belief #3

The best designs are intrinsic: take, for instance, Priority Boarding.

It may surprise you to know that Continental (now United) Airlines actually invented the model of the priority boarding lines and carpets. Once upon a time, we boarded according to the instructions of a voice over a loud speaker, with first class leading the way, followed by designated seating rows. But United realized that for no more than the cost of a carpet and a sign, they could take what was once a private status benefit and make it public—and desirable.

To be clear, there is no new benefit granted to the people boarding from the red carpet. They always boarded first. They always got the extra overhead bin space and legroom, the drinks before takeoff. In fact, the plane doesn’t leave any sooner and the pretzels aren’t any better than they were before. The only benefit is a demonstrable one—and the only true beneficiary is United Airlines.

While some flyers show off that they have red-carpet status, the other flyers will wonder, “Why is that guy on the red carpet and how do I get there?”

Today, the red-carpet boarding design feels normal. In fact, it feels intrinsic, like it’s always been there. But it hasn’t. It works because the system in which it resides is very compelling. It proves that when the gamified experience is good enough, benefits can be created out of thin air. For example, you can even add a baggage fee and then remove it for people with high status in the frequent-flyer game. Even though no one paid a baggage fee three years ago, with a little added friction, it has now become—like the red carpet—a reward.

A good extrinsic motivation is a good map to intrinsic motivation. The better a designer knows his players, resulting in a better game design, the less it will feel to the player like being on a wheel, and the more it will feel like it was her idea to begin with. That’s the holy grail of gamification: a game so well designed that the player’s actions just feel normal. We believe it can be done in almost any experience.

Progression to Mastery

One well-accepted theory is that players in any experience are seeking mastery. Why do people go to Weight Watchers meetings? It’s safe to assume it’s probably not for the free coffee, but rather to master their weight and health.

In original research by Dreyfus for the U.S. Army in the 1980s (since revised in the 1990s), a series of stages of mastery emerged when looking at how people engage with systems, as shown in Figure 2-5.

Figure 2-5. Mastery of a system can be thought of as a mountain—rising from novice to visionary across a series of steps..

Dreyfus outlines five core levels:


A novice is someone who’s just arrived to the experience. It is his first minute with a new system. Using the example of a 1040 tax form, the first time someone sees it, he is a total novice to the system. To him, it has little depth of meaning. It’s just a form.

Problem solver

Similar to a novice but with some information already in hand, a problem solver is on her way toward figuring out what is going on. On a 1040 tax form, the problem solver has already learned that the instructions are on the back of the form. She may not understand how the numbers are derived or why she is calculating AMT, but she is able to do it—and if she can’t, critically, she knows whom to call to find out how.


An expert has already started to learn how the system works. In other words, an expert user of the 1040 tax form knows he needs all of his W2 forms and 1099s attached to this form. If he doesn’t submit all of them, regardless of timing, his tax return may be audited, returned, or recalculated by the IRS. That is not an obvious bit of information. An expert knows to hold on to his tax return until he gets it or he can input the number (and skip attaching the form entirely). At the expert level, a player knows something that is not obvious to the casual player.


A master believes that she truly understands the system. She believes that she is in control. She is aware of its nuances and its ins and outs. A master is also likely to identify personally or culturally with the system. For example, with a 1040 tax form, the master might be thinking, “I’m an accountant. I’ve been doing taxes for 25 years. No one knows this process better than me.”


A visionary is a special kind of master. He puts himself inside the designer’s shoes. A visionary can look at the 1040 form and find a flaw in the calculation on line 17. Most designers have probably experienced the enthusiasm of a visionary, for example, by getting a 3 a.m. email from a customer announcing a great idea to improve some minute aspect of a system.

No player should be obligated or expected to progress to visionary—your system should enable the player to stop at any level. If a player is happy to remain a problem solver, this is a perfectly acceptable level to maintain. In fact, it could be argued that most people, when it comes to the 1040 tax form, remain decidedly at the problem-solver level. If they need to go deeper, they will call an expert (most likely an accountant). In any game system, a player should be able to stop or leave at any time she wants.

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Exercise: Rank the Top Five Player Actions on the Scale of Progression to Mastery

Recall your top five player actions and decide where they should go on the scale of progression to mastery—understanding, of course, that not everything can or should come at the novice level. Additionally, while some actions may recur along your progression system (recommend or share, for example might repeat at novice, master, and expert), just focus on the first instance of the verb. Pay close attention to how you reveal complexity. Find a version of the mastery mountain at that you can use for this exercise.

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Socializing actions should happen across all levels of the mastery chain. Recommending can take place at both the novice and expert levels. To some degree, it isn’t a bad idea to expose every level to the accomplishments of the others.

For a business built around artistic expression—an art-sharing site, for example—the player at the novice level must be able to view site content easily. At the problem-solver level, he might rate the photos on the site. But as a designer, how can you reveal complexity in a measured way? Most networks of this kind, such as DeviantArt ( or Etsy ( allow anyone to upload their art from day one in an effort to ensure maximum content. But is that good? What if you want to qualify prospective contributors based on their demonstrable knowledge of how your system works? Perhaps you’d opt to hold back “creation” (or upload) until the expert level in order to maintain the integrity of your site.

Notice that we didn’t necessarily advocate for holding back posting ability based on how good the art itself is. That might be better handled with peer feedback/ratings. We might use the players’ systemic knowledge as a simple proxy to weed out unqualified newbies. Ultimately, the effect might be entirely the same as a vetting process.

Obviously, uploading/creation can happen at a beginner level, but perhaps curation might be a better beginner action. Though clearly not appropriate in every context, curation is a form of creative expression! For the seller audience on eBay, curation crosses all levels of mastery. By procuring positive ratings, the seller gains credibility to players at the novice and problem-solving levels. At the expert and master levels, it allows them to play more competitively—measured by how well they stack up against other sellers. Once a seller reaches thousands/millions of sales within the game, it is just assumed she has become a master or potential visionary.

Designing for the Novice, Considering the Elder

The preceding examples highlight the fact that the game someone is playing at the novice level is different than the game someone else is playing at the expert or master level. The top levels of a game are sometimes called the elder game. When beginning a new design, it is important to focus on the nonelder game, the game being played at the novice and problem-solving levels.

This is because, with few exceptions, most people in the world are not yet your customers, which means they are novices and problem solvers in your system. If you begin with a strong and compelling base design, you will find there is no downside to setting aside the elder game until you need it.

Beating the Boss Level

When United Airlines’ Mileage Plus frequent-flyer program began in the 1980s, it wasn’t conceived that players would ever reach the million-mile flown mark. After all, a million miles is the equivalent of more than 2,000 hours (or a full-time work year) spent in a moving plane, not counting any travel, airport, security, boarding, taxiing, or deplaning time. So, when the first players began reaching that milestone, United pieced together a Million Miler level with lifetime benefits.

At first the level was informal, but it was formalized in the 1990s when United discovered that after those players passed one million miles, they tended to reduce or stop playing altogether. Their best, most loyal players simply leveled out of the game. It was inevitable. Without a continuation of the game, there is no longer an incentive to play. In the case of these Mileage Plus players, they had beaten the “boss level” of the game.

Then, a few years ago, United formalized the two- and three-million-mile tiers for Mileage Plus. In the beginning, it wasn’t important for United to have a three-million-mile tier—now it is. Luckily, they had a system in place that was open and flexible enough to keep the game changing and expanding as needed. In mid-2011, the first United flyer to reach ten million miles was announced. His reward: a plane with his name on it and a titanium card.

In another example, FarmVille began with 70 levels, but more were created as players began completing the original 70. These examples show that you must not lose sight of the elder game because of its potential and hopeful inevitability. However, you don’t need to design for it until it’s necessary.

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Exercise: Rank Your Own Goals and Objectives for Game Design

As a gamification designer, you should consider the importance of each of the following as you build your system (and feel free to add your own):

Managing money

Making and keeping relationships

Career success

Helping others and doing “good”

Being knowledgeable

Being healthy


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Motivational Moment: Be the Sherpa

On the journey to mastery, it is important to know where your brand, service, product, or concept lives in the ecosystem. You are not the mountain. You are the Sherpa.

Your player is on his own journey. You must make it your goal to help pave and structure that journey. To obtain long-term, enduring loyalty and connection from your players, you must guide them up the mountain. You don’t need to be the mountain and you don’t need to create it. You simply need to lead them up.

Be their Sherpa. Give them the status, access, power, and tools to get them where they need to go. Do it right and they’ll be yours forever.

Chapter 3. Game Mechanics: Designing for Engagement (Part I)

Game design is a relatively new, unaccredited discipline with roots in both psychology and systems-thinking. When creating a gamified experience, we leverage many aspects of game design, while focusing on the core elements that will produce the greatest impact for our players. For example, we generally ignore narrative structure in gamification because we are building “nonfiction” experiences. That is, the arc of your gamified system is based on your player’s and your brand’s stories—as they already exist.

Luckily, you don’t need nor should you want to become a full-fledged game designer. While many reference works (such as the excellent The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell [Morgan Kaufmann]) can help deepen your understanding of how to make games, we’ve filtered the key elements of the discipline here to focus on the most important. Our view of game design is narrow, but it is highly optimized for gamification.

MDA Framework

One of the most frequently leveraged frameworks of game design is referred to as MDA—which stands for:




The MDA framework is a postmortem analysis of the elements of a game. It helps us use systems-thinking to describe the interplay of those game elements and apply them outside of games.

Mechanics make up the functioning components of the game. At their core, they allow a designer ultimate control over the levers of the game, giving her the ability to guide player actions. Dynamics, meanwhile, are the player’s interactions with those mechanics. They determine what each player is doing in response to the mechanics of the system, both individually and with other players. Sometimes, game mechanics and game dynamics are used interchangeably, but they are markedly different.

Finally, the aesthetics of the system are how the game makes the player feel during interaction. Game aesthetics can be viewed as the composite outcome of the mechanics and dynamics as they interact with and create emotions.

Game Mechanics

The mechanics of a gamified system are made up of a series of tools that, when used correctly, promise to yield a meaningful response (aesthetics) from the players. For our purposes, we’ll focus on seven primary elements: points, levels, leaderboards, badges, challenges/quests, onboarding, and engagement loops. In this chapter, we’ll cover the first three of these mechanics, starting with the heart of any gaming system—points. See Chapter 4 for information on the remaining elements.


Points are important regardless of whether their accumulation is shared among players, or even between the designer and the player. When you first consider a point system, you might immediately think of a goal in a sporting event, redeemable points in a video game, or bonus points awarded to players for successfully completing special tasks within a game.

No matter what your preconception of points may be, they are an absolute requirement for all gamified systems. As the designer, it is imperative that you value and track every move your players make—even if those scores are only visible to you in your management console and not to them. In this way, you can see how your players are interacting with your system, design for outcomes, and make appropriate adjustments.

Point systems run the gamut from in-your-face obvious to barely visible, and they serve a wide range of purposes. As such, there are a few types we’d like to point out that you’ve doubtless encountered in your life.

Real-World Point Examples

There are many types of scorekeeping you may already be familiar with.

Cash score

This number indicates how much money you have in the bank. Considering how much we value money in our society, it’s curious that we don’t just tell others our bank balance in casual conversation. Instead of breaking this social taboo, we give cues on our cash scores through what we wear, where we go on vacation, what cars we drive, etc. Instead of shouting out our actual score, we signal it using status objects. In this point model, signals tell the score, exact numbers don’t.

Video game score

A much more overt score is that in almost any video game. The score is always at the corner of the screen, letting the player know how close or far he is from the next level, other players, and ultimately winning the game. Few systems in real life keep the score as omnipresent as video games.

Social networking score

When Facebook was developed, there was nothing overtly indicating that the number of friends a user had served much function whatsoever. Similarly, the number of followers or mentions on Twitter was never explicitly pointed to as a designated “score.” But they are. Most players can name how many friends and followers they have on any given social network. What’s more, they can probably name who among their friends has an unusually high number of friends or followers. An inventory of sorts is taken, simply because Facebook and Twitter place the “score” prominently on the page. Moreover, social network scores have profoundly affected the fortunes of at least one major social network: Orkut.

Google Orkut was an eponymous social networking site created by a Google employee. Most social network users may not have heard of it, but there is at least one place in the world where Orkut is the #1 social networking site: Brazil.

While designing the site, Google put in place a simple leaderboard listing the number of people per country who had signed up for Orkut. When Brazil entered the top group on that leaderboard, something unexpected started to happen—Brazilians began to host spontaneous Orkut sign-up parties. The goal was to overtake the number one spot held by the United States. Thus, Orkut became Brazil’s #1 social networking site—handily besting Facebook—all because of a score and an innocuous leaderboard.

Composite metrics

Any metric has the power to become a type of score. Sometimes it is better to create a composite metric in order to convey complex data in a simple form. A FICO score, for example, is an amalgam of a whole series of different pieces of information—from average monthly credit card payments to amassed debt over a lifetime. We could, of course, show different scores for each vector we wanted to measure. But by summarizing the complexity of creditworthiness into a single number, anyone from a prospective landlord to a bank clerk can derive meaning from it without needing a Ph.D. in economics.

Similarly, Weight Watchers creates a metric that calls on a series of numbers—from body mass index to weight to daily calorie intake—in order to follow the progress of their users who are seeking a healthier lifestyle. In the same vein, Klout—a web service that offers a social media influence score—tells you and others how you rank in influence and importance on Twitter. It doesn’t take into account just a single vector, but rather a series of numbers that are amalgamated into one.

Point Systems

In gamification, we can leverage one of five point designs to form the foundation of our experience. In some cases, your point system will be overt, direct, and highly motivational. In some designs, you might use four different kinds of points to achieve your objectives. In still other instances, points will take a back seat to other mechanics, doing their duties in the background as the designer’s workhorse.

Whatever you end up choosing, you’ll need to get a good handle on point system basics and options. Your points palette includes the following:

Experience points

Redeemable points

Skill points

Karma points

Reputation points

Experience points

Of the five kinds of point systems, the most important are experience points (XP). Unlike airline miles, XP do not serve as any type of currency within the system. They are how you watch, rank, and guide your player.

Everything a player does within the system will earn her XP—and, in general, XP never goes down and cannot be redeemed. By assigning XP to every activity in the system, the designer aligns his behavioral objectives with the player in a long-term way. In some systems, XP can expire—say monthly or annually—to create goal loops. This pattern can be observed in the requalification periods used in frequent-flyer programs—and expiry can serve the important purpose of “resetting” the game to level the playing field.

However, perhaps even more importantly, XP never maxes out. A player continues to earn them as long as she plays the game. That is the power of XP.

Redeemable points

The second point system is made up of redeemable points (RP). Unlike XP, RP can fluctuate. The expectation for most people is that these points are usable within the system in exchange for things. They are earned and cashed, similar to the frequent-flyer miles we redeem for awards. The term for this loop in social games and loyalty programs is “earn and burn,” which clearly indicates the purpose of an RP system.

RPs generally form the foundation of a virtual economy, and are often given names like coins, bucks, cash, etc. Like any economy, you will need to monitor, manage, and tweak the flows of capital to ensure everything runs smoothly, as well as to avoid massive inflation or deflation. In addition, redeemable points come with substantial issues from a legal and regulatory standpoint.

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For more on the legal issues in redeemable point systems, visit and complete the challenges.

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Skill points

The third point system is called a skill point system. Skill points are assigned to specific activities within the game and are tangential to both XP and RP. They are a bonus set of points that allow a player to gain experience/reward for activities alongside the core.

By assigning skill points to an activity, we direct the player to complete some key alternate tasks and subgoals. Classic examples of skill points are found in Dungeons & Dragons and other similar games where you have skills, such as magic and power, and each has a different score. In the nongame context, you might assign a set of varied skill points on a photo-sharing website. For example, players may earn some points for the quality of their photos and other points for the quality of comments (although this is rare in gamification, depending on the circumstances, it might be worthwhile to keep them separate).

Karma points

Karma points are a unique system that rarely appear in classic games. The sole purpose of karma is to give points away. That is, players gain no benefit from keeping their karma points, only from sharing them. Often, karma points are given as part of a regular grind, or check in behavior, for example: earn 3 karma points for every monthly check in.

The main purpose of karma points in your design is to create a behavioral path for altruism and user reward. For example, if you want users to thank each other for a job well done in a challenge, instead of issuing virtual currency or gifts, you can let them give each other karma. This will preserve the altruistic feeling of the interaction while minimizing the tendency to game the system.

UserVoice is a good example of this system. Using karma points, players vote for and against potential features they’d like to see built. If the player’s vote wins and those features are built, he gets karma points back to allocate to new activities, and so forth. The only purpose of karma points in the UserVoice model is to give them away.

Reputation points

Finally, reputation points make up the most complex point system. Any time a system requires trust between two or more parties that you can’t explicitly guarantee or manage, a reputation system is key. Its purpose is to act as a proxy for trust.

The reason why reputation systems are generally more complex lies both in how they are designed and how they are used. In general, they must incorporate a wide range of activities in order to be meaningful—and the design must consider incentives and unintended consequences. Moreover, because they are a proxy for trust, players will certainly attempt to game the system. Integrity and consistency will be paramount.

How to Use Point Systems

To begin with, it’s imperative to string an XP architecture around your gamified system. It informs you and your players about which activities are more important.

Redeemable points, on the other hand, should be used when you want to create a virtual economy. Virtual economies are most valuable when you are looking to incentivize broad behaviors, large communities, and/or leverage economics to drive behavior. However, they also have unique challenges, such as legal and regulatory issues that are complex and rapidly changing.

Another challenge of redeemable points is how they are perceived. If you announce a great redeemable point system, the first thing players will do is see what they can get. If what is offered feels neither meaningful nor realistic, you might lose the players entirely. In other words, if a player looks at the redemption opportunity and thinks, “Yeah right. I’m not going to win a free car for watching a video,” then that player might not believe it is worth his while to stay within the system. Similarly, another might see that she could obtain free pizza for her points, but she happens to not like pizza. In both those cases, you might be at risk for losing players.

Reputation points are complex but often necessary in a system. The biggest problem with them, however, is that they are easy to “game”. TripAdvisor is a website that shares customer reviews about travel worldwide. The site is so successful that it is reportedly responsible for 30% of all hotel bookings. Therefore, hotels have a vested interest in not only seeing that they are favorably reviewed, but also that other hotels are not. Although no official statistics exist, a cursory review of TripAdvisor will immediately reveal a host of obviously “chaff” reviews.

Yelp—a site that allows users to review local restaurants and entertainment venues—runs into a similar set of problems. To date, the only real way to determine which reviews are real and which are gamed is to read a lot of them. Neither of these sites has implemented a reputation system that is scaled to the level of complexity or value that’s actually being created. By comparison, eBay has long held that its fully featured reputation point system, as shown in Figure 3-1, is a core asset that facilitates trust and transaction volume.

Figure 3-1. eBay’s reputation point system is more sophisticated than most and reflects the need for trust between parties.

Virtual economies

The power of a virtual economy is that it allows a designer to bring in a lot of money and control how it goes out. Any macroeconomics major might recall a few communist and socialist countries that have operated under that very premise. In Cuba, a traveler can exchange any currency for a convertible Cuban peso, but it can be nearly impossible to change that peso back to its original bills.

That’s how most economies are designed in the virtual world as well. For example, Zynga’s FarmVille has a completely one-way exchange system. A player can only put money in, and since there are no real-world rewards to redeem for, it all stays in the game.

In 2010, Zynga launched a well-known promotion with 7-Eleven and Slurpee. Logically, you might think that a player could exchange FarmVille credits to pay for a Slurpee in the store. However, the promotion was that for every Slurpee purchased, a player got bonus FarmVille credits. The value of the virtual economy, in this case, was greater than that of the real-world reward.

Virtual economies and secondary markets

Secondary markets—where users can buy and sell currency or objects offsite from the game—have been, by and large, a bane to the designers of the MMOGs from which they emerged. They were frequently tolerated as a community feature because the designers hadn’t taken them into consideration in the first place. However, in new gamified designs, the options for secondary markets are often greatly reduced. Today’s designers seek to control as many aspects of the virtual economy as possible—and secondary markets oppose that objective.

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Currency Denominations

The perceived value of virtual currency can be closely tied to the currency that players are actually using. For example, the equivalent of $1 U.S. is 1,000 Korean Won (they both buy approximately a soft drink from a street vendor). So, when denominating a virtual currency for Korea, it’s worthwhile to offer 1,000 times more currency per unit than in the United States. New social games automatically renumber all player views based on the player’s country of origin, denominating everything in U.S. dollars behind the scenes. The parallels to the real-world economy are not incidental.

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Dual economy

A well-functioning virtual economy will control player demand with minimum complexity. It even allows for a certain level of fluidity in game play. If a designer creates a promotion without the help of a virtual economy, new and cumbersome explanations must be disclosed each time. For example, “Tell three friends about us and get a scratch-off card that gets you 20% off a t-shirt,” or “Tell four friends, and we’ll throw in a basketball,” etc.

But in a virtual economy, nothing more needs to be done than to tell the player, “Tell three friends and get 200 points.” This promotion needs no explanation—the player already knows what that will get him. Therefore, marketing is optimized.

In fact, FarmVille demonstrates this very well in what is called a dual economy. It has created two currencies within the system of the game: cash and coins (conveniently, U.S. dollars convert into both). Each is used for different kinds of items within the game, as shown in Figure 3-2.

Notice also in Figure 3-2 that the U.S. dollar-FarmVille currency conversion ratio varies based on the amount invested. This sliding-scale conversion rate not only makes it more attractive for users to invest more cash up front, it creates additional confusion by using complex fractions in conversion and uneven numbers on the converted unit (e.g., 70,600 or 650).

Figure 3-2. FarmVille’s dual economy: cash for special items, coins for everything else. Both convert from U.S. dollars. Note the complex conversion rates, which obfuscate convertibility for users.

The benefits of a dual currency are manifold. For example, a dual currency can enable you to set wildly different values on items within the economy while also controlling the inbound monetary supply. This means that you can more easily vary the values for different activities without having to inflate/deflate everything at the same time. While this technique is not for every gamified experience, it can be useful if your community is large enough (and your virtual economy is dynamic enough).

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Exercise: Assigned Point Values

In this exercise, pull out the top player actions you defined in Chapter 2, and assign a point value to them. Begin by choosing the lightest-weight action and giving it a value of 100. Now, what are the other actions worth to you?

When doing this exercise, don’t consider how the points will be used or whether they are redeemable. Instead, think about the relative value of each one of these actions. Based on your businesses’ goals and objectives, which is worth more and by what percent?

Keep in mind that in major social games there is a funnel. For example, for every 100 people that “like” something, 10 of them convert; and for every 10 conversions, a business earns $30. So, every “like” is worth 30 cents. Even though value is fluid, and you’ll only begin to understand it once it is put into action, in the beginning, you must stake out a point value for every action in play.

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Example: Assigned Point Values

Perhaps the top five social actions you chose in Chapter 2 were Explore, Comment, Join, Recommend, and Express. And in the above exercise, you assigned them the following values:


Point value


100 points


200 points


400 points


400 points


200 points

You might reason that exploring the site is the least beneficial of the five actions to the objectives of the company, even if it is important to the gamified experience of the player. Therefore, you assign “Explore” the smallest value. A comment, on the other hand, is worth double since it might lend quite a bit of value to your community at large.

In general, joining is an often underappreciated action. However, it is quite a hurdle to get players to sign up for your system. So, giving “Join” four times the weight afforded “Explore” is actually the right idea. There is great value in having a player’s email address and name—not to mention the new level of value she has attached to your system when she joins. Lastly, “Join” is a once-only action, so it’s likely to be much more valuable.

By weighting “Express” as four times more valuable than “Explore,” you are making the statement that the social benefits of a player proselytizing on behalf of your system is a deeply important action—and perhaps even fundamental to your system. Obviously, “Recommend” is among the most extreme forms of player viral expression, so it is naturally weighted more heavily.

Some actions require us to think about curbing point earnings. For example, if comment is worth 200 points ad infinitum, users would clearly be incentivized to post a ton of comments. What we should consider is slowing down the XP earnings over time, without making the experience less fun. For example, we might make the first comment worth 200, the next 3 worth 150, and the rest worth only 50. The exact ratios are up to you, but some brakes on earning XP (or RP) are usually essential.


In most games, levels indicate progress—though they are not as exclusive in this role as they once were. For example, in the arcade game Ms. Pac-Man, levels are clearly expressed by the color of the ghosts, the layout of the maze, and the kind of fruit that loops around the maze. Of course, designers of gamified experiences aren’t going to use traditional levels like those found in video games, but understanding them can add a powerful tool to your design. Levels serve as a marker for players to know where they stand in a gaming experience over time.

Level Design

In Ms. Pac-Man, a player knows instantly that the level has changed because, in addition to being told directly and seeing diferent colors, the game has become more difficult and the prizes for rewarded behaviors increase in value. Meanwhile, though the Ms. Pac-Man avatar moves at the same pace, the ghosts move faster, and the safety time zone delineations are shorter.

In game design, level difficulty is not linear. In other words, it does not take 100 points to get to level one, 200 for level two, 300 for level three, and so on. Instead, difficulty increases in a curvilinear form. In Ms. Pac-Man, an expert player knows that after level three, the ghosts slow down again and the safety time zone delineations increase. The screen might continue to harbor more complexities, but like most level design, difficulty increases exponentially through each level and then decreases over time; an example of this is shown in Figure 3-3.

Figure 3-3. Level complexity. Although this progression is different in every game, the basic concept shows that progression through levels is not linear or exponential.

In the game Angry Birds, the complexity transitions from one level to the next have proven extremely engaging. Using well-designed levels, the player progresses almost seamlessly, gaining confidence and experience. However, at one of the much higher levels in the game—level 21 in the first board, for example—the player encounters a decidedly more complicated sequence of challenges than the one before it. It is, in fact, so difficult that there is only one sequence of actions that will get the player through. It is the first time in the game that a player is likely to notice that he has passed to a new and more difficult level.

Some might consider this move by the designers of Angry Birds controversial. Inevitably, players who find the challenge too much will drop out of the game. But on the other side of the argument, those who pass the level are more likely to feel as though they’ve achieved something special and have become part of an exclusive group. Clearing the level will unlock the next board, so it’s a major achievement (and one that bedeviled your authors for quite a while).

Progression of difficulty

The average length of the Nintendo arcade game Donkey Kong lasts less than one minute. This is because the first level of Donkey Kong is incredibly hard. Realistically, an arcade in the 1980s would have a vested interest in their players losing faster, thereby inserting additional quarters sooner.

In today’s gaming systems, we are interested in longer, stickier games. So, today’s designs start at the very simplest levels and move progressively toward the complex.

In PopCap’s iPhone game Plants vs. Zombies, a player moves from one level to the next with the difficulty of the game increasing with each new level. A quick look at the game’s first and twentieth boards (shown in Figure 3-4) illustrates just how much more difficult the game becomes as the player progresses. The board grows visibly crowded with characters and obstacles.

Figure 3-4. In PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies, the progression of level complexity from the first level (left) to levels 20 and higher (right) is substantial.

In some systems, levels might define the difficulty or the leading element of the game, or else they might serve as a passive marker to give more depth and complexity to your system.

Either way, the best design tips for levels are to make them logical (or easy for the player to understand), extensible (so that you can add levels as needed beyond the initial “boss level”), and flexible. Finally, the levels should be testable and refinable. Level balancing is just as complex as building the game in the first place, and should be tested and retested even as the players are in the game.

Enduring leveling systems

American Express has built an impressive level system using the demonstrability of the credit card itself. Most Americans could probably guess what you were talking about if you simply named off the colors of the AmEx rainbow of credit cards: Green, Gold, Platinum, and Black.

What is interesting about that list is that while green, gold, and platinum all connote money and precious metals, making black the most elite card seems to be a surprising choice. By valuing black as their top tier, American Express changed the color’s meaning. Now, black as a top tier is as common as gold and platinum.

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Precious Metals

How do we know gold is more valuable than silver and bronze? Unless you regularly monitor the precious metals market, odds are you were taught that fact by other leveling systems in your life, such as the Olympics, which makes use of precious metals in their award system. And because markets aren’t truly rational, it’s hard to say how much the Olympics rankings affect the price of gold and silver today.

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University levels are similarly stamped with a clear ranking both within the confines of the institutions and for the population at large. The degrees bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. (or doctorate) clearly indicate which level has been achieved. The military and the Boy Scouts have arguably two of the most perfected leveling systems of any institution. From badges and medals, to titles like General and Eagle Scout, even the uniforms indicate who resides where in the levels of the “game.” See the sidebar Boy Scouts and the Military in Chapter 4 for more information.

Progress bar

Progress bars are appearing all over the Internet. In most incarnations, they use percentages to inform a player of how close she is to completing, for example, all the necessary sign-up information (see Figure 3-5). Principally, they are used to encourage new players to add personal information to a site or to create a deeper core experience. Progress bars work hand in hand with levels, serving as a percentage-based progress guide for a player.

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The best progress bars never reach 100%.

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Consider the Linkedin progress bar (Figure 3-5) for a moment. While it is a powerful and broadly known example of progress mechanics, it also has two major flaws. First, that it reaches 100%: the best progress bars continue to be viable well beyond 100. Second, that you have to complete the steps in order to progress reflects the lack of a good XP system at Linkedin.

Figure 3-5. Example progress bar on LinkedIn.

Example: Using a Metaphor

Say you are developing a gamified experience for a company that sells women’s shoes. You decide that it makes sense to title your levels based on candy to invoke both playfulness and color. These are the names you choose from the lowest level to the highest: peppermint, cherry cordial, marshmallow, chocolate, and truffle.

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Using a Metaphor

Like American Express or the Boy Scouts, creatively describe the proposed levels for your gamified experience. Without using precious metals or gems, imagine what an interesting leveling system for your product would be like.

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While these levels certainly sound like they would appeal to your demographic, the problem with a metaphorical system is that people can lose track of where they are by confusing, for example, chocolate with truffle. Another thing to avoid is accruing a list of levels that come off as “cutesy”—that is, unless cute is in the honest voice of your player.

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Finding Your Voice

One experience relayed from a prospective client was telling. The client made a type of financial marketplace software connecting investors and deals. They had assigned a value to animals like bulls, bears, sharks, whales and pigs—all common terms in the finance industry. So when developing a gamified experience for that demographic, they used those animals in the leveling system. Imagine attempting to engage a 50-year-old investment banker with an adorable pig avatar; it’s probably not going to work. But that’s exactly what they did—to deleterious effect. Suffice to say that they had to remove the too-cute-for-words characters and replace them with something more sophisticated.

Although a designer might be drawn to using words that relate to a specific community—as in the case of a bull, a bear, and a pig, or even in the case of those chocolates and peppermints—perhaps the level should not be represented by a literal or cartoon representation. Perhaps it would be more effective to use a color to represent the image, or even a depiction of the word itself. It all depends on your audience, so you must know your players.

* * *


The purpose of a leaderboard is to make simple comparisons. Unsurprisingly, most people don’t need any explanation when they encounter a leaderboard. By default, we see an ordered list with a score beside each name, and we understand that we are looking at a ranking system.

In any ‘80s arcade, a novice who might approach a Galaga or Moon Patrol cabinet would find on the screen a list of high scorers—most of which trailed enough zeros to render a potential player dumbfounded. Talk about a terrible disincentive to play the game! Even when the number scale is completely meaningless or opaque, the player still feels that four million points is a lot, so it’s probably difficult to attain (unless it’s 4,000,000 Vietnamese Dong, the equivalent of about $200 U.S. dollars at press time—see the sidebar Currency Denominations earlier in this chapter).

Leaderboard Types

There are two kinds of leaderboards largely used today.

The no-disincentive leaderboard

The leaderboard of today has seen some radical redesign since the heyday of pinball machines and quarter arcades. In the era of Facebook and the social graph, leaderboards are mostly tools for creating social incentive, rather than disincentive.

They accomplish this simply by taking the player and putting him right in the middle. It doesn’t matter where he falls in ranking order—whether he is #81 or #200,000—the player will see himself right in the middle of the leaderboard. Below him, he will see friends who are on his tail, and above him he will see exactly how close he is to the next best score. And he will know exactly what he has to do to beat it.

However, if the player is actually in the top 10 or top 20, the leaderboard should reflect this directly. In the case of these players, the leaderboard should show them their literal ranking, which is likely to be meaningful to them.

The infinite leaderboard

In an arcade, there are not too many ways to allow every player to exist on a given game’s leaderboard forever. At some point, a player’s score will be beaten and she will fall off—or she will hit a number and sit there for weeks until someone finally beats it. In today’s world, there are ways to control leaderboards such that no player ever falls off or gets stuck.

Doodle Jump, a popular iPhone game, allows its players to see the leaderboard sliced in various ways: locally, socially, and globally (see Figure 3-6). A local view shows a player where he ranks compared to others in the system in his immediate area. Socially, he can see how he ranks among his friends and followers in the game. A global view allows the same thing within the system as a whole.

There is no reason players can’t slice and dice their leaderboard however they want. In fact, tracking the leaderboard behavior of a player will also inform the designer about her players. For example, a player with a deep interest in leaderboard positioning is likely to be a more competitive player and can be guided accordingly.

Leaderboards can also be displayed with a limited available view for the player, which can be an important tool in a game with millions of players. Flight Control—the air traffic control game mentioned in Chapter 1 and shown in Figure 1-1—has a leaderboard that displays other players at the same level, ranked by proximity and recency to you. This kind of multilayered leaderboard helps to manage a game with millions of players.

Figure 3-6. Doodle Jump’s simple but multidimensional leaderboard allows for flexible views of progress and comparison.

Other popular social leaderboards include Klout, which, for example, ranked fans of the Sacramento Kings basketball team by their Klout score—showing users’ social power on Twitter. Also, Yelp’s mobile app ranks a user’s top weekly check-ins. The leaderboard can be cut by friends or by royalty—the high scorers in the game, similar to mayors in Foursquare. Additionally, Yelp cleverly defaults to the weekly view of success, ensuring that the leaderboard data is fresher and more dynamic for players.

Privacy and Leaderboards

Sometimes creating a leaderboard isn’t as obvious as it seems. In the event that the items being compared are sensitive or difficult to quantify, leaderboards present a unique challenge. Since the role of the leaderboard is to publicly compare, how does one compare information best kept private?

For example, a gym has a vested interest in helping its users achieve more healthful lifestyles or meet their fitness goals. Therefore, asking a novice to walk in, step on a scale, and have his weight compared with other gym members is probably going to lose that gym quite a few prospective members. Not only is sharing a person’s weight publicly a potentially shame-inducing experience, not everyone joining the gym is there to lose weight. Some people join to train for a marathon, relax in the sauna, or even gain muscle weight.

It might become clear that more than one leaderboard is necessary to meet the goals of the gym. For a novice player, a leaderboard that lists her attendance might be a great introduction to the system. Runners might want to be part of a leaderboard where they race other gym members. And while body builders might even want to share their weight and watch their numbers increase publicly, people seeking to lose weight might be less inclined to play if public humiliation is part of the game. Furthermore, there is the potential that any of these leaderboards might induce unhealthy results if players push themselves to win.

Creating leaderboards using sensitive or private information is challenging but not impossible. Abstracted point systems can ensure that each player maintains a program that is healthful for them while sizing up their accomplishments in a public leaderboard. Ultimately, designers will have to keep their goals in mind and maintain an awareness of their overall objectives—and take some responsibility for the leaderboard’s power.



What do Foursquare, Zynga, Nike+, and Groupon have in common? These and many other brands use gamification to deliver a sticky, viral, and engaging experience to their customers. This book provides the design strategy and tactics you need to integrate game mechanics into any kind of consumer-facing website or mobile app. Learn how to use core game concepts, design patterns, and meaningful code samples to a create fun and captivating social environment.

Whether you’re an executive, developer, producer, or product specialist, Gamification by Design will show you how game mechanics can help you build customer loyalty.

  • Discover the motivational framework game designers use to segment and engage consumers
  • Understand core game mechanics such as points, badges, levels, challenges, and leaderboards
  • Engage your consumers with reward structures, positive reinforcement, and feedback loops
  • Combine game mechanics with social interaction for activities such as collecting, gifting, heroism, and status
  • Dive into case studies on Nike and Yahoo!, and analyze interactions at Google, Facebook, and Zynga
  • Get the architecture and code to gamify a basic consumer site, and learn how to use mainstream gamification APIs from Badgeville

“Turning applications into games is a huge trend. This book does a great job of identifying the core lasting principals you need to inspire your users to visit again and again.”
—Adam Loving
Freelance Social Game Developer and founder of Twibes Twitter Groups

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