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Gamification: Understanding the Basics


All of us heard about how games can become addictive and a way of escaping reality. I was supporting this idea too, that they are only a form of escapism and nothing good can come out of playing games. I have been playing games since I ever got my first console when I was 10 years old.

And of course, we can hold many judgements, moral debates on how addictive they are. But I would like to dive into the basics of games, on how, contrary to popular belief, they fill in genuine human needs and help us become better people. And also, how gamification can be applied in designing products.

The fact that so many people all over the world are ready to spend (in total) 3 billion of hours a week playing games is a sign of something. A sign that the reality we’ve built is broken and the virtual world offers more of what we need. A sign that reality isn’t able to provide us what we need.

Games provide rewards that reality isn’t. They are teaching, inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. And unless we do something dramatic in the next decades, half of the population of the planet will spend a lot of energy and devotion to the game world. So we can play around this trend and design products that can help us to improve ourselves. 

I finished reading Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken and would love to share some thoughts I learned and what we can do better about gamification.


Data that will give you a bigger picture

Let’s start with some statistics from the biggest gaming market in the world, which is US. The research says that:

  • 69% of all heads of household play computer and video games;

  • 97% of youth play computer and video games;

  • 40% of all gamers are women;

  • One out of four games is over the age of fifty;

  • The average game player is thirty fiver years old and has been playing for twelve years;

  • Most gamers expect to continue playing games for the rest of their lives;

I usually say that learning human behaviour is one of the most important skills because it allows you to see things differently. But looking at this statistics, which is only growing, I would say that investing in gamification is only going to bring you a positive impact in the future.


Why would you learn more about games and how they work?

Game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work. They know how to ease cooperation and collaboration before at unimaginable scales. They are innovating with new ways on how to motivate players to stick with harder challenges longer. In much bigger groups. And these crucial skills will have a significant impact on us. Whether you are designing an app with online courses or you are cafeteria around the corner.


What is a game?

When you take off all the technical parts of a game, you are left off with four elements: a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation.

The goal

The specific outcome players are working towards. The goal provides players with a sense of purpose.

The rules

Rules place a limitation on how players can achieve the goal. As I also mentioned in my article Why Small Teams Win and Bigger Ones Fail, limitations unleash creative ways of fixing a problem or achieving a goal.

Feedback system

It tells players how close they are to achieving their goal. It can take form of points, levels, progress bars, etc. For more, you can read my article The Importance of a Feedback System. Or if speaking in plain words: “The game is over when…”.

Voluntary participation

This requires everyone who is playing the game to acknowledge the goal, the rules and the feedback system.

And this definition may surprise you because we are so used to saying that games are all about narrative, winning, graphics, rewards. And these elements are necessary, but they are not what defines a game. A game made of the four things I wrote above: the goal, the rules, feedback system and voluntary participation.

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unecessary obstacles .
— Bernard Suits

Getting the basics right

What most people who try to implement gamification get wrong, is that it’s not about the points or badges you receive. But about the grind and the effort you put in. 

We are somehow used to say that gamers are lazy and all they do is play games all day. But how then do you explain the fact that they are able to put all of that effort into the game? All the work and grind that is required? How can we explain the fact that they can overcome multiple and painful failures and keep grinding until they achieve success?

Contrary to popular belief, games show us that we love hard work. But not as it is in the current reality we live in. So we need to think a bit broader than badges and points when we talk about gamification. Badges and points are only a small part of a feedback system that acknowledges that we’ve done some effort. And we have to think on how to encourage more hard work.

A good game is when you are always playing on the very edge of your skill level. You always have a big chance to fall off. But when you fall off, you feel the urge to climb back on. That’s because there’s virtually nothing as engaging as this state of working at the very limits of your ability - or what most game designers and psychologists call “flow”. When you are in a state of flow, you want to stay there: both quitting and winning are equally satisfying.
— Jane McGonigal

Games make us happy through hard work

Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves. And it turns our that nothing makes us happy than good, hard work. We don’t normally, think of games as hard work. After all, we play games, and we have been tought of play as the opposite. But nothing could be further from truth. 

The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression .
— Brian Sutton-Smith, Psychologist

A game is an opportunity to focus our energy on something better. On something that will make us better. On something we are good at, or getting better at and enjoy. As mentioned above, a gameplay is the opposite of depression.

And that’s why so many games are addictive. Because they are able to boost our positive thinking that we are capable of doing and achieving something. When we’re in a state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts. We start believing that we are worth something and we can achieve something in life. If only hard work in the real world had the same effect.

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Why reality is broken?

Sometimes it’s even worse, real-world hard work isn’t hard enough. You read it right. We become bored and feel underutilised. And this happens specifically in bigger companies where you feel that you don’t make a big impact by doing your small work. This is one of steps from Maslows hierarchy —  feeling appreciated for what you do. For all the hard work you put in. And games are able to reward you very well for that.

Imagine how world changing it would be to have a world that can provide better hard work to everyone. And that’s exactly what the game industry is doing today. So if you are designing your next gamified app or product, you have to think of: “How can I give my users better hard work?” A research psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, wrote about why hard work makes us happy: 

One of the chief reasons for the durability of happiness acitivies is that…they are hard won. You have devoted your time and effort…You have made these practices happen, and you have the ability to make them happen again. This sense of capability and responsibility is a powerful boost in and one itself.

Intrinsic rewards in games

For your product/app to stick with a gamification model, you have to provide better intrinsic rewards. Because more you can provide through hard work, happier people would be. There are a lot of intrinsic rewards, but here are a couple of them:

We crave satisfying work

No matter when and how, it’s every day. Of course, it depends from person to person, but everybody craves it on a daily basis. It allows to see impact of our efforts.

The hope of being successful

We want to feel powerful in our own lives. We want to show people what we are good at. We want to have high chances of achieving success. And we want to see signs that we are getting better over time and can become somebody.

Social connection

We are social creatures. We like to build bonds, new realtionships, be part of a community or a tribe. And we like to work with that tribe on a meaningful job.


It may be similar to first point, because we crave meaning in our satisfying work. We want to be part of something bigger, and contribute to it on a long-term.

These intrinsic rewards are an essential part of a great human experience. Beyond the basic needs of course (food, safety, etc.). So if you can implement them into your product, you have a higher chance of helping people achieving a certain goal.

Learning gamification from World of Warcraft

One of the most popular games on the planet, developed by Blizzard Enteratiment, can teach you a lot about gamification and what we crave for. So what made this game so popular? As Jane McGonigal writes in her book — “blissfull productivity”.

Blissfull productivity is the sense of being deeply immersed in work that produces immediate and obvious results. The clearer the results and faster we achieve them, the more blissfully productive we feel.

Your primary goal in World of Warcraft is self-improvement.A kind of work that all of us love. So in the game, you get an avatar, and your job is to make that avatar better, stronger and richer in many ways possible: more experience gain, better armor, more abilities, more skills and a bigger reputation. And each of these traits are displayed on your avatar. 

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What we get wrong about leveling systems

Most of gamified apps nowadays, don’t even get the basics of a leveling system and points. Not that they don’t work and we should think beyond them. 

Let’s take as an example how WoW works. You grind your face off, and put in more than 500 hours of hard work to achieve max level. If not mistaken, the max level right now is 120. And you put in all of that work only to achieve the max level where the real game starts. This is what we get wrong with a leveling system — at the end of it we should be unlocked different opportunities, but for most of the products it’s an “end game”. 

For each level, a users should be able to unlock different skills, stories, quests, challenges, you name it. And not use it only as a feedback system of progress. Same goes for badges. They are only a small part of a feedback system that shows we achieved a task. They shouldn’t be the core reward system of your product. The hard workd and grind is the reward and a badge only acknowledges that.


How can we apply this in real life?

Let’s say that you offer online courses. You can implement a points, badges and leveling system for your product and allow the user to start only with a couple of courses. Once they nail the first ones, or the basics, then you unlock more and more. With each level, you experience new type of tasks and challenges.

Also, it’s very important to understand that we have to make it also hard to achieve the max level and unlock the best courses. Why? What’s the point for me grinding my face off if I achieve the top level and see that everybody could do it? People need to feel a sense of pride that they achieved something which others couldn’t.

So you give points for each tasks, that addss up to your level. With each level, you could probably receive a new avatar/illustration that represents your profile. And people could see clearly that you are at a certain level of progress. And this is only a glimpse of how the elements can be implemented.


How does a game motivate someone to spend more than 500 hours?

Only to realise that the fun part is about to start. World of Warcraft makes a couple of promises. For some players, it’s the promise of ultimate challenge that makes the incredible workload worth it. At the highest levels, you tend to experience the extreme adrenaline rush. It’s a promise for players who crave high-stakes work and extreme mental activation level up as fast as they can to reach the end game. Why? Because that’s when you get to fight the most challenging opponents, the receive the most rewarding items, discover new locations and stories, and other stuff.

And one critical point here is to realise, that the levelling up system is as important as the end game grind. If not more important. As one player says in the book “If all I wanted to do is run around and kill stuff… I would play Counter-Strike. And that game is free*.”This again proves the fact that we shouldn’t strive to make stuff easier for our users if we are about to put in place gamification. But make it harder with each level, so people can feel stimulated and motivated. So they can try harder to achieve their initial goal or task.

*World of Warcraft requires a monthly fee subscription

People are paying to play WoW for productivity, hard work, failures, and high stakes rewards.

INTERESTING FACT: When fans found out that the new MMO, Age of Conan, would take only 250 hours to complete on average, most game critics worried that fans would reject the game. Why? Because it requires too little effort.

Jane McGonigal in her book writes that, computers were made to work for us, but video games have come to demand that we work for them. This is true, but in the end it’s us who have come to demand more work. 

Pretty insane to think about that isn’t it? When everybody tries to escape the rat race and not work for the rest of their lives. And this happens because most of us were not able to experience meaningful work before. We want to be given more work — or rather more satisfying work.


How to provide more satisfying work?

Jane McGonigal also writes that satisfying work always starts with two things: a clear goal and actionable next steps toward achieving that goal.Having a clear goal motivates us to act. We know what we are supposed to do. And following actionable steps ensure that we can make progress toward the target immediately.

World of Warcraft offers a clear and guaranteed productivity with all the quests you take. You have a mission to complete — for example, kill 10 NPC’s or bring a particular item. You bring that item, and you receive a reward for completing the quest. You also receive “experience” that allows you to level up and get to the next level with new quests and stories. Each quest has a step-by-step on what to do, where to go and whom to ask/kill/bring/etc.

WoW is not a puzzle game or trial-and-error investigation. You simply have to get the job done to collect your rewards.

Why do we crave this kind of productivity?

Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness writes that the fastest way to improve someone’s daily quality of life is to “present a specific goal to a person, something to do and something to look forward (rewards)”. When a clear goal is attached to a task, she writes, it gives us energy to push, a sense of purpose. So the real work in WoW is to be rewarded with more opportunities for employment. The game is, with each level, challenging you to try something a bit harder than what you did before. And we love that.


Motivation and reasonably assured progress

This is the start of satisfying work. But for it to be gratifying we have to finish our work as clearly as we started. To complete the work, we must be able to see that results of our efforts as directly and immediately possible.

Visible results are satisfying because they mirror back to us a positive sense of our capabilities. When we can see what we accomplished, we can build our self-worth. And the brilliant heads-up display of World of Warcraft shows us an improvement in real time. It flashes in front of our eyes +1 stamina, +1 intellect, +1 strength. We can count our internal resources by these points, watching as we become more powerful with every effort.

We can also see the progress we have made by looking at our avatar. It provides visual feedback with more and better armour, jewels and weapons over time. The same thing can be applied for apps. With each task completed, we should reward users with something different at all levels. And when users compare their results to each other, you can clearly say who is at a higher level or who worked or grinded more.

When we don’t have visible results that we can clearly link to our own efforts, it is impossible to take real satisfaction in our work. Unfortunately, for many of us this is true of our everyday work lives .
— Jane McGonigal

And it’s not only self-improvement that the game provides, but also a sense of belonging and community. Players are able to join the so-called “guilds” in which they gather parties of 10 to 25 people to go on raids, etc. There is also an interesting statistic that proves people are able to stick to something more if they do it with a friend.


This experiment was done with people who practice fitness. You have 90% higher chances to finish a workout plan if you do it with a friend or a fitness trainer. Meanwhile, if you do it by yourself, you have a 50% chance rate to drop off. And this is also an essential aspect of gamification — the community you build around it. Playing with friends is, sometimes, always better than alone.

And in the end, that’s what it takes for work to be satisfying: it must present us with clear, immediate actionable goals and show us direct and immediate feedback that we achieved them.

In the end

It does not matter if the rewards we receive are not real. We don’t care about that. What we care about is the emotional reward which is real. World of Warcraft is an example of extreme-scale satisfying work. Players commit to this work environment for long periods of time. Or as McGonigal mentioned, the unemployment rate is 0% in World of Warcraft. And if you are able to put in place these type of principles of “gamification” into your product, you nailed it.

Eugen Esanu