Behavioural game design: A Review of popular Gamification Techniques

Gamification, the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications, is a very topical area with many enterprises exploring how they might use it to generate new levels of engagement with their staff or customers (current and prospective). In this article I review some popular gamification approaches/techniques and provide a reading list for further study. I cover 4 key aspects of Gamification: Objectives, Frameworks, Building Blocks and Implementation Risks/Mitigations.

Game Frame
Image: Game Frame by Aaron Dignan

Gamification Objectives

In Charles Coonradt's book, "The Game of Work" [1] written in 1984, he asks himself the big question:

"Why would people pay for the privilege of working harder at their chosen sport or recreational pursuit than they would work at a job where they were being paid?"

Coonradt's answer was to develop five key principles which arguably birthed the whole Gamification concept:

  1. Clearly defined goals

  2. Better scorekeeping and scorecards

  3. More frequent feedback

  4. A higher degree of personal choice of methods

  5. Consistent coaching

Recently The Economist (Nov 2012) ran an article More than just a game which reviews a new book on gamification (For the Win) from the Wharton Business School.

There are a number of potential risks and "rabbit holes" around gamification and a good "gamification gameplan" is to always keep Coonradt's 5 principles at the centre of your thinking.

One other important consideration [2] is that there are generally two inhibitors to any new desired behavior - volition (motivation) and faculty (skills). If you do not understand the players in the game then how can you select the right levers?

Gamification Frameworks

In the 2011 book "Game Frame" [2] Aaron Dignan proposes a very useful "Game Frame" on 1-page which identifies the main components involved in designing a behavioural game (see main figure). Aaron also offers a useful 9-step process covering:

1. Activity
2. Player Profiles
3. Objectives (ultimate)
4. Skills
5. Resistance (aka meaningful complexity)
6. Resources
7. Skill Cycles (and feedback loops)
8. Outcomes (short-term goals)
9. Play-Test-Polish

"Game Frame" is one of the best books I have read on Gamification - under 200 pages but full of useful examples and guidelines. I would recommend it.

Kevin Werbach at Wharton Business School offers a robust 6-step process (A Gamification Design Framework [3]) with the following steps which are well described and supported by a set of videos:

1. Define business objectives
2. Delineate target behaviours
3. Describe your players
4. Devise activity loops
5. Don't forget the fun!
6. Deploy the appropriate tools

Both frameworks offer different spins/sequencing on a more generic 4-step gamification process, ie:

1. Scope out the area and set the business objectives for improvement
2. Define the changes you want to see in players skills, behaviours and attitudes
3. Profile the players to understand their motivations, preferences, interests and barriers
4. Iteratively design, build and test the behavioural game in collaboration with the players

Gamification Building Blocks

A chapter in "Game Frame" [2] is dedicated to exploring (with good examples) how to employ each of 19 different "Gamification Building Blocks" in behavioural game design:

Targets -------Puzzles-------Currency--------Points


Chance-------Levels--------Forced Decisions--------Recognition

Time Pressure------- Social Pressure--------Data--------Status


Badgeville [4], a major US Gamification Technology Vendor, suggest a similar set of gamification elements as being key components of their "Behaviour Platform" for supporting Game Mechanics covering:

1. Points - Assign points for specific high value behaviours and achievements.
2. Achievements - Provide positive reinforcement for high-value user behaviours.
3. Levels - Signify levels of engagement across a company's ecosystem.
4. Missions - Create set of behaviours for users to perform to unlock specific rewards
5. Contests - Create a set of missions, and reward those who finish most quickly or effectively
6. Leaderboards -- Show people know where they stand as relative to their peers.
7. Notifications - Encourage engagement when users perform a desired behaviour
8. Anti-Gaming Mechanics - Set limits on how often a behaviour can be rewarded

One of the risks of these "magic bullet lists" is mechanism-centred design which is addressed in the next section.

Gamification Implementation Risks and Mitigations

In an excellent June 2012 paper [5] Scott Nicoloson of Syracuse University addresses one of the main criticism of popular models of gamification that they can reduce the internal motivation users have for the activity by replacing internal motivation with external motivation.

A consequence of this is that organizations naively adopting gamification approaches may be creating potential long-term negative impacts further down the line for themselves.

Nicholson goes on to identify 5 important design controls to achieve "Meaningful Gamification":

1. Organismic Integration
If too many external controls are incorporated the user can have negative feelings about the activity. "To avoid negative feelings, the game-based elements of the activity need to be meaningful and rewarding without the need for external rewards".

2. Situational Relevance
Without involving the user, there is no way to know which of the different potential gamification goals are relevant to them. "In a points-based gamification system, the goal of scoring points is less likely to be relevant to a user if the activity that the points measure is not relevant to that user".

3. Multiple Paths
Providing multiple ways to progress within the game allows users to select those which are most meaningful to them. "A scoring system that has no deeper connection to the underlying activity than quantification provides no way for a user to make a meaningful connection to the activity".

4. User Defined Goals
"One of the ways to make gamification experiences more meaningful is to allow players to set their own goals in a way which supports both long and short-term achievements".

5. Integration within a User-Centred Design
"The opposite of meaningful gamification would be meaningless gamification, and at the heart of meaningless gamification is organization-centred design". Another threat to meaningful gamification is mechanism-centred design where game designers see a new or interesting game mechanism and simply decide to build it in instead of designing around the user.

Audrey Crane of DesignMap [6] describes 4-levels of gamification in a framework which could be useful in guarding against the risk of mechanism-centred design:

1. Cosmetic: adding game-like visual elements or copy (usually visual design or copy driven)
2. Accessory: wedging in easy-to-add-on game elements, such as badges or adjacent products (usually marketing driven)
3. Integrated: more subtle, deeply integrated elements like % complete (usually interaction design driven)
4. Basis: making the entire offering a game (usually product driven)

Criticisms of Gamification from a Learning Perspective

Carlton Reeve in an excellent article Behaviourism and Games [7] (which reviews the 5 major learning theories) describes how computer games often use Behaviorialist principles in the way they offer reward or punishment for the player's behaviour.

"In behaviourist theory, a reward or positive reinforcer is anything that increases the frequency of a behaviour. Conversely, punishment or negative reinforce is something that decreases the frequency of a behaviour. The strict (narrative) structure and scheduling of rewards is classic behaviourism and characterises many games".

Reeve goes on the argue that "some commentators including the Georgia Institute of Technology professor, Ian Bogost, argue that gamification is a product of a simplistic Behaviourist approach to game design". According to Game designer, Jon Radoff

"The behaviorist approach to games channels inquiry away from the harder problems of immersion, cooperation and competition that is so important to creating successful game experiences."

Gamification Review: Conclusions

Gamification is an area with high potential rewards but also a number of significant risks if undertaken naively. There are a number of well-defined gamification frameworks/toolsets available which have been tried and tested to varying degrees.

There is really no good reason to invent another framework and, in fact, this could significantly increase the risk of gamification project failure. The best approach is to adopt one of these existing frameworks or develop a 'mix and match' approach blending the best parts of more than one.


[1] 5 Gamification Rules from the Grandfather of Gamification, Interview with Charles Coonradt, the author of "The Game of Work" in Forbes Magazine Sept 2012

[2] Game Frame - Using Games as a Strategy for Success Aaron Dignan, Free Press 2011

[3] Gamification 7 - A Gamification Design Framework - Kevin Werbach - Wharton Business School

[4] Gamification | Badgeville Website

[5] A User-Centred Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification by Scott Nicoloson Syracuse University June 2012

[6] A Gamification Framework for Interaction Design - Audrey Crane, UX Magazine May 2011

[7] Behaviourism and Games - Carlton Reeve, Play with Learning Jan 2012

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson delivers keynote conference speeches, workshop facilitation and in-house consultancy in four key business areas:

  1. Creating High Performing Teams in enterprises including Virtual and Mobile Teams (based on the Bioteams Book)
  2. Establishing effective Collaborative Business Networks enabling companies to co-operate effectively in areas such as sales and product development (based on the book - The Networked Enterprise)
  3. How to use the latest social media technologies including blogging and online communities to promote enterprises, brand, organisation or event
  4. Development of graphical on-line interactive Business Dashboards and What-if Simulators for organisations to support Performance Improvement, Strategy Development and Executive Team Development.

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Gamification Frameworks sound like an AI approach!


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