The Building Blocks Behind Gamification

Written by: Bryan Woo

Video games have been a big part of my childhood ever since I first held a video game controller. I vaguely remember countless late nights spent sneaking out to the living room, loading up some of my favourite video game titles and telling myself that I would go back to sleep once I finish this quest or defeat this final boss. Or so I said. 


Looking back, it’s funny how it would take a huge amount of willpower and convincing for me to engage in more “productive” actions, like studying or household chores but when it comes to playing games, it took no convincing of any sort. Fast forward a couple of years, I would come to better understand that I simply wasn’t motivated to do other things as much as I was motivated to beat Ghasty Gnorc from Spyro: A Hero’s Tail.

(Ghasty Gnorc via Google Images)

(Ghasty Gnorc via Google Images)

Motivated being the keyword here. 


The ability to tap into the power of motivation is why gamification has been recognized as an innovative and promising concept for a wide variety of industries in the past decade (1). The idea behind this is by utilizing various design elements from games as building blocks, and apply these to real-world scenarios to foster and maintain the motivation of its various users (2)


That being said, to gain the most out of a gamified initiative, one can benefit from looking at commonly used game elements and diving deeper into the psychology and science (or as I like to call it, Psy-ence!) behind how these elements can motivate specific behaviours:


Points and Badges

(Points and badges found in fitness app, “FitBit” via Google Image)

(Points and badges found in fitness app, “FitBit” via Google Image)

Considered a basic element of a multitude of games, points are used typically as rewards for users when they successfully perform certain actions as well as providing a numerical representation of a player’s progress (1). Although the action of awarding points can serve a multitude of purposes, I find that points are at its most impactful when used as a form of immediate feedback when users display specific behaviours or actions. 


We see this commonly in various loyalty programs (i.e. Uber, Grab, etc.), which are designed to encourage its users to perform desired actions or behaviours. Displaying these behaviours will in turn reward users with points which can be used within the platform to obtain various incentives, thereby conditioning its users to repeat the desired actions if they want to earn more points. 

Points are often paired alongside badges, which are used as a visual representation of a user’s achievements that can be earned within a game or a gamified platform (1). Badges can be used in a variety of functions in a gamified platform, either serving as a goal that a user work towards or to represent status symbols its users to show off. By associating certain challenges or tasks with badges, a user’s actions can be influenced and stir towards completing acts that reward players with these badges.  


Additionally, another impact badges can bring to games and gamified platforms lie in its ability to tap into social influence. Earning certain badges can be used as a form of symbolizing one’s membership into groups that share the same achievements (3), thus forming a small community among its users. 


Leaderboards and Progress Graphs

(Scoreboard found in navigation app, “Waze” via Google Image)

(Scoreboard found in navigation app, “Waze” via Google Image)

Humans thrive on feedback, whether if it’s for a project that we are working on or for a hobby that we seek to improve on. Feedback provides us with useful information that helps us determine the rate of our progression. In games and gamified platforms, feedback is often provided in the form of leaderboards and progress graphs.


The primary function of a leaderboard is to rank users against one another, according to the “success factor” or “winning state” of a game or gamified platform (4). By tapping into the competition as a motivator, implementing a leaderboard can encourage a sense of competitiveness among its users as they compare their performance to that of another user when performing specific tasks.


That being said, the motivational potential of leaderboards may vary, as it can either be an effective motivator as well as a demotivator. Research in gamification has shown that while competition caused by leaderboards can create social pressure, thus encouraging more user participation, it was found that the positive effects of competition are more likely to occur when users are performing at the relatively same pace or level (1). Likewise, if the majority of a user base is not motivated by competition, a leaderboard may often do more harm than good for a gamified platform. 


Aside from this, progress graphs also provide feedback about a user’s progress in a platform, by comparing a user’s current performance to that of their own at an earlier stage (5). In contrast to leaderboards, which compares a user’s performance to others, progress graphs only evaluate a user’s performance over time. 


Progress graphs motivate its users by allowing them to focus on their improvements in a game or a gamified platform, thus creating an environment that allows for learning and mastery to occur. 

Stories and Player Avatars

(Story mission page from fitness app “Zombies, Run!” via Google Images)

(Story mission page from fitness app “Zombies, Run!” via Google Images)

Stories have important emotional meaning that creates engagement from people. It captures the imagination of people while tying together an emotional experience. That is why having meaningful stories in games and gamification, and using them consistently can bring great results.


Stories can be a welcomed addition to a gamified platform as they complement existing elements like points and achievements with added contextual meaning (6). Some examples include adding characters that the users can relate to or even changing the context of an activity found in a gamified platform. A simple walk in the park can now be transformed into a thrilling survival run from attacking zombies. 


A user may feel inspired and motivated to immerse themselves if a story is engaging and in line with their own interests. 


Some platforms take this a step further and allow their users to be the main star of the story, by introducing player avatars. These are visual representations of a user within a game or gamified environment (1). More often than not, most platform allows for some level of customization for users to create their avatar to their liking. It helps give a sense of identity for the user and create even more immersion within the platform. Furthermore, allowing users to interact with others using their avatars can encourage social interaction within a platform, thus leading to communities being form.

Every day, we are often exposed to a wide variety of platforms that uses elements of gamification. So the next time you come across some of these elements, you will have a better understanding of why these elements were included in the first place. 


1)   Werbach, K. & Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business.

2)   Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R. & Nacke, L. (2011). Gamification: Toward a Definition.

3)   Antin, J. & Churcill, E.F. (2011). Badges in Social Media: A social psychological perspective.

4)   Costa, J. P., Wehbe, R. R., Robb, J. & Nacke, L. E. (2013). Time’s Up: Studying Leaderboards for Engaging Punctual Behaviour.'s_Up_Studying_Leaderboards_For_Engaging_Punctual_Behaviour

5)   Sailer, M., Hense, J., Mandl, H. & Klevers, M. (2013). Psychological Perspectives on Motivation through Gamification

Kapp, K. M. (2012).The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education