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Why meaningful gamification beats rocket science

January 3, 2017 – by Frank Stemerding &ranj

From around 2005 entrepreneurs worldwide jumped on the Gamification-Train heading to Cashtown. Gamification was labelled as a magical cure increasing customer loyalty, employee engagement, and user retention rates among other things. ‘Gamifying’ your organisation, platform or neighbour’s cat meant slapping a reward system (e.g. achievements, badges) and a leader board onto it, making it instantly enjoyable to use or have. The problem with these ‘pointsifications’ is a lack of meaning for the employee, user or cat (Robertson, 2010). Receiving a reward for a task that has no personal meaning quickly feels childish or redundant and therefore does not engage over a longer period of time. Design experience shows the key to successful gamification is identifying and facilitating meaning for the user. When done right, gamification can motivate people to positively change their behaviour and attitudes. This is definitely possible, yet challenging. Here are five reasons why I believe designing meaningful gamification beats rocket science.

motivation_gamificationMotivation by dreams vs. motivation by design

First of all, designing meaningful gameful solutions is about finding and tapping into the intrinsic needs of someone to perform an activity using playful mechanisms (Deterding, 2012a). A rocket scientist does not have to convince the astronaut to be shot into space in a winged cylindrical tube powered by a liquid of dead plants. This desire is (oddly) already embedded in the higher goal of the astronaut. In gamification, the game designer first has to seek and define the intrinsic needs to be able to successfully engage the user to perform an activity. Forcing a user to participate is never the answer since this compromises the essence of play; freedom.

Engineers vs. chameleons

Second, identifying and designing for these intrinsic needs not only requires the perspective of a game designer. As a rocket scientist your role as an engineer is clear. However, to successfully perform user research, process its findings and design a playful solution, one has to constantly shapeshift from designer to reporter, psychologist, sociologist and game developer among other things. The context forces you to quickly adapt to every situation you encounter, transforming game designers to chameleons. Which are awesome.

emotion_vs_ numbersNumbers vs. emotions

Subsequently, when designing for an engaging product experience, you are dealing with human emotions. Rocket science deals with numbers which are logical, rational and consistent. The emotional experience elicited by (gamification) design is dependent on personal appraisal (Desmet & Hekkert, 2007) and is therefore less straightforward than Calculus. This appraisal is influenced by someone’s individual and internal concerns and the external stimuli we can steer with design. Even though we can generally understand and predict emotional outcomes, it remains challenging to universally grasp in a model. If it were to be invented, I think this Calculus of Human Emotions would save a lot of marriages.

building_vs_sculptingBuilding vs. sculpting

Moreover, designing playful experiences that result in new behaviour or attitudes is a process of sculpting rather than building. A rocket scientist ‘only’ has to combine and connect parts with different functions to build a final product. Unfortunately, in gamification design there is no blueprint. No fixed parts with a single function. The function and effect of a game mechanic can depend on the context and personal affordances of the player (Deterding, 2014). Rather than stacking re-usable building blocks, gamification design is about forming and sculpting a motivational experience by looking at activities through the lens of game design (Deterding, 2012a).

Space vs. maze

Lastly, since gamification is about applying game elements on real-world attributes (Visch, Vegt, Anderiesen, van der Kooij, 2013), you have to take into account all norms and restrictions that come with reality. In rocket science you just have to design something that keeps going up in a vacuum with almost infinite amount of space. In gamification, you are far more controlled in where you can go. Next to motivation of your user, you’ll have to consider their ability (is the user physically and mentally capable of performing the activity?) and the opportunities in time (is there an ideal moment to perform the activity?)(Deterding, 2012b). You are therefore constantly trying to find your way in this maze guided by social norms, organisational values, user knowledge, resources and routines.

In conclusion, meaningful gamification is not the sauce you pour over your meat to make it tastier. It is about knowing how done your audience wants the steak to grill and spice it to their taste. Designing actual gamification requires you to identify motivation of your user, create stimuli to address their emotions, without being able to follow a blueprint. This requires the design team to be experienced, flexible and multidisciplinary. The ability of the user and the properties of the context guide the designer’s space. This is hard, but not impossible. Rocket scientists put people on the moon. If designed well, gamification can top that by making life more enjoyable.

At &ranj our higher goal is to achieve this positive behavioural change through play. Because we have created over 400 applied games and a growing number of successful gamification projects in the last sixteen years, we became experts on the challenges described above. If you would like to know what real gamification can do for your organisation, you can contact me at, or contact one of my other emphatic chameleon colleagues via: NASA, eat your heart out.

Desmet, P., & Hekkert, P. (2007). Framework of product experience. International journal of design1(1).

Deterding, S. (2014). Eudaimonic design, or: Six invitations to rethink gamification.

Deterding, S. (2012a). Gamification: designing for motivation. interactions19(4), 14-17.

Deterding, S. (2012b). The MAO Model: Research for behavior change. Interaction’12.

Robertson, M. (2010). Can’t play, won’t play. Hide & Seek6, 2010.

Visch, V. T., Vegt, N. J. H., Anderiesen, H., & Van der Kooij, K. (2013, April). Persuasive Game Design: A model and its definitions. In CHI 2013: Workshop Designing Gamification: Creating Gameful and Playful Experiences, Paris, France, 27 April-2 May 2013. ACM.

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