Gamification – more than just points, badges and leaderboards!

By Lesley Brownlie

Gamification is becoming a much more common business practice. The definition of gamification is intentionally broad since there are many different ways of incorporating game design thinking and techniques into non-game contexts. Gamification can be applied to:
· external business processes (customer engagement)
· internal business engagement (employee productivity)
· personal behavior change (health and wellness)

In general, the goal of gamification is to change user (or more appropriately ‘player’) behavior by designing fun and engaging experiences that increase the likelihood of a player performing specific target behaviors. For example, players might be awarded points for completing a target behavior such as answering another player’s question on a website. Although a player might answer questions without getting any points, one might predict that the richer experience of being awarded points and watching points accumulate will cause the player to become more engaged and answers more questions from their peers.

Some of the first mainstream examples of website gamification had a strong focus on awarding players points for target behaviors , giving them badges for completing ‘quests’ and allowing people to compare their accumulated points to others on a leaderboard (referred to as PBL from this point forward). In fact, some people might only think of these elements when they talk about gamification – i.e. they equate PBL with the term gamification. In fact, the practice of gamification is much more complex and although implementing these 3 game elements can be very effective in generating player activity, product managers should understand the psychological research associated with gamification and the broader scope of gamification before implementing a simplistic PBL program in their product.

Research to Consider Before Jumping into a PBL Program

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation

Psychologists who study motivation usually divide motivation into 2 types: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation occurs:
· when a person is driven to do something for the sheer enjoyment of that activity
· participates of their own free will
· does something based on an internal drive

Extrinsic motivation:

· is externally driven
· drives actions that are completed in order to obtain a specific outcome or reward

Psychologists have termed the study of the different types of motivation as ‘self-determination theory’ and argue that behavior change driven by intrinsic motivation based on personal choice, personal ability and a tie to a larger goal or community tends to be stronger and longer lasting than behavior change based on external rewards.

Understanding the different sources of motivation is important when thinking about designing a gamification program since PBL programs focus on extrinsic rewards. Product managers should be aware of the over justification effect. The over justification effect occurs when extrinsic rewards are offered in order to get a person to perform a behavior that was originally driven by intrinsic motivation. The extrinsic reward tends to decrease the intrinsic motivation to perform the activity. If the extrinsic reward is later removed, the person is no longer motivated to perform the task since their intrinsic motivation to engage is decreased. How does this relate to gamification? Let’s go back to the Q&A example. If you are running a Q&A platform and find that users are perfectly happy answering questions for other users, you should consider how adding rewards for answering questions will change their behavior. Does the task now seem like work or is it fun to compete with other users on the leaderboard? Will the source of motivation change over time? Will the players get bored of the rewards?

Competitive Games

Purely competitive games based solely on points can be demotivating for some players. If a player enters the game and sees that the top player on the leaderboard has 2 billion points, it may seem pointless to start to play the game as it will take a long time to catch up. In this case, a player may abandon a site instead of exploring more of its content.
Consider the fact that it is also possible to generate strong behavior change by allowing players to collaborate and socialize. Sometimes purely competitive games tend to only focus on one type of player at the expense of other types. Think of interesting ways players can interact and help one another.


When planning a gamficiation program, you need to consider higher level dynamics (e.g. constraints, progression, relationships) and mechanics (e.g. challenges, cooperation, feedback, rewards, win states) before implementing the lower level game elements.

Not only do players need micro engagement loops of a motivation > action > feedback but they also need more macro progression loops that allow players to achieve higher levels of mastery over time. Players expect gamified systems to get more challenging over time and if they do not, players can get bored and abandon the site.

Recommendations for Implementation

Before implementing a gamification program, go through the following framework outlined by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter:
1. Define the business objectives – what are you trying to achieve and what defines success? List and rank order objectives.
2. Delineate specific target behaviors – be specific and plan out how to measure target behaviors.
3. Describe the players – include demographics and psychographics. Segment players and think about their motivations.
4. Devise activity loops – develop micro engagement loops and macro progression loops.
5. Don’t forget the fun!
6. Deploy appropriate tools. Think through dynamics, mechanics and game components. Keep experimenting and iterating. Go beyond a simple PBL program.

There are numerous examples of companies that have successfully used gamification to engage users and some that do so for the greater social good. Practically Green (, founded by Susan Hunt Stevens, is a great example of a company that has a point system tailored towards getting players to perform environmentally friendly actions. Players can compete, collaborate, learn and share ideas on how to be more environmentally friendly. This site goes beyond just a simple point system by offering different content to players at different levels – i.e. a newbie wouldn’t be asked to install solar panels but might be asked to complete easier tasks such as recycling paper products in their home. The team at Practically Green has really thought through and experimented with gamification – their site is a great example of going beyond a simple PBL program and moving players from participants to contributors to lifelong loyalists.

For more information on gamification, I highly recommend the Gamification course offered through and reading ‘For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business’ by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter.

Lesley Brownlie (MA Psychology, MBA) has 10 years’ experience in Product Management. Lesley has worked on enterprise software, B2B sites and B2C sites and has managed teams of Product Managers, Designers and Engineers. She currently lives in Mountain View, CA and can be contacted at