Does gamification work?

Does gamification work? is one of those questions that comes up on a frequent basis. At this stage, with several projects behind us, we can confidently say, yes it works for our clients when we have clear objectives, good research and the opportunity to test the pilot to validate the findings. Of course, I have a vested interest in saying this.

Let’s look at it this way, behavioural based application building continues to grow, the games industry and exposure to games at all ages continue to grow. So our familiarity to games, game mechanics and playful nudging is ever increasing. Hence, I personally don’t believe gamification or whatever other words you want to call it, is going away any time soon.

Now, if you look at the apps and tools you may be using regularly, you will see a few interesting similarities, which if they weren’t working would have caused them to quietly disappear. The like, share, retweet and emoji buttons are becoming ever more prevalent. They are an instant feedback loop, tapping into our motivation to be likeable or empathised with. All social media is inviting you to share more and originally most people did, now I would say it is more redacted or edited to look glossy.

Recommendation engines bring us some more peer feedback, people that bought this book also bought these. Based on your previous buying behaviour you may also like these. These recommendations are tapping into our curiosity. In our learning gamification work, the most popular courses, tend to be the ones the manager took and raves about and books they recommend.

In question forums, upvoting of answers which may or may not earn the original answer giver kudos or status of some kind, work to weed out poor answers. Earning status points happens across loyalty programs and are as useful as the perceived benefits of levelling up in status. For example, earning top status in a coding topic on stack overflow, may enhance your career or gig options and have tangible benefits. In airline example, getting on board quicker may be good enough for some, but not important to others. The more it appeals to the users in question, the better the chances of it sticking and driving behaviour.

If these nudges are implemented with clear goals and ethical objectives for the users to have a better experience, then I see it as a positive. Does gamification work, well if you believe me and the social networks and others mentioned above, then I would give it a resoundingly positive answer.


When is what more important

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What do you need to create a serious game?

We often receive calls from businesses that want to create a game. The distinction between a serious game and gamification is often misunderstood, so it is good to clear this up first. In my world in a serious game, you step into a game environment, in gamification you remain in the process of what you were doing, whether that is learning, sales, productivity, etc. Both a serious game and gamification may have the same objective, but they both arrive at the target from a distinctly different angle. In this post, I want to talk about what you need to create a serious game?

The starting point is to have a clear objective in mind. The objective should answer questions such as:

  • What is the intention of the game?
  • Why a game and not something else?
  • How will you know your game hits the target?

Knowing your audience and the types of games they already play, in my view are essential to make your game accepted. If you have a mixed audience with multiple game preferences, then look for the common thread, where do they overlap. What could be the common storyline or gameplay, can you have a variety of levels that incorporate a few different genres of games?

The next step is very practically thinking about budget and accessibility. If you are looking to create the next World of Warcraft, you also need a sizeable say blockbuster game/movie type budget and a number of months to come up with it, with a big team. However, if you are thinking more along the lines of a Trivia quiz solution, you can find good designs for 3 or 4 figure sums. Each time you introduce custom graphics and deviate from the original template, you will need specialists to help you out.

How much reporting will you require, is a question I would like to know upfront. If we custom develop a game, the reporting has to built in from the start and may drive us to choose from existing game platforms and templates, with an inbuilt reporting tool.

The next decision point is the type of game, you want it to be. Different game types, allow for different interactions. In my game deck, I have included 13 different choices of game genres. It is good to read up on each of them and decide whether for example a role-playing game or a puzzle would be useful for the type of content you want your audience to engage with. The more players and the more complexity built in, the more budget and time for development you will need.

We like to build games that mimic or tie closely to a storyline that is relevant for the business. The more it relates to the day-to-day reality, the better the impact of the game. This could be expressed through specific graphics, narrative, sounds, environments that look familiar etc.

When it comes to game mechanics, I would say leave that to your game design and development team. It is not so easy to balance a game and create something compelling.

Do by all means volunteer and stay involved in playtesting so that you can refine the game.

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When is what more important

A question I would love to know the ultimate answers to is ‘when is what more important’? It may be a vaguely unspecific question, but sometimes I feel in gamification we are trying to solve everything with gamification. Whilst it may work, it may also not be that important.

In the instance of a crisis, gamification frankly is not that important and potentially dangerous. Imagine in the case of a fire, someone setting you a quest, where you have to unlock answers in order to get out of a building. Instead, you need clear instructions on how to get out, not some game mechanics in your way to solving the situation.  A checklist and route map for the emergency exit is much more essential.

In the case of raising awareness of procedures, before you ever need them but to embed them in our minds, gamification can be helpful. As a frequent flyer, I often find the safety instructions and interesting case. For the most part, they are boring, yet potentially lifesaving messages. Airlines such as Virgin and British Airways created a funnier instruction version of the plane emergency procedures, which when you see them even for the goodness knows how many-th time, can still make you smile. When you hear them the first time, you do a little bit of a double take, but after a while just like the traditional message you become used to it with a smile.

As we are working on some learning design related projects, the question came up of which game elements or interactions are more effective. Honestly, I can’t find data for it. I am searching and asking all learning connections for a while now and I usually draw blank stares or the sound of tumbleweeds growing. I haven’t found data that show when virtual reality is better, when a simulation is better, when a game is better, when gamification is better, when an infographic is better, when an animation is better, etc. etc. If you know where I can find it, please let me know in the comments.

For me, the first question is always, what is the purpose of the project? what are you trying to achieve and how will you know you have been successful? We can then identify whether gamification is appropriate or if something else is more important, like for example a process improvement, a technology change or just simpler instructions. In effect, if you have a process, you can gamify it. The question is, is it beneficial for the users interacting with this process to have it gamified. And if the answer is yes, then go ahead and start finding out what your users find fun and engaging, that way you have good chance to make it stick.

In some cases, you may find that a range of solutions may work to solve your problems such as gamification, augmented reality and virtual reality. The key to finding out which is most important depends on your target audience, their access and levels of comfort with certain technology, your budgets and time frames. Virtual reality by default requires you to wear a headset and step into a virtual environment, so whilst super efficient at creating an experiential and realistic environment to learn in, not the best for learning on the fly. Augmented reality may have the edge here, where a simple scan with a mobile device is able to beam up a video or instructions checklist. But having a mobile phone with a camera and the required augmented reality scanning software is also still essential to make it work.

The question that comes before ‘when is what more important’ in my view is what are you trying to achieve and why is that important and to whom. What matters to one group, may not have the same resonance to other groups. To bring your message across, you want to tap into the values that matter to your intended audience.



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Inclusion by ability

How able are you? Able can refer to your level of intelligence, physical ability, ability to adapt and learn, ability to comprehend, etc. So to design for inclusion by ability has to be defined what it means in any given context. We also want to set expectations around the levels of inclusion. We do aim for 100%, which is the target goal eventually, but it may take a few intermittent steps and several iterations to get there.

Imagine you are designing a board game for maximum inclusion by ability. In the first instance, it needs to be fit for purpose. Then the first ability considerations are around who will be playing it, what can they understand easily and the timeframe they will have available to learn and play it.  Readability, ease of instructions and wording to an age level is something to be mindful of.

When we work on e-learning projects, we often look for the average education of the target audience and what language level they would understand. These instructions are then part of the brief for learning designers. If at that point we also learn about other ability challenges, we will decide how we cater to them throughout the project and it certainly becomes a decision item in design sprints.

Back to our board game, beyond language comprehension and wording, the next thing that matters is colours and contrasts to be inclusive of those with visual impairments. The physical sturdiness and size of pieces matters for those with physical challenges and to pick pieces up in general.

The British Standards Insitute describes inclusive design with the image below, where with having considerations for several ability levels, products could aim to extend their level of inclusion without adaptations. It also leaves room for specialist products for specific segments of the market.

Inclusion by ability blogpost on

When I first started looking into inclusion by design, ability was one factor of a few I considered important. I had already created several projects where more than one customer journey, learner journey and employee journey had been part of the mix. So extending the percentage of people you can reach with gamification in my book is about tailoring journeys to include as many people as possible.

Most people that have a challenge in ability, will let you know ahead of time. When I have people in a wheelchair or with visual impairments or guide dogs coming along, they usually make me aware ahead of time. It then doesn’t take so much to make sure that what you do in a workshop is inclusive and accessible. When they don’t let you know it is not always easy to cater to their needs.

Charities such as Special Effect in the UK, have been adapting game consoles so that even the most limited in physical ability can still enjoy playing. They are currently looking for testers of their Eye Gaze Games, where you play with just using eye movement alone. I have played a few of their adapted games at events and I have to say from a design perspective it is a rewarding challenge to tackle.

In game design and gamification, using sprints and iterations allow you to design with multiple levels of abilities in mind. When it comes to ability in playing the game or using your gamified solution, making adaptivity an option is always beneficial, so that everyone can move forward, but some may get it the first time and others may need a few boosters before they can level up.

Next time, you have a group with mixed abilities, make adapting fun for designers as well as participants. For me catering for as much inclusion as possible is as much part of the design challenge and fun of the work in design, as it is seeing the appreciation and sense of achievement from players when they get involved.


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Inclusive by design

When I started out in gamification, I wanted to make my designs inclusive by design. One of the main drivers behind this was that what I had seen up until then didn’t quite motivate me as a woman when gamification presented in a hyper-competitive manner. I also felt that most gamification designers at the time were young, mainly white males and I thought bringing a feminine perspective would enhance the mix.

When I went looking for data, to back up my own feelings of not relating to certain designs. I came across several interesting pieces that confirmed my own views and also enhanced them to say that in fact feminine and masculine behaviours are definitely a socialised condition and they exist on a spectrum. Both genders can display more feminine and more masculine styles of responding depending on the situation.

In 2015, I first spoke about the differences I came across and the gamification design implications for it at the Gamification World Conference in Spain. I had very mixed responses and a serious backlash of men wanting to disprove what I had said, a very supportive voice from women in general and from men with daughters and men from parts of the world where equality for women takes a completely different form to what we are used to in the European world. I remember never making it back into the conference room thanks to the long queue of people with questions.

In any case, it showed me I had touched a seemingly raw nerve with a few people. It also led me to find more research on other factors influencing inclusivity, namely age, culture and ability. Some men had in their fury of a woman explaining that we are slightly different in how we process emotions and behaviours, dismissed gender and claimed age was much more of a differentiator. Equally, people from various cultures came and spoke to me about racial differences, but also loved how my suggestion of making sure you invite feedback from all members of your target audience in a safe and encouraging way for them to truly express themselves could work for them.

To make inclusivity complete, we also have to pay attention to levels of ability. In one of my early workshops, I had a blind person with a guide dog and a lady in a wheelchair attending and both agreed that the term disabled felt condescending to them. For them it means a different level of ability, for both their mental capacity was the same as anyone else in the room, they just had different abilities when it came to walking or seeing respectively. I loved their way of expressing this and have ever since used the level of ability approach to describe when we need to adapt for different levels. We would automatically create levels for intelligence, so why not for ability.

When it comes to inclusive design, you can take a number of approaches. I describe mine in this image:

Inclusive by design gamification framework Gamification Nation

We aim for a 100% inclusion on a range of inclusion factors such as culture, ability, gender and age. In most cases that means that we may have to design more than one user journey or experience to ensure we capture a maximum audience. I don’t believe one size fits all is possible in gamification design. Our world is diverse, so our designs need to allow for this too.

When it comes to creating experiences, you can choose to adapt an existing experience by adding a voiceover for those that can’t see, you allow for contrast and texture differences for visual ability levels, you make different languages available and potentially different based on local customs. These are just some of the things to be mindful of.

In culture, we look at differences in rituals, in what is acceptable or not, what language to use and also in a company culture we look for themes, stories, narrative and heroes that could make for an interesting character. In ability, we look at various abilities such as levels of access, mode of consumption, level of physical ability, use of colours, contrast, voice, etc. In gender, we look at the subtle difference of all of us on the feminine-masculine spectrum of behaviours and we look for indicators in the target audience of which behavioural styles are more prevalent and either we design for the main one or split the experience into a number of journeys. For age, there are specific differences in player styles, we again look for the different patterns in age groups in terms of motivation and behaviour and adapt our designs accordingly.

It seems like a lot and it does take a bit of effort, yet it is not prohibitive when you ensure a solid process to capture them. For all of our multinational clients, we have held workshops in their various offices and asked survey participants to show a reflection of all of the above. Sometimes the outcome is very homogenous, most frequently it is very diverse. When we have a diverse outcome, we look for patterns and trends that unify within persona groups.



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