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What is Gamification, Really?

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+.



FTW-logo_web.pngEarlier this month, I was invited to Wharton’s gamification symposium: “For the Win: Serious Gamification.” It was definitely a meeting of the minds with a very diverse group of participants ranging from game designers to policy makers straight from The White House. There were proponents of gamification, and some of the stories are reported on Knowledge@Wharton. Yet, there were also strong critics and opponents of the idea as well (see Gamification is Bull**bleep**). However, the goal is well-intended. We were all there to poke and probe gamification from multiple angles and put it through some of the most rigorous tests. The goal is to figure out what aspects of this idea will actually endure and last.


The organizers of the symposium, Prof. Kevin Webach (Wharton) and Prof. Dan Hunter (NY Law School), posed a series of high level questions in the meeting agenda to guide our discussions and debates. Although we didn’t explicitly answer all of them, they were excellent questions that need to be addressed in order to advance gamification beyond its current state of hype. With that in mind, I’d like to spend the next few posts to address most, if not all, of these questions.


Q1: What is gamification?

I used to casually define gamification as “the use of game mechanics and dynamics to drive game like engagement in a non-game context.” However, after seeing the numerous implementations of gamification at this symposium, I am convinced that the use of only game mechanics/dynamics may be too restrictive. So I’d like to expand the definition a bit.


Gamification is the use of game attributes to drive game-like player behavior in a non-game context. This definition has three components:

  1. The use of game attributes,” which includes game mechanics/dynamics, game design principles, gaming psychology, player journey, game play scripts and storytelling, and/or any other aspects of games
  2. To drive game-like player behavior,” such as engagement, interaction, addiction, competition, collaboration, awareness, learning, and/or any other observed player behavior during game play
  3. In a non-game context,” which can be anything other than a game (e.g. education, work, health and fitness, community participation, civic engagement, volunteerism, etc.)


Q2: What is it not?

Anything that doesn’t fit the definition above is, by definition, not gamification. Clearly, if a strategy is not intended to drive game like player behavior, then it is not gamification, but then you probably don’t need to do anything at all. Strategies that drive game like behavior but didn’t use game attributes or it’s not used in a non-game context are also not gamification. So there can literally be millions of things that gamification is not. I’m not going to list them here, but I will point out a couple that are often confused in the industry and give some explanation.


Gamification is not a game. Primarily because the definition specifically states that gamification refers to those applications in a non-game context, where players don’t really know that they are actually playing a game. Furthermore games don’t need to be “gamified” further. It should already be driving game-like behavior (unless it is a very poorly designed game).


I like to refer to games that are created to achieve goals other than mere entertainment as serious games. Just to give a few examples, the following are all serious games:

  1. There are many educational games that teach various subjects in school through game play. As students play these games, they get practice and reinforcement with a particular concept. As a result, they learn and retain the knowledge better.
  2. Games that drive the awareness of certain issues (e.g. environmental) with the ultimate goal to change our behavior through game play
  3. Games that solves a different problem as we play the game (e.g. protein folding, etc.)


gamification_vs_serious_games_web.pngHowever gamification and serious games are related because both try to leverage aspects of games to achieve something more. A serious game does it through an actual game, but gamification does it through a broader set of tools (e.g. game mechanics/dynamics, game design, gaming psychology, etc.). If we take this perspective, then a serious game can be seen as a subset of gamification. However, the prior definition explicitly excludes this subset from the set of proper gamifications. That is why people are often confused between the two.


Gamification is also not the use of prizes (or other external incentives) to drive action. These are merely incentives systems. Although incentives are often used in gamification as a form of game mechanic, they do not constitute gamification by themselves, because not all incentives are good game mechanics.


Incentive systems are not new, and people have been using these techniques for hundreds of years throughout school, work, and most of our lives. For example, letter grades, salary promotion, cash bonus, etc. can be seen as a form of incentive systems. However, they are generally not considered as game attributes, because many of these incentives weren’t created with any game design principles in mind. If they are game attributes, they are terrible ones. And this is the reason why there are so many bored students at school and so many dispassionate employees in large enterprises.



Alright, now that we have a revised and extended definition of gamification, we can address the deeper and more interesting questions at the Wharton Gamification Symposium in the next post.


my_SXSW_idea_2012c.pngAlso, from the limited feedback I received, I get the sense that most people prefer shorter posts. So I will try hard to keep my articles a little more compact in the future. If need be, I will break up the longer articles into short ones and post them separately.


BTW, if you feel that gamification deserves the attention and proper treatise at SxSW, I'd like to ask for you help to please vote for my workshop proposal (you may need to create a FREE account to vote). Many thanks in advance, and see you next time.



Not applicable

Great post. Defining gamification is tricky since the term itself carries a bit of baggage. But, I think what you've described is very similar to my own opinions.


I think where we're going to see the biggest influence with gamification is in the workplace. Just as you said, incentive systems are not new but are now able to leverage technology to make them more realtime and dynamic.


In fact, is announcing the winner of their AppQuest 2011 contest today at Dreamforce and there are two gamificaton platforms as finalist. IActionable has created Engage to bring gamification to workplace as a fully customizable turn key app.


Check out the entry video here:

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Jason,


Thank you for the comment.


Defining gamification is probably going to be an on-going effort. As applications of gamification change, more collaboration with the gaming industry is bound to create something new in the future. I simply wanted to clarify some of the confusion out there now.


Gamification can definitely have a lot of influence at work place. But I think it has even greater potential beyond work in education, health/fitness, social goodwill, volunteerism, government, political process, and civic engagement. These are all topics we discussed. And I will share some of the highlights with you in later posts.


Dreamforce is happening now. So good luck.


Thanks again for the comment and see you next time.

Not applicable

Hi Michael,


After thinking it over, I've determined which part of broadening the definition to include game like attributes it is that doesn't sit well with me. Primarily it comes back to story/narrative. Games hardly have a corner on the market when it comes to narrative. Not only do digital games borrow various forms of narrative from other media, but if anything there are relatively few games that benefit from a well written and well executed designer narrative. In fact, one of the mistakes of bad edutainment development was the assumption that wrapping dull content in a kid friendly video game like narrative would somehow work to create a more effective learning experience. Those efforts also missed the fact that narrative doesn't sit at the core of most game development. 


As we see people trying to figure out what it is about games that works and port those things into non-game experiences, I think it's probably beneficial to keep a keen eye out for those things that are native to games and those things that are present in games but not unique to them. There are surely storytelling practices that can support a lot of other non-game activities, but we don't necessarily want to pull from the traditions of narrative building tied to games as we look for models that support the use of story in other settings.


The other side of this is of course the loyalty programs issue. While these systems can be gamified, they are not gamification. As has been discussed in a number of places they predate it. Hence, calling a simple rewards program gamification is either opportunistic marketing or simply a misunderstanding.


If there is in fact something unique about gamification (and I think that we generally agree that there is), it can only help gamification efforts to set it apart from other tools by focusing gamification processes on the attributes that are most unique to games (analog or digital). That doesn't mean we shouldn't stay aware of where gamification can intersect with other efforts we're bringing to bear in improving the user experience (like the overlay of a narrative), but rather when we talk about gamification I think it's worth focusing on the core aspects that are truly tied to games.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Moses,


Nice to see you here. And thank you for the elaborate comment.


I totally agree that narrative and story are not native to games, and it is not core to the game development. In fact, it pretty much develop in parallel with games throughout human history. Humans play games since they were cavemen, and they also huddle around a fire and tell stories.


However, I think narrative/story can make the game/gamification more appealing and relevant to a particular individual. If someone can relate to the story, it make the game much more meaningful. We can certainly make a game that help people recycle, but if the narratives can give purpose and meaning to why they are doing what they do, whether it is to save the polar bear or save our future. Moreover, if the story is able to capture the attention of the players, the game can be much more engaging. Because the players invested emotionally into the game, and they want the rest of the story (e.g. Clippy in Ribbon Hero 2 by Microsoft).


Since the narrative is not essential to the game/gamification, we can actually leverage this fact by having the same game but use different narratives to relate to different players personas.


And yes, pure reward systems and loyalty programs should not be confused with gamification. In my simple diagram, there should probably be an encompassing circle for strategies that’s designed for behavior modification but does not use game attributes. I think these are outside of the gamification circle, but inside the persuasive design/behavior modification circle.


Ultimately, terminology and what we call thing will probably change over time. But to make communication efficient it does help to put down some definition.


Thank you for the conversation. I think this is definitely helpful to move us to a better understanding of what kind of game attributes are truly tie to games. I hope to see you next time.

Not applicable

That's a great point about the parallel development of games and story telling. It's also a good reminder that when we think about games and gamification, there is a deep history to draw from that predates digital games.

On the implementation side, one way to think about it as a gamification designer might be the primary set of tools (e.g. core game mechanics, player objectives, end states, etc.) and then secondary game related elements that latch into your system. As with your example around narrative, secondary gamification design tools might provide opportunities to customize the play experience, or they might be approaches for creating tight coupling between other aspects of the system you're tweaking and the game layer (e.g. the reward system is meaningful in relation to the game layer).


While this more nuanced approach might be less essential in explaining the work to a client (or potentially confusing depending on their background), it offers the designer a mechanism for focusing on the roles of different types of game and game related attributes in their design effort.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Moses,


Thank you again for coming back and furthered the conversation.


That is an excellent framework!

  1. Use primary game attributes to design the core gamification
  2. Then use secondary game related attributes for customization of play experience and create coupling between other systems.


I totally agree that this might not need to be client facing information, but I do think it will definitely help designers concentrate their efforts in the right place. I’m very much into the over-arching frameworks as it gives us a holistic understanding and a way to attack the problem without worrying about the implementation details.


Thanks again for point this out. It will definitely benefit the game/gamification designers out there.

Talk to you soon.


Not applicable

I’m reading a fascinating book called “Reality is broken“, by Jane McGonigal and the parallels between gaming and business are far reaching. It’s more than just rewarding points and badges, it’s involvement and direct social connectivity (and what is later coined as ‘ambient sociability’ by Jane), continuous feedback and appraisal. It’s making sure that what we do in business has a clear objective and steps to reach that goal. That the intrinsic satisfaction of completing a set of tasks (or process steps) to achieve the (customer based) outcome has far greater power than just the (not so) almighty dollar.


I would say read the first six chapters and understand the concepts within, then look at how your Social BPM stacks up against it. One of the more interesting topics (technically) touched on is ‘Phasing’ which happens in WoW, where each player is shown a different view of the world depending on their own accomplishments. Perhaps this is something that could/ should translate into business context a lot more, and in Social BPM, visibly seeing the impact of your work and how it affects the organisation around you. And I don’t mean BAM and MI. Please think a little more abstract when you apply social context to these tired concepts.


Do we split Social BPM into Hardcore and Casual streams ?

Casual processes, ones that offer one off hits, quick and dirty customer fulfilment ?
Hardcore processes that take longer and more effort but the rewards are more visible and longer lasting ?

Food for thought if you’re looking to explore gamification beyond just ‘business games for innovation’

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Theo,


Thank you for the comment.


Yes, I’ve read Jane’s book. Great book indeed, but I didn’t finish all of it yet. Our CEO actually put forth a webcast with Jane McGonigal back in June. The webcast is still accessible on-demand here if you are interested.


Totally agree. If you take a look at the next post (which is just published), points and badges are the most shallow gamification design there is. And people will most likely get tired of them soon. Continuous feedback is great, but it’s efficacy depends on the application. Feedbacks can sometime be interruptive too. The key is to have the right feedback at the right time. But I agree that given today’s BPM, we definitely need more feedback, lots more.


So my question to you is that are you willing to work at a job you love for free? Completely free, even if you know that they are using you and manipulating you, but you are still doing what you love. There is more to it than just intrinsic rewards. Certainly intrinsic rewards are more motivating, but you also need extrinsic reward to reinforce the intrinsic. And there is a notion of fair and justice that has to be enforced too.


It seems that you like reading, so I would also recommend another book on this very subject “Total Engagement.” It is by  Prof. Byron Reeve, a renowned game researcher at Stanford University. It’s probably more academic than it’s necessary compare to “Reality is Broken,” which is more for the general public. But since you are a gamer, I also recommend this post “The Future of Enterprise Software will be Fun and Productive.” Although software doesn’t fix everything, but if the tools are gamified, that is the first step. How you gamify would have to be design by creative designers.


In game design, it is very common to have several currencies and metrics, all going at the same time, at different rate. There are the rapid, immediate, action-based metrics. These are often shown as some kind of progress bar. The information is just there. This type of feedback is passive. If you want it, it’s there, it won’t ping you or pop up something to draw your attention. It is less interruptive (to my point above that feedback that are too frequent can sometimes be interruptive). And there are also those that are achievement, ranks and level up. These are more attention drawing and interruptive, and they have to be carefully planned to ensure smooth UX. I think these different types of metrics can map to the casual process and the hardcore process you mentioned.


Alright, Thank you for the great comment. I look forward to chatting more in the future. See you next time.


Not applicable

Fascinating and thoughtful post Mike. Now, having approached this definition from a top-down Socratic direction, I would like to see an extensive set of examples that fit the definition. For example, I still have some difficulties separating "incentive systems" from Gamification. Would be great to see a robust set of examples, annotated to tell which aspects of Gamification they exploit.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Glenn,


Thank you for stopping by and commenting.


You bring up a good point. Incentive systems and gamifications are not easy to tell apart if you are not a trained professional game designer. The reason is that the two are not mutually exclusive. Some incentives sytems are designed with gaming attributes from the ground up (these are valid gamification), and others are not (these are just plain old incentive systems).


The best way to distinguish a plain old incentive system from Gamification is to ask couple of questions

1. What gaming attributes did it use?

2. What gamer profiles/persona does the incentives target?

3. Does it drive behavior reliably and predictably?


If the answer to all three are yes, then it is likely that it is a gamification. But keep in mind that these are not definitions, so getting 3 yes do not guarantee it is a gamification, and missing some of them does not guarantee them to be a plain old incentive system either. These are merely a set of diagnostic questions. You should always check back with the definition to see if they are indeed gamification or just incentive systems.


I will keep your suggestions in mind. Maybe when I have the bandwidth to write a book, I will include more examples. And of course, I will sure some of them here on my blog too.  😉


Thanks again for the comment. I hope this helps for the time being. See you next time.



Hello Mike,


as far as I can see your definition of gamification is the most precise on the internet. However I have difficulties to understand the non-game context part of it:


You say:
"the definition specifically states that gamification refers to those applications in a non-game context, where players don’t really know that they are actually playing a game."

So by non-game context you actually mean that the application which is to be gamified is not a game before being gamified, right?

In other words: If you use game attributes to drive game-like player behavior in a non-game context and
"unintentionally" create a game - is that gamification or doesn't it fit into the definition here because of breaking out of the non-game context? Specificaly: What happens if suddenly the user understands that he is actually playing a game, is it then still non-game context? Is it still Gamification?

I actually thought that if you gamify something in a non-game context and it happens to you that you create a game where there was no game, than this is the best result you can achieve with Gamification.



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Boris,


Thank you for the comment, and for inquiring clarification on the definition.


I can totally related to your confusion about the "non-game context" clause in the definition of gamification. That is the most vague part of the definition, and there is good reason for it.


The reason is because we don't really have a really good definition of "games."


What is your definition of a game? I often hear people say that a game is a form of play or the activity that we engage in where the players follows a set of rules defined by the game and the outcome of the game is determined by skill and chance. If you believe in this or any other definition of games, then a lot of things can be a game, such as school, business, work, or even life in general.


So when I say non-game context, the games I was referring to are games like Angry Bird, poker, chess, basketball, etc., something that we do for fun, as opposed to work, school, business, exercise, etc. (even though some people may find these activity fun and think of it as just another big game). So it is very hard to define what a game is, consequently, I hope you see the difficulty in defining what is not a game.


They key point to take a way is that a good game should have all the necessary narrative, game mechanics/dynamics already and shouldn’t need to be gamified. If you have invented a kind of work that is so fun that everyone love to do, then you don’t need to gamify that work, even though it is work. But for that matter, those kind of work might as well be perceived as a game, and many people doing those work are probably thinking that they are playing a fun game.


So non-game context in my definition is rather vague, but what I want to say is that they are not already a game. At least not being thought of as a game "in the traditional sense (i.e. Angry Bird, basketball, poker, chess, etc.)" by most people even though anything we do can be thought of as a game.


Alright, I hope I clarify the confusion. Thank you for asking such great question.

I hope to see you around lithosphere more in the future.



Hello Mike,

thanks a ton for answering on my question!

Just recently I've read a dissertation by Gonzalo Frasca with a definition for the constructs Game and Play, which I find is very well derivated and accurate. Here is how the definition for Game goes according to Frasca:

A game is to somebody an engaging activity in which players believe to have active participation and where they agree on a system of rules that assigns social status to their quantified performance. The activity constrains playersʼ immediate future to a set of probable scenarios, all of which they are willing to tolerate.

It takes into account the player's individual point of view and many other important aspects and might help us to clear up what the game-context is.

See you.

: ]

Not applicable

There are very good collaborative notes from the Gamification course at Wharton here:


My definition is:


Gamification is the process of applying beneficial characteristics of video games to serious tasks.


This definition comes from GetBadges gamification platform


Cubix inc Definition of Gamification:


Gamification is the application of game principles and game-design elements in non-game contexts. It is the process of taking something that already exists, such as a website or online community and integrating game elements into it that will motivate engagement, participation, and loyalty among your audience.


This definition comes from - 5 Reasons Why Companies Should Gamify Virtual Training


This was really informative Mike and it also clearly differentiates between Serious games and gamification.