Is gamification just a fad? Add points, leaderboards and achievements and call it a day right? Actually, most ‘gamification’ is done entirely incorrectly..

Length: 1453 words, 8-10 minute read

Subject: I discuss the problems that most designers run into when they attempt gamification and explain why gamification is consistently not fun.

Disclaimer: I make reference to my new app Self Discipline Sensei. The app is used as an example of gamification, but it is not a requirement to understand this material. Product links are affiliate links – these cost you nothing, but support the blog when used.


Bloodborne demake - not really gamification but coolIs gamification just a fad? After Jesse Schell’s 2010 DICE talk on the subject, there was an explosion of interest, with venture capitalists handing out money to anyone claiming to be able to do gamification.

The result was that just about every app and website you came across had some form of uninspired leveling system, or endless achievement popups for completing banal tasks.

Is this really all there is to gamification? Why do people think giving out pointless badges for using an app will entice people to use it more?

After all, it’s not like these are the parts of games that make them fun. A highscore is a meaningless number outside of the context of the game. A leaderboard that ranks no particular skill isn’t interesting.

But I don’t think gamification is to blame

In my opinion, there are a few fundamental mistakes that designers make over and over again when they attempt gamification. Typically these stem from a lack of understanding of games and game design methodology – those tasked with gamification are typically not game designers.

In this article, I’ll be covering each of these major mistakes and also describing the correct way to go about gamification, drawing comparisons with my own work on Self Discipline Sensei.


Mistake 1: Doing something that isn’t gamification at all

It sounds insane, but a good chunk of so called gamified applications aren’t actually gamified at all – even some of the best known examples! Many designers actually use a completely different design technique, called serious games, confusing the purposes of both techniques and failing to deliver anything effective as a result.

The difference between these techniques is subtle yet critical:

Gamification is the process of making a non-game more gamelike

Serious games are games that promote action outside of the game

The key difference is that you can only gamify something that isn’t already a game!

Both techniques have value and used correctly they can have significant effects. But it’s important to understand that these are two different tools for two different purposes. There are instances in which using the serious games technique can be detrimental to the impact of the application, where as gamification would have worked wonders. And vice versa.

Self Discipline Sensei was in fact born out of a frustration with the lack of properly gamified productivity apps. Every example I found was simply a game with a todo-list tacked on – a serious game.

This is a great example of a situation that serious games are completely unsuited for, but where gamification can really shine. Think about it – if you’re trying to motivate yourself to work on your goals and your ‘gamified todo-list’ is making you click through a weak RPG to access your list of tasks, the point of the app is completely undermined. 

A successful app would minimize the time you spend interacting with it – because the less time you spend playing productivity games, the more time you have for actual production!

A gamified app however, is able to create the same motivation and sense of fun that a game would, without eating up any more of your valuable time. These gamelike elements can be subtle and effective at increasing motivation – so long as we pick the right elements. Which brings me to mistake number 2…


Mistake 2: Overusing the PBL triad

Even when designers pick the right technique, they still often miss the point of gamification. They pull out their trusty gamification toolkit – the PBL triad.

The PBL triad = Points, Badges and Leaderboards

Chances are you’ve encountered these game elements in just about every gamified application you’ve come across. But as I said in the opening paragraph – these aren’t fun in isolation. You can’t just give out virtual rewards for every interaction in your application and expect that to influence engagement.

A virtual reward defines its value by the level of effort required to obtain it

Your badges, achievements and points should only be earned for significant actions – actions that promote the behaviour the app is supposed to encourage.

As long as PBLs are aligned to the goals of the app, they’re fine to use. They’re not inherently bad design, just often misused. When you’re considering game elements to use in gamification, always ensure that they promote whatever action you want users to take.

And remember that there is much more to games than points, badges and leaderboards. Gamification doesn’t start and end with PBLs. So what are the best elements to take from games to make gamification effective? I’ll explain by discussing the 3rd and final fundamental mistake.


Mistake 3: Missing out on the play element

So if points, achievements, leaderboards and other game features aren’t the fun part of games, what is?

The play element

As I’ve discussed in my article on Game Design Xenia, play is a concept that predates humans. Young animals play fight because it creates a safe zone for experimentation. They can pretend that the situation is real, but stop things before they really hurt each other.

This means that when we enter a state of play, things become less stressful. It’s not real, so the usual stress and tension disappears.

For a simple example, imagine that you’ve been tasked with cleaning all the rubbish from a huge area and placing it into a bin. This would be a boring, perhaps stressful task. So how do you pass the time and keep your mind off the monotony of the task? You make a game of it.

You start trying to throw the rubbish in from a distance. You keep a score of how many pieces of rubbish successfully land in the bin. Even something like humming a tune is a sort of play.

This is the power of gamification

If you can create a sense of play for people, even the most mundane tasks can become engaging, or even addictive. This is the key element that designers should think about when considering gamification. And yet it is so frequently overlooked.

The play element can be tough to capture – many full blown games fail at it. But designers wanting to gamify applications have access to the same toolkits that game designers do.

Here are a few unusual ways Self Discipline Sensei demonstrates gamification:

Gamelike UI and animations – rarely considered, but UI can have immediate effects on activating a person’s sense of play. The UI in Self Discipline Sensei looks like it belongs in a game. The animation is designed to look natural and behave like real physics. A fun UI can go a long way in creating a sense of play.

engagement loopEngagement and progression loops – a slightly more esoteric game design technique, but these loops go a long way in increasing user engagement. Progression loops refer to the player’s progress through the game and are related to the Player Journey. Using these kind of loops can give a sense of purpose to moving through content in the app.

Engagement loops create the addictive pull we see in mobile games and MMOs. They’re based on operant conditioning, which attempts to alter behaviour by reinforcing a stimulus->behaviour->consequence loop (shown right). When that consequence is a reward, the sense of play activates very quickly.

Retention bonuses – this is another technique that is particularly popular in mobile game development. It makes use of a cognitive bias called the endowed progress effect. This bias describes how people are more likely to complete an action if they feel like they’ve already made a start. If you’ve ever received a reward card with the first few stamps already filled out, then you’ve probably felt the effect of endowed progress.

Gamification can make use of the same effect. In Self Discipline Sensei, you receive a bonus to your points for every consecutive day you use the app. The rewards help induce a sense of play, but mostly retention bonuses are useful for getting users back into the app, where the other game elements can induce a sense of play.


That covers the basics of gamification. If you’d like to know more about the gamification techniques in Self Discipline Sensei and how they can make progression on your personal goals easier than ever, check out


Further reading

I recommend this book for further reading on gamification:

For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business