Some Thoughts on Gamification

There seems to be a lot of industry buzz lately around the concept of “gamification”, and the idea is basically one of applying game mechanics to the world of business to motivate employees or customers. Bunchball has done a really nice job with their Gamification 101 white paper of illustrating how gamification can work in a variety of circumstances, and why you should be using it in your business. It’s a good read, and a good place to get started learning the concepts. Some examples of gamification that they give are frequent flyer programs, where customers earn points and “level up” to different statuses over time, and Starbucks’ use of the Foursquare to check in and win “trophies or badges”. Another good resource is the Gamification Encyclopedia at

Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA)

So what makes a game? Bunchball discuss the terms “game mechanics” and “game dynamics” in their white paper, and those terms come from a game design approach called MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics), described by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek in their article MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. The idea is basically that a game designer creates various rules for a game (Mechanics). These rules then work together (in sometimes unexpected ways) to create a system (Dynamics). And a player experiences these Dynamics through the Aesthetics of the game, which they categorize into things like “Challenge”, “Discovery”, or “Narrative”. So, the game designer sets up the game by manipulating the Mechanics, and the player experiences the game through the Aesthetics. Put simply, if the designer can directly manipulate something by changing the rules of the game, it is part of the game mechanics. Dynamics are manipulated indirectly by the designer, and aesthetics are experienced by the player. Game design is complicated, then, because the experience of the player is two steps removed from the rules set forth by the designer.

A simple example can be illustrated with the game of Poker. The mechanics of the game involve dealing cards, anteing, and betting. The dynamics of the game have emerged over time to include things like bluffing. And the aesthetics of the game include things like fellowship (it’s a good game to play with friends) and challenge (your opponents present many obstacles to winning).


So what makes a game fun? Every game uses game mechanics, but many have been utter failures. What makes a gamification strategy successful? It’s easy to throw together leader boards, loyalty programs, and point systems, but how do you actually drive behavior with gamification? And what exactly is a game anyway? It’s one of those things that you know when you see it, but how do you actually define it? Chris Crawford offers an interesting definition of “game” in his book, Chris Crawford on Game Design, Basically, if there is no competition (either amongst players or against some form of AI), then what you have is a puzzle, not a game. Additionally, if you have no influence over how your opponent is performing, then that competition isn’t a game either. By this definition, solitaire is a puzzle, because there is no competition. A drag race is a competition, but not a game, because you can’t slow the other car down in any way. However, a race where you are allowed to run your opponent off the road is a game.

So, does a successful gamification strategy need to follow this definition? Does there need to be competition, and should employees or customers be able to alter other’s ability to perform? Perhaps not, but competition is likely to be important in any successful gamification strategy.


So, what are some pitfalls of game design? If some players are able to get too far ahead of the pack, does it create a disincentive for the rest of the players? How can you reward top players without discouraging everyone else? Consider Monopoly: The game starts out fun for everyone, but as one or more players start buying up all the property, the “poorer” players get less and less interested in completing a game that they have very little chance of winning. How could the mechanics of Monopoly be adjusted to keep everyone engaged? It’s important to consider positive and negative feedback loops in the game. Monopoly has a strong positive feedback loop. The more property a player has, the more money they make from other players, which they use to purchase more and more property. To cancel this out, one could adjust the game mechanics to include, say, theft. This could introduce a negative feedback loop by making players who are doing well more likely to have property stolen by players on the poverty side of the equation.

Frequent flyer programs have a similar problem. People who fly frequently form loyalties to airlines because they have so many points built up that they are able to reap the benefits of the program. People with few points have little incentive to be loyal to any specific airline because they are a long way from “leveling up” and seeing any tangible benefit from the program. The airlines probably don’t care as much about these infrequent flyers, but they may be missing out on nurturing loyalties in people who may become more frequent flyers in the future. These “players” could be incentivized to by being entered in a drawing each time they fly, or randomly getting free drinks or being upgraded to first class when seats are available.


Overall, I think it’s really exciting that business leaders are starting to consider employee and customer motivation from the perspective of the game designer, and it’s nice to see some formalized thought being put forward that takes some lessons from “regular” game designers and researchers. It will be interesting to see what innovative groups like Bunchball come up with over time.

tomgersic Avatar


I help business and technology leaders make investments that become the hallmark of their careers, changing the way people work and opening doorways to new business opportunities.