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Gamification - 1 - [Course Notes]

This is really a fun coursera course to study and I truly recommend this course for learning gamificaiton.
The complete course notes is composed of two blog posts:
- Gamification - 1 focuses on the basic knowledge of gamification concepts, game elements and behaviorism.
- Gamification - 2 (to be released) focuses on how to deisgn gamification, more about practical experience.

Gamification is the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. This course will teach the mechanisms of gamification, why it has such tremendous potential, and how to use it effectively. This coursera course is taught by Kevin Werbach, Associate Professor of Wharton College in University of Pennsylvania.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is about learning from games, not just the games themselves, but understanding what makes the games successful, what makes the games engaging, what games can do, and why games have power. Then taking some of those techniques, and thoughtfully applying them to other situations which are not themselves games.

Samsung Nation

Samsung's business problem is that they want more people to come to their site, write product reviews, watch videos, register products, etc. As people want to spend time and do stuff on their website, they will eventually buy more products. So Samsung created Samsung Nation: a site using game elements and game mechanics that they've developed from games, for example, leaderboards, badges to reward achievements, and point systems. They've taken these elements and applied them to a situation that isn't a game.

Note that it's an example of gamification, but it's not by any means the only kind of example of gamification.

Definition of gamification

Gamification is the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts.

Nike plus

What they do with Nike Plus was they developed a device, uses a piece of equipment called an Accelerometer, that fits into the sole of your shoe. And it tracks every single step you take when you're running. And so therefore, the device knows how far and how fast you're running and it communicates wirelessly with a Smartphone or your PC, which can aggregate together all of that data. And then what Nike did was build a set of applications around it, that made the experience of running more game-like:

  • telling you how far you've run
  • the fastest run you've ever had
  • the longest run you've ever had
  • compare yourself to previous times and so forth to track how you're doing
  • establish goals and challenges
  • get a trophy or a medal once finished the goals

It help to encourage you and to make that whole experience of running feel somehow richer and more rewarding.

Game elements

  • Progression
  • Levels
  • Points
  • Rewards
  • Quests (e.g. tasks)
  • Social Graph
  • Avatars
  • Badges

Game design techniques

  • More to games than just elements
  • Think like a game designer

Why gamification becomes popular?

  • An emerging business practice
    • "Striving to make everyday business tasks more engaging, a growing number of firms… are incorporating elements of videogames into the workplace." — Wall St. Journal, Oct. 10, 2011
  • Game are powerful things
    • Why games are so engaging?
  • Lessons from psychology, design, strategy, technology
    • Psychology: How motivation make people want to achieve something?
    • Technology: How immersive personal experiences are created in games?

Where gamification can be used?

  • External
    • Marketing
    • Sales
    • Customer engagement
  • Internal
    • Productivity enhancement
    • Crowdsourcing
  • Behavior change
    • Health and wellness
    • Sustainability
    • Personal finance

An example of behavior change: Fun theory

Game Thinking

Think like a game designer

  • "I am a game designer"
  • Different than being a game designer: you don't have to draw, paint, or do any professional hard things like game designers
  • Different than thinking like a gamer: don't think that you are just a gamer playing a game, cause when you do so, you don't think about the structure of the game

Your participants as players

  • players are the center of the game
  • players feel a sense of autonomy / control
  • players play: what is the game maker want players to do? They want them to play.


  • Get your players playing
    • This is about how to attract new users
  • and keep them playing
    • This is about how to keep old users

Design rules

The player journey

The journey is the path players follow when they are going through a game. You don't want your game journey to be a random mass, rather you want it to have a start, end, and several milestones. The elements of journey:

  • Onboarding
  • Scaffolding
  • Pathways to mastery

Play the first easy level of Plants vs. Zombies (web flash edition) to experience the design of journey from onboarding to scaffolding.

How does Plants vs. Zombies give you experience of journey?

  • Guides: tell you pick a package of plants cards
  • Highlighting: shining animation to tell you what to do and indicate places to be focused
  • Feedback: "Good job!"
  • Limited options: you only have one way to play in the first level
  • Limited monsters: you only have shooter at first
  • Impossible to fail


Balance is something that games need at every stage. A game can start off in balance and then quickly become imbalanced and then fall apart. So, a lot of game design is about ensuring that the game is constantly in balance. It's tricky, because the players are real people. You don't know exactly what they're going to do. You have to play-test the game to see what happens and ensure that the game doesn't get out of balance, because at that point it's not fun for at least one of the players.

Create an experience

Turntable has been closed, yet its trial of creating an experience is impressive.

In addition to the music itself that you hear, you see this interface. You see a group of people up at the top here who are DJing. They're picking the music that gets played. And then all the other people are out here, and you see these little, very simple avatars of their backs, they're standing out there. They're in a club. So now, all of a sudden, you are not just listening to music, you're in a club with a bunch of friends.

Tapping the emotions: fun

What makes game so engaging?


"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job's a game." — Mary Poppins


What things are fun?

  • Winning and Triumphing and Recognition (tell you you did a good job!)
  • Problem-solving
  • Exploring
  • Chilling (laying on a beach and enjoy sunshine! :))
  • Teamwork
  • Collecting
  • Surprise
  • Imagination
  • Sharing (people feel good when they give money to charity)
  • Role Playing (like what VR gives you)
  • Customization (good to feel that the game is specially for YOU)
  • Goofing off

Anatomy of fun

poster by Nicole Lazzaro

Nicole Lazzaro's 4 keys:

  • Easy Fun - does not have to be tasking
  • Hard Fun - challenges, problem solving, exploring, give you more feel of accomplishment
  • People Fun - Fun of working on a team, social with other people, online social
  • Serious Fun - Fun in doing things have meaning to you

More in Nicole Lazzaro's white paper.

Marc LeBlanc's 8 kinds of fun:

  1. Sensation
  2. Fantasy
  3. Narrative
  4. Challenge
  5. Fellowship
  6. Discovery
  7. Expression
  8. Submission

Takeaways of fun

  • Fun can (and should) be designed, it's not just happen by itself
  • Fun can challenging! (also, serious)
  • Appeal to different kinds of fun (how about merge several kinds of fun in one product? )

Game Elements

Breaking games down

Think what elements are in Tic Tac Toe

  • The board
  • Tokens (X and O)
  • Two players
  • Competitive
  • Turns
  • Win and drae states
  • No progression or scoring

Tic Tac Toe's a pretty bad game. Incredibly popular for centuries of human history, and yet, a game that is so simplistic, and so easy to draw, that it's not going to hold any adults interested for very long. And again, you can see that from the elements that are there and some of the elements that are missing, the ability to progress and advance in the game and the ability to get feedback from scoring, certainly not necessary, but things that tend to produce more engaging games, than games with out them.

The pyramid of elements

Around this pyramid, is the experience of the game.

  • Dynamics: is the big-picture aspects; "grammer"; including:
    • Constraints
    • Emotions
    • Narrative
    • Progression
    • Relationships
  • Mechanics: is the processes that drive action forward; "verbs"; including:
    • Challenges
    • Chance
    • Competition & Cooperation
    • Feedback: let player know how they are doing and thus go further
    • Resource Acquisition
    • Rewards
    • Transactions: exchange resources with system or other players
    • Turns
    • Win states
  • Components: is the specific instantiations of mechanics and dynamics; "nouns"; including:
    • Achievements
    • Avatars
    • Badgets
    • Boss Fights
    • Collections
    • Combat
    • Content Unlocking
    • Gifting: giving to others
    • Leaderboards
    • Levels and Points
    • Quests and Instructions
    • Social Graph
    • Teams
    • Virtual Goods

More about this pyramid: Robin Hunicke, et al. MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research

The PBL triad

PBL: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards

There's just a fundamental attraction to using these elements in gamification and part of that is because they serve a variety of different functions, more so than one might expect.


What can points do in a game?

  • Keep score: fundamental use of points is to keep score
  • Determine win states: score 1000 wins score 500
  • Connect to rewards: higher points means higher rewards
  • Provide feedback: showing how you are doing in the game
  • Display of progress: how to display progress in number?
  • Data for the game designer
  • Fungible: Points can used anywhere with numbers


What can badges do in a game?

  • Representations of achievements
  • Flexibility: Because the gamified system is trying to motivate certain behavior. It's trying to result in certain outcomes that are relevant to the business or the other context. The badge can be a great way of conveying that by linking to exactly what it is that the gamification designer wants to motivate.
  • Style: because badges are graphical, they can have their own kind of graphical style and the design elements, the pattern of those badges, can represent and communicate the vibe, or the overall aesthetic of the gamified system.
  • Signaling of importance
  • Credentials
  • Collections: if you have a bookcase that can hold a variety of different badges, then that's often seen by players as an invitation to fill it up.
  • Social display (status symbols)

Mozilla open badge framework:


What can leaderboards do in a game?

  • Ranking: feedback on competition.
  • Personalized leaderboards: friend-relative variant, you can only see your friends' ranks because the over world ranking is too scaring

Becareful to use leaderboards: in many cases researchers have found that seeing things in those leaderboard terms, zero sum game, it's all about competition, actually will make people less willing to engage.

Limitations of elements

"Frankly, a big problem with gamification today is that many companies think that just throwing elements onto a business process magically makes something game like. Magically makes it fun and engaging. Without doing any of the really hard work." — Kevin Werbach

This is what flight companies usually do for flight program, but does not make people feel like a really engaging game.


  • The elements are not the game: according to the pyramid above, it's just the bottom one layer
  • Not all rewards are fun; Not all fun is rewarding: as illustrated above, fun has so many types: serious fun, hard fun… Again the rewards themselves are not necessarily wrong. But if they are the only thing that the designer focuses on is the objective, then there is a great danger that the system will not actually generate the true results which come from real engagement.
  • Cookie cutter: if you have points, badges, and leaderboards in your site and that's the heart of it, it's likely to look somewhat like every other site that has points, badges, and leaderboards. And that causes two problems, one is. Users don't necessarily differentiate and the second is users get burned out. They say, wow, I just went through collecting all these badges on this other site, why do I have to start from scratch?

How did Google screw up news gamification by focusing too much on PBL?

Google in the summer of 2011, announced that they would add a gamification feature to Google News: as you surf around and read news articles in Google News, depending on the subject area of what you read. You would get these badges. And Google has a whole bunch of reasons why this is good for you. It's a way of keeping track of what you're reading. It's a way of showing people what your'e reading. It's a way of showing things to your friends. It's a way of getting some data about how many articles you've read in a certain area, compared to everyone else.

But none of these to me seem terribly compelling: if I like reading articles about basketball, I don't necessarily need the news badge to tell me I've read a bunch of articles about basketball. it's not clear to me how Google News badges truly motivates and engages Google news readers to do anything that they wouldn't already do. And indeed, Google recently announced that it had gotten rid of the News Badges feature entirely.

So what went wrong?

It seems like they saw the appeal of gamification and just thought they would try it out in this way. And that's dangerous, because it leads you to put things into sites, that don't have a direct connection to driving real business value.

One more point: Game elements themeselves are not a good start point of gamification. If you just focus on these elements, what about those meaningful choices which make something game-like? So a takeaway here is elements themselves are limited and they are not the core of gamification.


Motivational design

What is motivation?

Motivation means you are moved to do something. It's what makes you do something versus something else or do something versus just sitting around doing nothing.

How Apple motivate people to buy computers in apple store?

The Apple Store said, or I guess Apple said, in building the Apple Store: this is an expensive purchase and it's a lifestyle purchase. We want people to get familiar with how to use our computers. People often don't buy computers because they don't really know how they work or what they would do with them. So let's make this a place, not that you want to get out of quickly, but where you want to linger. Because the more you linger, the more time you spend with the products, the deeper you get into what you could do with these products, and at the end of the day the more you'll buy.

Apple was able to successfully motivate people to buy their products, by thinking differently about how to design stores. It's not that making people linger in a lounge like environment is always the right answer. The point is, thinking about users, and use different ways to motivate them.


What's the difference between behaviorism and cognitivism?

Behaviorism talks about looking at behaviors. Looking externally at what people do. Cognitivism talks about mental states, what's internally going on in people's heads.

Behaviorism concept

  • Behavior: is the basic concept in behaviorism. Behaviorism talks about influencing behavior through the use of a stimulus.
  • Stimulus: is just something outside yourself. It might be a stamp on your foot or it might be I shine a light.
  • Consequences: The dog would salivate just based on the bell. That's classical conditioning. The more recent and more important form of behaviorism for gamification is operand conditioning, and operand conditioning introduces the notion of consequences. So we still have a stimulus, something happens and there is a behavior. But now the behavior has consequences. And as a result of the consequences, you change your behavior. You see the consequences enough times that you make an association. You are conditioned to do something differently based on the consequences, and we call that learning.

Learnings from behaviorism

  • Observation: If people respond in a certain way to a stimulus, then we should learn something from that. As opposed to just focusing in our theories about what's going on.
  • Feedback loops: When the person involved see some feedback on their behavior which they can then observe it tends to produce a response. And that circular process of action —> feedback —> response tends to motivate behavior and that's a powerful process to understand for gamification.
  • Reinforcement: Learning occurs by the reinforcement of stimuli.

Behaviorism in gamification

How to use behaviorism in gamification?

Lesson 1: Watch what people do in stead of understanding why they are doing so

Remember, the basis of the behaviorist approach was not to focus on understanding people's subjective mental states but to watch their external responses to stimuli. So a behaviorist approach is helpful in correcting for the biases we have about how people are going to act, and they can uncover certain kinds of actions that may be valuable.

In the example of the speed camera lottery in fun theory mentioned before, you might think that telling people how fast they're going won't cause them to slow down unless they get a ticket every time they speed, but it turns out that even without the lotteries, people will slow down when these signs are put in place.

Lesson 2: Importance of feedback

On one hand, when you do something, you get points(feedback). You see an immediate reaction to your activity, and that tells you what you're doing. That's also why feedback is essential to the vast majority of video games. On the other hand, if you want to get up a little bit further, the feedback will tell you how to get to the next step.

For example, LinkedIn use the idea of gamification to the progress bar. It can not only give you feedback you have finished, but also feedback of how much you still have to do.

Lesson 3: Conditioning Through Consequences

The next lesson to take from behaviorism is that consequences can relate results because they condition people. This was the loop that mentioned above with operant conditioning. And to the extent that it works, it works based on people learning to associate certain results from what happens in a game or some other kind of system.

What FarmVille was able to do based on this structure was create what's called an appointment mechanic. And the idea is that people know that they have to come back at a certain time interval to water their crops or to harvest them because if not, they're going to wither.

And this draw of having to constantly check in and tend to your virtual farm was part of what made Farmville so powerful and successful because it got people learning to just as a matter of habit regularly check back in.

Lesson 4: Reinforcement through rewards

It's about giving players some benefit, something that seems valuable even though it's not tangible or not worth any money and reinforcing by continually providing those rewards. Much of the PBL type gamification, that's out there is very focused on the notion of rewards. But note that rewards is not the only way to attract people.

Why these badges / rewards are so powerful?

It relates to something called the dopamine system. The structure in the brain that is associated with pleasure and interestingly also associated with learning. And our brains release and reabsorb the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to certain activities, and rewards. Things that we find rewarding or valuable, or sometimes just surprising tend to cause that dopamine release, and that gives you literally a shot of a drug. It's literally pleasurable, and that causes you to make that association of the activity and the pleasure. It causes that learning process and causes people to literally feel a, a little bit like they have to go back and engage in the activity.

Reward structures

The first point is that creative and effective gamification designs will think pretty expansively about what can be rewarded. What kinds of behavior does the designer want to incentivize and what are different options.

The second aspect of rewards is that there are different categories of rewards. And one typology of different kinds of rewards, not at all limited to gamification, is what's called Cognitive Evaluation Theory.

Cognitive evaluation theory (to categorize rewards)

  • Tangible / intangible
    • Money is tangible
    • Badge is not tangible
  • Expected / unexpected
    • Rewards with clear instruction is to set a expection to players
  • Contingency
    • Task non-contingent
    • Engagement-contingent: e.g. get on boarding reward
    • Completion-contigent: e.g. get a badge after watching the whole video
    • Performance-contigent: e.g. reward based on HOW you did it

Reward schedules

Several types of reward schedules:

  • Continuous
    • get the award every time once you are playing
    • least interesting, tends to not like a reward
  • Fixed ratio
    • every n number of times you get the reward
    • Some psychological value, but easy to dull
  • Fixed interval
    • based on time, get the reward every 5 minutes
    • Some psychological value, but easy to dull
  • Variable
    • no fixed schedule
    • best rewarding as players love surprise

Variable schedule reward machine

One of the best practice is the slot machine. The idea is, it's a variable schedule, a random uncertain reward. But it's tuned so that it happens frequently enough, so that the person who's playing holds out that hope. If I just pull the handle a few more times, put in a few more coins. Then I'm going to hit the jackpot, and that's the essence of what makes slot machines, for at least some people really addicting.

Note that this is not entirely a good thing. Addicting people is something that is dangerous and potentially harmful to them. And while we throw around sometimes in gamification and marketing things like we want to get our customers addicted, it's important to distinguish that from truly getting them to the point where they don't know what they're doing and can't make good judgments.

Self-Determination Theory

Dangers of behaviorism

But as illustrated above, reward mechanism like slot machine is addictive and even brings some dangers. Here are three of them:

Danger 1: Potential for abuse / manipulation

There is a danger in going down this path of a behaviorist approach that it tends to make us see everything like a casino owner and maybe that's not necessarily, the right way to approach all business situations.

Danger 2: Hedonic treadmill

It means, once you start focusing on giving people rewards in order to give them pleasure that feedback loop effect (based on the way the dopamine system works in the brain), you'd better keep doing it because if people learn to respond to the reward, then they're only going to respond when the reward is there.

But if rewards are designed in this way, the designer needs to keep putting in more rewards to keep people interested and come up with new rewards. More interesting rewards. More challenging objectives to achieve the rewards and so forth. This could put a significant burden on the gamification designer to keep up.

Danger 3: Overemphasis on status

Status is a very powerful motivator. It's not something tangible but we do lots of things to get status.

But the fact is, We're not all constantly looking for that social approval and looking for people to think that we're cool in every walk of life. We do things for lots of other reasons. We do things for tangible reasons. We do things for altruistic reasons. We do things for social reasons with our friends. There are lots of reasons we do things that status doesn't explain and the behaviorist approach has a tendency in gameification to reduce down to a heavy status focus, which tends to lead to missing of some of the other kinds of benefits that can be delivered from a gamified system.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic rewards

Just doing the thing is cool and fun.

Extrinsic rewards

Doing the thing is about the reward, not about the thing itself.

According to Zichermann, SAPS can categorize the extrinsic rewards:

  • Status - a position in relation to other players
  • Access - to information, people, objects ... that other players don't have or only few of them
  • Power - over other players, objects, information
  • Stuff - things that players get that only few others get or no others get

The attractive level decreases from top to bottom.

Where do the badges fit?

Answer is: they both. For example, I can collect badge just because the deisign of badge looks cool (intrinsic). It can also because I want more badges to win over other friends (extrinsic).

How rewards can demotivate

Over-justification effect

  • The reward substitutes for the intrinsic motivation
  • A study confirm this effect:
    • Drawing: in this experiement, kids at first were intrinsically like to draw, then the researchers give them awards for drawing and finally take away all the awards. The kids now become unwilling to draw, because they have substituted that extrinsic motivation of the reward for their intrinsic desire to draw.

Some findings from the experience above:

  • Generally focused on "interesting" tasks
  • Reward types do matter
    • Tangible: tend to be the biggest demotivating effects happen
    • Unexpected: does not have much effect on intrinsic motivation
    • Performance-contingent: based on achievement, can go both ways: if the reward is just some things have no connection with your achievement, it's demotivating; but if it's saying: "you did a good job", then the reward is just a marker.

More in A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation by Deci, Edward L.; Koestner, Richard; Ryan, Richard M.

Self-determination theory

The motivational spectrum

  • Amotivation: means you have no motivation one way or the other. You are totally indifferent to the activity.
  • Extrinsic motivation
    • External reguation: you really don't want to do something, or maybe you are indifferent to it. The only thing that makes you do it, is someone tells you to.
    • Introjection: the idea here is sometimes, we take external motivators, and make them our own. So, this is typically where we would find status, which, as mentioned above, is an important kind of motivator. Status says, I may not really want to do this, but other people will value me. They'll think I'm cool, they will like me. So, I'm going to do it for that reason.
    • Identification: the idea here is, at this point, I've taken the external motivator, and I've somehow made it my own. It's not just because other people will think I'm cool, It's because I can see some value in it. For example, I don't really enjoy learning math, but I can see that knowing something about math is important to success and achieve my goals in the future so I will do it.
    • Integration: there's a complete alignment internally, between my goals and the thing. For example, the way many people feel about exercise. I really want to exercise because it's good for me and I know I should do it. I can say, yeah, I want to exercise, and yet I don't like exercising. It's just not fun for me. I still need some push. I still won't do it just because of love of the thing itself.
  • Intrinsic motivation: I like do it! Like eating...

With the motivational spectrum, we can know why many workout apps are using gamification: I really want to exercise because it's good for me and I know I should do it. Yet I still won't do it just because of love of the thing itself. I'm in the state of integration, but with a push of gamification, I can jump into the intrinsic motivation category!

Additional Resources

[1] Jane McGonigal, Reality is broken[Book], TED talks

[2] 1980, What Makes Things Fun to Learn? — A Study of Intrinsically Motivating Computer Games

[3] How fun can change people behavior — Fun Theory

[4] Nicole Lazzaro's 4 keys of fun: poster, white paper

[5] Marc LeBlanc's 8 kinds of fun

[6] Robin Hunicke, et al. MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research

[7] Mozilla open badge framework

[8] Professor Werbach's book For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business

[9] Deci, Edward L.; Koestner, Richard; Ryan, Richard M., A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation

[10] Zichermann, SAPS categorize the extrinsic rewards

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  • Design.Payal reply

    Thanks for posting this!