The Current State Of Gamification

Gamification is and has been gaining popularity for a while now. And while I’m excited about that, there are 3 major problems that need to be brought to light. But to properly discuss these problems, we need to first agree upon the definition of gamification. The definition I will use is the following:

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.)

Michael Wu, Lithium

Now that that’s settled, on to problem #1.

Problem One: What you’re using isn’t gamification. It’s pointsification!

One of the reasons gamification has been growing in popularity with the masses, is because it’s pitched as something simple to add in to almost any existing product or framework, promising great results with little to no effort. And to the majority, gamification or “gamifying” something is just adding points, badges, etc., to an existing product or framework.

In fact, that’s how Gabe Zichermann, one of the big advocates of gamification sees it:

Gamification can be thought of as using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+, or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place. [source]

Herein is where the problem lies: simply adding badges, leaderboards, etc., is not “gamifying” something. It’s “pointsifying” something. And it is very important to draw a line here, because pointsification and gamification are two different tools for building habits and behaviors.

In fact, this problem is so wide-spread that I challenge you to find an example where someone who added “gamification” didn’t just make a point distribution system (a.k.a. pointsification).

Now don’t get me wrong, I think when gamification is done right it’s an amazing thing. Just check out two of my favorite examples:


Nike Soccer interactive ad:

As you’ll see in each case, by using gamification the experience becomes more fun and interactive. It’s more engaging!

Problem Two: You can’t add this stuff after you’re done “baking your cake.” It’s not icing!

Pilsbury Funfetti Frosting

Another reason why gamifcation is so popular, is because people think of it as Pillsbury frosting: Create your application and then layer on the frosting to make it taste and look better. Recycle all those old applications and add the same frosting to them too. Why not?

It would be great if this were the case… but what’s so interesting about building habits and behaviors is for each one you want to change or create, the approach is very different. There is no formula for building a habit. And because of this, the “tools” for building them (e.g., gamification) are key ingredients that need to be added to the mix! You can’t add flour to a cake after you take it out of the oven. So let’s move on to my last point:

Problem Three: Stop focusing on gamification and choose the right tool for the job! Building habits and behaviors is what’s important.

At the end of the day, gamification and pointsification are just tools in a toolbox to help you build habits and behaviors. They are NOT Swiss Army knives. In fact, they can be quite dangerous tools if not used properly!

Let’s say gamification is a screwdriver. If you had a bolt that needed to be tightened, you’d want to use a wrench since it’d be the best tool for the job. Using your screwdriver would be the wrong choice, and in fact, could make matters worse. But, if you have a screw that needs to be tightened… well that screwdriver will do a great job.

What I’m trying to say is, instead of just using gamification anywhere and everywhere, first think about what habits and behaviors you want to build. THEN select the right tool for the job. If the tool happens to be gamification, then by all means please use it.


  1. Gamification is not just adding badges and leaderboards to your products. That’s pointsificaton!
  2. Tools for building habits and behaviors like gamification and pointsificatoin are not Pillsbury frosting. You can’t just layer them on after your product is done. They are a key ingredient that needs to be baked with the rest of your ingredients.
  3. Focus on building habits and behaviors, and pick the right tool for the job. Gamification is not always the right tool.

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