Good Gamification: more than just points5 min read

Gamification is a new term for an old concept.  The term refers to applying game elements and motivation to an existing activity. Thus if you are having to perform an exercise to rehabilitate your arm, and we make a game out of lifting your arm 100 times every morning, then that could be considered: gamification.

Simon McCallum is an Associate Professor at NTNU Gjøvik

What does it mean to make a game out of an existing activity?

There are two levels to gamification. The surface level where you use simple mechanics from games such as points, badges, and leaderboards to stimulate competition and and show progress. In the deeper  gamification level we can use the psychological principles related to human motivations which are triggered by games to change how the entire experienced is designed. The new design still has rules, points, and clear goals, but it also has more of the feeling of playfulness and joy that you find in good games.
It is easy to make anything into a game, but it will not necessarily be a good game. Making a good game is hard. Simply adding points to an activity would make it a game, but there is no reason to believe that the game you have made will be enjoyable to play.

So what makes a good game?

We use a game extension to Self Determination Theory (SDT) to analyse games and what makes them so engaging. In this theory there are cross cultural motivators which we are all trying to balance: Agency, Competence and Relatedness.  Agency is the desire to be in control of the situation we are in and have choice about what happens, competence is being rewarded for achieving difficult tasks, and relatedness is that our actions matter in the world of the game and in the wider society we are in. To this we add the desire for creativity and the need to experiment.  The SDT theory suggests that we are trying to find our own comfort level in each of these areas.  Teenagers are transitioning from having low agency, where as children they are always told what to do, to being adults where they get to decide the path of their lives. Games often provide a means for this group to satisfy their need for agency during this transition.

This list of 5 motivators does not cover all motivations to play games, nor do we suggest you can explain human behaviour with such a simple approximation. However, by using these principles you can start to look at what motivates people to change their behaviours.

Education is a gamification of learning. Many of the standard mechanics of gamification can been seen in education.  We take an activity that people do instinctively, namely learning, and as a society we try and shape that activity into something more useful to the group as a whole.  We need more doctors so we encourage people to learn about medicine. We give them “status” by having a title, we create levels within the career and within the University, Bachelor, Masters, PhD, etc. We create quests by creating courses with learning outcomes that create a coherent package of activities where the player can see progress through the content.
However, the societal game of education is a bad game.  You can tell this whenever a student asks, “will this be in the exam”.  At that point the student is now trying to win the game rather than learn. If you want to be a computer programmer, it is irrelevant what is on the exam. Exams are merely feedback from the lecturer on your progress. What is important is what you need to do to become a better programmer. We desperately need to engage students in learning and change the game of education so that students are motivated to learn, rather than win the game of education.


Ian Bogost coined the term exploitationware to describe gamification and serious games where the person benefiting from the motivational change is not the player.  Gamification of health or education has a desire to help the player achieve a positive outcome for themselves, either being healthier or learning something.  Games designed to make people buy a product they do not want, or to train them to be better employees does not benefit the player, that game is used to manipulate and control the player.  It is being used to exploit the skinner box principles of psychological conditioning, to make people do what the business wants.  This is the dark side of gamification.
Unfortunately, the term Gamification has been hijacked by marketing companies as a new jargon to sell their traditional loyalty programmes and marketing schemes. There is an active debate in the academic community on what name we can use to avoid being associated with the charlatans and snake oil salesmen who have no real passion for games or user experience and are merely using the term gamification to make themselves wealthy.  The terms Applied Games, Gameful Design, Games with a purpose, have all be suggested, but like many things it is hard to get everyone to agree on using a new term.
What we teach our students is the various aspects of good game design. We teach them that to create a good game one needs to have more than just the mechanics of making games. You need to understand why and how the game is going to connect with people, and how it will change their behaviour.


About Simon McCallum

Simon McCallum is an Associate Professor at NTNU i Gjøvik. He has been teaching games and gamification at Bachelor, Masters and PhD level for over a decade, worked as a commercial game developer and consultant for gamification projects both in his native New Zealand and in Norway. He regularly presents at The Gathering each Easter and engages in public discussions on games. He is part of tNTNU’s Center for IT Teaching excellence: ExcITEd. Excited TG talk on security home page