Lots of people know the buzzword ‘gamification’ – the trend to incentivise users towards goals on your site by rewarding them with ‘points’ or similar – but some fail to understand that you can’t compromise on simplicity and usability. Here’s a guide to avoiding the most common gamification pitfalls (also lava pools, hidden floor spikes and exploding Bob-ombs).

Buzzwords – those little, fashionable phrases that do the rounds in companies. They begin as useful concepts, but through repetition, invariably end up being used by people who don’t fully understand them. As such, they will always remain every creative’s worst nightmare.

Very much the buzzword du jour in the marketing field is ‘gamification’. The term refers to all games, largely in reference to game theory, but I’ve spoken before about how the video game industry is the real success story of the the last century, so it makes perfect sense to look to that area specifically for tips on how to better connect with users.

However there is a lot about video gaming that directly contradicts what we’re trying to do with user experience design and absolutely should not be copied for your app.

Often, the difference between what we can learn from gamification and what is in no way equivocal isn’t clear unless you really grasp the concept. So you really need to have your facts straight when your clients start talking about gamification.

Game on

Let’s look at some examples of apps that exemplify the great ideas you can adopt by properly gamifying your design:

1) Accomplishment

Checklist apps have been around forever, but the market leader for this kind of app for a long time was Wunderlist. Anyone who made use of Wunderlist in its heyday will get an ASMR-like jolt of pleasure just at the thought of the little *ding* noise you’d hear when completing a task.

Alas, the behemoth that is Microsoft decided it wanted to release its own to-do list app, so it simply bought and immolated Wunderlist, replacing it with a vastly inferior Microsoft product.

Eventually, the game-changing organisation tool that is Asana came along to become the new hero of the pedantic. In the meantime, however, the kind of Pavlovian response that us organisation freaks crave was weaponised by Todoist.

Just like Scrabble, Todoist actually awards you cumulative points, called ‘karma’, for ticking off things from your to-do list; and points mean… well, absolutely nothing. However, even the most lackadaisical will soon be competing with themselves to be more productive this week than they were last.

So great is this drive that people are still refusing to move to the fuller-featured Asana, long after Todoist has started to look like a legacy tool. Games are addictive and so is Todoist, which is exactly why gamification is so effective.

2) Reward

Yet another example of where gamification is taking an old concept and applying it to the digital world is in loyalty benefits. Just as mobile games offer benefits for logging in every day, download the Starbucks app and you’ll be able to accumulate star points whenever you pick up your half-fat, double-whip mocha.

Once you reach a certain amount of stars, you’ll earn gold membership – a largely meaningless title that offers some marginal benefits and enforces your commitment to your caffeine addiction; proving yourself to be a true digital hipster. Congratulations, you won the game.

3) Characterisation

When you sign into Chrome, allowing your browsing history to be used to improve targeted marketing… I mean, synchronising your experience across different devices… you have the option of setting yourself an avatar of a little ninja or superhero.

Roleplaying and escapism is a big part of tabletop gaming, and seeing yourself as a fantasy wizard or digital ninja is a lot more fun than a balding, tubby office drone tapping away at your menial coding job.

Indeed, this kind of thinking is what has led to the rise of chatbots. Why enter keywords into a search bar to find the right groceries to order when you can enter the keywords into a chat box in response to a prompt from Carrie, your cartoon carrot friend who’s there to help you with your shopping.


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Game off

Gamification of the kind described above can be incredibly effective, so why should we fear the term so much? Well, games are often challenging, so people who don’t understand gamification often think this means their apps should also be challenging, which goes completely against the fundamental principles of UX.

One hugely successful mobile and computer game from a couple years ago was Getting Over It – an intentionally nervous-breakdown-inducing game that required the player to climb a tower with only the use of a sledgehammer as a combined hook and slingshot to launch themselves upwards. Missing a hook by a millimeter would result in the player tumbling down to the bottom of the tower and having to start all over again.

Bennett Foddy, the game’s creator explained that this was designed to frustrate and upset people. The work was a piece of art, intended to express the difficulties of modern living and teach players to cope with disappointment – literally to get over it.

This absolutely makes sense in gaming, as the reputation of the game as painfully difficult brought macho players in droves to test their mettle. Quickly, of course, the players who failed (a large group) dropped off, while those who actually managed to beat the game never wanted to play it again.

This was, of course, the intention. Very few games are modelled for longevity. Those that are there for the course need constant iteration and addition to keep fresh or they disappear as soon as the latest gaming craze comes along.

Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds was very briefly the most popular game in the world. It was praised for its innovation in creating the “Battle Royale” concept where 100 players were dropped into a landscape, scrabbling to find weapons and armour and hoping – normally futilely – to be the last one alive when the game ended.

Within mere months, Fortnite copied the game format almost identically, adding cartoonish graphics and a simpler concept to appeal to children, then churning out new ways of playing and new graphics and experiences on an almost weekly basis. Battlegrounds was instantly old news. Now, long-standing franchises like Call of Duty are pivoting to Battle Royale, and new contenders like Apex Legends are being hailed as Fortnite’s successor.

Gamers are always looking for a new challenge, so games are almost universally intended to be won or lost and then discarded, and very few game designers put much effort into replayability. On the other hand, we hope our apps will become an essential part of our users lives for a long time.

Level up

Gamification means seeing what makes gaming so rewarding and making your app fulfil those needs. What it absolutely does not mean is making your app as challenging as a disposable video game.

Your app is not a game (unless it actually is a game app, of course); your app is a tool to achieve a goal. Games are played for their own sake in leisure time, so making them challenging and even frustrating is fine, as you lose nothing by failing.

A tool that is frustrating to use, on the other hand, is a bad tool, and your user will quickly learn to do without it if it doesn’t make their lives easier.

I’ve seen clients who half understood gamification suggest making their app into a puzzle that dishes out information as a reward, thinking this will addict their users, like Todoist did with theirs. The challenge Todoist users are addicted to, however, is accomplishing the tasks that are being tracked there – the app itself is making it easier to work on those tasks. The addiction is to the extra reward that the app gives the user for achieving pre-existing goals and targets.

As UX designers, our goal, above all else, is to make apps simple, so they help our users achieve their goals. Using gamification to make users’ lives more difficult is a recipe for a major disaster.

So, my friends, the moral of our story is: beware the half-understood buzzword. If you can’t educate your clients on the true meaning of the term, you should run a mile, then run another few miles, track your progress and make a game of it.


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Nintendo Famicom image by Franck V