Gamification Psychology: An in-depth Analysis


In the first post of the gamification series, we covered the basics of gamification theory and gave a few advices on how you can gamify your business/product/service in order to gain the most out of the process. Now, we’d like to cover gamification psychology, or some of fundamental underlying mechanisms responsible for gamification’s effectiveness. What gamification psychology has to say on why human like to play games and how you can deploy gamification to strenghten your business? We answered these questions and hope we did a good job. Have a good read!

We all like games. We do. That’s the part of what and who we are. Some people like to spend half of their life picking mushrooms in their favorite MMORPG, some like to kick back, relax and play Tetris after a hard day at work, while some people, well, just like to go outdoors and play hide and seek.

Psychology and sociology took notice of this, and there has been lot of scientific articles describing and analyzing why we play games. For us mere mortals, there is just something oddly appealing in following specific rules, even if we don’t usually like to follow them, achieving results which we compare with others. Here at Kontra, most of us are mildly sports people, meaning that we prefer only certain sports. The following stream of thought is something that’s common when someone mentions jogging as their favorite activity.

– Do you want to jog for 2 hours? – Uhmmmm, no way.

– Do you want to jog for 2 hours and throw an orange rubber ball around while running, following the specific set of rules on a court of determined dimensions? – Of course, just let me get my shoes on.

We’re not bashing on jogging, but there is a lot of truth to the idea that people prefer certain activities over others when they are given context and rules, even though the activity itself doesn’t fundamentally change.

While playing basketball you are, basically, still running around, but this time in a given context, with specific, competitive goal and rules (still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t prescribe specific goals and rules to your jogging routine), and, while some people like jogging, most would prefer playing basketball. You are interacting with others, making a sort of “pact” with some, under a certain set of rules which you must follow in order to reach the goal before the other “pact” does.

That’s one of the main reasons why you like sports, you don’t need psychology to realize that. It’s that obvious. But do you understand why?

Gamification psychology

In the previous article we already explained how something, in order for it to be considered a game, should have some basic components – rules, challenges, goals and interaction. Also, games are mostly activities undertaken for the sake of enjoyment and sometimes education, but mostly enjoyment. If we run in circles without specific reason and goal, that can’t be classified as a game, even if we really enjoy the process.

On the other hand, if we talk to our friends and we decide that whoever runs more circles under two minutes gets a cake, well, that starts to look like a game. We interact, we agreed on the rules, the challenge is there and we have a clear goal. Add in the reward factor and you can see why this can be classified as a game, albeit it being the simplest game imaginable.

Even though there have been a lot of interpretations, theories and definitions of games throughout the history, let’s not get too philosophical here and avoid dwelling into the semiotic and semantic debates of what games really are. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to the rules + challenges + goals + interaction model.

Gamification psychology explained

Klimmt and Vorderer proposed a model that describes the process of playing games (videogames, in their case), as a sequence of situations that features:

  • Possibilities to act (or the lack of constraints to do so) – this would fall under the category of game mechanics;
  • Necessity to act (a specific reason why possible actions are taken or should be taken);
  • Player’s attempt to meet the necessities by applying the possibilities that they have been given;
  • A certain set of emotions that come as a result of that action taking place.

Since there are countless of game variations, ranging from children’s games, video games, sports and all the way to LARP’s, we won’t be focusing on every variation possible (not that we really can), but we’ll present you as much universal conclusions as we can.

First, let’s dedicate a couple of thoughts to virtual gaming as it’s been an integral part of our lives for quite some time now. Whether we are talking about online FPS shooters or about MMORPGs, it’s hard to ignore the enormous popularity these games enjoy. Millions of players are taking part in various tournaments, deathmatches or are simply building communities, both through peaceful and aggressive means.

MMO (massively multiplayer online) games are interesting in particular as they offer almost a real life experience of a giant community that interacts in various ways.

In his research, Nicholas Yee proved that our real-life identities and experiences are not easily separable from their virtual counterparts. and, instead of negating each other, they usually co-evolve.

The reason why player connect with their online avatars is that they are existing representations of them, set in an existing world of their choosing (unlike real life where you can’t choose the setting you’re living in) that is populated by other avatar representations of other real people. Those worlds provide dynamic settings and are often unlike anything we could even hope to have here on Earth.

Whatever the reason people choose to play videogames might be, it’s easy to see why they are so appealing. You get to choose the setting. You get to choose the rules of your liking and sometimes you get to change them or make new ones. Since your avatar isn’t bound by physical means, at least to some extent, the variations are almost endless. In real life, you don’t get to buy an AK47 and play “last man standing” with your friends for fun. You are given the possibility to act and you choose the neccessity (or the game chooses it for you) to act, all in order to reach desired stimuli, all through interaction with other intelligent subject, whether their intelligence is human or artificial.

This is strongly correlated to what Lazzaro has to say about why we play games. According to him, we don’t play games for the game itself, but rather for the experiences they create for us, which is why we can differentiate between four different fun-causing (he calls those experiences fun) factors:

#1 People fun (Friendship)

Games create opportunities for various interactions, such as cooperation, spectacle and competition. Games are really just excuses to interact and socialize with others.

#2 Easy fun

Exploration and role playing. Discovering particular worlds and settings is one of the things that makes games fun.

#3 Hard fun

Various challenges that result in feeling of accomplishment. Games are all various strategies being used in order to overcome obstacles and reach certain goals.

#4 Serious fun

Playing changes how we perceive, behave and interact in real world. Also, the excitement of games makes some tasks less dull and boring.

Another interesting analysis was done by Jane McGonigal who, in her TEDtalk, provided a summary of the four behavioral traits that are specific to people who immerse themselves in games:

  • Urgent optimism is the desire to tackle certain obstacles with profound optimistic belief in success.
  • Social fabric is the ability to trust other players and to form stronger and more intense interpersonal bonds with them, whilst tackling an obstacle or pursuing a goal. As the play progresses, the bonds become stronger.
  • Blissful productivity is the belief in meaning or, in other words, the belief that actions and engagements are meaningful. Blissful productivity is an idea that working hard in a game will make the player happier.
  • Epic meaning relates to the perception of a grand story that is a part of the game, making the game seem more meaningful. This is especially prominent in video games where gamers often embark on grand quests to save the planet and mankind, taking part in epic storylines. Player give more meaning to storylines that to them seem to have a clear goal and meaning.

As you can see, players often exhibit a wide range of emotional responses, connecting in-game ideas and storylines with their understanding of the real world. In other worlds, they exhibit characteristics that would be expected in everyday life. Feeling that they are a part of a grand scheme, such as embarking on a great quest, evokes idea of meaningfulness, even though that quest isn’t real, at least not in the physical realm. Now that we briefly covered some of the most basic and popular gaming activities, we’d like to cover some of the features they share and that explain why engaging in very gaming activities is so popular:

#1 Results are measurable

This goes hand in hand with games providing feedback. Game mechanics are such that it’s very easy to measure someones performance that results in specific goal, thus making not only performances measurable, but also the end results. What this means is that games take on specific forms with specific set of activities that need to be done in particular way in order to achieve desired results. Since the progress and performance are being measured in something that is firmly defined, one has no troubles tracking their progress. Unlike many real-life situations where desired milestones and progress are often dubious, games are characterized by a very strict set of rules that define according to which parameters is the progress measured.

#2 Games provide feedback

Similar to #1, games, unlike most of the everyday situations we find ourselves in, give in-depth feedback on our performances. Complex activities, such as being a parent are not easily (if at all) measurable. One can say, for example, that you are a good parent as long as you are behaving nice towards your kid, but conclusion such as this are often subjective and oversimplified. If the purpose of a game is to be the fastest, than it’s only logical that your success is measured by how fast you are and since it has a clear context, it’s easy for you to say where exactly do you find yourself in a certain game at any given time. Unless you can read the future, you are going to have a hard time figuring out where exactly do you stand in life, due to non-linear nature and lack of objective milestones in life.

On the other hand, games usually have a specific starting point and a finishing point, together with a set of achievements that can precisely describe where one finds himself between the two. If you’re playing football, you know that the match lasts for 90 minutes and that the success is measured in the difference between the amounts of goals you scored and the amounts of goals your opponent scored. Feedback about your performance is often provided by the game itself, especially if you are engaged in a solo gaming activity. The end result gives you feedback.

#3 Game mechanics for certain games don’t differ across the globe, making the results and achievements easy to compare

Let’s say you’re an marketing director of a small chain of souvenir shops and you want to compare your performance to others. Well, it turns out that it’s not that easy to do so, not unless you work in completely same environment (and you don’t). You can measure your results, but comparing them can be tricky since your shop operates under a certain set of factors and your competition operates under a certain set of factors that can vary all the way from market differences, such as different countries and standard, to the type of the product you sell. It does get easier if you compare your business with that of the neighbor souvenir shop, but comparing a souvenir shop in Paris with one in Ulaanbaatar is almost pointless. The market and the environment isn’t the same. When we talk about games, the story changes, as the game rules are almost identical for whoever plays the game.

An arcade video game being played in Japan is the same arcade video game being played in Argentina, which makes results easier to compare. After all, the same rules apply to both of them. Of course, you can always find some subtle differences as no two normal human activities are carried out in perfect conditions (this goes for sports, especially) as there are always at least some situational differences involved so this should be taken with a grain of salt.

#4 The challenges increase as your skills increase

This one depends on what kind of games are we talking about, but most of the games have their learning curves. As you progress through the game, polishing relevant skills, the rate of difficulty increases and it’s providing you additional challenges and, often, new and better rewards.

#5 They are fun

Well, duuuuh!

These 5 features aren’t by any means the only activities that make gaming popular, nor can they explain the emergence of every gaming activity, but they are some universal features that are specific to gaming. Of course, popularity of engaging in gaming activities is complex and relative to the type of activity observed. Those factors can vary from playing to lose weight to playing games to relieve stress or to meet new friends, but for the sake of game mechanics perspective.

We’d like to dedicate some space to gamification now. Our motivations to consume gamified content are based on various interpersonal, mostly emotional, factors that constitute us as persons, but are also susceptible to change influenced by various situational factors.

There are plenty of possible explanations of why people are motivated to consume gamified content but, for purpose of this article, we’ll be using the explanation proposed by Sailer et al. who defined six main principle perspective (trait perspective, behaviourist learning perspective, cognitive perspective, perspective of self-determination, perspective of interest, perspective of emotion). Each of those perspectives can explain its respective motive type and the general conclusions are:

  • Players with power motive are motivated by gamified activities that emphasize status, control and competition.
  • Players with achievement motive are motivated by gamified activities that emphasize achievement, success and progress.
  • Players with affiliation motive are motivated by gamified activities that emphasize membership.

Players are likely to be motivated if:

  • Gamification provides positive and negative reinforcement as feedback or if gamification offers them rewards.
  • Gamification provides a clear and achievable goal, highlighting the consequences of reaching that goal.
  • Gamification emphasizes the importance of particular action or fosters mastery orientation.
  • They experience the feeling of competence, autonomy and/or social relatedness.
  • Gamification meets their interests and sparks interest for the situational context.
  • The feeling of flow is enhanced by providing direct feedback, clear goal and adapting the level of difficulty to individual skills and competences.
  • Gamification decreases negative and increases positive emotions.

As you can see, the dynamics of gamification invoke powerful emotional responses that are to some extent universal, and to some extent relative to the character of the person and their respective motivational characteristics (power, achievement, affiliation). If you look closely, this has a lot to do with Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types we mentioned in the first part of gamification series.

Killers would be the players who exhibit the highest power motive, being motivated by achieving desired goals and gaining desired status. Achievers are the players who exhibit the highest levels of achievement motivation, meaning that they are motivated to take part in activities that are challenging and provide rewards upon completion. Most of it could be said for explorers, as well.

Finally, socializers are the ones who exhibit the affiliation motive, meaning that they take part in gamified activities due to socialization options they present to them. With few exceptions put aside, it can be said that most of the people are motivated due to emotional responses that gamification invokes.

Gamification psychology and reward system in games

When we speak of extrinsic reward system in gamified content, we are talking about various rewards being given upon completing a certain task. While those rewards vary from content to content, we are going to focus on badges here, even though we don’t think they are still relevant as the used to be, but there’s no escaping the fact that badges are still one of the most prominent forms of rewards in gamification. Now, as always, it’s hard to give a general answer because the gamified content itself varies, so minor adjustments might be needed, according to the specific gamified content.

Badge rewards in gamified content are mostly used on social media and web sites. Now, the badge awards are by no means a new invention, as they have been given to honor bravery (especially military bravery) since the ancient times, so the principle isn’t new, but it’s hard to compare the two because the badge handed to you because you ate 5 spicy chicken wings as a part of a gamified contest just doesn’t carry the same weight as the badge handed to you after you saved Roman Empire from the barbarian invasion. Even though the intensity of emotions may vary, badges (or most of achievements, for that matter) have almost the same psychological background. There are couple of reasons why handing badges (or similar rewards) works:

#1 They symbolize achievement and reputation

This one is pretty self-explanatory. They symbolize that the owner did X to get them, but also remind of owners status, affinities, expertise and capabilities. A collection of badges (or any other type of similar rewards) can say a lot about the person owning them which makes them a powerful tool of self-representation.

#2 They are the goal themselves

This is an interesting one. The part of badges charm is that they are the goal themselves. Badges aren’t always collected for various purposes, but sometimes they are the goal of certain actions just for the sake of goal setting and meeting that goal.

If there is a reward that is being handed for doing X, I might feel motivated to do X just because I have set a goal of getting that reward. I feel good for doing X. I don’t have to brag about it. I just did it to do it.

Nothing too flashy, nothing too complicated – just doing something for the sake of doing it. Though it may seem a bit too simple (and it is), setting goals and then doing something just to meet the set standards is a powerful psychological mechanism in our everyday lives.

#3 They allow people to identify with certain groups

Let’s say that there is a restaurant that hands out badges to everyone who succeeds in eating their well-known, extremely spicy meal, and somehow you ate it. They give you a pepperoni badge that symbolizes your membership to that exclusive club. The feeling of pride you feel is perfectly normal, and explains why various achievements became modus operandi of gamification. Group identification is a well-known and documented psychological phenomenon, so it’s no wonder why some people pursuit certain achievements just to identify with that group based on the trait they share. We often see this in social media.

Gamification psychology

When gamifying certain content, it is important to realize that players have certain motivations that influence their desire to participate. Nobody plays games without a reason. Every activity is done for a reason, no matter how insignificant it may seem. In order to execute a good gamification project, it has to satisfy those needs, and that is done by providing:

#1 Value

Value can be both intrinsic and extrinsic, depending on the game and the player. While some people might be motivated by material (whether in physical or virtual form) incentives, such as badges or coupons, others might be motivated by the feeling of fun, exploration or accomplishment. Whatever the reason might be, it’s worth remembering that games need to provide some value to the players. If we apply this in business context, one can see that handing out rewards can serve as a major motivator to people. Winning is why people engage in gaming activities most of the time, so it’s perfectly normal why they seek motivation in it. Any testament to their achievements is a motivational impulse that needs to exist in order for gamification to function. Of course, it would be best if such value is paired with status for optimal results.

#2 Status

In order to be successful, games need to provide players with well-thought framework that will enable them to form social bonds based on the mutual interest for the game and a possibility to check and improve social status among that (or other) community. Status needs come from the intimate human need to be a respected part of certain groups. Gamified content, if done correctly, systematically presents a series of challenges and tasks to players, but offer various incentives and rewards that symbolize privileged status for those who finished certain challenges. Let’s imagine that Jamie Oliver decided to gamify his cooking business and decides to develop an app called “Let’s cook with Jamie”.

The basic premise of the app is to cook what Jamie is cooking, post photos and compete, all while collecting points in form of up-votes. Now, the person with most points gets a badge called, let’s say, “Jamie’s little helper” that is present on that person’s profile as long as somebody else collects more points. Play games like Quizup and you’ll see that there a lot od people who dedicate extreme amounts of time to playing the game (even though you learn all questions by hearth very soon, which is supposed to make it boring, at least from our perspective) just for the sake of status that comes alongside being number one ranked player in that community.

It all comes down to this – people engage in gaming activities because they provide something of extrinsic or intrinsic value to them, or they reinforce or improve one’s social status. If the game doesn’t offer at least one of these two factors (or, preferably, both of them), the chances of it succeeding or gaining popularity are quite slim.

But, what can gamification psychology do for my business?

Finally, now that we have the basics of gamification psychology covered, let’s see the underlying psychological of gamification mechanisms in business, or how the gamification is connected to brand loyalty.

We are going to have to get a bit creative here. In-depth explanations of gamification psychology mechanism are hard since gamification itself isn’t an unified concept and the businesses vary. If we consider everything that has been written in this post so far, it’s easy to conclude that there are two possible options for business gamification.

The first option happens when gamification is carried out by organizations that have small following or no following at all. This happens to be the most businesses around you. They might be well known global leaders, but that doesn’t mean that they have almost a cult following of people who usually take pride in supporting those organizations. Organizations such as this should approach gamification carefully as the motivator that works the best is hidden somewhere among rewards and incentives.

Head and shoulders shampoos, for example, if they decided to gamify some of their content and decide to motivate people by promising a badge saying “this person uses H&S”, they would be disappointed. We just don’t see many people playing games just in order to proudly exhibit their collection of Duracell-themed badges. No, this kind of organizations need to focus on extrinsic rewards in order to motivate and induce customer loyalty.

On the other side of the spectrum we have organizations such as Greenpeace, Apple or National Geographic. Those are the kinds of organizations that can ditch the standard approach to gamification and offer their customers something more. While displaying Head & Shoulders badge on your social profiles might not be the most lucrative option, displaying “I support Greenpeace” badge is a different story (or any other social status symbol, for that matter).

See, now we’re talking about organizations that has users developing micro and macro groups dedicated to that organization, or even to specific products. Some of those product have cult following developed around them, so it’s no wonder why some intrinsic incentives are so successful. Those organizations are not automatically worse than the ones we mentioned first, but they provide certain kind of value to their customers – value that easily transforms in to prestige and social status symbol.

This last dichotomy has to be taken with a grain of salt, as there is no reason why those two kinds of organizations should pursue one kind of gamification and reward/incentive system, and not the others. It just takes more time, more planning and more creativity to execute it right, but the result often pays off tremendously.