Gamification or game design?

Sometimes we still struggle to situate our work in terms of gamification or game design. If gamification is a design process, then game design is also a design process. As known, gamification is about non-gaming contexts but serious games is also about non-leisure contexts. The difference is purely the whole vs. parts (i.e. games design elements) discussion. Gamification is about game design elements and serious games are whole systems, but also composed of elements. So, in this scenario, can gamification become the whole system after design? This is so complicated!

This is not a question about the “magic circle”. I think that if we go towards the magic circle definition, then it will depend on what the player defines as “game”. This means that this “magic” could happen at anytime and anywhere. I’ve read a paper saying that “game” could depend on the perception of the player. So if an user interacts with a system that has game “elements”, it is up to him/her to consider it as a game. That could sound plausible, but what about the design process? What makes gamification different? We could talk about purposes and objectives here. Some might say that gamification is about motivating people to change their behaviour, but then, what about games for change? Aren’t they designed for the same purpose?

The discussion could go further. In serious games we might see heroes and stories attached to the medium. Most of the times, they are characters and they “live” in that game. In card or board games, they are there, but in other formats. In gamification, maybe those heroes could be JUST “real” people. They are what they are. It looks like in gamification the context is the actual main element. This is why DEFINING and INTEGRATING the context is one important aspect. Bringing this context to the interaction could make all the difference and probably shortening the bridge between real-digital. This could also make people change their behaviours in a way that everything is integrated.

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The line between gamification and game design is still very thin. But maybe if we consider the context as a major influencer, maybe it can become easier to integrate best practices of gamification. And this is not about points, badges and leaderboards.

Some might argue that gamification is about extrinsic rewards. Let’s think. Can games be about extrinsic rewards or just playing and having fun with it? Can serious games be about extrinsic rewards or is it about value and purpose inside the game? Reward is strongly related to the routine that takes us to get that reward. But, again, the reward requires MEANING, it requires integration with a context. This is why Deterding’s paper from 2011, of “situated motivational affordances” could be interesting in this scenario. Thus, mapping the context is crucial.

The whole point, however, is the understanding of the design process. So, what is the difference between gamification and game design? The integration of the context, perhaps. And what is the difference between gamification and serious game design? Context? Ummm. It looks like gamification tends to be employed in existing systems or tasks. Hence, the verb “gamify” – which I don’t like that much. I think that maybe the problem is in there. Serious game design sounds like the design process is starting from scratch, whereas gamification sounds like we are adjusting an existing interaction. Maybe this implies the integration of CONTEXT and improvement or creation of systems.

There is also the concept of gameful design, which is actual making things more like a game (i.e. gamefulness), rather than just playfulness. In September 2011, Deterding et al. came up with an interesting way to see gamification. It is about the strategy (gamification), being different from a design “goal” (gameful design).

“Gameful design and “gamification” frame the same extension of phenomena through different intensional properties – as the design strategy of using game design elements (gamification) or the design goal of designing for gamefulness (gameful design)” – Deterding et al. (2011)

This discussion could be going on and on, forever, like the chicken-egg issue. Gameful design and gamification sound very similar! It is also hard to define those approaches. Isn’t the goal of gamification to transform things more like a game? Maybe the name is the issue. As I said before, gamification sounds like adjusting existing things and transforming elements into game design elements. Gameful design sounds more like people centred. It is and it will be about PEOPLE. So, what is game design, gamification and gameful design for you? To me, it is a bit like the drawing. Serious game design/game design has a system with defined lines and objects. Gamification has thin lines and real/digital are in the same context. Gameful design is a way to understand people’s needs and abilities in this scenario that involves people’s interaction with a context.

Definitions of gamification and gameful design are still in development. As a researcher, you need to define those terms before starting your work. This is hard and it has been a journey to me. Now I think I can get the idea of this concept. And you? What do you think?


Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011, May). Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. In CHI’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2425-2428). ACM.

Deterding, S. (2011, May). Situated motivational affordances of game elements: A conceptual model. In Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts, a workshop at CHI.

Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2012, October). Defining gamification: a service marketing perspective. In Proceeding of the 16th International Academic MindTrek Conference (pp. 17-22). ACM.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011, September). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments (pp. 9-15). ACM.

I’m studying games design, not gamification

This post is just to avoid the usual misconceptions between gamification and games. Although the names are very similar, they are not the same thing. In fact, they are not the same thing at all. There are three words that address gamification: motivation, persuasion and games. Not to mention, gamification is often discussed as a Design strategy. I must admit that in that case, I totally agree. Gamification is a design process and a design choice. However, in which way?
Gamification as game design elements?
Gamification had its first definition as the utilisation of game design elements into non-gaming contexts. Well, we have been using games in non-gaming contexts through serious games and persuasive games. Although the idea is actually the implementation of those game mechanics, the focus on the game design elements pushes the application of gamification towards game-like activities. This approach makes everything look like a game and in fact, it might be not exactly like a game at all. Gamification goes beyond that.

Gamification as a tool of persuasion or motivation?
Right, because gamification tends to make you do things that are good for you but you don’t feel like doing them, it can be related to persuasion, right? However, this is like the two sides of the same coin. Is it persuasion or motivation? Where is the line that divides persuasion from motivation? The answer here might be an issue of goals. If I want to do something, but I lack of motivation, then it is motivation. If I don’t even know that I want to do something, then I need to be persuaded. However, that difference between one and the other needs to be refined. People mention persuasive technologies a lot in this case. Things like providing the right access and ability to perform a task and some triggers may function to persuade someone to do something. But, yet, again, is it motivation or persuasion? Or maybe motivation that drives persuasion?
I think that gamification might actually try to do both – if possible. But it might have an order. First, you might persuade someone to do something. Then you motivate them to keep doing it. It is possible that the gamification strategy could have two approaches at the same time – why not. Or it may vary according to the context (health, education and so on). Or even better – it will vary according to the PEOPLE.

And what about the game-side of the gamification?
Personally, I’m starting to think that the name is the main problem. It should be design for motivation or design for persuasion. Or maybe people really need to explain better – myself probably. I must admit that I’ve done some mistakes as well, mainly because of the name.

My research is NOT about gamification
Now I need to make a point. I’m not studying gamification. In fact, I’m very far from that. I’m looking at advergames, which are indeed games for advertising purposes. I’m not researching in-games advertising, if you thought about it just because of the name. I’m looking at advergames, games that are TOTALLY shaped for the advertising message. Are those games brand-related? Sometimes. Are those games persuasive? Yes, totally. Are those games gamification? NOT AT ALL. If we look from the lenses of persuasion, it may have some similarities. Advergames are created to change consumers attitudes, make them share the message with others and make them remember the product or something before making a decision. But gamification has motivation as one of the main principles. And it really feels that one of the main triggers here needs to come from the individual. Games are, of course, amazing engaging tools and it is a fact that they can really change the world. This is why gamification was born from the game-design elements. BUT, the aim and nature of gamification is motivation – and can be combined with persuasion in some cases. For marketing, for example, it is almost impossible to motivate someone to buy a product. You persuade someone to buy a product. Moreover, advergames are games – this means that they are a WHOLE game with ALL the elements functioning together. Even if you break the elements and change them, they will be always games, with game mechanics, interface design, story and so on. And if you manipulate one element of the game, you are still working in the game perspective. So, because of that, I can say – I’m NOT researching gamification. And it might be very difficult to explore gamification for advertising and marketing.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have any interest whatsoever in gamification. I actually want to keep discussing this aspect and I really want to get involved in the Design process and research. But till now, I just need to make myself clear. :)

photo credit: Goomba Clay Figure from Nintendo’s Super Mario via photopin (license)

The psychology of crowds in the gameful world

Originally, the definition of gamification is related to the application of game elements to non-leisure contexts, as a design process. Each day, “gamified” (I prefer the term “gameful”) applications are developed through simply implementing badges, points and rewards, which can become a problem if not well-designed. It can be transformed into something really forced or fake that people will drop as soon as they are not interested anymore. The “human” element can’t be overlooked in this process, particularly because we are dealing with motivation. And motivation is situated in a context.

Motivational affordances can be related to the object and to a situation or context. Because of that, it’s necessary to understand what is the context which will be transformed by people through gameful experiences. Previous research regarding gamification has brought to the conversation concepts of culture and beliefs, as rituals and festivals as forms of play. However, this is not the point. I’m not getting into the discussion about gameful x playful, but social norms are something to pay attention while designing gameful (or gamified) applications.

The psychology of crowds is a research filed that encompasses music festivals, sports events and even protests. The main discussion of this aspect is related to relatedness and the feeling of being “united”, especially through positive relationships with people. In this context, it’s possible to highlight even less competitiveness and more ability to deal with difficult situations. But what does it have to do with gameful experiences? Well, previous research has argued that playing with people is better than playing alone. Now imagine if you could transform a whole rock n’ roll concert into a mega MMORG gameplay to help disabled people, for example? It’s like getting into a queue just because everyone is there – and that happens a lot in places like Brazil for example (we love queues). My point here is that crowds have power. People have the power – yes! And we could do great things with that.

The great concept of the psychology of crowds is that they tend to be heterogeneous or homogeneous, but yet organised. Gustave Le Bon (2009) introduced the concept of psychology of crowds and he argued that nationality, traditions and institutions compose the beliefs of the crowds. It is a way to say that they become like “communities”. In the digital world, it is kind of easy to see the influence of this human phenomenon: we have crowd funding and communities in social networks. But as a psychological tool, the crowds could be very persuasive. Crowds don’t exist just by themselves. They have leaders, they share ideas and beliefs. Everything is meaningful.

Another concept presented by Le Bon (2009) is that crowds have leaders. And those leaders started as followers. They confirm those beliefs and values, repeat and keep sharing and spreading, in a cycle of contagion. The idea of leaders is not as authority. I think that what the author meant by it is that it helps to keep some “organisation”. However, in my point of view and in gameful worlds, this needs to be studied. If people will follow leaders, it’s necessary to understand what they mean to people. What is the sentiment that they evoke? What are they representing?

Taking back to gameful applications, it is possible that doing things together or being part of a group is important. This is consisted by the concept of relatedness. One might say that he/she doesn’t want to share personal things with anyone. However, the sense of belonging is not only represented by sharing things. This could be represented by other ways, such as strong beliefs, for example, or food. One example is, I’m Brazilian and even I see something written in Brazilian Portuguese when I’m off my country, I will feel part of that group – even not being physically in the group. It is necessary to expand this sense of belonging.

How can design explore this? And how can gameful environments reflect or create those crowds? It is possible that the reflections of Le Bon could be amplified into gameful worlds. Again, I will leave the thoughts with you :)

If you want to read more and expand this idea:
Le Bon, G. (2009). Psychology of crowds. Sparkling Books.
Connell, J. P., & Wellborn, J. G. (1991). Competence, autonomy, and relatedness: A motivational analysis of self-system processes.
Shi, L., Cristea, A. I., Hadzidedic, S., & Dervishalidovic, N. (2014). Contextual Gamification of Social Interaction–Towards Increasing Motivation in Social E-learning. In Advances in Web-Based Learning–ICWL 2014 (pp. 116-122). Springer International Publishing.
AlMarshedi, A., Wills, G. B., Wanick, V., & Ranchhod, A. (2015). SGI: A Framework for Increasing the Sustainability of Gamification Impact.

photo credit: Rush hour at the metro via photopin (license)