Posted by Matías O'Keefe

Gamification Explained

26 February 2014

Gamification drives participation and engagement by integrating game mechanics and game dynamics into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign.

Game mechanics are the rules and rewards that make up game play — the aspects that make it challenging, fun, satisfying, or whatever other emotion the game’s designers hope to evoke. These emotions, in turn, are the result of desires and motivations we call game dynamics.

Game Mechanics Motivate Behaviors

The addition of game mechanics to a site or application allows you to layer compelling user experiences into existing activities. These gamified activities satisfy basic human desires, creating the addictive user experiences that motivate users to take certain actions. But what are these game mechanics?

Game mechanics are tools, techniques, and widgets that are used as building blocks for gamifying a website or application. Using them individually or together, it’s possible to build a highly motivational user experience around existing website functionality or content. Some of the most common game mechanics include the following:


People love points. They love to earn them and to achieve them. This makes points incredible motivators. Points can be used to reward users across multiple dimensions, and different categories of points can be used to drive different behaviors within the same site or application.

Points can also be used as status indicators, users can spend them to unlock access to content, or spend them on virtual goods and gifting.

Studies done at IBM Research and the University of Chicago describe the dramatic effect that earning points can have on user behavior, even if there’s no monetary value associated with them. People just love to be rewarded and feel like they’ve gained something

Challenges, Trophies, Badges, Achievements

Challenges (aka trophies, badges, or achievements) give people missions to accomplish and then reward them for doing so. Challenges give people goals and the feeling like they’re working toward something. The general approach is to configure challenges based on actions that you’re tracking, and reward your users for reaching milestones with trophies, badges and achievements.

Trophies, badges, ribbons, etc. are the visible recognition of having reached new levels or completed challenges. One of the keys to making levels and challenges effective is providing a forum for users to show off their achievements, like a trophy case or user profile page that displays their badges.

These have counterparts in the real world as well, as in Scouting merit badges, colored credit cards that indicate high spending limits, or colored frequent flyer cards that indicate member status.


Levels are different classes in frequent-flyer programs, colored belts in martial arts, job titles in industry: an indication that you’ve reached a milestone, a level of accomplishment in a community and should be afforded a certain amount of respect and status. Levels are often defined as point thresholds, so that users can automatically level up based on their participation, or use levels to indicate status and control access to content on the site.

Virtual Goods

For a game economy to be effective over time, it helps to have a place to spend points, provide an incentive to earn more, and offer the ability to customize something that reflects a personal identity. Virtual goods help achieve all of this and are a great vector for creativity, competition, and self-expression in the community. Virtual goods are non-physical, intangible objects that are purchased for use in online communities or online games. Users purchase virtual goods like clothing, weapons or decorations to create an identity for their virtual self while comparing and “showing off” with their friends. Virtual goods can also be used as a revenue center, by selling users virtual goods for real dollars.


Most of the successful games ever created have wisely implemented a “high-score table.” They bring aspiration, “fame,” and your name in lights. They also indicate “how am I doing” against friends and against everybody else.

In the context of gamification, leaderboards are used to track and display desired actions, using competition to drive valuable behavior.


Competitions enable your users to challenge each other to get the high score at some activity. Once everyone has done the activity, the user with the highest score wins a reward while all the losers get a consolation prize.

This is great for “multiplayer-enabling” one-player games and other single user experiences. For example: “I just scored 500,000 points at Asteroids, I dare you to beat that!”

Game Dynamics Satisfy Desires

Why are people motivated by game mechanics? Because of game dynamics. People have fundamental needs and desires — desire for reward, status, achievement, self-expression, competition, and altruism among others. These needs are universal, and cross generations, demographics, cultures, and genders. Game designers have known for years how to address these needs within gaming environments, and gamification now enables these precepts to be applied more broadly. By wrapping the appropriate set of game mechanics around your website, application, or community, you can create an experience that drives behavior by satisfying one or more of these human needs:


Human beings are motivated by receiving rewards — something of value given for some kind of action. A reward, tangible or intangible, is presented after the occurrence of an action (i.e., behavior) with the intent to cause the behavior to occur again. With gamification, the primary reward mechanism is through earning points or the equivalent (like frequent-flyer miles). But obtaining virtual goods, leveling up, and even completing achievements also satisfy this desire.


Most humans have a need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, attention and, ultimately, the esteem and respect of others. People need to engage themselves in activities to gain this esteem, though. All elements of game mechanics drive these dynamics, with leveling-up (such as getting a gold or platinum credit card) being one of the primary motivators.