Gamification: Lost in Translation

Gamification, the art of infusing play into everyday tasks, has gained considerable traction in recent years as digital products aim to increase engagement and motivation amongst their users. But as the term has become ubiquitous in its expanding influence on modern product design, so has it bewildered designers and strayed from its intended purpose. As this invaluable design concept risks losing itself in translation, so does it risk being trivialised. In deciphering this term, we explore why gamification works so well, and how a human-centered approach can lead to more relatable and consistent products by aligning with the human story.

What is gamification?

At its core, gamification is the application of gaming principles to non-game contexts, in this case digital products. The most common applications include elements like points, badges, leaderboards, and other rewards — all of which are designed to increase a user’s engagement and motivation. This makes an online experience more interactive and enjoyable, and stimulates users to accomplish certain actions or objectives. The clear end-goal is to make the product more ‘sticky’, making the user more likely to continue using it.

This is well-documented too. A plethora of studies show a significant impact by gamification on human motivation, especially in the context of task-related or educational platforms. At a higher level, we can see three crucial elements that sustain motivation:

  • Autonomy: control over your own goals and decision-making, leading to increased effort and stronger commitment to objectives.
  • Competence: becoming more proficient and skilled at something drives you to continue engaging in it.
  • Value: assigning importance to an activity, and taking a genuine interest in the subject, can significantly boost motivation levels.

Gamification plays on our extrinsic (e.g. money and materials) and intrinsic (e.g. fulfilment and enjoyment) motivations to increase our engagement with a product — so long as we’re adequately rewarded. It’s simple: if an activity can drive a significantly positive emotional response, typically via influxes in dopamine and serotonin, we’re more likely to want more. If it provides a meaningful and frictionless experience, we’ll keep coming back for more.

What’s the catch?

As the term “Gamification” gets thrown around, its interpretation (and application) has increasingly been taken at face value. It’s important to realise that, despite its potential for unwavering user retention, Gamification isn’t appropriate for every digital product. Many platforms try to evoke an emotional response that simply isn’t the right fit for their target demographic. For example, a leaderboard system might be effective in increasing motivation for competitive individuals, but not for those who prefer collaboration and teamwork.

On occasion, a task may also be too serious or sensitive for gamification, such as in healthcare or financial products. It should be noted that platforms such as Up, Noom, and others in these realms have managed to do this well, so there are always exceptions to the rule. Behind every well-gamified product, there’s a deeper reason as to why it works — beyond flashy graphics and a colourful user interface. The crucial point is to understand the psychology and behaviour of your target users, before implementing gaming elements.

Examples of great gamification

Perhaps the most successful applications of gamification come at the intersection between real-world activities and the ability for digital products to compliment them perfectly.

Consider the example of Apple Fitness+, where we’ve seen an entire ecosystem built around rewarding users for completing workouts, a leaderboard comparing their progress to other users, and publicly-shared badges for meeting set goals. These elements are indeed borrowed from video games, but they align with real-life rewards and motivations such as the sense of accomplishment from completing a workout, or the competitive drive to do better than others. At the end of the day, it plays on those basic human instincts to gamify an aspect of our lives we’ve always competed on — now in the digital realm.

Apple Fitness watch gamification

Task-based and commitment-centric products such as Duolingo, a language learning app, and Todoist, a task management app, excel in their implementation of gamification for the very same reason. By incorporating features such as point systems, progress tracking, and streaks, they’ve skewed the repetitive nature of the tasks in these apps, often seen as mundane and lacking instant gratification, to their advantage.

A clear alignment with the three motivational elements of autonomy, competency, and value allowed them to easily implement game-like principles to reward users and produce actual tangible outcomes for them. The digital products themselves only streamline these existing real-life processes, which is the most powerful thing they can do.

Gamification in the apps Duolingo and Todoist
Where do we start?

As designers, it’s crucial that we understand the role of human psychology and behaviour in the design process. The goal of human-centered design is to create products and services that align with the needs and desires of the people who will use them. In the context of gamification, this means that we should look to real life experiences and rewards as the source material for designing engaging and motivating experiences, rather than solely drawing influence from video games. After all, video games themselves have their roots in reality and are an interpretation of human rewards and psychology.

So, where do we go from here?

It’s tempting to glance around at different gamification techniques in your favourite products, make some assumptions on your users’ motivations, and call it a day. However, the most successful products that implement gamification carefully integrate these after strong consideration of their users’ needs and motivations.

One valuable starting point to guide this enquiry is the Octalysis Framework — a human-focused framework which separates gamification into eight core drivers. Whilst many designers begin their research by looking into competitors, as we initially did, gaining a deeper understanding of gamification with this fundamental framework will give you a serious advantage. It analyses users’ feelings, insecurities, and motivations for doing (and not doing) certain things in a clear-cut yet highly detailed way.

Octalysis Framework

By identifying which core drivers are present in a product’s specific context and target user, designers can begin their quest towards a gamified digital experience in a more structured, empathetic and effective manner.


Gamification has the potential to enhance user experience and increase engagement with products and services. However, it is crucial for designers and developers to approach it with a thorough understanding of its principles and a human-centered mindset. In doing so, they can avoid the trap of ‘gamification for gamification’s sake’ and create more effective, relatable and consistent products that align with the human story and enhance the overall user experience.

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