Gamification 101: Games and why we play

Gamification 101: Games and why we play

Gamification is applying game design principles in non-gaming contexts to influence behavior and increase engagement. Both art and science, gamification combines the domains of user experience design, motivational psychology, and gaming to create more engaging experiences for end-users. In fact, a lot can be learned from how games engage users. In this gamification primer, we talk about what is a game and why people play games. These are important considerations when planning a gamification project.

What is a game?

What constitutes a game? There are many definitions. In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal identifies four traits shared by games: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. For our purposes, we will look at those first three elements.

  • Goal. A game has an objective or victory conditions. It is clear what the player must do to win.
  • Rules. A game has well-defined rules that dictate what is allowed and what is not allowed. Rules constrain, but also guide, a player’s actions.
  • Feedback system. A game has a reward system. Rewards may be the intrinsic value, such as the sense of satisfaction from winning, or could be an extrinsic reward, such as a trophy or other physical prize. But feedback does not just occur at the end of the game. A game provides feedback throughout the game to indicate a player’s performance and give them actionable information to adjust their performance during the game.

As an example, let’s consider the word search. Is this a game? It meets all of these requirements:

  1. It has a goal. In order to win, a player must find all of the hidden words.
  2. It has rules. Words are hidden in a grid of a specific size, and may be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. They may also be forward or backwards.
  3. It provides the player with feedback. A list of words gives input about how many words are remaining, and when all of the words have been found. At completion, there is a sense of satisfaction of successfully finding all of the words. Depending on context, there may be additional rewards. For example, in a classroom, there may be a grade that goes along with completion of the word search.

Why do people play games?

Senet game pieces

Senet gameboard and game pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun

Games are a fundamental, human, social activity. Senet, the oldest known board game, dates back to the earliest days of the Egyptian dynasty (3500 BC). The rules to this game are not known, but substantial evidence suggests it was widely enjoyed and even attained religious or spiritual significance. Games are used for both leisure and learning, for the entirety of life.

Games are structured activities, providing outlets for achievement, creativity, and socialization. These structures provide a range of motivations for the people playing them:

  • Goals provide artificial (i.e. safe) challenges. As players achieve goals, they take control and gain mastery within the game. Because games are artificial, they offer a reduced-risk environment and encourage people to explore risk-taking and alternatives they may not consider elsewhere in daily life.
  • Rules create constraints that spark creativity. Rule systems can be simple or complex, and are often used as the primary source of learning.
  • Stories and plot serve as a form of escapism (in games that use them), and allow players to experience and create their own stories.
  • Interactions between players, or between a player and an artificial opponent, create social connections and a shared experience. They often involve social interactions (most games are multiplayer as either competitive or cooperative experiences) and provide a means for expressing connection or relation with others.

In short, games are “motivation engines.” They feed a player’s motivational desires. Self-Determination Theory states that people seek out and engage in activities that satisfy three basic motivational needs (all of which are satisfied by games):

  • Competence. People want to achieve goals and get better. They want to experience meaningful growth. Games offer an opportunity for mastery. They start with small, simple goals; as the player progresses, they also increase in difficulty. A compelling gameplay loop gives meaningful goals with clear actions, with results presenting relevant feedback that directs them to the next goal. This cycle repeats, keeping players interested and engaged. Games meet this motivational need with their outlet for achievement through goals and feedback.
  • Autonomy. Autonomy is the amount of choice, control, and personalization available to the user. It is freedom of choice. Games typically provide multiple paths and non-linear gameplay, giving players freedom in how they want to engage with the game.  Games meet this motivational need with their outlet for creativity sparked by rules and feedback.
  • Relatedness: Finally, the third motivational need is a connection with others. They want to interact with others and see how their experience compares with others. Games meet this motivational need with their outlet for socialization in its feedback mechanisms.

Gamification for user engagement

Gamification takes advantage of the inherent motivation that games supply to drive desired behaviors in use and engagement.  It accomplishes this through the use of game mechanics which improve the ease of use, enjoyment, and rewards from an activity.

Datagame is a DIY insights gamification platform, designed to make the online survey and research experience easier and more enjoyable. The unique modules can replace studies as part of a survey or as standalone exercises to make them more engaging and improve the end user experience. Sign up for our newsletter to get all the latest Datagame news direct to your inbox.