What makes gamification a powerful tool in user experience?

Posted on May 24, 2018
4 min read


In 2016, an estimated 2.6 billion gamers worldwide (according to Unity) generated close to $100 billion in revenue (according to estimates by Newzoo) across various platforms.

This figure has grown astronomically since 1995, when the number of gamers was estimated at 100 million globally – that’s an increase of 2,600% in just over 20 years. And the growth, and appeal, of gaming shows no signs of slowing down.

Increasingly, designers, programmers, marketers and service creators of all kinds are beginning to cotton on to the huge potential of gaming in creating ‘sticky’, compelling, memorable and engaging user experiences – and to appeal to the users who have grown up playing games, the so-called ‘gaming generation’.

The term used to describe the incorporation of gaming elements, and game-like interaction, into a product or service is gamification. In this piece, I’ll examine why gamification is such a powerful tool from a UX standpoint, and why you should consider incorporating it into your user experience.

What is gamification?

First, what do we mean when we talk about gamification? Despite how it sounds, gamification isn’t necessarily about turning something into a game. Rather, it’s about using game elements to achieve a particular user behavior.

Akar Sumset emphasizes that gamification is not about playing games, or about making users have fun:

"Contrary to popular belief, it does not entail users playing or giving them points. Yes, those are useful components, but not the whole thing. […] The purpose is to use fun to motivate people towards certain behaviors."

He then gives a definition of gamification which he believes puts the correct amount of emphasis on motivation and behaviors.

Gamification is about using game-like setups to increase user motivation for behaviors that businesses target.

Whether or not this constitutes a definitive description of gamification, it hits on one of the most powerful things about gamification: it triggers motivation.

How gamification can be used to motivate

To illustrate how gamification can be successfully used to motivate people, Sumset gives the example of a ‘Speed Camera Lottery’ trialled in Stockholm as a joint public safety campaign and marketing stunt by Volkswagen.

The premise was simple: drivers obeying the speed limit as they drove past a camera were automatically entered into a lottery. The campaign proved highly successful (with some drivers even circling back around to get another entry into the lottery), reducing the average speed of drivers in Stockholm by 22%. It also managed to up sales for Volkswagen by 5.8%.

Or to give a more digitally relevant example, take a look at Habitica – a web and mobile app that uses gamification to motivate users into forming good habits, and dropping bad ones. Habitica turns users’ everyday lives into a role-playing game, rewarding them with Experience and Gold for completing tasks.

Just like the Speed Camera Lottery, Habitica motivates users to complete an otherwise unappealing action by providing them with rewards that create a feeling of fun and improvement. The rewards unlock other features within the app that increase the sense of fun, creating a positive feedback loop that keeps motivation high.

How gamification can increase user engagement

Incorporating gamification into your user experience can also be an excellent way to improve user engagement, retention and involvement with a service or app.

The US broadcasting network Home Shopping Network (HSN) achieved this when it launched an online ‘arcade’ full of games that awarded users tickets for gameplay. In its first year, the HSN arcade logged 116 million gameplays from 650,000 individual users.

A presentation by Jill Braff, EVP Digital Commerce at HSN, detailed how arcade users would spend twice as long on the HSN website and return twice as often, while also making more purchases than non-arcade customers.

In 2010, NBC Universal’s USA Network enlisted the help of a gamification company to launch a promotional campaign for Psych, one of its TV shows. They created a fan loyalty program called ‘Club Psych’ that allowed players to earn points and increase their ranking by taking quizzes, playing games and watching videos.

As a brand awareness campaign, it was extremely successful, generating a 130% jump in pageviews for the site and a 40% increase in return visits.

Whether your goal is to promote engagement with a brand, a website or another type of product, gamification gives users a reason to stick around longer and a reason to come back.

How gamification encourages social sharing

Games are fun, but there’s only so much you can get out of them when playing on your own – which is why so many games, and gamified experiences, incorporate a social component.

Adding a social element to your gamified UX can massively boost your reach, and effectively transform your users into brand ambassadors as they involve their friends in your gamified experience.

USA Network’s Club Psych had an evangelizing function called ‘Recruitment’ which encouraged the distribution and promotion of the club on social media. According to the network, this feature led to 288,000 shares on Facebook and an estimated 38 million exposures of the brand to players’ friends and family.

The Nike+ app, which is often held up as the gold standard for gamification in action, also employs social sharing to great effect by allowing users to share their running progress on an ongoing basis – enabling users to motivate and compete with each other, but also encouraging them to involve their friends in the experience.

In short, gamification adds a number of powerful extra dimensions to a user experience, which can be used to motivate user behaviours, engage and retain them, and turn them into ambassadors for your product by sharing it around. All you have to do is make things fun and rewarding enough in return.

Gamification has to make sense for a user experience and be executed well, otherwise it’s more likely to turn users off than win them over. But when done right, it’s an extremely compelling way to appeal to users who have increasingly grown up playing games of all kinds.

Related reading: User testing for gaming and gambling

In this Article

    Related Blog Posts

    • What is customer journey mapping?

      ​ Customer journey mapping serves as a critical exercise for teams dedicated to improving...
    • Investing in UX research

      If you’re a UX practitioner, you clearly understand the value of what you do...
    • research ops

      Vodafone UK cuts time-to-insight by 17% with streamlined research ops

      By offloading day-to-day tasks to the UserZoom platform, Vodafone UK’s research operations have dramatically...