Gamification is one of those big words constantly being thrown around in the social media space. It’s also a trend, like many other trends in social media, which companies are trying to use as the proverbial silver bullet to gain traffic and conversions. While gamification is by no means a quick fix to all problems social, once you understand the science behind it, you see why it works.

Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit and Workshops, led a discussion during Social Media Week on this hot button subject and began by making sure the definition was clear:

gamification is the process of using game thinking & mechanics to engage users and to solve problems.

One of the reasons gamification works is because games create a system of constraint. When you set limits, people need to use their own imagination and creativity to reach a goal. People are born with the desire to create and games help to get those creative juices flowing. Additionally, games are intrinsically social and that fact adds to the reasoning behind why it works so well in this case.

Scientifically speaking, gamification works off of fluid intelligence (gF): the human ability to, given a situation you’ve never been in before, solve a problem. Numerous tests have shown that gF helps individuals learn to multitask and learning to multitask helps increase your grey matter. Moreover, people are “wired” to gather pleasure from achievement. In games, the challenge/achievement loop takes place many, many times. This pleasure will also lead people to tell others about their wonderful “game” experience—once again accomplishing a social interaction.

The science behind gamification also explains the division between those who understand this concept & those who are still slow to adopt the theory of using games, when applicable, online. The bifurcation of which we are speaking is essentially generational. Boomers, Gen X-ers & some Gen Y-ers were brought up on a learning system based on crystallized intelligence—the ability to use your memory in solving problems you already know. Crystallized intelligence limits creativity thus limiting the aforementioned challenge/achievement pleasure loop that games provide. The one thing to remember is that, although there may be some generational pushback, gamification techniques still work across all generations. Think about it, who doesn’t like to play a game?

And here’s the perfect example.

When I arrived at the Bloomberg building, I went to the desk to get my badge for the day and was given the directions to get to the room where the panel was being held. I was prompted to take the green elevator to the sixth floor, go through the atrium to the next elevator bank, take one of those elevators to 28, perform seven barrel rolls under razor wire while encountering enemy fire and go down the stairs to the 27th floor where I would be greeted by coffee, tea, orange juice and various breakfast snacks before the beginning of the panel. OK, so I may have added the barrel rolls, razor wire and enemy fire, but the point is a link (Legend of Zelda pun fully intended) as made between the experience of getting to the conference room and a system of gaming and achievement. The social aspect of this was expressed through the conversations before and after the discussion as well as online. Games and social interactions work.

Plus, I still say Gabe set up hat whole series of entry to the room so when you ask him, and he says he didn’t, feel free to accept his humility.

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  1. Kathy Sierra

    Games (actual games) and “gamification” are two very different things. In most implementations of gamification (as described/defined in Gabe’s two books), the basis of the activity is an externally-regulated extrinsic motivation system: rewards, social status, etc. In contrast, actual games (video games, board games, etc.) are based around intrinsic motivation. In other words, games are designed to be intrinsically pleasurable for their own sake as opposed to “for the extrinsic motivators”, even when extrinsic motivation “mechanics” are present. Most gamification, on the other hand, is designed to drive behavior exclusively through increased engagement around a reward structure.

    In psychological terms, the “science of gamification” puts it gamification at the opposite end of the motivation continuum from actual games. This does not mean gamification techniques are useless, as the externally-regulated motivators are the core of operant conditioning’s positive reinforcement (the system used in slot machines and many forms of animal training, for example).

    That said, it makes absolutely no sense to make ANY meaningful comparison between actual games and gamification, science-y or otherwise. Gamification is not games, and the science is fundamentally different. The benefits of games do not apply to gamification. The fact that some game mechanics are found in games does not mean that taking those mechanics outside the context of games still renders those mechanics useful in the same ways. In fact, the science of operant conditioning and especially the positive reinforcement quadrant is well known to produce serious and counter-intuitive side-effects when applied to the specific subset of behaviors that COULD be intrinsically rewarding. Game designers use a complex and subtle design that enables game mechanics to support but not “crowd out” intrinsic motivation. Gamification does not.

    Bottom line: the “science of gamification” is meaningless. There is a “science of operant conditioning”, but to discuss the science around actual games (including fluid intelligence) and somehow map that to gamification is just… wrong. Not just wrong, but *extremely* wrong. 180 degrees wrong. To understand games, study the research on actual games. To understand gamification, study the research on operant conditioning. And as Skinner showed us, slot machines highlighted, and Self-Determination Theory organized — operant conditioning does NOT produce innovation. It suppresses it.

  2. Good Afternoon Kathy,

    Thank you for your comment. While it is true that there is a difference between actual games and gamification, I do believe that there still is a valid relationship between the two. While it is very true that, “most gamification, on the other hand, is designed to drive behavior exclusively through increased engagement around a reward structure,” I have met people who see a reward structure as their own intrinsic pleasure.

    I will say that you have certainly added great content to the gamification debate as well as helped illustrate, in my opinion, reasons why gamification does not always work.

    I would also like to chat with you more about this if you would like to continue the conversation.

    Thanks again.

  3. Kathy, I couldn’t have said it better! Most gamification gurus try to circumvent the fact that when they want to implement gamification, they actually want to design parts of a game. And when the game is not that good, people will stop playing. And most people suck at making a game.

    Even worse, when they add gamification to something that is already in use, people start to slowly do things because of gamification tricks (extrinsic motivators) and when this starts to become boring, they stop doing it altogether. Gamification (whenever it is not a properly designed game) takes away the intrinsic motivation, which in my opinion is throwing away the key to creativity and innovation.

    The big problem with gamification is that it often works really well on the short term, and who’s doing something for the long run these days anyway?

  4. Good morning Melle. I’d like to ask you a question. What are your thoughts on Foursqaure and Yelp?

    I hope to hear back from you soon!

  5. Hi Gary,

    What about Foursquare? I’ve no experience with Yelp, it’s not very popular in The Netherlands.