Lesson 1 - What is gamification?

A brief history of gamification, defining gamification and some examples.

Part 1 – The sweet sound of music

In a world where 1 in 4 adults are not active enough, encouraging physical activity is important. Say we want to encourage people to add a little more activity to their day by taking the stairs instead of the escalator. How could we do this? Maybe we could reverse the escalator? Or put an out of order sign on it for one day a week? Or even remove it completely? Maybe, but if someone actually needs the escalator then this wouldn’t work. So what could we do?

Some very clever people came up with an interesting idea that didn’t involve changing the escalator at all. Instead they focused on the stairs and tried to make them more fun to use than the escalator. They turned the stairs into a giant piano.

The piano stairs are a fantastic example of playful design, design which draws upon curiosity and surprise to encourage commuters to try something they might not normally do. And you can see the effect that this solution has on some people who not only just go up the stairs, but they stop and go down again and back up again and down again and up again…

This demonstrates that play can be a powerful way to motivate people. And this is exactly the same kind of thinking behind the gamification – using play to motivate. Except that gamification draws more specifically upon video games, rather than just play. Because simply put, games are incredibly engaging.

Part 2 – A brief history of gamification

Gamification is a special word. There has been a long history of using fun and play to motivate people and make work seem more enjoyable. Scouts could obtain the Eagle rank back in 1912, and even Mary Poppins had cottoned on to this, as evident from the lyrics in the famous song "A Spoonful of Sugar".

“In ev’ry job that must be done there is an element of fun.
You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game”
— Mary Poppins, 1964

However the term gamification has only been a recent addition to our vocabulary. Before the term existed many designers and researchers were already exploring the role of play and fun in computer applications. Malone in the early 80s created heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces and Draper in the late 90s looked at analysing fun as a candidate software requirement.

In the early 2000s we saw more people considering the role of fun and play in user experiences (e.g., Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment). Rather than just make usable interfaces, designers were considering how positive emotions and feelings could be elicited through sound, graphics, etc., thus enhancing the experience the user had with the software.

More recently, a number of applications have appeared which have directly used elements from gamesChore Wars is one of these, released in 2007, it is a task management application with a role-playing game inspired interface, complete with experience points, monster battles and loot.

Another example was Foursquare, released in 2009, it used to be a location sharing application that rewarded points and badges to users for using the service to “check-in” to locations. Foursquare used to allow users to compete with each other via leaderboards that compared their engagement with the service. This particular example became somewhat of a blueprint for many future gamification designs.

From 2010 onwards the term gamification became more and more popular, being adopted by companies such as Bunchball and Badgeville to describe the platforms they had created for integrating game elements into websites. More services and applications were released that integrated game elements such as the Epic Win app. Gabe Zichermann published a book on Games-Based Marketing and became an early evangelist for the word, using it primarily in the marketing world. In the academic world Sebastian Deterding was one of the first academics to talk about it, and also warning of it’s potential pitfallsJesse Schell’s DICE presentation and Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk also helped to increase interest in the area.

In 2011 gamification gamined much more notice in both industry and academia. The year began with the first annual Gamification Summit in January 2011. Gartner also released a statement predicting a growth of gamification for innovation processes.

“By 2015, More than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes”
— Gartner Press Release, 2011

Gartner also added gamification to their hype cycle. And hype was high indeed. Gamification started to be implemented in many different ways and new platforms started to appear that provided gamification solutions. One platform, Badgeville, raised $25 million investment funding in 2012. And the term gamification was beginning to be used left, right and center… but what did the term actually mean? 

Part 3 – Defining Gamification

It’s hard to place an exact date on when the term was first appeared but some sleuthing reveals that the term might have been coined around 2002/2003 by Nick Pelling when describing his work as a consultant for making hardware more fun (these links have since disappeared). However, the first documented use of the term wasn’t until late 2000s, where sources indicate that “gameification” was used in 2008 in a blog post by Bret Terrill, who was covering discussions in the lobby at the Social Gaming Summit. He heard the term used in regards to “taking game mechanics and applying to other web properties to increase engagement“. The term was picked up by other blogs and slimmed down by dropping the ‘e’, becoming “gamification”. 

A Google trend search for it shows that searching for the term gained popularity around 2011.

Interest over time in gamification – Google Search Trends

One of the earliest definitions of gamification can be found in the book Gamification by Design, where gamification was defined as “The use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”. The content of this book did come under some criticism. The term was gaining interest in the academic world and the Gamification Research Network was established after a workshop was run at the 2011 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference entitled “Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts“. Towards the end of 2011 the term was defined in an academic publication. This definition become one of, if not the most popular, definitions for the word thus far.

“The use of game design elements in non-game contexts.”
— Sebastian Deterding, Rilla Khaled, Lennart E. Nacke, Dan Dixon, 2011

There have been a number of other definitions for the term which you can find over on the resources page of this website.

What’s clear is that game design is central to the word gamification. However, some game designers argued that in fact it had little to do with games, potentially due to early gamified applications using primarily reward and competition-based elements, such as points and badges. These reward systems were argued to be missing defining elements of what made a game a game, such as challenge and mastery. Margaret Robertson described gamification as ‘pointsification’ and said it could go “take a long walk off a short pier” and Ian Bogost was also less than impressed with the term.

Nonetheless gamification has become pervasive and has continued to grow in popularity. And there have been some very successful and excellent game-like designs. Take Zombies, Run! as an example. It is a smartphone application that instead of using badges, points and leaderboards to motivate users to exercise, it instead delivers a rich narrative to players, challenges them to outrun zombies, and has item collecting and town upgrading. All of this feels more like a game, which may have led to its modest popularity.

Wrapping up

So what have we learnt in this lesson?

  1. Play can be a powerful way to engage and motivate people. Gamification draws from video games to try and do this.
  2. Many designers and researchers were already exploring the role of play and fun in computer applications before the term gamification was coined.
  3. The most popular definition of gamification is “The use of game design elements in non-game contexts.”

Now, to further understand whether gamification is a useful approach and how best to implement it we need to further delve into the world of games and see what makes them just so incredibly engaging to begin with.


  1. World Health Organization (2015) Physical Activity Factsheet.
  2. Volkswagen (2009) Piano Staircase.
  3. Boy Scouts of America (2015) The Eagle Scout.
  4. Disney (1964) A Spoonful Of Sugar (from “Mary Poppins”).
  5. Malone, T. (1982) Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces: Lessons from computer games.
  6. Draper, S. (1999) Analysing fun as a candidate software requirement.
  7.  Blythe, M.A., Overbeeke, K., Monk, A.F., Wright, P.C. (2003) Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment
  8. Davis, K. (2007) Chore Wars
  9. Rexbox (2010) Epic Win App
  10. Zichermann, G., & Linder, J. (2010) Game-Based Marketing
  11. Deterding, S. (2010) Pawned. Gamification and its discontents
  12. Schell, J. (2010) When games invade real life
  13. McGonigal, J. (2010) Gaming can make a better world
  14. Gartner (2011) Gartner Says By 2015, More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes.
  15. Brockmeier, J (2011) Gartner Adds Big Data, Gamification, and Internet of Things to Its Hype Cycle
  16. Badgeville (2012) Badgeville, The Behavior Platform, Raises $25M Series C Round
  17. Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2011) “Gamification” from the perspective of service marketing
  18. Terrill, B. (2008) My Coverage of Lobby of the Social Gaming Summit
  19. Currier, J (2008) Gamification: Game Mechanics is the New Marketing
  20. Gruber, M (2009) Putting Games to Work
  21. Google (2016) Google Trends for Gamification
  22. Zichermann, G., & Cunningham, C. (2011) Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps
  23. Deterding, S. (2011) Gamification by Design: Response to Zichermann
  24. Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011) Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts
  25. Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011) From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification
  26. Robertson, M. (2010) Can’t play, won’t play
  27. Bogost, I. (2011) Gamification is Bullshit
  28. Dredge, S. (2015) Zombies, Run! goes freemium after 1m sales to attract hordes of new players