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Gamification – a playful way to positive user experiences?

Currently, the augmented reality game Pokémon Go is fascinating millions of gamers all over the world. By catching little creatures, gamers collect points and advance to higher levels. Moreover, they can battle other players in gyms. And it is exactly game-design elements like these that make playing so addictive. In the meantime, the potential of such game-design elements has been applied to non-game contexts, the so-called "gamification". And marketing experts have known for a long time that this triggers positive emotional experience in users. User experience, too, deals with positive emotions. But does this common feature outweigh the many subtle differences between these approaches?

As per the definition developed by Sebastian Deterding et al., gamification is the use of game-design elements and mechanisms in non-game contexts, following the principle: Super Mario collects coins, frequent flyers collect miles. Gamification does not deal with developing entire games, it only focuses on individual game elements. And this is what distinguishes gamification from serious games, which have also been developed for topics that have no gaming character as such. Serious games, however, are actual games, e. g. for educational purposes.

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Moreover, gamification uses concepts and methods from the field of behavioral and motivational psychology. This is exemplified by the Nissan Leaf electric car. By means of virtual trees, the car shows the drivers how economically they are driving. And with CARWINGS, Nissan has complemented its range by the additional feature of a social community and ranking lists comparing the drivers. The gaming elements in this tool are points, which have to be collected and are displayed as growing trees, and ranking lists that display the points to create competition. The result: The more economical someone drives, the more trees they plant and the higher they climb in the ranking list, giving them positive emotions.

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This example illustrates the different aims of gamification and user experience. Gamification aims at integrating game-design elements to create positive experiences, thereby influencing the users' behavior. And this change in behavior is actually the key element. User experience, in contrast, focuses on meeting specific human needs to create positive experiences. The result, for example better customer loyalty or a better brand awareness, can be the same.

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All the world's a ... game?

When is it advisable for companies to employ gamification for designing products and services? Experiences that are associated with positive emotions can enhance potentially boring or unpleasant tasks. However, users can only have positive experiences if they are able to master the gaming elements, which nevertheless have to be challenging. Moreover, clearly defined rules and goals as well as feedback help the users to get into a "flow". In this state, they experience an activity as extremely positive, they are able to totally focus on it and enjoy it. This makes time fly. However, the main aim of gamification is to influence the users' behavior and attitude. This is based on the assumption that positive experiences created by the game-design elements can influence the behavior.

In the case of the Nissan Leaf, the game-design elements provide the driver with an incentive to drive economically. This shows that, in many cases, gamification has a manipulative aspect. Certain interest groups, e. g. employers or service providers, try to influence the users for their own benefit. This phenomenon is not limited to the field of consumer products. In production environments, too, companies now rely on gamification elements. Awarding points for certain tasks, for example, creates competition among the users of a machine, increasing their efficiency in checking assembly lines.Gamification has become a huge trend not least because companies see it as a possibility to promote desirable user behavior and to make the users happy at the same time.

What makes games fun

The game-design elements and mechanisms are at the core of gamification. This includes theoretical backgrounds of games (e. g. the need for stimulation and curiosity) just like specific game designs based on certain principles, goals and patterns. They form the rules of the game and include elements such as:


Display of and reward for achievements and success, e. g. by means of points, awards or levels. In this case, performance and competence are seen as the main motivators.


Comparison with others, often by means of ranking lists. Here, too, performance and competence are the motivating factors.


Awards and levels that were previously gained can also be lost. This means that more effort has to be put into maintaining them.

Time limits

Certain tasks have to be completed within a certain time, which requires fast and targeted action.

Step by step

Details are only given one at a time. This means that users focus on certain contents or functionalities first and are given further options as they go along.


As challenges are only perceived as being motivating if they are seen as being manageable by the respective user.

Behind some of the motivators in games, similar to user experience, are psychological needs, e. g. the feeling of being competent or connected with other users in group tasks. This means that meeting the users' needs also plays a role, albeit indirectly, in some gamification elements.

More than just a game?

Gamification does not always lead to the desired positive experiences and thus a change in behavior. This can mainly be attributed to the fact that users differ. After all, gamification has to be fun to motivate! Especially competitions are not popular with everyone. The simple fact that there is always only one winner means that only few users can enjoy the positive emotions of winning. The most common type of gamer is motivated by the social experience of a game. Others want to achieve or discover something. These insights have to be considered when planning gamification.

Just like user experience design, gamification can motivate users and enable them to make positive experiences. In this case, gamification elements can even be tools to achieve a positive user experience. However, gamification puts more emphasis on the aspect of fun and the desired change in behavior than user experience. At this point, UX pursues the more idealistic aim to enhance well-being and to give interaction with a product more individual significance by meeting psychological needs.

The author

Michael Burmester, professor at the Stuttgart Media University HdM and UX expert, writes for UID.

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