Lesson 4 - Effective Gamification Design

Designing an engaging gamification experience.

So you want to try your hand at gamification design? Excellent! Prepare yourself, because you're about to get a crash course in gamification design. Are you ready? Here we go...

Step 1. Add points & badges!

Step 2. Profit!!!

That's it! Easy right? We're done. You can all go out now and gamify everything. Any questions? No? Excellent! Well, I hope you enjoyed this series on gamification design. Feel free to have a look at what else is on offer. 







Wait... you're still here? Okay, you got me. If you've read the last few lessons then you know that there's more to games than points and badges. These design elements may work well as rewards and feedback in games but they're not the primary reason most games are fun.  

“Games are good, points are good, but games ≠ points.”
— Margaret Robertson

So what's missing? If you remember back to lesson two we discussed Raph Koster and how he details that the fun from games arises out of mastery and solving puzzles. Just adding points doesn't necessarily create an interesting challenge for us to solve. In lesson three we identified that the researchers Ryan, Deci and others hypothesised that games are primarily motivating to the extent that players experience autonomy, competence and relatedness while playing. So how can we put this knowledge to use and design a game? Well, it's not easy...

The idea that one can make an activity engaging by integrating game mechanics ignores the fact that building an engaging game is hard.
— Brock Dubbels, 2013

But nonetheless, let's give it a go. When it comes to designing gamification there are a few key things to consider and a few useful processes we can use to help increase our odds of making an effective gamification design. Get ready. It's going to be a longer lesson than usual because there's a few things to talk about. First up, we'll talk about validating the use of gamification, then we'll look at designing a game-like experience that suits your players. Finally, we'll talk about the importance of playtesting and iteration in order to fine tune your design. 

Let's start with understanding what you want to gamify, and the most important question you'll need to ask first might surprise you a little...

Part 1 - Do you actually need gamification?

I know, it seems like an odd question, but it can be easy to get caught up in the hype of gamification and jump to the conclusion that we should use it. However, it is incredibly important to first identify the problems we're trying to solve in order to understand whether gamification is actually going to be a useful solution or not. So the first step is...

Step 1. Clearly identify the problem and the goals

Ask yourself, what is the problem you're trying to solve? For example, your problem might be that visitors to your website aren't signing-up to your newsletter, or your employees are don't submit their weekly time sheets on time, or your kids aren't doing their chores. Once you've identified the problem, it's time to validate the problem. 

Step 2. Determine if the problem is valid

This may seem like another odd step. You've identified a problem, why should you need to determine it exists? Unless you've already undertaken some research, it's likely you have a hunch that the problem you've identified exists, but unless you validate this hunch properly then you might find yourself in peril. Why? Jesse Schell (2014) sums it up nicely:

  • Peril #1: Introspection can lead to false conclusions about reality
  • Peril #2: What is true of one person’s experiences may not be true for others

What this means is that until you validate your problem, you won't know whether it's correct or if other people are experiencing it. So you need hard data to support your claim. A good way is to undertake some exploratory research to determine the reasons for the problem and understand the users. You can start by observing or talking to those involved with the problem. Both work well. For example, if people are visiting your website but not signing up, then you might want to find a typical user in real life and sit them down and get them to use your website while you watch and take notes. You could get them to think aloud as they do perform the task. 

It helps if this person isn't a friend or family member, as you're likely to get better feedback that way. Another way you could try and validate this problem is to add analytics to your website and see where users are getting to in the sign-up process. 

You could also try and talk to your users. Send out an e-mail campaign to those who have signed up with a survey that asks them why they signed up or if they had any issues in the sign-up process.

The results you find might surprise you. For example, you might find that in fact that the sign-up process isn't clear, or the signup form doesn't show up on a smartphone. If this is the case then this isn't really a problem you'd tackle with gamification... it's a usability problem.

Say though that your employees aren't handing their time sheets in on time because they aren't motivated to do it because they don't enjoy filling out them out. This might be a more appropriate problem to solve with gamification as this problem is related to motivation.

If the problem is related to motivation, there are a few more questions to ask before jumping into gamification design. You need to make sure there aren't any negative consequences with framing the problem as a game.

Step 3. Determine if there are any negative consequences

For example, is the problem that you want to tackle inherently serious or dangerous in nature. For example, sensitive or personal data is involved such as health records? Or does your problem require a serious attitude, for example if your system is trying to help someone with credit card fraud then a playful solution may not be the most appropriate thing in this context. If it all looks good, then there's just one more thing to look at...

Step 4. Find out if it has been done before

It's important to do some research and see if someone else has already tackled this problem before with gamification (or tried to tackle it) in either industry or research. Search the internet or app store and see what exists. Or jump on Google Scholar and have a look at the research in the area. If it does exist then ask:

  • Did it work?
  • Could it be done better?
  • What can you learn?
  • Is there a system built that you can use?

Step 5. Decision time

Whew, that's a lot of work before we even start thinking about game elements! But it's important to nail these questions to make sure we're not going to waste our time. If you've reached this point, it's time to make a decision. Should we proceed with a gamification solution? Well, if you have identified a valid motivational problem that doesn't have any negative consequences and isn't reinventing the wheel then you're ready to continue!

Part 2 - Understand your players & brainstorm

Okay! We're now at the point where we can start diving into the gamification design, but before we start applying points and badges everywhere it's important to look at who exactly will be using our gamified system. This is so we design a gamified solution for them that they actually enjoy using - what if our players don't enjoy competition? Or they don't like collecting badges? Therefore, the first thing we can do is to...

Step 1. Understand your players

When designing games, it's integral to consider who your players are and what kinds of games they like to play — and for gamification it's no different. When we think about different types of games, we often categorise them into different genres (e.g., puzzle, sports, action, fighting, adventure).

CC BY-SA 2.0 DocChewbacca 

CC BY-SA 2.0 DocChewbacca 

This is a start, and we could look at creating gamification solutions that tap into one or more of these different genres. However, there are other ways to classify games that look beyond genres, and instead look at motivations of play and what we enjoy from video games. One way, is to look at the aesthetics of play from the paper MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research (Hunicke, LeBlanc, & Zubek, 2004). This paper proposes an initial taxonomy of terms too help describe what we find fun in games, such as Fantasy (Game as make-believe) and Challenge (Game as obstacle course). The following video from Extra Credits explains this taxonomy better than I could and is worth watching.

A number of other classifications exist that also may be of some use, such as the Motivations for Video Game Use, MMORPG Player MotivationsBartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types for Multi-User Dungeons

It's also worthwhile noting other demographic variables. For example, age can be a significant variable when it comes to game design (Schell, 2014). We tend to play differently as we get age, our abilities can change and our interests are often greatly influenced by what we played when we were younger. You'll find that young children for example might not have a grasp on complex games, teenagers might have a greater reaction speed and plenty of time to sink into games, and older people might be pressed for time and want more casual experiences. These variables can greatly impact our design. 

Using this information we can create a demographic and player survey (or reuse an existing one) that we can distribute to our target audience in order to understand them better. After collecting this information we can use it to create general player profiles to help guide our gamification design.

Step 2. Identify the core gameplay

Earlier we identified the problem and goals we're addressing with gamification, now it's time to consider what the specific desired behaviours are that we want to encourage our players to perform. This behaviour will likely become the core gameplay of our gamification design. Core gameplay in video games is the one action the player tends to repeat most often as they try to achieve the game’s overall goal. This core action tends to remain the same throughout the game and should be simple to explain (i.e., able to be written in a single sentence). Take Space Invaders (1978) as an example, what do you think the core gameplay would be?

The core gameplay would be move and shoot. What about for a first-person shooter game like Call of Duty? It's going to be the same - move and shoot. What about for the game of soccer (or football depending on where you're from)? Run and kick

With gamification, what is the specific desired behaviour we're trying to encourage? For example, if we want to encourage players to undertake more exercise then walk and run might be our core gameplay. If are late handing in their time sheets then our core gameplay might be fill out and submit.   

Once we've identified the core gameplay, it's useful to then consider what's currently missing from the game...

Step 3. Consider what's missing

This is where our knowledge of what a game is and the underlying theories of game motivation come into play. If we consider the activity we want to gamify as a poorly designed game then we can look at why it currently doesn't provide a meaningful experience for the player and use this as a starting point. 

Remember back to what makes a meaningful experience in lesson 2? It's the combination of Interesting Challenges + Feedback. And what makes a challenge interesting? A combination of Goals + Rules. In lesson 3 we talked about what makes games motivating. We discussed that an engaging game generally has a clear goal, clear progress, clear feedback and a balance of challenge and skill. In addition to this, engaging games often support autonomy, mastery and relatedness

With this in mind, it's useful looking at the current activity and seeing what is currently missing from it. Does it have clear achievable goals? Are the rules obvious? Is there clear feedback? Is there a sense of autonomy? Looking at what's missing is a great way to identify where to begin with our design. 

Step 4. Brainstorm ideas

At last! We can now start designing a solution! It took a while to get here right? But never fear, all of the preparation we did will give us an advantage. There's no set formula for designing an engaging game, but there are some useful tools and processes to help us out.

We can now look at how game elements could be used to try and make our desired user behaviour more intrinsically motivating, rather than just defaulting to reward-based game elements that promote extrinsic motivation. Of course, using extrinsic motivation is an option, and a valid one, particularly in cases where the task is incredibly boring and people are completely unmotivated to perform it. But it's worthwhile seeing if we can find the fun to begin with. To do this, let's take that core gameplay mechanic and turn it into a larger game experience. 

It's good to start with a broad, general goal and then define a specific, measurable goal as an example of success. For our example problem, our general goal is undertake regular exercise. This is a great start, but we need to break this goal down into a specific behaviour that we can measure, so we know when our goal is achieved. It's also got to be tailored to our target audience. For our example, let's say that with a bit of research we decide our target players should run for at least 30 minutes a day. This is an appropriate behaviour that satisfies our problem and this clear measure of success can become the goal of our first gamification design idea.

Now that we have the goal of our game. It's time to brainstorm some ideas! Where do we begin? With our players of course - what do they like from their games?

Maybe some players just want more feedback. We could simply provide something that gives them the distance and speed that they run at and from this they can set their own goals and challenges (e.g., RunKeeper).

If they're the competitive type, then we could look at tracking how quickly they perform and allow them to compare themselves to past performance and to other runners (e.g., Strava).

If they're more into narrative then we could look at adding this to the core gameplay. Maybe a story that unfolds where they are a survivor in a zombie apocalypse where they have to run around and collect supplies (e.g., Zombies, Run!).

There's no set of hard and fast rules when it comes to brainstorming gamification ideas. The ideas can be small, just looking at adding motivational nudges to support missing game elements. Or the ideas can be huge, where we propose a fully-fledged, game-like experience. It will depend on what's currently missing from the experience, what your players find fun. 

Step 5. Choose one

Once you've brainstormed some ideas, it's time to pick one to design further. You can do this by running your ideas by target players, stakeholders, and other gamification designers. Sketching up your ideas or creating basic prototypes can help get your idea across of get feedback on whether the core gameplay is any fun. There will be a number of criteria that should influence your decision, such as will players find this design fun and do we have the team, time and budget to create this idea?  Once you've picked one, it's time to start creating your design.

Part 3 - Design, develop, playtest, repeat

It's unlikely you'll nail the gamification design first go. Designing an engaging game is difficult but adopting an iterative design process can be  useful to help refine your gamification idea. An iterative design process involves undertaking repeated cycles of design, development and testing. You start the process by making high-level, quick prototypes to test key features of the gamification design with players. The benefit of using this kind of approach is that you get feedback quickly and early on which makes it easier and cheaper to adjust and refine the design. In the final part of this lesson we'll look at each of the key stages of this process in more detail.

Step 1. Design

You've brainstormed a few ideas and chosen one that you want to pursue, it's time to expand upon the design so it's ready to prototype. You've got the core gameplay and some initial ideas, so what's next?

A great next step is to create a gamification design document. Like a game design document, this document will outline the gamification design in detail so it can be prototyped. What can this document include? A range of things, but a good starting point is to use the four elements from Jesse Schell's Elemental Tetrad that we discussed in lesson 2. 

The Elemental Tetrad – Adapted from Schell, 2014.

The Elemental Tetrad – Adapted from Schell, 2014.

Each of these elements are all essential to a game, and can be important in gamification as well. You can start the document by expanding upon these four elements of your design.

The mechanics are the procedures and rules of the gamification. You've got your core gameplay, but what is the main goal of your gamification design? Are you going to tie it to the goal of your problem (e.g., exercise every day)? Or will you have an external goal that players need to complete (e.g., save the prince)? What are the rules of your game? How will they create interesting challenges for your players? What kind of feedback are you going to provide?

A few tips for this part:

  • The activity should have clear goals and clear progress towards goals as this adds and structure
  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps us to make choices and adjust our performance in order to maintain the flow state.
  • The task can't be too difficult or too easy for our players. We need a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task our own perceived skills.

When it comes to aesthetics, Schell talks about how the game looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels. What kind of aesthetics will you have in your design?

The story is the sequence of events that unfolds in the game. Like with some games you may have little in the way of narrative (e.g., Duolingo) or you might have a rich narrative (e.g., Zombies, Run!). It depends on what kind of player you have.

Finally, technology refers to the materials and interactions that make your game possible? You might assume that you're creating something digital, but have you considered what other formats you could use? Could you use paper and pencils instead? This kind of option is cheaper and easier. Don't forget though, the technology you choose will have an effect on how you enforce the rules of your gamification design.

You'll need someway to measure the player's actions and enforce the rules and there are a few ways we can do this.

  1. Computer-enforced - where we use technology to automatically sense when the behaviour has been complete (e.g., using a step counter)
  2. Crowd-sourced or refereed - where someone else checks off the behaviour once it's complete (e.g., a teacher checking a student's homework)
  3. Self-enforced - where the player checks off the behaviour once it's complete (e.g., checking off a to-do list task)

Which of these should you choose? Well, each has it's own advantages and disadvantages, for example, players could cheat if they use self-enforcement, but using technology might be inaccurate or be unable to sense what we want. As a rule of thumb, it's good to pick the most automatic and accurate way to measure the behaviour. If we can use technology to help us out then that's great, because this relieves the player of having to implement the rules themselves, which can be useful...

The most important benefit computers bring to gaming is that the computer relieves the players of the burden of personally implementing the rules. This frees the players to become as deeply immersed in a video game as they can in other forms of entertainment.
— Adams, 2014 - Fundamentals of game design

Your team, timeframe and budget will also affect what kind of technology you use. If you're planning on developing an app for example, you'll need programming skills or you'll need the budget to hire someone to build it for you. Development costs can quickly grow, especially if you need art, narrative and music in your design.

Step 2. Develop

Once you've put together a gamification design document, the next step is to develop a prototype that you can playtest with real people. If you're creating something digital it's always tempting to jump in and begin building it right away, but you may find it easier and quicker to prototype something with pen and paper first. We'll often do this for any gamification designs we're working on, the idea is you want to quickly get feedback on whether your idea is any good, and if people enjoy using it. If it's not, then if you've used pen and paper it's easy to scrap it and create something new. You can use other existing tools to help you out as well, for example we prototyped a gamification idea that encouraged regular exercise using a google form and Facebook messenger. We developed this in a day and in a week we were able to get feedback from players.  

If you're developing a webpage or app then you can use mock up some screens in Photoshop or a similar program and then put them into something like InVision or even Powerpoint or Keynote and add links to create a prototype. Use whatever you're familiar with in order to get a prototype up and running as soon as possible. 

As you continue iterating through this particular design process, your prototypes will become more and more functional, and you'll want to start building them in the actual technology that you plan on using. When should you start this? It's up to you, if you're familiar with the technology you may start early on, if not, you may want to make sure your idea is enjoyable before beginning development.  

Step 3. Playtest

Playtesting is a necessary condition for survival when it comes to games. The same can be said for gamification. Playtesting is something you perform as a designer throughout the entire design process to gain an insight into whether or not you're achieving your player engagement goals (Fullerton, 2014). We should be playtesting as early as we can in order to test our design is working. Playtesting in beta is too late as making major changes at this stage is incredibly difficult. 

When it comes to playtesting a prototype there's a number of important things to consider. First up, it's best if we can recruit our target players as testers. If we get our friends or family to test it they're likely to give us useful feedback, but this feedback may not represent what our target players feel. We can also undertake self-testing, where we (or our development team) personally test the prototype. This kind of testing is useful when experimenting with some of the fundamental concepts of the design. But as we refine the design, we should rely more and more on outside testers to provide feedback.

When testing our design we should do it in a setting that mimics the context in which our players will be using it. It may be useful to be present to observe, take notes, and ask our players questions, but sometime this isn't possible. If we are remotely testing then we can use surveys or undertake Skype interviews in order to get useful feedback. There are a number of different approaches to this and it's a matter of finding which one works for you that will provide you with the most valuable feedback.

Once you have feedback it's then time to use that to refine the design. The feedback should give you an idea of whether your idea has value, whether people enjoy it and whether it actually hits the goal of the gamification (e.g., encourage more exercise). Using this feedback you can then change elements of your design (e.g., rules, mechanics, feedback, narrative) in order to make it a better experience. This is when you jump back into the design phase, update the prototype and then test again. How many iterations should you undertake? This really depends on a number of factors, for example any deadlines you have and your budget. 

Wrapping up

Whew! That was an epic lesson. We covered a lot and there's plenty more to talk about but for now, that should give you a nice primer for what's involved in gamification design. What did we learn this lesson?

  1. Don't just jump to the conclusion you need gamification, make sure to validate the problem you're trying to solve and then look if gamification is a useful approach.
  2. Before designing the gamification, work out who your players are and what they like when it comes to video games - they may just not be into badges and points.
  3. Iterative development is key when it comes to designing an effective gamification experience. Create prototypes as early as possible and test them with your target players to see if what you've designed is working, or if it needs refinement.

Where to from here?

That wraps up this four part lesson series - what an adventure we've been on! You should now have a better understanding of what exactly gamification is, what games are, why games are so motivating and how to use all of this knowledge to start designing effective gamification. There's still plenty more to learn and you can find some other useful resources on this site. Start with the resources page and then work your way through the teardowns. Of course, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch with me. 



If you’re looking for great examples of gamification, popular definitions or key research in the area then visit the gamification resources section for an excellent hand-picked selection.


Now that you have a grasp on the basics of gamification and want to see it in action? Have a look at this growing number of posts that look at some of the design ideas behind existing solutions in the wild.


Do you have a question about gamification? Or have you got a great example you want to share with me? If you do, then don't hesitate to get in touch with me via email or carrier pigeon.



  1. Roberston, M. (2010). Can't play, won't play.
  2. Dubbels, B. (2013). Gamification, serious games, ludic simulation, and other contentious categories. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS), 5(2), 1-19.
  3. Schell, J. (2014). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC Press.
  4. Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, July). MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI (Vol. 4, p. 1).
  5. Adams, E. (2014). Fundamentals of game design. Pearson Education.
  6. Fullerton, T. (2014). Game design workshop: a playcentric approach to creating innovative games. CRC Press.