Gamification, a new form of human-centred design?

Gamification is defined as “The use of game mechanics and experience design to engage users to solve real world problems” (Oberprieler, 2017). A game mechanic is a component of a game, which could be points, badges, social challenges, rewards, unlocking content, and much more.

Gamification, a new form of human-centred design?
October 2022
Gamification, a new form of human-centred design?
Kerstin Oberprieler
Gamification, a new form of human-centred design?

Gamification, a new form of human-centred design?

Gamification is one of the latest buzzwords in business and education, garnering both excitement and scepticism. While many are becoming familiar with the term, few actually understand what it is.

Gamification is defined as “The use of game mechanics and experience design to engage users to solve real world problems” (Oberprieler, 2017). A game mechanic is a component of a game, which could be points, badges, social challenges, rewards, unlocking content, and much more.

What makes gamification different to serious games or game-based learning is that it is an integration with every day behaviours. Serious games and game-based learning experiences are essentially games, but rather than for entertainment they exist for learning content or practicing skills. Gamification instead is an overlay of a game experience onto real-life. A basic example is frequent flyer programs, which reward your everyday behaviour of flying with the same airline through game mechanics like points, status, and earning privileges like club access and priority check-in. But gamification is more than your standard loyalty program, and it is being applied to areas such as health, business, education, finance, environmental sustainability and much more.

A brief history

While the term ‘gamification’ has gained traction in recent years, the term itself was coined back in 2002. But it wasn’t until 2010 that we started seeing gamified experiences emerge in popular forums. These early examples include FourSquare, a café and restaurant check-in experience where you can become ‘mayor’ of a locale you frequent; and Mozilla Open Badges, which allow you to give, get and display tokens of achievement for education and learning.

In the last 5 years we have seen more sophisticated gamification experiences being designed and companies founded with the sole purpose of providing gamification services.

But the spirit of gamification has existed well before 2002. Here are a few examples:

  • The first frequent flyer program was released in 1981 by American Airlines.
  • The Scouts introduced badges to signify achievement in 1901
  • Businesses used challenges and goals to increase performance in the 70’s and 80s
  • And you may use gamification with young children in the form of star charts and allowance for chores completed.

3 quick examples
Here are 3 examples of today’s gamification experiences.

The world’s largest language learning app with 250 downloads and 25 million active users a month, Duolingo heavily relies on gamification for engaging its learners. Learners choose a language they want to learn (Spanish, German, Klingon, High Valerian… yes, really!). The interface is playful so as to be non-threatening, the vocabulary and grammar is provided in easy-to-learn chunks and content is unlocked based on progress, and learners can react and ‘like’ other player’s activity. One of the most successful mechanics in Duolingo is the ‘streak’ where users are rewarded for spending 10 minutes a day on the platform to ensure regular practices and retention of learning.

Duolingo uses gamification and a playful interface to help users overcome the challenge of learning a new language.

ChoreWars turns your household into a game using a fantasy-themed narrative. Members of a household can choose an avatar such as a wizard, fairy, orc, dragon and earn points for completing chores around the house. These can be from an existing list or households can create their own. Additional rules can also be added to increase the fun, such as doing the dishes while hopping on one leg or taking out the trash without being seen by anyone.

ChoreWars flips the perception of chores being burdensome to being fun and friendly.

JouleBug is a great example of using gamification to nudge behaviour at a collective level for environmental sustainability. This challenge is critical for the planet, yet it is difficult to change behaviour because as an individual it can feel overwhelming and even hopeless to affect change. JouleBug empowers and even educates people on the impact their daily actions can have. Users can log the daily habits and behaviours they do to help the environment — things like having shorter showers, turning off lights and devices when not in use, and shopping with reusable bags. And what’s really cool is that the impact of the individual user’s actions are calculated, so that you can see how much water, electricity and waste you have saved. For US-based users, you can also participate in challenges to win rewards.

JouleBug empowers and rewards individuals for taking daily actions to help the planet.

Is gamification simply a new form of human-centred design?

Coming back to the definition of gamification being ‘use of game mechanics AND experience design’, it can be seen that gamification and design thinking share strong commonalities. In fact, the gamification design process is essentially a human-centred design process. This includes starting with a clear intent, exploring the problem space and gaining deep understanding of the users, building prototypes and improving them through iterative user testing, and implementing the solution. Gamification and HCD are also based on the same principles of being focussed on the user, finding a solution that maximises desirability with feasibility, and taking an experimental approach to finding the best solution.

The image below compares the ‘standard’ HCD process and compares it with the gamification design process. The same three phases exist, being

  1. a discovery of the intent, empathy with users and defining the future state
  2. the iteration and creation of ideas and prototypes
  3. delivering and releasing something in the real world

So in fact HCD and gamification are the same process. The difference is that gamification zooms in on user behaviour and seeks to solve the challenge through the application of game mechanics, as opposed to a service or product.

Gamification is an important branch of HCD because of its focus on behaviour. With today’s social, environmental and business challenges, behaviour change is the critical piece to tackling modern problems. Technology is also enabling us to create more engaging user experiences, through interactive components, real-time feedback and data, and social connectivity with others.

Just like HCD a decade ago, gamification is an emerging and evolving discipline. Questions being asked by practitioners and researchers include the benefits of different mechanics and design steps, the long-term effects of gamified experiences, the ethics of gamification, and more. Just like HCD, gamification requires practitioners and designers to lead with desirability instead of viability and use the power of design for good, not evil. This is especially important because the inherent purpose of gamification is to provide an engaging experience to nudge behaviour.

Gamification as a branch of HCD continues to evolve and mature and just like HCD a decade ago, it requires application, inquiry and refinement to deliver on its purpose of engaging users to solve real world problems.

Kerstin Oberprieler works as Lead Gamification Designer for PentaQuest, who specialise in gamification design. She is also completing her PhD in gamification, is a sought-after speaker in Australia and overseas, and has won several awards for her designs.


To learn more about human-centered design, check out the This is HCD podcast or come and chat with us on Slack.

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