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How Does Gamification Work? The Science Behind Some of the Most Popular Gamification Features

It's been a long day at work, the commute was hell (who invented way too small highways anyway?), and all you want to do is switch off. Luckily, you are right in the middle of a Legend of Zelda quest. You hunker down on your sofa, switch off your work phone, reach for a perfect slice of pizza and immerse yourself in the world of gods, dungeons, and magic of the Hyrule Kingdom. Hours will pass until you get up again and finally go to bed, work stress and your annoying commute entirely forgotten.

Why is gaming so satisfying? Why does it leave us with a sense of achievement? And how can we harness the joy of playing to learn and work more efficiently?

In the last twenty years, the gamification sector exploded. Gamification and game theory are discussed in the boardrooms of Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Beyond the tech world, industries such as finance, pharma, and education use gamification to engage with customers, build brands, motivate employees, and increase sales.

Let's take a look at the science behind gamification. We will walk you through some of the most popular gamification features, explain why they work, and tell you how you can use them to motivate and engage employees and learners.

Why Use Gamification?

Gamification, the use of game methods in non-game circumstances, has established itself in almost all areas of society. Some use cases are:

Gamification for Education

Whether it is a corporate training session, a university course, or an online course for elementary students gamification creates rich and rewarding learning experiences.

By using elements such as points or badges, creating leaderboards or dividing the course into microlearning segments, gamification increases knowledge retention and motivation. One study found that one month after completion, students who took a gamified course retained up to 93% of the information they learned.

Gamification for Personal Development, Health, and Fitness

Is your new year's resolution to learn a new language but do vocabulary lists and textbooks recall the boredom of your high school French class? Or maybe you are trying to incorporate meditation into your daily routine?

Gamification and personal development go hand in hand. Whether it is collecting coins for each new word you learned, tracking the length of your meditation in a progress bar or competing for the first spot in a running leaderboard, game design elements feature in almost every personal development and fitness app.

Gamification for Employee Motivation and Retention

Clear goal setting, rewards, creating friendly competitions or opportunities for cross-team collaboration – all these things are easier achieved with gamification.

Almost 90% of employees in one survey said they would feel more engaged if their workplace used gamification.

Whether it is a new compliance or safety training, the simplification of an onboarding process or supporting social cohesion in newly formed teams – gamification is an easy tool to motivate and engage employees.

Gamification for Marketing and Sales

Collecting reward points is a relatively easy and simple way to include gamification in a sales strategy. However, gamification also gives brands and organisations the opportunity to be more creative in their marketing.

For instance, to promote their new line of shrimp food, KFC created a “Shrimp Attack” game where users had to defend a KFC castle against a horde of angry shrimp. Players received coins that they could swap for discounted meals. As a result, KFC's overall sales grew 106%.

We know gamification, when done right, works. Let's take a look at some of the most popular gamification features used by brands such as Nike, Duolingo, Headspace and Uber.

What Are Some of the Most Popular Gamification Features And How Do They Work?

Points and Badges for Completing Tasks or Reaching Milestones

The gleaming gold star on a sheriff's breast. The “I voted” sticker on your phone case. The cookie on a girl's scout uniform – batches come in many shapes and sizes and have been around for hundreds of years.

In gamification, badges play an important role. They are a surprisingly simple but effective tool to:

  • Increase motivation
  • Create social cohesion
  • Mark progress
  • Reward achievements
  • Enable goal setting

Why do Badges Work?

Badges work through what psychologists call “operant conditioning”. Operant conditioning is a learning method that uses rewards and punishments to encourage certain behaviour.

Badges and points are rewards given out when certain tasks are completed. The reward increases the likelihood that the participants complete further tasks.

Operant conditioning is also why unlocking new content of levels works. Once a user has unlocked an additional feature by completing a task, they will want to replicate the success.

Furthermore, badges and points tap into our desire for social recognition. Many people are motivated by displaying their accomplishments to their communities and peers. This works bi-directional. By seeing others succeed, we might be more motivated as well. Win-win.

Unlocking a new badge can also give learners a sense of progression and achievement. We will come back to this when talking about progress bars.

Leaderboards to Compete Against Other Players

Leaderboards are one of the most commonly used gamification features. Who hasn't learned another batch of new words or hasn't run the extra mile just to snag the coveted first spot on the leaderboard – even if that spot had no real impact on their life?

Why do Leaderboards Work?

Leaderboards employ the principle of social comparison. For better or worse we are constantly evaluating ourselves in relation to others. This process of comparison can lead to a range of emotional and behavioural outcomes, such as motivation to improve, feelings of inferiority or superiority, and changes in self-esteem. Leaderboards display our standing and let us see how we compare to our friends (or foes).

In principle, social comparison is nothing negative. If approached with a positive mindset, people can feel motivated and increase their self-image. Friendly competition can provide a much-needed push in the right direction.

However, when implementing leaderboards for social comparison, make sure that participants will not feel demotivated by their perceived lack of success. Social comparison can also encourage biased and overly competitive attitudes.

Participants run the danger of overly focusing on their performance compared to others rather than on their own personal progress or the company's goals.

Always connect every position on the leaderboard to value, be it added support for people on the lower spots or rewards for people on the top. Encouragement and appreciation are key.

Level Up's plugins for Moodle use leaderboards to motivate users and create friendly competition among participants. We use leaderboards in conjunction with other tools, such as additional support messages, to reduce the negative effects of comparing oneself to others.

Take a look at our products here and find out why we are the number one gamification plugin for Moodle.

Progress Bars to Track Progress Towards a Goal

It's Saturday afternoon. You could plunk down on your sofa and scroll mindlessly on your phone for half an hour. On the other hand, you only need another 3,000 steps to close your circle in your Fitbit and reach your daily goal. Reluctantly you get up and put on your shoes. Maybe you can scroll while walking.

Why do Progress Bars Work?

Progress bars are a simple gamification feature that uses the psychological principle of goal setting and progress monitoring. Setting clear and achievable goals is linked to higher motivation, self-esteem, confidence, and autonomy. Goals can be used as values to guide our actions, they create an awareness of our strengths and capabilities, and are a great tool for self-evaluation.

Progress bars, just like leaderboards, give users a sense of achievement which helps with motivation, sticking to a task, self-worth, and connecting the task with personal values.

There are some downsides to setting goals. They can prevent us from focusing on other areas, create a sense of failure when not reached, and can inhibit learning and exploration if overly focused.

When implementing progress bars and goal setting, make sure to leave enough space for personal exploration and curiosity.

Quests or Challenges

Quests are an old storytelling tool. Whether it is slaying a fearsome dragon, looking for a murderer on a running train, or finding a treasure hidden deep in a mountain – a good quest is the foundation for many of our greatest stories.

Why do Quests Work?

Quests use our desire to play. They provide challenges, rewards, and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. By including storytelling, quests usually incite an emotional response in players. We want to progress because we want to know how the story ends.

More importantly, users take an active role in the progression of the story. Stories create genuine emotions. They can trigger empathy and reinforce certain types of behaviour. Connected to learning, storytelling can decrease dropout rates, increase motivation and identification with the material, and support critical thinking.

Quests are some of the more sophisticated strategies in gamification. They are not as easily implemented as leaderboards or badges. However, quests can be used to structure material, increase engagement, and motivate participants, particularly in long or difficult courses. They can be more effective compared to simpler interventions.

With Level Up Quest, you can turn your learning programs into exciting adventures. Read more about Quest here and start your next adventure.

Gamification works and there is science behind it to prove it. Tap into all the potential that gamification offers for education, employee motivation, brand building, and marketing.

Frédéric Massart
Level Up Team
26 Feb 2023

At Level Up, we create gamification solutions that will set you apart.

Our products provide state-of-the-art gamification elements that easily transform your online courses and programs into gamified adventures. Talk to us about creating a customised gamification solution for you, and let the games begin!

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