Gameful Design

Two years ago I attended a conference on the emerging field of gamification – or adding game elements to services and applications. Just by giving people a bit of reward, you could incentivize any behavior you wanted — navigating to another page, leaving a comment, learning multiplication.

Others celebrated this silver bullet, but I, as a game designer, was worried. The medium I’d dedicated my life to was reduced to basic behavioral response to stimulus, to operant conditioning, to dolphin training. Click. Cookie. Repeat.

These gamification experts extolled all the superficial, short-term psychological hooks from games and none of the meaningful, metaphysical joy and satisfaction produced from playing. They forgot that players are people.

As we designed SuperBetter, we wanted to prove that games are more than just dopamine injections, that players are more than chemical machines.

SuperBetter offers an alternative to gamification. Instead of taking the psychological hooks and operant conditioning from games, we use their deeply satisfying properties – things like agency, emotion, and immediate feedback – to help people do what they really want to do: feel better, reach their goals, connect with others, and live with meaning. We call this a gameful approach to design.

So, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few key differences in how we approach design. Of course, not everyone who calls themselves a gamification company hits all of these points, but too many do.

We can do better.


Makes you do what companies want you to do

Helps you do what YOU want to do

You play games because it’s what you want to do. No one is telling you to play, no one is giving you money to play, no one is holding a gun to your head making you play. You’re intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation means you take pleasure in the activity itself.

If you don’t want to do something, no amount of awards, badges, leaderboards, or points is going to make you do it – not long term, not sustainably.


Relies on operant conditioning (reward, punishment)

Harnesses the good of games (feedback, agency, emotion)

You don’t actually play games for points or badges– those are just progress indicators that help you contextualize your improvements/skill (which is exciting). People love games because they are in control and can affect the world (this is called agency), because they can make meaningful choices and interesting decisions. They play because games are delightful, challenging, and filled with clear goals. Operant conditioning ignores all of those things, and tries to motivate using our most basic human instincts instead of the complex depth that makes us human.

SuperBetter’s core elements — quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies — help people feel more in control of their lives and capable of changing them (this is agency). Instead of setting goals for you, we let you choose goals that challenge you, and we make sure you’re creating a toolbox of ways to spark positive emotions in your life while identifying and gaining control over those things that hold you back.


Added to an existing platform, curriculum, or service

Integrated into design from the ground up

All games teach. All play and all fun is learning. If the entirety of a system is “Leave Comment, Get Badge” people will learn that very quickly, and once a system is learned, it loses its charm, its fun, its pleasure. Tack on something like badges or leaderboards, and after an initial engagement spike, the system suddenly becomes a transparently irrelevant annoyance – or worse, an unavoidable reason to leave the site/service altogether.


Uses extrinsic rewards

Uses intrinsic rewards

Rewards only motivate people to get rewards. Here’s a true story about extrinsic rewards: A child with a love for music starts playing the piano. Her mother, wanting to encourage her interest, begins rewarding her every time she plays. When the mother stops rewarding, the child stops playing, her initial curiosity and intrinsic desire to play diminished by the reward system.

Lasting behavior change comes from within. Giving someone cash to do something taints the nature of whatever they do. Even if it’s something they wanted to do, getting a reward for it decreases intrinsic motivation, and actually makes people less likely to perform the behavior without reward. The moment you give someone a reward, you’re decreasing the likelihood of lasting, sustainable change for them.

Intrinsic reward is a fine line and hugely nuanced. In SuperBetter, when players report actions, we increase their Resilience score. But Resilience isn’t a made up thing – it’s not just magical, virtual “points” – it’s a reflection of a very real, validated principle of psychology. You’re rewarded by seeing your progress in an immediate, tangible way, but not by the points themselves. SuperBetter also lets you track changes to your well-being, so over time seeing the difference is its own reward. Most importantly, players are rewarded because as they do these actions, they really do start to feel better and reach their goals.


Limited meaning/social context

Meaningful/customized awards

But wait – didn’t I just say rewards can be bad? There’s a difference between celebrating accomplishment (“award”) and incentivizing actions (“reward”). This is about the former!

Getting an award is a great feeling – when you’ve worked for it. When it feels relevant and special to you. When it represents success at something appropriately challenging. There’s nothing wrong about celebrating accomplishment; it feels great to be recognized for what you’ve done, as long as what you’ve done is actually something worthwhile.

If you go to certain sites you’ll find yourself with random badges for seemingly no reason at all, after just clicking through a few pages (and of course, you have to sign up to keep them). Is that satisfying? (No.)

While we do have a few automatically awarded achievements in SuperBetter, we found the best way to make awards meaningful was to ensure it wasn’t a machine giving them to you. Allies have the option to give achievements to their heroes: to create a title and customize the icon and provide a reason/description for the award. When players get awards from friends, it means something unique to them, their relationship, and their actions. It matters.


Tokenizes social relationships

Creates & strengthens social relationships

In many social games and social services, gates are put onto mechanics that force you to be viral and connect with other players before you’re allowed to continue (for example, you need 3 friends to expand your land in FarmVille). This is tokenizing – or only considering how many connections you have, and not the type, depth, duration, or any number of other facets that make each human relationship unique. Almost every social network game is like this. Even Twitter is like this.

Tokenizing is not actually social. For something to be truly social, the experience of playing has to be different depending on who I’m playing with. Mechanically, social means other people impact the game meaningfully; they’re making interesting decisions and expressive choices too, and my game is unique because of their unique contribution to it.

Again, this comes down to remembering that people are people and not numbers in a DAU or CTR graph or mindless click-machines.

When you invite allies to join you, we ask you to give them a mission – something unique that you need and would be grateful for and something specifically suited to that person’s talents. We also ask that you check in – that is, have a heart to heart or face to face conversation with them – at least once every two weeks. These aren’t just numbers helping you towards some other purpose; the strength of your relationships matters and has a real and measurable effect on your well being. Each friend is a unique ally.


Requires little to no skill

Trains up skills of players’ choosing

This is closely linked to learning a system – when developing skills is seen as learning and mastery can be either knowledge-based or skill-based. Most services that employ gamification aren’t challenging or fun to do. They require no skill. In the tired example of frequent flyer miles, for instance: is it fun to click on a flight scheduler? It is challenging to pick Virgin over Delta? No, of course not.

And believe it or not, we love a good challenge – We just stop caring altogether.

In SuperBetter, YOU choose how you want to improve, and the whole game is about getting stronger. Power Packs are custom tailored to challenges, and focus on different skills across the board: social, physical, emotional, mental. Not challenging enough? Add another Power Pack. Overwhelmed? Take a break, or just do a single move (3 quests, 1 battle, 3 power-ups) a day.


Promote sharing indiscriminately, constantly, to everyone

Promote sharing meaningfully, at major moments, to whom it matters

Gamers are great at tuning out irrelevant information, and if they’re constantly spammed with the same canned messages, they’re not going to get engaged. Novelty is a huge component of engagement (it’s something new to figure out, to learn, to master) and unique content adds value. As much as you can, let players add their own messages, and prompt virality when it matters: when the player has accomplished something difficult, when they’ve expressed something unique, when they’ve really made a difference. And don’t blast it to everyone if it doesn’t apply to them: send it to the people to whom it matters most.


Phew! Long post! Those were just a few examples, but I hope they helped clarify the difference between what most people call gamification and what we consider the “right” way to borrow from games (gameful design). Looking over the list, here are the three key bullets I’d pull out next time you go out and try to design a great experience:

  • Keep it intrinsic
  • Players are people
  • Agency, agency, agency

Now go make it gameful 🙂

10 thoughts on “Gameful Design

  1. It seems to me that you are mostly talking about the difference between “bad” gamification and “good” gamification (what you are referring to as gameful design) with the good and the bad elements being delineated by the motives of why the game elements (or gamification) are employed. Not sure it deserves a whole different term just because it is being used with different motives. Putting this aside, I really like this as a great example of using gamification for “the good”and a deeper purpose vs something more shallow – a good watch list to see if you are slipping over to the “dark side” when designing!

  2. Patrick, I think it *does* need a different term because the distinctions you made — “good” vs. “bad” — are used differently by the most popular gamification, um, “thought leaders”. Their definition of good vs. bad is based on whether thee incentives are applied to “the thing you really want to incent.” In their view, “bad” means “bad at operant conditioning” (i.e. not rewarding the behavior they want more of, or not tuning the reward schedules for optimal behavior reinforcement, etc.).

    The gamification vendors have been quite clear that it is not their role to express a POV about how these tools are used. But looking through their case studies and “success stories”, they see no ethical conflict in celebrating — simultaneously — one group that used it to help people lose weight, while another of their clients used it to send beer and soda sales “through the roof”.

    As long as the thought/industry/TEDtalk-giving gamification proponents define “good” gamification as meaning “good at getting the behavior” as opposed to any ethical or even particularly intelligent concept of “good”, we need another word. There are some fighting the good fight who believe the word can still be rehabilitated, but I am not one of them. Those owning most gamification-related domains have already burned the term.

    (p.s. Chelsea, was it you I met at the Donor’s Choose social hackathon? If it was, I remember being relieved that I was not the only one in the room who cringed (audibly) when someone brought up badges… Regardless, thanks so much for this post!)

  3. @Patrick Kathy said it well – “good” and “bad” is all relative to a company’s motivations. The term Gamification is owned (mostly) by marketers, and marketers’ priorities mean best practices could legitimately include unbridled virility, or the quick hit/sharp spike of a leaderboard or pointless points. Motivation makes all the difference, so I wanted a term that people with different priorities can own. (It also definitely helps identify those on the dark side vs. the rebel alliance ;))

    Speaking of our rebel alliance: there are a few other terms going around too. Amy Jo Kim calls it “Smart Gamification” or “Meaningful Gamification” and Nicole Lazzaro uses “Player Experience Design“. Great people and useful terms if you’re searching for good!

    @Kathy Yes! I was at the Donor’s Choose hackathon – and I remember exactly that moment (“Why not just add badges?”). I think because the distinction is extremely nuanced, it’s hard for people to digest/understand at a glance. Many people think game design is something simple/easy – “anyone can do it” – but there’s so much psychology and fine-tuning that people underestimate and can make or break an experience.

    And glad that you enjoyed the post!

  4. Great post and leadership. A distinction is needed. I like “gameful” and Amy Jo’s “meaningful gamification.” My term, “gamiform”, is derived from science fiction “Terraform” and Wittgenstein’s “lebensform” (form of life) which is used to describe communication as “language -games”. To constrain and facilitate user behavior in line with intrinsic motivation of the activity for an optimal experience is what “gameful” technology affords.

  5. Much as I appreciate Amy Jo’s work (she is who I was referring to in “fighting the good fight around the word gamification”, I do not think qualifying it with “smart” or “meaningful” is any different from “good”. To be clear: Gabe refers to his version of gamification using the words “smart” and “meaningful”. So, same problem as good/bad. The gamification vendors refer to “stupid” and “meaningless” gamification as that which does not use WORK to “drive the behavior the company wants” (sales, “engagement”, etc.).

    I am not optimistic. But the OTHER big problem with the word “gamification” is that it is used SOOOOOOO broadly without any meaningful or useful distinctions, that it has no value as a communication tool. When it means everything from a progress bar to a full-blown game, and also makes no distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, what can you possibly say that provides useful information? I love the phrase “gamification works!” because it is like saying, “software works!”

  6. Er, meant “that which does not work…” (NOT, “that which does not USE work”). Blaming the iPad 😉

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  8. I came across the term “gameful design” just recently while reading the conference-agenda of a German media university. At least the rebellion is alive until that very day.
    With regards to “bad gamification” I might be too blue-eyed, but I think if its design is made solely on operational grounds it will wear out quickly and even hurt the brand/product/game in the aftermath.
    I believe that every experience stems from an intrinsic pull toward a certain path. Whatever a gamifier or gameful designer might throw at me: If I am not interested, I will not follow. Seen from the opposite this means: If I am really into the topic, even bad gamification will not distract me from venturing deeper into a game or product. And I believe that this approach is woven into every human being.

  9. I’ve been using SuperBetter with my elementary students and there are two important points I’d like to highlight from this post that are especially important when incorporating gameful design into curriculum or other elements of educating systems. The difference between awards and rewards is nuanced, yet so important. Engaging allies in the recognition of accomplishments builds a stronger community of learners. Secondly, SuperBetter’s approach to gamefulness recognizes and celebrates the “complex depth that makes us human.” As educators our work is about growing unique and curious people connecting their best selves with others. SuperBetter and gameful design have helped my students become more curious about themselves and the world they inhabit and helped them develope agency and ownership over their decisions and actions.

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