Gamification and why points, leaderboards and badges are not enough

Made by Robbie Veldwijk.

The story of me and computer games began when I was six years old and received my first gaming console, a Game Boy. Since that moment I am fascinated by everything that has to do with gaming. That is why I got immediately interested when I heard of gamification.

Gamification is the implementation of game design elements (e.g. points, badges) for non-gaming purposes. It has recently discovered a rise in popularity and used with the goal to motivate specific real-life behaviors, such as health behavior, sustainable behavior or participation in market research (Hamari, Koivisto & Sarsa, 2014).

     An example of gamification of sustainable behavior

Seaborn and Fels (2015) reviewed 31 studies which investigated different gamified applications (apps) for mobile phones and/or computers, across a range of domains, such as education, health, and social marketing. For example, one study investigated a gamified smartphone app that aimed to increase healthy behaviour of children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetis, by awarding points for frequent measurement of blood glucose levels (Cafezzo et al., 2012). Across the 31 reviewed studies, Seaborn and Fels found limited effectiveness of gamification; 61% of the surveyed studies reported a positive effect of gamification on the behavior that was intended to change, whereas 39% of studies reported mixed results (often lacking long-term behavioral change). Moreover, the authors found that the majority of applications made use of leaderboards (11 studies), badges (15 studies) and points (18 studies). A minority of applications used elements such as avatars (2 studies) or narrations (1 study).

Points and leaderboards are common game elements used in gamification. By Brendan Loy.

Points are often the basic element of a game, and are typically rewarded for successfully accomplishing a certain activity. Badges on the other hand are visual presentation of achievement, which can be earned and collected. Earning them depends on gaining a certain amount of points, or doing a particular activity. Finally, leaderboards measure players against a certain criterion (e.g. who gained the most points) and rank them according to their relative success. They act as competitive indicators of progress and status, and can increase a player’s engagement with the activity (Werbach & Hunter, 2015).

How can we explain the finding that 39% of all the studies reviewed by Seaborn and Fels only reported limited effectiveness of gamified apps? Sailer et al. (2017) criticized previous approaches for focusing on points, leaderboards and badges. They argue that self-determination theory (SDT) can serves as a useful theoretical framework to address other aspects of human motivation. But how can the SDT be applied to increase the effectiveness of gamification? The SDT (Deci & Ryain, 2000) suggest three basic needs that underlie human motivation.

  1. The need for competence. The need to feel of efficient and successful while interacting with the environment.
  2. Need for autonomy. One’s psychological freedom to fulfill a certain task, feeling to make decisions on the basis of one’s own values and interests. Including “task meaningfulness”, which is the conformity between one’s course of action and one’s goals and attitudes.
  3. Need for relatedness. One’s feeling of belonging, attachment and care in relation to significant others.

Most gamification approaches only use mechanisms that communicate player’s success (points, badges and leaderboards), which evoke feelings of competence. However, Veris (2011) argues that feeling competent is very subjective.

Flow zone
The flow zone is the fit between a player’s ability and challenge.

Veris proposes the concept of flow, which emerges when people are not bored, nor overworked by a game. Simply adding points, leaderboards, and badges to a monotonous an dry experience will not increase the “fun” of the activity. Moreover, Veris argues that people differ in degrees of ability and their need for challenge. In order to sustain a person’s motivation a good gamified approach also has to address a players specific abilities and their seeking for challenge to satisfy their need for competence, a “one-fit-all approach” of gamification is unlikely to be successful.

The need for autonomy suggest that player have to experience decision freedom. This means that a gamified approach is limited successful when player are forced to engage with the game. When playing is forced, it is not a game anymore, and badges or ladderboards do not change this.

“It is an invariable principle of all play, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play”

-Carse, J. Finite and infinite games

Moreover, the need for autonomy suggest that player need to experience the task as meaningful, that is, in line with their own goals/attitudes. Stories and characters can give the quest for points, leaderboards or badges meaning. A story can let a player experience that the actions the game requests from them are in line with their own goals and attitudes (e.g. wanting to know how the story continues), fulfilling one’s need for autonomy (Kapp, 2014). Finally, the need for relatedness can be satisfied by including teammates, whether they are real or computerized. Including character can help to create a sense of relatedness and increases the importance of one’s action towards a common group-goal. Moreover, it enhances one’s accountability towards this common group-goal, and the player does not want to loose his/her reputation as a reliable person when other player are watching (Kapp, 2014).

Gamification is a promising new way to increase sustainable and health behavior and increase people’s engagement with research. However, more effective gamification approaches are needed, which include more than points, badges or leaderboards (Seaborn & Fels, 2015). Successful approaches will contain elements of story, appropriate levels of challenge as well as a high level of interactivity with computerized or non-computerized others. A promising framework for future research on gamification is the self-determination theory (SDT), which explains why people engage in behaviors via the underlying needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. Two examples for gamification approaches are: Habitica and The Great Brain Experiment.


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