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Shifting from Gamification to Playful Design

This is a lightly edited transcript of a short lecture I delivered some time ago at an off-site gathering organized by one of NL’s largest construction-services businesses. The event explored the potential of games, game design and gamification for property development and construction. This talk creates a common frame of understanding about gamification and why ‘playful design’ is a more productive approach.

Feedback Systems

Let’s start with a definition of gamification. The Gamification Research Network offers the following: “using game design elements in non-game contexts.”

Foursquare remains the blueprint for most ‘naive’ implementations of this idea. Take a product or service and add features such as points, badges, leaderboards, etc.

However, such features are feedback systems and these are not unique to games.

Now, the assumption is that adding such feedback systems leads to higher engagement and motivation from users.

But from a practical standpoint we quickly run into a problem. In which case should we use which particular system? This grab bag of feedback systems lacks an instruction manual.

If we want to be able to answer this question we need to stop focusing on feedback systems, and instead look at the people we are designing for and the context in which they use our product or service.


Like I said, feedback systems are not unique to games. A better starting point is the actual source of what makes them fun: learnable challenges.

Put differently, what we should do is shift from game elements, to a gaming state of mind. This gaming state of mind is also known as gamefulness.

So let’s unpack this gaming state of mind. Learning is a huge source of pleasure in games. We enjoy the experience of competence.

But next to this mastery of systems, exploring game systems and expressing ourselves through them is another huge source of pleasure. We enjoy this experience of freedom. If gamefulness is characterised by the need for competence. Playfulness is characterised by a need for autonomy.

And in both the case of competence and autonomy, we derive pleasure from playing alongside others. We enjoy relatedness.

So these are three sources of pleasure in games and play. In fact, they are innate psychological needs.

Engagement Loops

These concepts give us a starting point for applying game design to products and services. They can be the start of our instruction manual.

The first step is to understand what motivates our particular audience. From these motivations, we can reason back to what feedback systems will provide people with the desired need fulfilment.

The next step is to return to the concept of a learnable challenge. For there to be a challenge there must be goals. These goals are informed by what we want people to do, and what people themselves want to achieve.

If we know what goals users will be pursuing, we can start thinking about what tools and resources we need to give them in order for them to be able to do so.

These tools connect with the aforementioned feedback systems. The feedback systems have already been connected to user motivations and from these motivations we can loop back to the goals we have identified.

The model I have just outlined is what we call the engagement loop, and it is at the heart of how we think about and design for motivation and engagement. It is a much more sophisticated approach than gamification.

Playful Design

So we shift from gamification to playful design. The key idea is that we can make things that are useful, that people use to achieve certain things, but that at the same time allow for a playful attitude.

By focusing on playfulness we remind ourselves that motivation is as much about mastery or competence as it is about creativity. We can design things to allow for both a sense of achievement and a sense of freedom. We can make our designs adaptable to a range of social situations. And so ultimately we can make them more humane.

I can’t emphasise enough how our intent is to add degrees of freedom, not to be more controlling. More control limits playfulness, instead of enabling it.

So in summary (1) instead of feedback systems think learnable challenges, (2) understand that motivation comes from the satisfaction of the needs to feel competent, autonomous and related and (3) use this understanding of motivation to connect goals with tools and tools feedback and (4) playful systems are humane systems. If you care about people-friendly technology, you should care about play.

Further Reading

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