There’s a definition of gamification that goes: “the use of game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users”. Yes, that’s technically true in the sense that it’s technically true that a car is a vehicle with an engine and four wheels (but so’s an airplane with a double nose wheel, or a truck or a … well, you get the point).
The reason that definition is so common is, in my opinion, because it’s a standard, mechanical way to describe gamification. It is easily measurable (“is this a game mechanic?” “is this a game?” “do users like it?”) but not very helpful. Not if your aim of creating gamified content is to actually achieve something, or rather get someone else to achieve something. But most importantly, this definition doesn’t take the central thing in any gamification project into account: the user. Thus I’d like to propose another definition instead:
Gamification: a way to impart knowledge combined with a way to measure progress that together create an additional layer of meaning through agency for a given set of actions.
Lets break it down and see what it does. “A way to impart knowledge”. That sounds pretty straightforward. It’s a way to teach someone something, or show them something. But why should we teach? We want people to do stuff, or return to our site, or buy our products, right?
All games teach. Raph Coster’s got quite an in depth discussion of this in his A Theory of Fun for Game Design (I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it). Here I’ll just assume that it’s a fact that games teach: how to play them, how to be efficient in playing, how to win and how to interact with other players. Once you’ve mastered a game, truly mastered it, there’s nothing left. You have no reason to keep playing.
That’s what usually happens with Tic-tac-toe when kids reach a few years of age. At the start they’re fascinated by Tic-tac-toe. It’s a grand puzzle, a difficult challenge which take all of their skill and effort to solve. If you look at younger kids playing Tic-tac-toe they’re definitely in the zone, in full flow. But advance time and they find the heuristics, they realize that if they do a few basic things they’ll be able to win, consistently, against someone who doesn’t do them. And then they discover that if both parties follow the same heuristics then the game ends in a draw every single time. Then there’s nothing more to learn. Tic-tac-toe has become pointless.
That’s why gamification must impart knowledge. The user must learn something new or they’ll master the gamified process and it becomes a weird way of showing pointless data. This doesn’t say that gamification must be hard, but it does need to present the user with an ever changing array of information.
Fortunately we’ve got something in gamification that most games lack: reality. We can mine reality in order to impart knowledge on the user. Take for example a gamified electricity bill. Lets say that the power company wants to make the client aware of the fact that at some points in time electricity is cheaper than at others. They want to do this in order to get the client to consume electricity when it’s cheap (since they can add a higher premium to it then) and conserve it when it’s expensive.
First they need to impart the knowledge of when electricity is cheap to the client. By keeping a running total of the electricity price, time and usage the company imparts knowledge to the client. But that’s not enough. Just knowing that it’s cheaper to bake in the evening doesn’t do much to change peoples’ behavior. Instead they need the second part of the definition: “a way to measure progress”. The client sees, preferably in real time, when they’ve consumed energy and how much they’ve saved by buying it at a cheaper rate. Yes, it’s a rather basic way to measure progress. There could be different incentives, different statistics and different ways to measure progress, compete with your friends etc. But at the very core that’s all that’s needed, a way to impart knowledge that is also a way to measure progress. Note that the imparting knowledge and measuring progress are tied very closely together as you can’t measure progress without imparting knowledge of it. You can impart other knowledge too, just take a look at the Khan Academy way to gamify education, but you need to have the progress impart some sort of knowledge or it will lack meaning.
Which brings us to the third part of the definition: “create an additional layer of meaning through agency”. Basically this says that if done correctly the gamified process will do two things that will create meaning: it will give the user enough knowledge to want to act and enough agency to actually do something about it. If you’ve got agency without knowledge it’s pointless, like pressing a button when you don’t know what it will do, or even if it will do anything. If you’ve got knowledge without agency you’re creating frustration – it’s like watching the news of increasing crime or corruption. You know it’s bad and that it should be different but you don’t get the tools to do anything about it. Thats why you need a way to measure of the way the client affects the process – the client needs to be able to see that their actions do have impact.
The last part is sort of obvious but it still needs to be in there so that no one can miss it: you need to know what you want the client to do. If you don’t, if you don’t know what you want from your client, then you won’t get any results, or the wrong results, or the wrong payoffs or nothing at all. And then there’s no point in creating a gamified process.
But if you do know what you want to achieve then you’re all there: through knowledge and measurements you’ve added meaning for a set of actions. And when the client feels that an action is meaningful they’re much more likely to do it.