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The Benefits and Pitfalls of Gamification

Read Time: 9 mins

Gamification is becoming a hot commodity around the web, but what is it? Is it being used correctly? Let's have a look at various aspects of gamification and how they can be used and misused.

Gamification is one of those buzz words you've probably heard if you're involved in the internet industry. You've probably run across it at some point (perhaps even on Envato sites!) In the same way that personification is the act of attributing characteristics of a person onto another object, gamification is the process of implementing game mechanics into a non-game activity or entity. The purpose is to increase engagement and investment of a user base.

The basic psychological principle behind gamification is to provide positive reinforcement for each action taken. We are an incentive driven world in that we rarely do anything without expecting some sort of pay off. Gamification helps to either provide an incentive where one was lacking, or to increase a current incentive. This results in an elated feeling whenever we receive a new badge or trophy.

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Image courtesy of PhotoDune

Let's take a look the structure behind gamification and how it can be used to accomplish many goals. We'll also take a look at how it can be misused and create needless layers of complication.


Feedback is a basic User Experience principle with two parts that make it essential.

  1. It tells users that their intended action was registered.
  2. It provides a cue as to how the system will respond to that action.

Without feedback, users are left not knowing if they are getting closer to their goal.

Feedback in games serves a similar purpose. It lets the user know their intended action was registered and that the system has responded in turn. It's also an immediate indication that the user is getting closer to their goal.

Continually accomplishing small goals in order to reach a larger goal is often what makes games addictive.

The pacing of this feedback is very important. Too much feedback and the user becomes inundated with information overload. Too little and the user becomes bored. The right amount will keep the user in that engagement loop that keeps them on the site and continuing to discover new activities. As a business, you want external forces to be the reason users step away, not something the site does or lacks that causes them to leave.

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Xbox shows pop ups immediately when an Achievement is unlocked. (Image via Xbox365.com)

In gamification, feedback needs to occur when the intended action occurs. Often these actions are not obvious and users may not even know they've accomplished a goal without any feedback. Feedback tells the user what they've done and serves as a motivator to continue exploring actions. Well designed feedback can be the entryway into users' engagment with your site.

Badges and Achievements

Badges and achievements are often the method by which feedback is provided. Modals and Growl/Toast style notification are the most common ways to display this to users. Badges and achievements also become a way to commodify user actions.

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Klout Achievement example.

These become digital trophies, or digital items that users can point to in order to show off what they've accomplished. It creates bragging rights, which plays into idea of competition that we'll discuss later. As meaningless as they might seem on the surface, they are actually great at creating and driving motivation. On a cognitive level, it's the equivalent of a a digital pat on the back. This positive reinforcement helps affect users on a different level than the non-gamified site.

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Klout Achievement list.

Possible Activities for Earning Badges

  • Perform Specific Action
  • Perform Specific Action a Certain Number of Times
  • Achieve certain rank/level of Activity
  • Time Based Activity (Length or Specific time)
  • Editorially Assigned


Missions are a related series of activities, often badge-earning, that result in a bigger accomplishment. These should be more difficult than badge activities and require deeper engagement from the user. It's the same as the stages and levels metaphor used in traditional video games. It's a way of creating scale and levels of accomplishment in order to continually provide rewards and motivation for the user.

This multi-tiered approach is what drives the various levels of motivation as well as encouraging deeper engagement with the site. Pacing again plays a key role within missions in the same way as it does with feedback and badges. Missions that are exceptionally long will wear a user out before they finish, while missions that are too short don't provide that increased level of accomplishment.

Progress and Ranks

The sum of these badges and missions add up to show a user's progress. Users can see what level/rank they are or how many badges/achievements they've received. This is where users see how close they are to leveling up. Users' progress is also often shown in relation to other users. This is usually accomplished via some type of leaderboard. This helps provide social incentives for continued progress by intrinsically motivating users to become superior to their peer users.

StackOverflow Reputation Rankings.

In games, such as the enormously popular Call of Duty franchise, ranks are a way of determining a user's expertise and/or dedication. It creates, to some degree, a class system. Users often rally around similar players and tout their achievements. The same idea is used in gamification to create levels of dedication that users aspire to achieve. Everyone wants to be the best and that rank next to a user's name is a way of boasting how close one is to achieving that.

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Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (Image via Joystiq)


It's human nature to compare ourselves to others to see how we stack up. Many of us become fiercely competitive, trying to outpace and outsmart our way to the top. User progress and badge collections become a way to proclaim this superiority. This is evidenced in manifestations such as FourSquare's mayor system.

Foursquare Mayor
Foursquare Mayor. (Image via @MSG on Flickr)

Users go back and forth trying to outperform one another. Ideally, in the process, users would increase engagement and loyalty to the site. Through game mechanics they have more incentive to stay on the site and discover all that it offers. On the business side, increased time on site and page views add up to increased advertising dollars.


The ultimate goal in gamification is to provide a layer of motivation. The components discussed above work together to create that motivation. The feedback of badges and achievements builds to create a user's progress which then builds to create levels and ranks. All the while, this is inherently creating competition amongst users. This is, of course, only achieved in the ideal state of gamification.

Envato EliteEnvato EliteEnvato Elite
Tangible rewards from the Envato Elite Program

From a business perspective, this makes a lot of sense. The basic elements of gamification can be built into a site with relative ease. However, to really harness the full power of gamification much more care and effort must be put forward. As we'll see, there are many pitfalls of gamification. Yet, if a company gets it right then they can motivate their users to become more engaged and hopefully become more loyal customers.


We've discussed the make up and benefits of gamification, but it's not a panacea. There are several caveats that come with implementing a "gamified" site.

  1. The motivation may only be a superficial one. The motivation is contained within the game and not to the product which it supposedly supports. Programs such as frequent flyer miles provide some real world incentive for activity and progress. There's a tangible benefit there. Gamification reduces that incentive to essentially a digital celebration and bragging system.
  2. Sometimes the method of reaching the highest rank can become trivial as the only important aspect is reaching that superiority. This is a problem of the wrong motivation direction. The user is targeting their motivation towards being the best and not at seeing what the site has to offer. This may seem irrelevant for a company because the user is still spending that time. However, it's also not building brand loyalty and true engagement like the company is likely hoping to achieve.
  3. Another reason is that gamification removes a lot of the essence of a game. It's become almost a cut and paste methodology and lacks a lot of originality. Games are about discovery and overcoming trials. There's some level of that in gamified sites, but not to the extent of traditional games.

    However, this is really a fault that few companies would actually care about. This is an argument heard from the game proponents and theorists.

    But none of these objections bother the gamification set. They don't want to use the hard, strange, magical features of games. Instead, they want to use their easy, certain, boring aspects. Those are the gimmicks that can be leveraged into "monetizable APIs" and one-size-fits-all consulting workshops.
    -Ian Bogost-

  4. The new gamification companies (Bunchball, Badgeville, Big Door, etc.) make it seem easy to attach gamification to your site but to reach its true potential the gamified elements need to be well designed and thought out. This should take a fairly significant amount of time to get right.

    Game design belongs in the UX repertoire on (at least) a basic level. Shallow gamification can lead to shallow engagement and low ROI. When rewards happen, how they happen, and how they aggregate are elements that need to be carefully considered and well integrated into the existing site.

    Like most things, simply tacking on gamification is poor execution and leads to poor results

    Another insight: to create high-quality player experiences, UX designers must develop a true competency with game design. While we have a lot of other skills that can translate well, game design is a robust practice in its own right, and much of it turns our usual ways of thinking upside down. Operating successfully in the games domain means learning an entirely new set of competencies and gaining experience putting them into practice
    -John Ferrara (UX Magazine)-


Gamification, when used and designed properly, can prove enormously beneficial for companies. As with any fad, when it's used clumsily and hastily it begins to lose its value and gain criticism. The elements that make it so powerful are not trivial or plug-and-play features.

As with any type of web design it needs to be carefully considered, designed, and reviewed. If we're going to gamify our sites then we need to have knowledge of game design. We need to know the pitfalls and caveats. Gamification can increase motivation and engagement in users as well as increase the value and revenue of your site, but to get there we need to examine our own product in the context of gamification instead of considering gamification as simply a supplementary feature.

What side of gamification do you stand on? Which websites do you think it would benefit?

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