From Learnnovatores by Shobana Jeyakumar

Games To Gamification
Imagine yourself living some two million years ago. Your survival would have been mainly through hunting and food gathering. Slowly, as the human species evolved, (around 70,000 to 80,000 years ago), they started hunting small game. The word ‘game’ here means any animal hunted for food. The term game was used as a medieval hunting terminology in the late 13th century. It has its origin from the old English word ‘gamen’ which means joy, sport, or amusement.

Then, as man evolved to the agrarian stage, around 12,000 years ago, he learned to domesticate a few animals and, alongside, grow crops. This was the time when hunting started to become a sport and also a source of food. And gradually, man started inventing different types of games and sports for various purposes. Now you may wonder what the difference between a sport and a game is. A sport is usually a physical activity. But some non-physical activities like chess and bridge are called mind sports. Games, on the other hand, can be physical or mental. All sports are games, but not all games are sports.


Archaeological evidence shows that games and sports were an integral part of all ancient cultures. People from some of the oldest civilizations such as the Sumerian, Indus Valley, Egyptian, Mayan, Chinese, Roman and the Greek have all had some forms of games and sports as favorite pastimes, for enhancing skills, exercise, bonding, critical thinking, fun, and pleasure. So we know that game based learning and gamification are not new.

Here I would like to mention an instance from the Indian epic Mahabarath, where gamification was used in the process of selecting a groom for a bride. The challenge for the suitors to win the hand of princess Draupadi was to bend the bow and pierce the eye of a revolving wooden fish that was mounted on a pole, by looking at its reflection in a water filled vessel. This is a non-game context, which uses game mechanics such as goal setting, competition, leaderboard, and reward to accomplish a task.

Traditionally, a game is defined as a physical or mental competition engaged in by participants in direct opposition to each other. However, these days you find many single-player games where the player competes with a component of the environment (say a computer), against his or her own skills.

Games are generally categorized by the tools (cards, boards and their coins), techniques, components, and widgets used. They are also defined by rules, skills, strategies and the elements of chance. Today we can have an endless list of games and sports. However, some of the most common types of games are tabletop games (such as board games, card games, dice games, and guessing games), role-playing games, video games, computer games, educational games, simulations, party games, and children’s games. Each of these can be further classified into another endless list of game types. Then when we come to the types of sports, some of the most common types are, the physical sports (archery, cycling, climbing), the mind sports, air sports, skating sports, snow sports, endurance sports, etc. And this can be further divided into another lengthy list.


With so many types of games and sports, there should be no dearth of ideas to gamify the learning of a subject in educational and business settings. The term ‘gamify’ or ‘gamification’ was first used in the digital media industry in the year 2008, but it gained popularity only in the second half of 2010. It is defined as the process of applying game mechanics (such as rules, points, badges, leaderboards, achievements, rewards, competition, feedback, goal setting, etc.) and game dynamics (a combination of various game mechanics to suit the interest of players  to drive a sequence of actions) to a non-game context to engage and motivate learners and to promote desired behaviors. It is a powerful new strategy that can be used by organizations and educational institutions to transform people.

Interestingly, the game mechanics and the game dynamics of a game hold good in real life as well. May be that is one of the reasons why we all love to play games. But the difference is that we get to see the final result of a game much quicker than in real life. And the effect of failure in a game does not affect us as much as it does in real life.  In fact, games encourage and allow failure. Games are designed to provide the motivation, challenge, connection, competition, feedback, and intuition to accomplish a task. And once we accomplish something, say when we reach a certain level, we get a sense of achievement, which gives us the pleasure and the desire to experience the same thrill over and over again. So we continue to play without boredom. The success or failure of gamification depends on how systematically the game mechanics (points, badges, leaderboards, rules, etc.) are combined to create game dynamics (emergent behavior while experiencing the game) depending on the players’ personality, responsibility and the gamified context.

All of us are gamification specialists in a way. It is just that we have suppressed this ability in order to compete with the memory based education system.  Imagine yourself as a kid on a rainy day making paper boats and letting them float in a flowing stream of water, throwing tiny stones in a pond to see the ripples come out, and walking in the rain with your face held up to feel the rain droplets fall on your eyes and face.  All these activities can be turned to games to learn physics or any related subject. These are fun activities that all of us love to do. We try to gamify many tasks in our daily lives. For example, trying to jump over potholes on our way to school and collecting our favorite fruits, flowers or seeds at school or at home are all ways by which we may have tried to gamify some boring and mundane tasks. There is no limit to our imagination. It is just that we don’t give way to it. Imagine the number of games you would have played as a kid. If you really look back at your creativity as a kid, I am sure that most of us would have come up with many new games or at the least tried to enhance an existing game or weaved magical stories that suit our interest from which we could have developed amazing games and gamification ideas.


Games can have a profound effect on our minds. So, the process of gamification requires careful planning, dedication, experience, and the right tools. A lot of research has been done on what drives human behavior. One such research was conducted by game designers and researchers, Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck. They created the MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics) framework in 2001 to improve game analysis. They found that a player experiences a game through aesthetics that the game dynamics provide, which emerge from the mechanics of the game. Game mechanics are the basic building blocks of a game. They work on the basic human desire of wanting to achieve something and being rewarded for the same. They are also the rules that govern behaviors, offering predictable outcomes for players’ actions. However, game mechanics alone will not sustain the motivation and interest of players. Because, as per The Maritz Institute (an innovation and leadership hub connecting a network of neuroscientists, academics, and business leaders), each of us is unique and our motivation levels vary dynamically, depending on our emotional and rational, individual and social inclinations. Now, this is where the game dynamics come in to play to make a game more enjoyable and fulfilling. The game dynamics work by combining and pooling in various game mechanics to suit the interest of players to drive a sequence of actions, with a goal to accomplish a set of desired outcomes. Aesthetics, on the other hand, drive elements such as fun, curiosity, pride, delight, etc. that are evoked while interacting with the gaming system.

Another research done by Professor B. J. Fogg, an experimental psychologist from Stanford, states that there are three elements that drive human behavior: motivation, ability and trigger.  This he called the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM). For a game or gamified context to successfully drive a desired behavior, the game mechanics and dynamics must direct the three elements – motivation, ability and trigger to occur at the same time during a play. Even a few seconds of difference can make the participation ineffective.


A similar research was conducted by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the state of the mind called, ‘flow’. According to him, flow is an optimal state of the mind that can be attained when the challenges faced by a player match his or her ability. If a mission or task is too easy the player will experience boredom and if the mission or task is too difficult the player will get in to the anxiety mode. So, the gamification specialist must carefully balance the game mechanics and dynamics to help the player attain the optimal ‘flow’ state of mind. A player is supposed to be in a ‘flow’ state when he or she is totally involved in a task.


Another game researcher, Richard A Bartle, identified at least four types of gaming personalities: achiever, explorer, socializer, and killer. Achievers require concrete measurement of success in a game, while the explorers enjoy discovering the unknown. Socializers love interacting with other players, while killers thrive on competition. Different gaming dynamics are required for each of these personalities. A gamified environment that can satisfy each of these types can turn out to become a popular gamification setting. Gamification specialists like Amy Jo Kim, Karl Kapp, Gal Rimon, Rajat Paharia, Robert Strohmeyer, and many others have pointed out some of the qualities of a good gamified context. According to them, gamification must:

  • Understand players and their motivation
  • Focus on clear and measurable goals
  • Take the players through the Novice – Expert – Master path
  • Contain a good balance of both intrinsic (empowerment, identity, status, learning, fun, love, sense of pride, meaning) and extrinsic (points, badges, leaderboards, rewards) motivation factors
  • Encourage both individual and team performance
  • Discourage unhealthy competition and negativity
  • Provide an opportunity to share virtual rewards and achievements
  • Reward through incremental progress and offer tangible rewards like gift cards
  • Lay importance on the learning experience and not simply on the winning
  • Be iterative (prototype, playtest, analyze)
  • Make play voluntary and not compulsory

Gamification, when applied correctly, can unleash creativity and act as a catalyst for change. It can change attitudes from ‘I have to’ to ‘I want to’. So let us leverage this amazing technique and tactic to bring about a positive change.


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