How does gamification work?

How do gamification, serious games, or game-based learning actually work?

At the current state of research, studies examining the use and effects of gamification or serious games report overwhelmingly positive results, for example, in terms of user motivation, engagement, and satisfaction in diverse application contexts. However, how gamification achieves these psychological effects and behavioral changes is just beginning to be explored.

Our research shows: Gamification is based on ten theoretical principles.

For the scientific background, underlying theories, and full description, we are happy to reference our journal article here, which is available open access: .

1. Gamification enables to set clear, transparent goals.

Game elements such as badges, badges, and quests function like mini-goals that clearly illustrate to the user what goals are to be achieved. In doing so, they playfully break down a large overarching goal, such as learning a new language, into small, achievable subgoals.

2. Gamification allows users to pursue their own goals.

For the subjective need for autonomy, it is important that people feel they are allowed to decide their own goals and actions. This has been shown to increase motivation. Game elements that are classically used for setting one's own goals include performance statistics (I set my own performance goal, such as 7,000 steps a day, and then see if I have reached my goal) or leaderboards (goal: reach the top 10).

3. Gamification gives users direct feedback on their behavior.

Direct and timely feedback is important to make people feel that they can successfully work towards a goal and overcome the challenge (self-efficacy). In this regard, points, levels, progress bars, and also reinforcing messages from the system ("Great, you've already walked 3,000 steps today!") serve as game elements that allow users to receive direct feedback on their performance.

4. Gamification rewards users for their performance and communicates its relevance.

Traditional behaviorist approaches in particular emphasize the importance of rewards to reinforce a desired behavior. However, it is often discussed to what extent extrinsic rewards, i.e. something like money or grades, even negatively influence people's intrinsic motivation (I then no longer do the grammar exercises to learn a language, but because I have to write an exam at the end, and want to achieve a good grade there). Gamification elements such as badges, trophies, in-game status symbols, or virtual gifts, on the other hand, represent rewards that may not have much meaning outside the system, but instead emphasize the relevance of a particular achievement and are thus informative rather than controlling in nature (according to cognitive evaluation theory, an important factor for motivation).

5. Gamification allows users to see the performance of their peers.

Many learning theories, most notably social cognitive learning theory, emphasize the importance of observational learning: people learn by seeing other people overcome a challenge, which also supports their own self-efficacy (I believe I can do it too). Gamification elements such as contests, challenges, and leaderboards allow users to see how their peers are performing and compete. Exchange forums and threads can also support mutual knowledge sharing.

6. Gamification connects users and makes them work toward a common goal.

The theory of planned behavior emphasizes that in addition to their attitude, subjective norms also play a major role in people's behavior, i.e., personal beliefs about what behavior others expect from them. Game elements such as teams and team challenges get users to work toward a common goal, thus exerting "social pressure" toward the desired behavior.

7. Gamification adapts tasks and complexity to the user's current skills and knowledge.

Especially for more complex behavioral changes (like sustainable behavior) or difficult goals, it is important to pick up users at their current level of knowledge and not to over- or under-challenge them. Gamification allows for this customization through elements such as skill trees and levels, which serve as the basis for the difficulty of tasks and challenges. Advanced serious games even use machine learning and algorithms to detect the user's current level of knowledge and dynamically adjust the game's difficulty accordingly.

8. Gamification nudges users toward the actions necessary to achieve the goal.

In addition to dynamically adjusting the difficulty (the right "challenge"), according to constructivist learning theories, coaching (the right "encouragement") is also an important prerequisite for learning processes. Game elements such as tips, hints, suggestions, or highlighting elements in the system playfully point out to the user what to do next.

9. Gamification allows users to try different paths to achieve a goal.

Experiental learning theories emphasize the important role of experiential learning in knowledge creation (the typical "learning by doing"), meaning that people need to make their own experiences in order to learn from them. This is where serious games in particular come into play, allowing users to try out different behaviors in protected, virtual environments. But gamification elements such as skill trees also allow users to autonomously decide how they want to achieve their goals.

10. Gamification systems are usually user-friendly and simplify complex content.

Research from the information systems field, such as the technology acceptance model, as well as theories of cognitive load, suggest that it is important for users to be able to use systems easily in order to stay motivated and pursue the desired behavior. The more complex a system is, the harder it is for the brain to focus on processing the essential content. Accordingly, serious games or gamification help break down complex behavior into small, tangible actions and abstract real-world complexity in virtual environments. Typically, onboarding features also help to quickly introduce the user to the functionalities of the system.


  1. Thank you Jeanine, this listing in ten principles will facilitate my studies from now on. 😀

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