By some accounts, the human race has been playing games in one form or another since the dawn of civilisation. For thousands of years, games played with stones, bones, dice, boards, paper, cards and eventually computers have entertained and compelled us – and a love of play in some form is present in every one of us today.

Today’s games offer compelling digital worlds full of action, puzzles and heroism, and for many people represent a fulfilling distraction from the reality of daily life. “We are starving and games are feeding us” was an observation made by Jane McGonigal in her seminal 2011 game design book Reality Is Broken, and it will likely ring true for a very long time.

Simply put, games are compelling to us – and many tasks that might otherwise be boring or seem like chores can be transformed into more enjoyable and irresistible experiences with the application of some game-inspired design thinking.

Of course, user experience (UX) designers are constantly on the lookout for anything that could be used to make a website or app more appealing to users, or to improve conversions – and there are many good things that can be done with gamification principles.

The conventions of gamification

Many of the concepts and trappings of games, particularly videogames, can be borrowed and repurposed to help improve a visitor’s time spent with any website (and their user journey).

Most commonly, gamification appropriates the concepts of badges, points and leaderboards (occasionally abbreviated to BPL) – perhaps offering users the chance to win more points for their account by carrying out a particular task or giving them “coins” for each stage completed in a lengthy sign-up process. Alternatively, the accumulation of points can be used to incentivise repeat purchases in much the same manner as real-world store loyalty cards.

Badges can be awarded to users who complete certain tasks or reach a particular location on a website – these could take the form of a small icon placed next to their name or avatar, in the same way that Twitter has the blue ‘verified’ checkmark. Essentially, this is awarded as a mark of the user’s higher status on the site.

Social elements can also add videogame appeal in the form of competitiveness or social media sharing of high scores. By allowing a user to see their interaction statistics compared to those of friends or strangers, you can encourage them to think about the use of your site as a competitive game and to inspire them to outdo their peers. For example, many community message boards offer nominal “ranks” for users based on post counts, and leaderboards for those who are the most prolific posters.

Progression is a key element of many videogames, whether it is the literal advancement of the player through various areas and levels or the personal progression of becoming stronger and better-equipped (perhaps via the acquisition of new items or the accumulation of XP for levelling up).

Accordingly, allowing website users and customers to ‘level up’ and unlock access to new pages or deals might prime them to feel a sense of achievement or investment with your site, and to be reluctant to relinquish advantages they’ve worked to acquire.

Challenges, too, are an intrinsic videogame element that can be applied to a website to encourage particular behaviours – perhaps placing a certain frequency of orders, or posting a benchmark number of comments.

These techniques can be used either in isolation or in combination with one another to encourage users to find additional motivation or fun in using your website.

Gamification done properly

However, gamification isn’t magic – you can’t make a boring and badly-designed website compelling by just adding collectable coins to it, and game design elements alone can’t make a user interested in something (after all, if they could, every videogame in the world would be equally and irresistibly compelling).

Sometimes, designers who seek to add gamification elements to their UX project don’t take the time to really get to the bottom of what genuinely motivates their users. Not everybody is particularly motivated by arbitrary systems of points and coins, but if a potential customer has arrived at your site there is likely to be something they do want and care about.

For example, a gamified ordering process for a travel agent’s website might show a bonus image of their holiday destination that gets gradually uncovered as the user progresses through the transaction. For users who don’t find images of pretend trophies and coins compelling, this might be a more emotive way to get them invested in the process – as each step takes them closer to their perfect trip. Alternatively, an icon of a little cruise ship or plane that moves closer to its destination with each completed step might also be more interesting.

Equally, it can be important not to overdo the game design elements – too many, and your web development project is now essentially a game development project! Conceptual clutter can distract users from the essential business of what your site is supposed to be for, and adding game design problems to your normal list of considerations is unlikely to be a good idea.

There also has to be an ethical consideration for the addition of gamification elements to a website – many of the tropes and techniques of classic videogames were designed specifically to be addicting to users feeding coins into an arcade machine.

Unfortunately, the web isn’t short of unscrupulous game developers looking to exploit the addictive possibilities of their medium, with social games like Farmville employing numerous unethical and devious psychological tricks to keep users riveted and part them from their cash. Gamification elements should best be used sparingly and responsibly, making a website more fun or more engaging without becoming manipulative.

At the end of the day, games are an intrinsic part of human life and have been since the beginning of recorded history. While the forms taken by games will continue to change, the basic act of play will be a constant element of our world – and websites and interfaces incorporating game-like aspects will always be captivating.

After all, crafting an experience that users enjoy and are happy to repeat is the heart and soul of UX design. By borrowing some elements from games, we can make our websites not only efficient and elegant but also fun – tapping into a compelling playfulness that everybody can enjoy.


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