On Gamification

Ana Lorena Fabrega, who you should absolutely follow on Twitter, recently came up with a wonderful thread on gamification.

What is gamification?

Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organisations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users.


Rather than do a dull and dreary task, try to turn that dreary task into a game. It won’t (hopefully) be quite as dull and dreary anymore. There is much more to it than that, of course, but my own succinct definition of gamification (for my own purposes) is simply this: try to make learning interesting by turning it into a game.

But what does turning something into a game mean, and what elements of games should one retain in the gamification of, say, learning?

How to get students to learn about, say, project management? Come up with a course on project management is one (obvious) answer.

Can I gamify a course on project management? Sure: points for attending classes, for example. Extra points for doing assignments better. Points being deducted for less than ideal behavior. House with the most points wins. You’re familiar with how it goes.

But that’s tricking (incentivizing) people into doing what we want them to do, as Ana says. It’s better than nothing, but that isn’t gamification.

Ana has a word for this, and I really like it: pointsification. You do this to get that. And before you know it, Goodhart’s Law raises its ugly ol’ head again. As Ana says, you end up taking the least essential things of a game and end up making them the core of the experience.

There are four things that end up making a good game, as per her Twitter thread: a goal, rules, a feedback mechanism and voluntary participation.

Building out a podcast with your batchmates is a “game”. The goal is to come up with an episode a week for the three “teams” playing the game.

There are rules: scripts to be put up for review by a particular day, a schedule for shipping the episodes, artwork and trailers to be shipped by a particular day, etc.

There is feedback about how the scripts could be better, about voice modulation, about the technical aspects and so on and so forth.

And it is, of course, entirely voluntary.

That’s gamification.

Please read the entire thread by Ana, it’s fantastic. Her own example of a game is even more lovely, and I wished I could have been a part of it.

But there’s one point that I wanted to emphasize in addition to all of what Ana has said, and therefore this blogpost: games when built well are, by definition, non-zero sum games.

My podcast example, or Ana’s example of the book in the library game aren’t about pointsification1. There are no points, there’s no winning by defeating somebody else. In fact, quite the contrary: winning is about everybody meeting their deadlines, and since the group wins if everybody finishes, it is in your interest to help the others finish.

You win by helping others. You don’t win by making sure others scored less than you.

What sucks the life out of me as a teacher is questions along the lines of “Can you please let me know why I scored so less?”.

Because what the student is really asking is this “But why did the others score more?”

That’s a zero sum game. You “win” at marks by scoring more, and there are two ways to score more: either score more than the others, or make sure that the others score less than you. But both are about winning by defeating others, not by helping others also win.

And particularly as a person who is supposed to be teaching students about economics – the double thank you moments, trade being a voluntary exchange that leaves both parties better off, and therefore a non-zero-sum game are all such fundamental building blocks of my subject – arguments about marks are therefore especially soul destroying.

And that’s why gamification (when done well) and project based learning are so much better. Because we teach students how to build out a podcast, sure, but we also teach them about the following:

  • The world is a non zero sum game. Or at least, it should be viewed as one. The world shouldn’t need you whining about why others scored more.
  • Work happens best when you work with each other, not against each other
  • Working in a team is hard, can be frustrating, but is ultimately the best practice for the world outside. You will not get along with everybody. Quarrels will happen. Personality clashes are inevitable. Working around all of these, and working with people you wouldn’t really want to hang out with is what teamwork is all about.
  • The objective is to “win” the game. Teamwork is the best way to get this done. You won’t get along with all your team members, but the work they do is invaluable. So learn the art of getting along enough for all of you to win.
  • And once you’ve won, set up a new (non-zero sum) game, and get back to struggling again. And again, and again.

That’s gamification.

And the larger lesson you should take away from playing a game such as this is not just about learning podcasting, or dashboarding, or survey design, or setting up a website, or about running a summer school on philosophy or journalism. It’s about figuring out how to gamify your life, whether in college or later.

Because the alternative is just too damn boring to think about.


  1. what a lovely word![]