The Science and Psychology of Gamification

The Science and Psychology of Gamification


Michael Wu, PhD, principal scientific analyst for Lithium,  has started a mini-series of blog posts at their Lithosphere blog that delve into the science behind gamification. His first entry broke down the basics, explaining what is gamification, and the distinction between game mechanics versus game dynamics.

“[Game mechanics] are principles, rules, and/or mechanisms (much like mechanics in physics) that govern a behavior through a system of incentives, feedback, and rewards with reasonably predictable outcome.”

– and –

“Gaming dynamics are temporal evolution and patterns of both the game and the players that make the game (or any gamified activity) more enjoyable.”

In his most recent post, “The Magic Potion of Game Dynamics” he focuses on the technical side of how game dynamics actually work. The goal of which, of course, is to drive behaviors to a predictable degree. Using the Fogg Behavior Model, developed by Prof. B.J. Fogg, experimental psychologist of Standford University, he breaks down any desired behavior into three necessary factors: motivation, ability and trigger. When designing a gamified system, players must be given a motivation to do something (emotional investment, promise of reward, etc), the ability to complete the action (which isn’t the same as skill. Ability can simply mean having the time or the game options) and a trigger or cue to complete the action. The structure is all about timing – if all components don’t fire simultaneously then the player will lose interest or become frustrated.

Dr. Wu also makes it a point to mention the importance of the positive feedback loop. This is one possibility for the “motivation” part of  the Fogg model. He also states, as we at Gamification Co have mentioned many times, a positive feedback mechanism is always more successful than any negative reinforcement as people are more willing to continuously carry out series of behaviors for a positive outcome. A punishment for not completing the action will typically cause the player to disengage entirely.

Some people assume that gamification is nothing more than slapping badges and points on a mediocre website in order to grab attention and only creates a superficial experience. Michael Wu’s writing is able to show that there is real science and psychology behind gamification. Those who are sincerely interested in gamification, the power it has over motivation and how it can improve daily life would benefit greatly from reading these articles and those that will follow.

You can read more of Michael Wu’s blog here, and even ask questions in the comments section that he’s very likely to answer.


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  1. Hello Danyell,

    Thank you for referencing my blog and summarizing it concisely.

    There are definitely a lot of science behind gamification, and that is why I decided to start my mini-series on the science of gamification. Hope it offers a different perspective on this topic.

    If you are interested, the 3rd article of this mini-series is out. It goes deep into the 1st factor of the Fogg’s Behavior Model and look into what motivates people from well know theories of classical psychology. Hope you will enjoy it.

    later this week, I will also publish another post on the 2nd factor. Stay tuned!
    Thanks again for cross linking.

  2. This is such an exciting area I can’t tell you how obsessed I am right now. It’s like a new way to think about human motivation – in the past I used The Power of Influence (social proof, reciprocation, etc).

    I would like to see how this can be implemented, say for startups, entrepreneurs, or small biz without large budgets. For example easy to use technology that works with Facebook, wordpress, etc for getting people to take actions we want.