Gamification’s Three Disciplines

Gamification’s Three Disciplines


In the emergence of a new design discipline like Gamification, there are many successes and failures that contribute to the overall body of knowledge within the industry. In our case, the meme burst onto the scene so aggressively in 2010, that with some notable exceptions, most of us have been scrambling to simply put our arms around all the case studies, nascent research and patterns that have appeared. Our team works hard to discover and share some of the more interesting examples of gamification with the world, whether in our blog, our books or our events.

Of course, Gamification didn’t begin in 2010 – but rather is a culmination of decades (or even centuries) of iterative work across multiple disciplines. The lessons we know, and some of the more broadly used axioms of today’s discussion (including my oft-quoted SAPS, 5 Engagement Metrics and Six Rules frameworks) may be original, but they always draw heavily on prior art. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a step back to understand the way these core fields influence gamified design:

  • Loyalty Programs
  • Game Design
  • Behavioral Economics

I first saw a venn diagram like this drawn by Arwed Grenzbach of Conflutainment and thought it was an incredibly easy shorthand for the influences on gamification. Uniquely, our field isn’t bound to use elements from all three areas, but makes use of the most appropriate tools and understanding from each to accomplish the right objective. This synthesis of design principles and toolsets makes our concepts more powerful.

For example, while loyalty programs are particularly good at driving incremental action, game design gives us a systemic view of how people interact with each other and the environment. And where behavioral economics helps us model how consumers will respond to various incentives and disincentives, game designers focus on the intrinsic (or heart) to create motivating experiences. By way of contrast, loyalty programs tend to be extra long-term (forever) and games generally have defined lengths.

This is especially interesting when you consider some of the debate around gamification. Many folks often end up missing the fact that while gamification is influenced by game design, it doesn’t depend solely on those concepts for meaning or success. So even as game design concepts are being adapted to the reality of a gamified consumer, they are morphing and becoming something different. A good gamified designer will seek to understand all three areas, but may never become a leading practitioner in any one vertical alone – nor should she.

While their manifestation my not necessarily make game purists happy (or fit the classic definition of a loyalty program for example), gamified experiences are more powerful for their polymath origins. This new discipline has learned a lot from its “founding fathers” – and our new ideas are just getting started.