Gamifying Open and Closed Systems

Gamifying Open and Closed Systems


Tailor Gamification to Different Types of Systems

Understanding systems theory is crucial for designing successful educational and enterprise projects. There are two basic types of systems: open and closed.

Closed systems are relatively stable, highly constrained and consist of repetition. In business, an example of such systems is manufacturing. Engineering metaphors work in these systems. Efficiency and techniques like Total Quality Management, Six Sigma and lean manufacturing are key.


Open systems co-evolve with the environment. Both the environment changes the system, and the system changes the environment. It is an ecology. Effectiveness and the ability to constantly adapt are key. These systems are manifested in the service sector.

Ecology is not meant here in the environmental sense, but all the complex interrelated components that drive business: the stakeholders, processes and interrelations within the system.

Systems in Education

Close systems in education consist of engineering the player’s experience step by step in order to deliver specific lessons. Here is a recent article on GCo on the subject.

Open systems in education consist of giving the player autonomy to make discoveries on their own. The book A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown gives a superb explanation of this kind of learning. A great example talked about in the book is Scratch, which is a project by MIT where kids learn coding. The learning process is not engineered, but emerges through the interaction between the platform and community.

Here is a video about Scratch:

Enterprise Systems

Close systems in enterprise require efficiency in repetitive tasks. A lot of the popular enterprise gamification theory is based on improving this area. The claim is that work is boring and repetitive. With the help of gamification mechanics employee engagement will increase and thus efficiency will rise.

Open enterprise systems have a high level of uncertainty. Ann Pendleton-Jullian and Michael Hugos offer very good insights on how we can work game design theory into corporate management practices. In this system you cannot engineer every single step for the player but create rules and allow beneficial patterns to emerge out of employee autonomy within these given bounds. The following diagram comes from one of Michael Hugos’s Forbes articles, which I highly recommend:

This Harvard Business Review article explains that successful companies combine open and close systems management styles to become what they have coined “ambidextrous organizations.” Many times when we “gamify a system” we are tweaking an existing process and must understand the nature of this process in order to enhance it. There are tremendous opportunities to amplify learning and enterprise performance with gamification, but just like management techniques in business we need to know how and when to apply them properly.

To conclude, no one style is necessarily better than another, we just need the right tools for the specific job.

For education we obviously want to impart specific lessons (closed system), but we also want students to learn how to learn and develop their creativity on their own, as is explained brilliantly in the book by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.

In enterprises we have highly constrained repetitive systems and we need to increase efficiency by driving up employee engagement. However, since we cannot predict every little detail happening in open systems, we should  to set up a few rules and allow our employees’ autonomy to find the best course of action according to the specific context.


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.