logo image

ATD Blog

Gamification, Meet Gamefulness


Tue Mar 12 2013

Gamification, Meet Gamefulness

On the face of it, the term “gamification” would seem to imply a digital game. But the similarities between “games” and “gamification” end at points, levels, and badges. And while games require such elements as fantasy, role play, and win-states, gamification requires no such elements. Instead, gamification shares more of its heritage with fields like operant conditioning and choice architecture, in which experiences are specifically designed to manipulate behavior. One could better compare gamification to how grocery stores place their in-store bakery towards the rear of the store to tempt customers deeper into the shop.

To the layman, gamification appears to be capturing the essence of what makes a computer game compelling—without necessarily needing to build a full computer game. But I’d suggest it really just builds on decades of research into the manipulation of behavior.


Gamification wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago. The increasing popularity of games has given us a basis in shared language that increasing numbers of consumers understand. As the average age of a game player increases, so does the awareness that an “experience point” or a “level up” is a good thing. The feedback and progress mechanisms present in gamification build on many years of perfecting human-to-computer interaction and research into the efficacy of short-term rewards as a part of long-term process. But make no mistake, this is behavioral.

Many of gamification’s predecessors materially benefited the participant with some unit of monetary value (think: the loyalty card systems of this world). Gamification systems tend not to do this; instead, they rely on social comparison and the urge to progress within The Game. Players earn points simply because it is a part of the gameto do so—and everyone enjoys some feeling of mastery.

Critics suggest that gamification in this mold promotes engagement that borders on exploitation. The term “pointsification” was coined as a derogatory, if somewhat accurate, term by which we might redefine gamification. Detractors also suggest that gamification has little in common with a game—except for taking some of the more obvious feedback mechanisms and making them core to the experience, as opposed to a side-effect of progress.

But gamification isn’t the first movement to attempt to tap in to the motivational properties of games. Not everyone believes that manipulating behavior represents the best motivational assets of games. Today, there emerges a further distinction: “gamefulness.” This term perhaps more accurately describes the inspiration behind play and how this might be used to make activities more intrinsically appealing.

And gamefulness isn’t even the first attempt to classify the playful nature of games and use the principles elsewhere. “Funology” sought to take a more playful approach to work and life as a response in part to the success of the experiments in fantasy and motivation by Tom Malone in 1981. Unlike gamification, which I would class as being entirely behavioral, gamefulness encompasses more of the playful features said to make games into more exploratory and reflective exercises.


The willingness to play, to fail, and to try again, could be said to be the essence of what makes learning a compelling activity. Gamefulness involves elements of role play, story, and agency. Evangelists like Jane McGonigal suggest that it is in being game-like in our approach, not in our feedback mechanisms, that engagement lies. Injecting wit, humor, or emotional context isn’t easy, but it does represent another side to games that we can learn from. It gives instructional designers the opportunity to do something seemingly frivolous but delightful. This is significant because a learner’s opinion of an online learning experience is highly correlated to their willingness to keep using it. This stuff matters.

I think the distinction between gamification and gamefulness is an important one. It’s the difference between pretending to feed your toddler with an airplane-come-spoon or rewarding them with a gold star. Gamification doesn’t have to be fun or emotional; it really can be “pointsification.” But when done well, gamification can be used to shape user interactions and to push people to go further, to build up streaks of learning, and to condition behavior.

Gamefulness is almost the opposite; capturing the playful elements of games that make them light hearted, fun, or emotionally compelling. It brings delight, playfulness, and deep engagement—all qualities we often seek in our learning experience designs.

You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy