Gamification and Design Psychology

Gamification and Design Psychology“Gamification” is a hot trend right now in many areas where gaming doesn’t traditionally have a foothold. One of them is health technology.

In health and wellness technologies that I’ve worked on, user engagement is the shared thorn in our sides. It’s very hard to keep people interested in interactive health improvement programs over time. So some folks look to gamification as the solution. After all, people get hooked on video games all the time, so why can’t we borrow some of what makes them sticky and insert those features into health and wellness programs?

What I’ve found working on health and wellness web technologies is that gamification, which is defined as including game mechanics like leaderboards or badges, don’t always make sense for these types of programs. I even worry that sometimes they are counterproductive, lending a veneer of “fun” to a process that is fundamentally not. Fortunately, design psychology leverages the principles behind why games are sticky to engage people in non-game experiences, too.

Consider points and leaderboards, two of the game elements that are arguably easiest to transfer into a health and wellness context. Psychologically speaking, these elements are engaging because they provide a sense of competence, the underlying human need for positive growth. Earning points signals accomplishment; advancing through the ranks means success. Don’t forget that social comparisons may also help support relatedness (although they can also disrupt it, if people find their friends far outperform them).

On the other hand, “leveling up,” another common game mechanic, is a little harder to neatly fit into a health experience (fear not, it has been done, it’s just not easy). Well, what is the appeal of leveling up? Again, it helps support a sense of competence among users of the technology by demonstrating progress and achievement. So as a designer, the psychological question to ask is not:

How do I integrate leveling up into this intervention?

But rather:

How do I support the user’s sense of progress and growth with my intervention features?

Backing the question up a level to explore the underlying rationale for a game feature, which will often end up being an issue of user motivation, may actually lead us to build fewer gamified solutions in favor of more thoughtfully motivating experiences.

For an interesting perspective on how gamification leverages addictive tendencies, read this 2014 article (and a subsequent criticism of the game mechanics from DC Inno).