Gamification is Poised for a Podcast-like Resurgence

By sethmsparks

Gamification Origins

Gamification is a stupid word. I think at this point just about all of us agree on that. Yet despite the words silliness, the definition is important: the process of applying game-based elements to non-game activities. We humans have been trying to gamify non-game situations (at least knowingly, at scale, in business, according to this definition) since the 1990s. That should come as no surprise given the influence the video game revolution of the 1970s had on youngsters of that time.

Twenty years later the kids that grew up in front of arcade cabinets and playing early-gen home consoles were heading off to college and joining the workforce. Their mental models, full of Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Galaga patterns, mechanics, and scoring systems, acted as the lens through which they viewed nearly everything.

It was inevitable that they would bring systems of play with them, both to the work they did and to the way they thought. As they did, people took notice when things worked, copied their ideas, and then tweaked and hyped gamification until the weight of the gluttonous idea collapsed on itself, thereby negating most of the footing it had gained.

Game Over

To the masses, gamification faded as quickly as it came. Google searches for gamification peaked in September 2012, after a half-decade of fever pitch hype.  Amara’s Law says “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Side note, Amara’s Law would be a great title for an RPG.

The cause of death for gamification, I think, was its rapid ascendance in our psyche as the silver bullet for moving people through unfriendly systems with the intention of extracting as much value from them as possible.

Need a student to learn something? Gamify it.

Need an employee to be more productive? Gamify it.

Need a customer to be more loyal? Gamify it.

I could go on and on – that list is endless. Where the silver bullet failed though, was that the implementation of these ideologies used simple mechanics to push people through systems, and I’ll say this again, focused on the extraction of value rather than the creation and exchange of it. Before people had time to ask why and how gamification worked, consultants and designers were throwing point systems, leaderboards, and badges on anything they could hoping those minimal incentives would push users to do more. To want more. To buy more.

Points, badges, and leaderboard mechanics can be important for some gamified systems success, yes, but most implementations forgot that those systems were merely the scoreboards of the games being played. Points, badges, and leaderboards (or PBLs as they’ve come to be known) are not they themselves the game.

The hype of gamification didn’t deliver,, and the phrase itself was so pervasive that it reached a point of cringe-inducing cliché whenever it was used. Our collective culture constructed a conscious block for mentions of the practice, and it’s been largely ignored or muted since.

But it’s there, in that out-of-sight out-of-mind basement, that the cognoscenti have continued to hypothesize and test the mechanisms that make gamification what it is. It’s there, that modern innovations in technology, and further research into behavioral economics and neuroscience have been applied to the frameworks that lay under gamification.

And it’s there, where the word gamification is hardly used but its essence still permeates, that the concept has gone through a string of evolutions to become a stronger, more diverse, more capable – albeit more complex – version of itself.

The purveyors of the hype train a decade ago may disagree. They may still sore from being burned by the number of consumer audiences they tried to inflict PBLs upon, but the rapid failure of their work was their own fault. They’re likely the same people that have run from social media platform after platform, scratching the surface and never seeing results. They’re the groups that hyped VR and built cheesy systems that customers didn’t use. They’re the clowns that are cobbling together too-simple Messenger chat-bots and voice recognition apps for the Alexa’s of the world, with the only aspiration of being as functional as the already much-hated voice navigation phone trees. No doubt in time they’ll declare that they too don’t work and will start pushing something new. These are the modern day snake oil salesmen, except these days they even have the snake oil to sell you, just an ever changing recipe.

Our first go-round with 8-bit gamification ran out of lives too soon. But what I think you will see is that this time around, the new 64-bit gamification system is ready to explode.

Marketing Evolutions

If you take an aggressively oversimplified view of marketing during the last hundred or so years, it’s safe to posit that the business function has gone through some changes.

Originally, marketing was basically just made up of sales functions. Something was made, someone went out and told others about it, and subsequently sold it to them. If people were interested enough after seeing someone else use the thing, maybe they would even come to the salesperson. But at the core of it, was that one person, with the insight and swagger and salesmanship that could get people to bite .

Things got more complicated when marketing decided that it’s main function should be showing people “the thing”. The salespeople needed the good leads. So marketing became advertising. Plus, getting people to come to you was far easier than trying to go out to each and every one of them.  Marketing became less about the hard sell to the customer, and more about spreading word of your product (often with a disregard for truth – hello regulation), so that people would come to see the salesperson.

But as marketing and sales diverged, they quickly realized their distinct need for proximity to one another.. Every operational discussion became “sales and marketing have to work hand in hand.” But how do you symbolize that work and the hand-off from a mass messaging strategy to the hard sell? How about a marketing funnel, made ever-so-simple with the application of the acronym AIDA? It so very conveniently helps us symbolize the movement of a person from Awareness at the top-of-the-funnel (tofu) to the Action at the bottom-of-the-funnel (bofu). And if we want to be REALLY customer centric, we’ll slap a Satisfying “S” at the end, so those customer service people feel included too. Voila! Marketing becomes the funnel. That is, until we acknowledge the leaks.

The more we know about something, the more we realize that we don’t know anything about it at all. As we adopted the marketing funnel, we allowed ourselves to think more complexly about the systems at play. But then we gained access to more and more data, thanks to technological advances. The data said that our attempts to linearize consumer purchase decisions with a funnel. AIDAS turned into AIAAIAIDDDIIAIDDA…..S? Add in multiple devices per user, and poof – that right there is some finely observed chaos. So what do we do? We revise our definition of marketing again to be based upon… say it with me, the Customer Journey. And we love journeys now because they’re non-linear! If the customer isn’t moving through the system, we can just diagnose that they must be looping and need more content. Problem solved, right?

The journey we measure, now covers the space from *pre-awareness* to *brand advocacy*. That’s a large swath of land to manage, so while most of the visuals created depicting the journey make it look simple, it’s far from it. It’s great that we’re finally thinking about how all these pieces fit together, and with so many moving and changing concurrently, it’s really difficult to manage.

I know you’re probably thinking “thanks for the history lesson, but you said this had something to do with games.”

Well, next we’ll need something to help us understand a customer’s movement throughout the journey. To make sense of the motivations that compel a consumer from one stage to the next, for the right reasons, for the right value exchange. Have you ever used a 5-by to made a piece of content that was supposed to move a consumer along their decision journey that didn’t work? Then you know what I mean.

Attention is a currency. For messaging to be given attention there has to be either, 1) value within each individual interaction with your brand or 2) a whole gob of value at the end of all interactions with your brand. Gamification, done thoughtfully, establishes how to assess those value transactions and how to make progress with your messaging.

Datas Ex Machina

If you’re going to manage the customer journey properly, you need one thing more than anything else: data. I guess we’re lucky then that our data sources, storage, and reporting capabilities have progressed tremendously since our last go-round with gamification.

We now have more and better data on individuals that don’t know our brand, those that do, and those that really-really do. Today’s’ digital tracking (and increasingly, offline tracking) allows us to maintain robust real-time databases, to link those databases with hundreds of others, and to query them simultaneously for instant results. This access to consumer data allows us to paint elaborate pictures of our audiences, and their needs and desires. These databases store consumers history and algorithms can predict their future. Properly analyzed data can tell us where consumers struggle, and where they’re apt. The data can tell us how to engage in a way that makes consumers, the real humans on the other end, want to actually engage back with us.

If we’re smart enough to have that portrait for each one of our customers (not personas), then we’re beginning to have the underlying structure we need to effectively implement a gamified system into our entire marketing ecosystem.


Another big change in the last decade has been the shift to subscription-based services like Netflix, Spotify, and Blue Apron. Businesses have gone from a buy once mentality, to what is essentially a membership model. Heck even Microsoft is starting to sell their XBOX game consoles as part of a subscription model. Activity looping, like membership and subscriptions, is ABUNDANT in games.

As humans, we love the safety of repetition. But also quickly get bored with it. Game designers have for years found ways to adjust games in-flight so that the boredom arising from the repetition is mitigated. As brands and non-profits alike come to grips with the cyclicality of their work, and as those kinds of systems become increasingly more common, they’re a veritable breeding ground for gamification. Every year members renew service, but what considerations are made that need accounted for? How can you make that transaction more exciting? More inviting?

Consistency, Familiarity, Simplicity = Experience

The final piece of the gamification 2.0 mentality is our renewed focus on Customer Experience. You know, the end to end experience. The online and offline experience. Every touchpoint crafted in the perfect way, for just that user and where they are in their journey, with the right message delivered at the right time in the right medium. All done by cheap and efficient AI so we don’t have to pay real employees to do anything. The holy grail of marketing.

Right now, people are obsessive about “experience”, and they should be. Maybe not quite as pumped as they are for design thinking, but that’s another post. And I totally get it. Getting experiential consistency, familiarity, and simplicity right is critical. Establishing solid constraints, feedback mechanisms, and recovery options are just as. But you know what modern UX has in common with game design? Everything I just said. Modern mass-applied UX is many cases is following in the footsteps of what game designers have been doing for decades. The only difference is that game designers have been crafting these systems in worlds where they have full control, so it’s no wonder it’s taken us a bit of time to figure out how to make that play in the real world where we aren’t in control of anything.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some UX innovations that video games need to learn from too – it’s a two-way street after all. But games themselves are self-contained experiences. If you’re going to craft an experience, you should accept some insights from a domain that’s been successful for hundreds of years.


You might be asking yourself “if we’ve got the journey figured out, and we’ve got the data figured out, and we’ve got the experience figured out… why do we need gamification?”

To address that, we need to explore where the cognoscenti have been spending their time with gamification. It’s not unexpected, but it is a bit of a deviation. The experts who continued working in game-based systems found that the application of game mechanics, as I mentioned earlier, were not enough.

The most successful implementations of gamification relied on a deeper level of design, that provoked humans into acting. Those implementations have been in educational/learning arenas. They knew the systems would fit perfectly in this space, but have to finely tune the use case for each environment. They’ve found that successful gamification is reliant upon motivational systems that are balanced between extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators, and between black-hat and white-hat motivators. And it’s those understandings that will start to creep into the regular business world, to be adopted for better, and likely for worse by the nefarians that always show up when something is working.

Where gamification 1.0 was merely the process of applying game elements to non-games, modern gamification 2.0 has become more of a motivational design. Or as prominent gamification author Yukai Chou (@yukaichou) calls it, Human-Focused Design. We are after all humans, with 99.9% of the same genetic and evolutionary composition. Our lizard brains react with fear and love in similar ways regardless of geography, skin color, or deity. Good human-focused design starts with that at the core, and works its way out – all the way out – to those points, badges, and leaderboards we started with. That’s the difference between good and bad gamification. Between where we were, and where we are now.


So do I really think gamification is going to blow up like podcasting did after languishing for a while? Very much yes! All the underlying technological tools that enable gamification are reaching a point of usable maturity, while neuroscience and psychology are helping distill down specific human conditions we’re all attuned to. All these elements are coming together at a time when marketers are finally exploring meaningful, lasting relationships with consumers by adding value to their lives, which is btw, the real goal of any business.

Here’s to hoping that the next wave of gamification does just that.