How to define gamification? It’s not easy as there are a lot of different definitions proposed for the term. This is because the meaning of gamification can change depending on the context and area of where it’s being used. It’s also because defining the term game is so difficult to define as well.

Never fear though! I have a useful and broad definition of gamification for you that I use for clients and students. Here it is:

“Gamification is a design strategy that uses game design elements in non-game contexts to motivate people and encourage behaviour change.”
— Dr Zac Fitz-Walter, 2019

This definition is based on one of the most popular definitions for gamification from researchers in 2011. They defined gamification as the following.


“The use of game design elements in non-game contexts.”
- Sebastian Deterding, Rilla Khaled, Lennart E. Nacke, Dan Dixon, 2011


There have been a lot of other definitions of gamification since, however this definition has become one of, if not the most popular ways to define gamification so far.

In the context of this definition, game elements range from interface elements like badges, leaderboards or levels, to game principles, models and design methods. This is important as gamification isn’t just about what you can see, it’s also about borrowing useful principles and design methods.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011, September). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In  Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments  (pp. 9-15). ACM.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011, September). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments (pp. 9-15). ACM.

This definition also aims at separating the term gamification from toys, playful design and serious games along two dimensions.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011, September). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In  Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments  (pp. 9-15). ACM.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011, September). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments (pp. 9-15). ACM.

One dimension distinguishes between play and games; the other distinguishes between a complete game and an artifact with game elements.

Gamification lies in the space where it is more game-like but less like a complete game.

This definition separates gamification from playful design (like the piano stairs which are playful, but not really a game), from games for entertainment purposes and games for serious purposes (like simulation games for training).

This definition is good, but in my opinion misses two things - one is that it doesn’t explain that gamification is a design strategy (to imply it can work with other strategies), and the second is that it doesn’t explain the reason for using gamification, which generally is to motivate people and encourage behaviour change.

So adding these two extra dimensions leads us to the definition I use for gamification for clients and students.

“Gamification is a design strategy that uses game design elements in non-game contexts to motivate people and encourage behaviour change.”
- Dr Zac Fitz-Walter, 2019

A brief history of the term

It’s hard to place an exact date on when the term was first appeared but some sleuthing reveals that the term might have been coined around 2003/2004 by Nick Pelling when describing his work as a consultant for making hardware more fun.

However, the first significant use of the term wasn’t until late 2000s, where sources indicate that “gameification” was used in 2008 in a blog post by Bret Terrill, who was covering discussions in the lobby at the Social Gaming Summit. He heard the term used in regards to “taking game mechanics and applying to other web properties to increase engagement“.

The term was picked up by other blogs and slimmed down by dropping the ‘e’, becoming “gamification”. 

Google trend search for it shows that searching for the term gained popularity around 2011.

One of the earliest definitions of gamification can be found in the book Gamification by Design, where gamification was defined as “The use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”. The content of this book did come under some criticism

The term was gaining interest in the academic world and the Gamification Research Network was established after a workshop was run at the 2011 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference entitled “Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts“. 

Towards the end of 2011 the term was defined in an academic publication as “The use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. This definition become one of, if not the most popular, definitions for the word thus far.

There have been a number of other definitions for the term which you can find over on the resources page of this website.

What’s clear is that game design is central to the word gamification.

However, some game designers argued that in fact it had little to do with games, potentially due to early gamified applications using primarily reward and competition-based elements, such as points and badges.

These reward systems were argued to be missing defining elements of what made a game a game, such as challenge and mastery.

Margaret Robertson described gamification as ‘pointsification’ and said it could go “take a long walk off a short pier” and Ian Bogost was also less than impressed with the term.

Nonetheless gamification has become pervasive and has continued to grow in popularity. And there have been some very successful and excellent game-like designs.

Take Zombies, Run! as an example. It is a smartphone application that instead of using badges, points and leaderboards to motivate users to exercise, it instead delivers a rich narrative to players, challenges them to outrun zombies, and has item collecting and town upgrading. All of this feels more like a game, which may have led to its modest popularity.

Other definitions of gamification

There are lots of other ways in which gamification is defined. Here’s a list of other gamification definitions from around the world that you might find useful, listed in chronological order.

“The use of game design metaphors to create more game-like and engaging experiences”
- Andrzej Marczewski, 2015

 

“The process of making activities more game-like”
- Kevin Werbach, 2014

 

“Motivating people through data”
- Rajat Paharia, 2014

 

“The use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals”
- Brian Burke, 2014

 

“A process of enhancing a service with affordances for gameful experiences in order to support user’s overall value creation”
- Huotari and Hamari, 2012

 

“The process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”
- Gabe Zichermann, 2011

What do you think? Do you have a different definition for gamification? Or have I missed a popular definition? Contact me and let me know.