Gamification is all about adding game elements to non-game contexts to encourage behaviour change.

Why? Because games can be really engaging. And the thinking is that if games can be so engaging, we may be able to apply game design techniques to other areas to make them more engaging too.

This could be health-related, for example Fitbit is a device which tracks your steps and uses a game-like leaderboard to rank you against your friends each week.

Or in the area of education, for example Duolingo uses game-like challenges to make learning a new language fun and awards you experience points for each practice session you complete.

Adding game elements to websites and apps has become so popular that companies have budget for it, it can be studied, there are conferences on it, and jobs list it as a desired skill. It has also copped a fair share of criticism for being just another form of snake oil.

But how did we get here?

A decade ago the term gamification barely even existed.

How is it that over the last 10 years this new industry has developed to become so popular (and so contentious)?

Great question!

Let’s step back in time using this weird Delorean I found and have a look at how gamification became what it is today (try not to touch anything).

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A history of gamification infographic

For those of you who prefer your history in a summarised infographic, I’ve put together one just for you. Click to enlarge it, otherwise read on beneath it for a more detailed history lesson.

Before Gamification (Pre-2004)

Gamification is nothing new.

There has been a long history of using fun and games to make work feel more like play.

The war game Kriegsspiel was used to teach the Prussian army tactics in 1824, Scouts could earn badges for completing challenges completing challenges back in 1911, and even Mary Poppins may have understood the power of fun judging from the lyrics in her famous song “A Spoonful of Sugar”.

In ev’ry job that must be done
There is an element of fun
you find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game

As technology evolved and video games became popular many people explored the role of play and fun in computer applications.

We saw video games being developed for educational purposes (known as ‘edutainment’ games), such as the Oregon Trail (1971), Reader Rabbit (1983) and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (1985).

Malone in the early 1980s created heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces with a focus on education, and Draper in the late 1990s looked at analysing fun as a candidate software requirement.

As user experience became a more established field in the 2000s there was further work and research considering the role of fun and play in user experiences – have a look at the book Funology: from usability to enjoyment (with it’s amusing – and meta – preface) from Blythe, Overbeeke, Monk & Wright released in 2004.

An idea was beginning to grow that computer interfaces could be more than just ‘usable’, they could be made fun as well. Software could elicit positive emotions and feelings using sound, graphics, challenge etc., in an attempt to enhance the overall experience a user had.

The seed was planted. We just needed the technology and tools to make it easier to implement.

The pieces fall into place (2005-2009)

In the later half of the 2000s three important things happened that helped lead to the creation of the gamification industry.

Technology evolved quickly, becoming cheaper, more portable, more widely adopted, and more contextually aware (i.e., devices could determine a user’s location, step count, time of day, interactions with websites).

Two devices worth mentioning that reflect this change include the Nintendo Wii, released in 2006 and the iPhone, released in 2007. Both devices featured sensor technology that could be used to provide new forms of input (e.g., accelerometer, GPS). These new inputs led to more realistic ways to play games (e.g., Wii Sports released in 2006 involved one mini game where players swung the control as if swinging a real tennis racket) and also to create novel apps, such as tracking exercise on the iPhone (e.g., Runkeeper in 2008).

Games became more mainstream, with casual games like Farmville (2009) becoming popular on Facebook and consoles like the Wii encouraging new audiences beyond stereotypical ‘hardcore’ gamers.

Games and software also became easier to make and distribute. New tools and technologies for building websites and apps were released and it was easier to publish websites on servers and distribute apps on the iOS App Store, which opened in 2008.

All of this led to the development of a number of applications which would more commonly be referred to as ‘gamification’ in the next decade.

These applications directly translated elements from video games to the interfaces to make them more engaging. 

Chore Wars is one of these apps that used game elements to make tasks more enjoyable. Released in 2007, Chore Wars embodies a chore assigning software application inside a dungeon and dragons style interface, complete with dungeon master, experience points, monster battles and loot. 

Bunchball launched the Nitro platform in 2007 that allows organisations to integrate game mechanics into social networks, mobile applications, and websites. Although not specifically mentioning the gamification (but adopting the term later) this platform was indicative of the trend that was about to hit.

Then in 2009 the highly successful Foursquare application was launched. Foursquare is a location sharing social network that also happens to include videogame-like elements, namely points, badges, and leaderboards, and these became a blueprint for future gamification designs.

There was also still an ongoing interest in researching the use of game elements to motivate users. For example, in 2009 Nokia researchers published a paper showing experimentation with the use of game elements to enhance the user experience of a photo sharing service.

But when did the term gamification first appear? Well, it’s difficult to determine an exact date.

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.

Sources then indicate that the first significant documented use of the term ‘gameification’ was used in a blog post by Bret Terrill in 2008. Brett was covering discussions in the lobby at the Social Gaming Summit and 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”.

But it wasn’t then until 2010 until this new term began to really take off…

Gamification becomes a buzzword (2010-2011)

And boy did it take off. Just have a look at this Google Trends search for the term gamification…

Google Trends search for the term "gamification" from 2009 to 2011.

In 2010 the term became more and more popular, being adopted by companies such as Bunchball and Badgeville to describe the platforms they had created for integrating game elements into sites.

More sites and applications were released that integrated game elements such as the Epic Win app.

Gabe Zichermann published a book this year on Games-Based Marketing and became an early evangelist for the word, adapting it for the marketing world.

In the academic world Sebastian Deterding was one of the first academics to talk about it (also in 2010), but warned of its potential pitfalls. 

Jesse Schell’s Dice presentation and Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk helped to spur this area on as well.

And so in 2010 the term gamification started to gather interest and a following… and in 2011 it really began to gain traction in both the industry and academic worlds.

The year began with the Gamification Summit in January 2011 headed up by Gabe Zichermann.

Gartner spurred the popularity of gamification by saying that “More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes” and they also added gamification to their hype cycle.

And boy was the hype was real.  

Gamification platforms became more and more popular, receiving a lot of seed funding throughout the year.  

The term was being used left, right and center in a similar manner to how the term “innovation” has been thrown around… but there wasn’t a clear understanding of what gamification actually meant or involved. 

There were attempts made to help bring clarity to the area. 

Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham published a book entitled Gamification by Design (which garnered some criticism). 

In this book Gabe and Christopher provided one of the first definitions for the term; “The use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems.”

Towards the end of the year a number of researchers contributed to an academic definition of the term – “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. This definition would go on to become one of the most cited definitions.

So games and game design were clearly central to the word gamification. 

The only issue was that some game designers really did not like the word at all, potentially due to the fact gamified applications thus far, like Foursquare, were really lightweight when compared to video games. 

Instead these more so resembled reward and feedback systems, not games, because they were missing clear defining elements of games, such as challenge and story. 

Because of this, Margaret Robertson described gamification as ‘pointsification’ and said it could go “take a long walk off a short pier”. 

Ian Bogost famously called gamification bullshit.

Nonetheless gamification was popular and continued to grow throughout the year.

The Gamification Research Network was established after a workshop was run at the CHI 2011 conference entitled “Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts”. 

We even saw gamification parodies made, and comics created that referenced it and it’s possibly dystopian future

It was clear that gamification was here to stay.

A Sea of Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (2012-2015)

In 2012 it seemed early adopters were beginning to grow wary of gamification. 

The gamification “blueprint” that foursquare introduced was getting old – there were only so many badges that one could unlock.

Even foursquare decided to announce that they were phasing out the gamification elements in 2013.

Gartner released another article saying that by 2014 “80 Percent of Current Gamified Applications Will Fail to Meet Business Objectives Primarily Due to Poor Design”. 

It may be that gamification was heading into the trough of the hype cycle, however Bunchball argued that bad gamification still worked to a point

It also didn’t seem like funding was slowing down for gamification platforms. Badgeville secured $25 million in funding, indicating a confidence in the platform’s ability to provide a return and the concept of gamification.

There was a desire from many to learn more about gamification, its impact and how to design it. More and more gamification research appeared, along with books and courses. Kevin Werbach announced he was releasing a free coursera course on designing gamification that became a very popular way to learn about gamification.

There were some novel implementations of gamification that were released, Zombies, Run! being one of them.

Zombies, Run! is a mobile app that instead of using badges, points and leaderboards to motivate users instead created a rich narrative around the user, motivating them through story, zombie chases, item collecting and town upgrading.

Now this felt more like a game.

Gamification seemed to be maturing, however the industry was taking its time to change, continuing to implement the gamification blueprint in an attempt to drive engagement.

There were two likely reasons for this - people were still confused about gamification, and adding Points, Badges, and Leaderboards was just really easy to do. 

Confusion about gamification led to it being removed from the Gartner technical innovation hype cycle and moved to the digital marketing hype cycle in 2015. But then gamification isn’t just a marketing tool - it was being used in many different domains - so it was removed from this cycle the following year.

Gamification matures (2016-2019)

And so we arrive back to the present. Gamification has come a long way since it started gaining popularity in 2010.

Many people are realising that gamification isn’t the silver bullet that they initially thought it was.

Key players in the field are asking whether gamification has failed? This is due to research indicating that innovators and early adopters have dropped gamification.

The ethics of gamification has to be considered. This is especially pertinent with the introduction of loot box laws, discourse around gaming addiction and China’s Social Credit Score.

It all seems a bit bleak really.

Yet reports suggest that the gamification industry continues to grow.

We’re realising that like game design, there’s a bit of an art to designing effective gamification. Player-centric design, and effective design processes are seen as important when designing gamification.

Frameworks like Octalysis have been developed to help us design gamification more effectively.

The academic space is maturing as well. Gamification has been a popular area of inquiry for a lot of research. But there has been a call for more mature research to be undertaken in order to help drive the field forward.

What does the future hold (2020 and beyond)

So what does the future hold for gamification?

Gamification will likely be tied closely to technological innovations, in particular Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.

As the virtual world blends with the real world we may end up with a world where game elements are integrated with everything we do.


In the short-term though, I think gamification will continue to mature, becoming a useful tool for promoting engagement and behaviour change.

But for gamification to work it needs to be designed well. And so further research and education is needed to help us understand how to effectively design gamification and disseminate this to stakeholders.

I’ll leave it there for now. The list of dates and events isn’t exhaustive and of course it’s subjective as it draws from my research and work in the area.

If you think I’ve missed anything, or have something incorrect, then don’t hesitate to let me know. I plan to keep updating this post as a reference point for anyone interested in gamification.