Although I have been writing on this blog for several years now, I had not yet attempted to provide a definition of gamification because we already had plenty of definitions out there. But our community was recently challenged by Andrzej Marczewski to re-discuss the existing definition of gamification. So, I am taking the opportunity to provide my own thoughts on the matter! It seems that the challenge is in providing a definition that is academically correct (i.e., it is based on the latest research theories) but is at the same time simple enough to be used by non-academics. I believe that it is possible to find a definition that fulfills these criteria. Thus, here are some practical definitions for gamification and other important related terms, which I think anyone working with gamification (researchers or designers) should be using going into 2022: gameful experience, gameful system, and gameful design.
These definitions of gameful experiences, systems, and design are based on the journal article I co-authored in 2019 with Richard Landers, Dennis Kappen, Andrew Collmus, Elisa Mekler, and Lennart Nacke: Defining gameful experience as a psychological state caused by gameplay: Replacing the term ‘Gamefulness’ with three distinct constructs. (In International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 127, pp. 81-94, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2018.08.003). Let’s explore these concepts before we define gamification.
Gameful Experiences, Systems, and Design
A gameful experience is a psychological state that results from three psychological characteristics: having non-trivial and achievable goals to pursue, being motivated to pursue them under an arbitrary set of rules (which constraint how the goals can be achieved), and being willing to accept those rules because they make possible such activity.
In other words, the gameful experience is “the feeling someone has when they are playing a game”. It is a psychological state because it’s something that the player experiences, not a direct characteristic of the game or system (although the game or system obviously contributes to it). This definition specifies the three psychological characteristics necessary to enable this experience: goals, rules that limit how the goals can be achieved, and a willingness to accept those rules to play. If one of those conditions is missing, it is not possible to have a gameful experience.
Usually, gameful experiences are a result of an interaction of a person with a gameful system.
A gameful system is any system that creates for its users a gameful experience.
Based on the definition of gameful experience, a gameful system thus provides elements that help players fulfill the three psychological requirements for the experience, i.e., non-trivial and achievable goals, rules that limit how those goals can be achieved, and means for the user to know and accept the goals and rules.
By this definition alone, games themselves are also gameful systems because they facilitate gameful experiences. But not all gameful systems are games. In some situations, it is useful to differentiate games from other gameful systems that are not games. So, what is the difference?
Games are self-contained systems, whose main goal is to provide a gameful experience, and gameplay does not directly affect the outside world. Even in serious games, which usually have a learning goal, the learning objective is not directly tied to the outcome of gameplay (i.e., it is possible to learn whether the player wins or loses). On the other hand, gameful systems (those that are not games) have an instrumental goal other than the gameful experience, and the actions carried out by the user generally have a direct effect on the world outside the game. So, the gameful experience supports an instrumental goal in a gameful system that is not a game, whereas the gameful experience is the goal of a full-fledged game.
To create a gameful system or game, someone has to design a system that enables gameful experiences. This process is gameful design.
Gameful Design is a process to design systems with characteristics that afford the three elements of gameful experiences: non-trivial and achievable goals, rules that limit how those goals can be achieved, and means for the user to accept the goal and rules.
Since games can also be considered gameful systems per the definition, then, gameful design can be understood as a process that creates any type of gameful systems, games or non-games. However, in many situations, it is useful to differentiate the process of creating games or systems that are not games, even when both are going to include gameful elements. In these situations, we could say that gameful design is the process that creates gameful systems that are not games, whereas game design is the process that creates self-contained games.
What is Gamification?
Regardless of the goals of the original definitions of gamification that were published a decade ago, my impression after observing the reality nowadays is that the word is being used as an umbrella term for any solution that employs games or ideas/elements from games to solve instrumental needs or problems.
This is almost the same as gameful design, with a caveat. It is possible to use some elements inspired by games on a system without making it gameful. For example, adding goals or progress feedback to a system is probably not enough to create gameful experiences (remember that goals are only one of the three requirements for gameful experiences). However, adding goals to a system is sometimes considered to be gamification.
Therefore, gamification as an umbrella term covers a broad range of game-based solutions. It includes solutions that make use of a few elements or inspiration from games without fulfilling all the requirements of a gameful system (such as goals, points, virtual reality, etc.). It includes gameful design with the goal of creating a gameful system. And it includes game design with the goal of creating games that help fulfill an instrumental goal external to the game (i.e., serious games, games with a purpose, advergames, etc.). In the past, I have written another post discussing these differences: Gamification vs Gameful Design.
Gamification is any process that makes use of games or gameful elements to achieve instrumental goals.
I believe that when discussing gamification, gameful design, or games in academic research or in discussions between practitioners, it is important to be more specific about what one is doing. Despite some similarities, I do not think that designing a (non-game) gameful system is identical to designing a game. I follow different processes when thinking about a gameful system or a game. So, it is important to specify exactly what is being done when having deep discussions to exchange professional experience and research on gamification.
However, when discussing gamification with the general public or potential customers, the distinctions are often not important. So, in those situations, I think that using gamification as an umbrella term without making further distinctions is good enough.