Game mechanics for thinking users

imageMany software applications and web sites that are not commonly understood as games have some aspect that can be described in gaming terms.

My point here is that a game design perspective can contribute in usability and functionality also in non gaming context.

The post ends with examples of real world usage of game mechanics and some application suggestions.

Which game mechanics?

The real title of this post is “Game mechanics for thinking users of non gaming, not necessarily social, non trivial applications”. But that’s not very good copy, I realize. Anyway.

imageThere is a lot of discussion these days about game mechanics, and often the discussion assumes a restrictive concept of the field, reducing it to badges and frequent flyer miles / redeeming mechanics. I even read an entire book supposedly on game mechanics but actually discussing exclusively in these restrictive terms, which left me bored and depressed (it is in the references). There is game mechanics for trapping users in online poker and game mechanics for relieving complexity. Not the same aim and not the same techniques.

Fortunately this discipline is much wider and deeper than assumed in the references above. For an introduction to the set of themes that concern game mechanics, I suggest a comprehensive read: The Art of Game Design.

Game mechanics is a part of design and usability – it’s a part of “understanding users”. Users today want to use useful software also as an end in itself. Producers really, deeply attentive to users understand this and provide tools and software that satisfy this need.

Adding game mechanics to your application / site does not necessarily mean adding layers of complexity: it is actually a tool to make the end experience be felt as less complex.

Much of what I read under game mechanics (but not what I read about game design) treats users as basically moronic conditional-reflex slaves. Conditioning users to trivial games is not the only possible usage of game mechanics for function and design.

What moves us as users of the web is refined, complex reasoning, but strain and distractions can spoil our determination. Using web applications at work can be hard work, but we want to get it done. And we are aware of the beastly, reflexive part of ourselves. The little conditioned monkey inside of (may also call it lizard brain) gets in the way, but sometimes you can make the little monkey actually work for you.

This is something that superficially almost all get wrong: you can use game mechanics techniques to increase focus and “getting things done”, and not as something to get more distracted. If you are using it in a way that interrupts “the flow”, this is simply bad design, just like anything else that interrupts the application flow.

Game mechanics definitions

Game mechanics are a construct of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay.

Wikipedia, Game mechanics

A more concrete definition:

Game mechanics are the interactions and relationships that remain [in a game] when all the esthetics, the technology, and story are stripped away

The Art of Game Design, p. 130

The game mechanics of a game would be defined by first finding a game space and its dimensions, then actors, attributes, states, transition rules (including chance), goals (end states).

Defining the game mechanics of a game allows for validating it, for example by checking reachability of end states. It also allows testing balancing, and so setting the right level of challenge, which pre-supposes of course validity.

This is the kind of analysis which is referred to when speaking about game mechanics in general. It may also be called combinatorial game mechanics.

Behavioral game mechanics

The term “game mechanics” is recently used a lot by non game theorists – and it’s actually ambiguous. It would be useful to distinguish different uses of the expression:

Combinatorial game mechanics


Behavioral game mechanics

And what we consider here is behavioral game mechanics: mechanics that engages people. Any game has a combinatorial model; the game may or may not include behavioral game mechanics. In particular, behavioral game mechanics for social software is analyzed by Amy Jo Kim in this beautiful presentation along 5 points:

1. Collecting
2. Points
3. Feedback
4. Exchanges
5. Customization

This is a very interesting analysis in itself but here will not focus on social software: we are looking for more specific techniques for certain classes of software.

Game mechanics for non thinking users

I try to identify applications that assume the “non thinking user” model:

Proposal definition. The game as a game is an end in itself, but has no skill selection apart from hyperactivity of the user (and eventually credit card availability). A side effect often is some form of marketing by impressions.

You see: game techniques are good also make users simply feel great when using the application. A part of any software user is this silly little man. What these models say is this is all we need.

Techniques to be used here to make people use these applications are of the variable reinforcement kind.

Games of this kind appear often as Facebook games and online games. “Motivating consumer behavior through game mechanics” is a typical headline along these ideas:

This kind of analysis at length: (A very boring book.)

Where we may end up following this model? This is a stimulating and terrifying presentation by Jesse Schell, Carnegie Mellon University Professor (and author of The Art of Game Design):

Game mechanics for thinking users

image The idea here is to use techniques of game design in a way which is integrated in the functionality of an application not focused on gaming and not used by direct application of conditional reflexes. I will try to clarify what I mean by negative and positive examples.

Bad usage of game mechanics

“As here the user may get bored, let’s add here a ‘launch Tetris’ button, so he can have a go at it.”

Read recently on Twitter:

“Question: Has anyone seen game mechanics integrated with a to-do list app? Completing tasks needs to become social and competitive imh…”

Here game design is introduced as something that gets in the way of work, as a disturbing additional layer.

image (Hopefully) Good usage of game mechanics

The aim of the application we’ll use as an example is this:

Basic, conscious, determined, motivated, reasoned, discussed aim:

collecting and classifying information for doing things

Licorize is a bookmarking and to-do manager. This theme is not intrinsically related to game mechanics.

How can game mechanics help in this case? How has it been used?



This is one of the basic actions done with Licorize. We are all familiar with the pleasure of collecting. One may think of kids’ play, but this is actually a passion that drives more in society than you may at first think.

Example: the pleasure of collecting money, expensive prostitutes, newspapers and tv’s, and so on.

In Licorize, you collect “gems” by having nice thumbnails for bookmarked sites; we’ve tapped into “collecting gems” which is one of the simplest and most appreciated “games” – and its an end in itself.



Any action you do in Licorize makes you accrue points, and certain combinations of points and actions allow earning badges. All this also leads to leaderboards (“Hall of fame”): with leaderboards you are celebrating the power users. Leaderboards may backfire, by presenting to all “unreachable” users, so we have also last week usage leaderboards, which makes them more accessible.

A further step that can be taken once one has enabled scoring is to empower users that have high scores with new functions – as done in social Q&A sites like StackOverflow or OSQA.


image Most people love to get things clean – particularly if it is a game.

The point of this page is cleaning the weekly review page, and at the same time, doing the weekly review.

Completing a weekly review gives a huge amount of points, in this way we are using the “positive feedback” behavioral game mechanics.

But notice that by actually completing the weekly review you are actually managing things better (if you don’t game the system) and “getting the page spotless”: this is the perfect junction of thinking user and behavioral reinforcement – what many (thinking) users today seek out.



In many games (and stories) at a certain juncture of the story there is a puzzle to be solved. This also gives the opportunity for a pause in the game. I wanted to get a similar effect in the flow of your bookmarking and collecting stuff in Licorize, so I introduced the “stop and think” feedback in Licorize when too many “unmanaged” to-do’s are introduced. Notice that pushing either button actually does nothing. But this is not relevant: the user has stopped a minute.

Game design for non gaming application

In playing with game mechanics you easily shift in game design. Seeing your application from a different and rich perspective can be helpful, and make you see new problems and possibilities. You can use game design techniques to check the overall design of your applications.

Amy Jo Kim  (@amyjokim) recently wrote on Twitter: “smart gamification is about designing the experience, the mechanism supports the design”. If a game is a “structured experience with rules and goals that is fun” – try looking at your application and web in this way. If its not fun at all – maybe some revision could help.

Some questions you may ask about your application / web site taking a “game design” perspective:

– Try calling the user “the player”: What is expected from her/him? What are the possible game plays?

– Is there any fun in using the application? What are the rewards?

– Did you consider a woman player’s perspective?

– How does search work? Could it be integrated with suggestions? Do you track what the user searched for previously? Is there a notion of “similar user”?

– What is the playing experience?


A Licorize booklet on the references from this article:

Slides from a presentation I gave in Florence at #uxci10 which was a draft of this blog post:

Thank you to the organizers of #uxci10 for organizing such an interesting event.

12 Responses to “Game mechanics for thinking users”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Game mechanics for thinking users – Pietro Polsinelli (con post esplicativo) […]

  2. […] Game mechanics for thinking users Posted in software design by Pietro Polsinelli on November 9, 2010 […]

  3. […] This is a blog post where Licorize is used as an example application of game mechanics techniques. […]

  4. […] remind everybody that gamification is no way pointsification — or monetisation. But “real gamification”  is also happening. Also motivating users. Categories: Uncategorized […]

  5. […] In order to make the weekly review even more attractive, we used some gamification techniques: see here. […]

  6. […] into the Game! (Mechanics) Blog Posts, Twittertwiiter ← From Rackspace Cloud to AWS – … Give Us Our […]

  7. […] and arbitrary gamification perspective found so often today (I already presented a different line here), it is a way of looking at software that puts in evidence where more useful and communicative work […]

  8. […] wrote a blog post on Game mechanics and thinking users a while ago that is still quite popular. This lecture by Chris Hecker on  Achievements Considered […]

  9. […] If you are wondering about a “game” on a GTD operation like “weekly review”, have a look at Game mechanics for thinking users article by Pietro […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: