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The Psychology of Gamification: Why It Works (& How To Do It!)

Ben Brown
June 17, 2024


We all love Super Mario Bros, right? Or perhaps you’re more of a Candy Crush person…


But does gaming (or gamification) have a place in your business?


Super Mario


Well, if you ask Nike – whose fitness app is a masterpiece of gamification – the answer is a resounding yes.


Gamifiation has become a bit of a buzzword in the last few years. Just check out this Google trend graph to see how it has grown since 2011:


gamification graph


But it’s not just a gimmick. Gamification works because it triggers real, powerful human emotions.


Happiness, intrigue, excitement…


These are positive user experiences. And positive user experience leads to better engagement, loyalty and higher sales.


What is gamification?


Let’s backtrack a second. Gamification is the process of using game-like elements into business and marketing strategies.


One of the simplest forms of gamification is getting a stamp every time you buy a coffee. Collect ten stamps and you get a free drink. It’s like completing a level and getting a reward.


Online, it could be the use of gaming elements like leaderboards, progress bars, and loyalty points. These tricks tap into our natural instincts: competition, exploration, curiosity.


In fact, it’s a very clever use of psychology.


Who’s using gamification?


Well, just about everyone. In fact, 50% of startups recently polled said they were integrating gaming elements into their strategy this year. But who’s doing it best?




nike plus gamification


Nike’s running app, Nike+ is one of the world’s standout gamified products.


Why? It taps into our natural competitive spirit. The app tracks our running statistics and measures our progress towards goals. It compells us to go out and beat our record next time around.


Not only that, but it hooks up to social media so we can compete with (or show off to) our friends. The advantage for Nike is that it gets more people out and running which – ultimately – drives Nike sales.




Gamification works especially well when your content is dense or complicated. Learning code is particularly tricky, so Codecademy uses gamification to make it fun and addictive.


Check out this dashboard below. It looks more like a Legend of Zelda dashboard than a tutorial website.


codecademy gamification


The dashboard maps out the entire course with reward badges along the way to break it up. There are clear ‘levels’ to advance to. You pick up badges as rewards along the way. It even keeps a running score of your best points and hot-streaks to keep you competitive.




Duolingo does a similar thing but for language learning.




As you can see, the app uses multiple choice questions and mapped out stages to keep users interested. You can also set goals, pick up badges, and earn points to buy power-ups along the way.


Mint Money Manager


It doesn’t get much more dull than managing your money. Mint tries to make it a little easier with some simple gaming elements.


Mint gamification


The app tracks your spending and measures your progress against personal finance goals.




Starbucks runs one of the most successful gamified reward and loyalty programs out there.


Starbucks rewards


Using ‘My Starbucks Rewards’, users get a gold star every time they pay for their coffee using the mobile app. Five gold stars grants you ‘green’ status which entitles you to free refills.


When you reach 30 stars, you unlock ‘gold’ membership, and you get a customized gold card. It’s an ingenious gamified move to create exclusivity and elevated status. Obviously, we all want the gold card!


The psychology: why does gamification work?


Okay, so these examples show what gamification looks like in the real world. But what makes it so powerful?


Quite simply, it triggers emotions that are linked to positive user experience. And if you followed our series on user experience, you know these emotions are very important indeed.


1. It gives the user control


We’ve talked before about getting your visitor from point A to point B.


Leading a potential customer towards your desired goal is all part of the user journey.


However, simple psychology tells us people don’t like to be forced or dragged to the destination. They like to be the masters of their own destiny. Most people like to feel in control.


So make it seem like they’re in the driving seat. That’s the core of gamification.


It’s like a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ book or picking which level to play in a game.


Online courses do this very well, like Codeacademy, as we looked at earlier. Another example is Udemy, a site that hosts courses on all sorts of topics.


udemy gamification


Their gamified system puts the user in control at all times. You can pick the lectures (laid out like levels), and you’re in control of clicking ‘next lecture’. It’s a simple trick, but we get a kick out of making our own decisions.


2. Maps help us know where we are, and where we’re going


Again, this is simple psychology. We like to know where we’re going. We like to know where we are in the process.


Otherwise, users are in the dark growing increasingly wary.


There’s a reason why you get a map on World of Warcraft, Zelda, and Mario! You can take this mapping system and apply it to different aspects of your app or website.


progress bar


Something as simple as a progress bar acts like a map for your users. They know where they are in the process. They know how far they’ve got to go.


If you can include milestones of achievement along the way, even better.


progress bar


It breaks up the journey and makes it seem more manageable. Again, this is great user experience.


3. Reinforcing good behaviour


To use a reductive example, you reward a dog with treats when you’re training it. When it behaves well, the dog gets a treat. It keeps doing the good behaviour because it gets rewarded.


The same thing happens with gamification. When you complete a level, you get a reward – a new character or power-up for example. So you do it again, and again. It reinforces a habit or behavior.


Gamified websites and apps do the same thing. And the best website at doing this?




Facebook like


Facebook is fantastic at incorporating subtle gamification. For example, when you post a status or picture, you are (hopefully) rewarded instantly with likes. The thumbs up is a psychological reward from Facebook.


So you do it again. And again. And the real winner is Facebook who keeps engagement and user numbers high.


Reward users at each stage of the journey, and it will reinforce what you want them to do.


4. A sense of achievement


Achievement is one of the most powerful psychological driving factors of human behaviour. Everything we do, we do to achieve something.


If someone’s on your website or using your app, they’re trying to achieve something. Learning code, managing money, or getting fit, for example.


If you can make your user feel like they’ve achieved something, they’re going to come back. Something as simple as saying ‘good job!’ when a user completes a task helps create a milestone, and create the sense of completing a level.


We all know that something like ‘learning code’ is a huge undertaking. So you’ve got to break it down, and create this sense of achievement at regular intervals.


Going back to Duolingo, for example, they regularly update you with a fluency percentage:


duolingo gamification


5. We love to set goals and compete with ourselves


Humans are competitive by nature. Most of us want to push ourselves further and harder.


By using ‘personal bests’ and ‘previous records’, you can convince your users to come back and try again. Again, this is the driving factor behind the popularity of Nike+ app.


Show us our own statistics, and we’ll almost always want to beat it.


Jillian Michaels runs a goal tracking website which tracks your eating and exercise habits every day. By constantly displaying the previous week’s stats (and your progress against set goals), users are compelled to beat it next time around. Simple, but effective.




6. But that’s nothing compared to competing with others!


If you think we’re competitive with ourselves, we really pull out the stops when competing with others.


Again, guess who’s the best at this? Yep, Facebook. And Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram. All the social networks thrive on this idea of gamified competition.


Who can get more likes? Who can get more followers, more pins, more hearts. It’s all one big game. An open playing field.


Of course, there are more explicit examples of this. Any website that makes use of leaderboards and top scores instantly triggers that natural instinct to compete!


Some time back the BBC allowed users to create small leagues for people to predict scores in the Euro soccer tournament. It had my entire family hooked, checking the BBC website multiple times daily to see if we got our scores right and check if I’d overtaken people in the league.


bbc gamification


7. Humans love to explore and escape


The whole reason we love video games is for their escapism. Getting lost in roleplaying worlds and exploring an altered state is why games like Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft are so popular.


When you give your users the freedom to explore, it creates intrigue and excitement. Two very powerful emotions. And a positive user experience.


Of course, this exploration should be carefully structured so users don’t get lost.


But consider how Netflix allows users to take control and explore at their own pace. Letting people discover rabbit holes feeds their sense of curiosity. The feeling that you might stumble upon something new is exciting. Encourage that.


Netflix exploration


8. We love rewards


This one almost doesn’t need explaining.


Everyone loves rewards. We’ve already talked about creating a sense of achievement. But, why not go one step forward and offer a real, tangible reward?


The obvious example is Starbucks who offer rewards after a certain number of purchases. Another example is Recyclebank who offer their members rewards for recycling. Members can gather points to exchange for deals and local discounts.


Most people will go out of their way to get their hands on a reward.


The coffee stamp is a classic example. You probably wouldn’t spend nearly as much in Caffe Nero if there wasn’t the lure of a free coffee.


caffe nero stamp card


Rewards drive action.


9. People will do just about anything for exclusivity!


There’s a reason why people pay thousands of dollars for a first class plane ticket. Sure, you get a bed and a glass of champagne. But you’re not paying for the features. You’re paying for status.


Exclusivity creates intrigue, jealousy, and curiosity. People will work hard to achieve that status. Starbucks (again) gets the balance perfect with it’s ‘gold’ status for regular customers.


It’s like unlocking the secret level on a video game. It gives you a huge dopamine hit, and lets you in behind the scenes.


10. Teamwork and collaboration


Another key psychological driver is community and collaboration. We are social animals, which is why we love multi-player games (and screaming down headsets at people all over the world).


This translates well to gamification. If you can make users feel like part of a team or community on their journey, you’ll create loyalty and a positive user experience.


Kickstarter thrives on this community gamification. First of all, they have gamified progress bars, exclusive rewards for high-bidders, a time-limit, and a big goal. In fact, it’s one of the most gamified websites on the internet.


kickstarter gamification


But it’s their spirit of community and collaboration that marks its success. When a project finally reaches its funding goal, it’s like a shared achievement.


Try to find ways to bring people together in a shared goal or achievement on your app or website.


11. Dopamine and addiction


Gamification triggers a dopamine rush.


It’s that simple. Leveling up, gaining a reward, getting feedback or achieving something all gives you that little rush.


That’s dopamine in your brain. It’s your mind telling you to do it again because it feels good! And that’s when addiction kicks in.


There’s a reason we get addicted to gaming. And there’s a reason why websites and apps that harness gamification retain their users. You keep coming back for that dopamine hit.




Gamification isn’t just a buzzword or a gimmick. Done correctly, it triggers real, powerful human emotions.


It generates positive user experiences, increases engagement and loyalty.


Are you using any gamification tricks on your website or app? I’d love to hear how you’re taking advantage! Please do leave your comments below.