According to Statista, there were over 1,651.66 million active mobile gamers worldwide in 2020, and this number is expected to reach 2,220.8 million by 2025. The Games category in Apple’s App Store is by far the most popular.
Clearly, people love games. So it’s no surprise that many developers are borrowing game-like elements such as points, scoreboards, badges, currencies, levels, and other types of rewards. The practice of adding these elements to non-games is called gamification.
Gamification is a user-centered approach to digital products that increases product adoption, usage, and conversions. It’s when you add game-like elements that encourage people to keep coming back to the application and increase their usage (thus improving your user retention and conversion to customers).
Gamification exists in all aspects of life. Teachers give stickers to students for correct answers. Stores create loyalty programs for customers to earn rewards. Businesses are constantly offering contests and prizes to keep their customers engaged.
A 1998 study on video games (by Matthias Koepp, now a neurology professor at the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology) learned that our brains release dopamine when we play games and progress through challenges. If game elements are added to non-games, we can replicate the same dopamine response.
In this sense, gamification is more about human psychology than technology. It’s a system of incentives that trigger users’ desire to be rewarded. Repeated and predictable rewards give users control over their apps, makes them curious about what’s next, and creates excitement around sharing and competing with others.
8 Steps to Add Gamification to Your Apps
As you can imagine, it’s pretty easy to add game elements to recreational apps that users choose to use on their own time. But not all apps are like that. Some apps are necessary tools to solve problems, like the apps you use at work every day. So how do you add gamification to an app, even if it’s not one users would choose to use on their own? Here are eight key steps.
1. Set objectives that match your goals
First, it’s important to set an objective or two. What do you hope to accomplish with gamification? This will inform the types of gamified elements you add. Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can incorporate game elements that support those activities.
For instance, if your goal is to build a community, your game-like elements might include cooperative activities that seek a common goal. If you simply want users to spend more money, you might create a system of harder-and-hard to obtain rewards so they are incentivized to pay for boosts.
2. Build a gamification loop
A gamification loop is a circular cycle of actions that make users enjoy using the app and reinforces their desire to keep “playing.” The loop looks like this:
Step 1: Motivation - The game gives the user a reason to feel motivated. They might want to compete with other players, achieve a goal, or obtain something valuable.
Step 2: Action - The user performs some kind of action to serve the motivation.
Step 3: Feedback - Accomplishing something earns a reward (which is often just the satisfaction of serving the motivation). This reinforces the motivation.
The Starbucks mobile app is a basic example of a gamification loop. Users have the opportunity to earn free food and drinks (the motivation) by making purchases (the action). When they make a purchase, they are rewarded with stars (the feedback) that can be redeemed for free products (back to the motivation).
3. Use appropriate techniques
There are unique techniques to gamify your app, but they aren’t all suitable in all situations. In some cases, certain gamified elements seem silly and inappropriate. It depends entirely on the type of app and the behavioral patterns of the users.
For example, a competitive leaderboard probably isn’t appropriate in a human resources management application. Users will only use the app as much as their job requires and they probably won’t feel the need to compete with anyone. But you could gamify a human resources app by breaking tasks into smaller tasks so there are more motivation-action-feedback cycles.
4. Distribute speedy rewards
A critical part of gamification is the reward. A reward is the feedback of a motivation-action-feedback cycle that reinforces the motivation and keeps people engaged.
You can give rewards for anything, as long as they come predictably. This will encourage users to work towards them (by using the app).
Instead of giving out big rewards for completing long or complex tasks, distribute small rewards at certain milestones or checkpoints. This way you are constantly rewarding the user for their behavior.
What can you use as rewards? Here are just a few ideas:
New features or levels
New status, cosmetics, or privileges
Better pricing or deals
Access to your or your team
Make sure your rewards are predictable. If a user receives a reward for completing a certain task, you must always reward them. This conditions them to complete the task over and over. If you fail to distribute the reward, they might lose their motivation to seek it.
5. Add value to your users’ lives
Your gamified elements should add value to your users, not create unnecessary obstacles. The motivators in your gamification loop should be things that speak directly to your user.
For instance, people who use a project management app want to manage their projects better. As users journey through motivation-action-feedback cycles, that value should be reinforced.
If the app doesn’t add value to your users’ lives, no amount of gamification will motivate them to do something they don’t want to do. It simply doesn’t work on disengaged users. So make sure your gamification is part of the value your app provides.
6. Keep it all simple
There’s no doubt that gamification is complex for the developers, but your game elements should be simple and intuitive for users. If the game is too complex to understand, no one will enjoy it. They will become discouraged and stop interacting with the app, which defeats the purpose. Speak with your users regularly to ensure your game elements are engaging without benign suffocating.
7. Incorporate social elements
People love sharing their accomplishments, even when they complete little objectives in the applications they use every day, and especially if sharing is a simple click of a button.
Give users opportunities to share their scores, badges, new features, levels, or unlocked status to their favorite social media app. This will give them the chance to receive some recognition and positive reinforcement from their peers. It’s also free marketing!
8. Be creative
When it comes to gamification, you have a lot of freedom. Your game elements don’t need to feel like games, but they should always work as part of the motivation-action-feedback system. For instance, an onboarding process with a visual progress bar and a reward at the end (like access to more app features) is gamification, even though it doesn’t appear to be a game.
Gamify with Discretion
We’ve given you steps to add gamification to your app, but we’ll leave you with a final word of warning: go light with your gamification techniques. The goal is to make users enjoy the experience without burdening them with unnecessary game elements. If you’re subtle with your gamification, users won’t even realize it’s there, but they’ll still feel the effects.