Gamification is dead. Now what?

4 min read

From the Archives: Thoughts on Gamification vs. Behavioral Design originally posted October 24, 2013 on Medium.


Want to tap the brain’s motivational machinery? Use Behavioral Design

Companies and users are feeling “Gamification fatigue” from points, badges, and marketing hype, but gamification provided us the framework for meaningfully interacting with the data generated about our health, education, and enterprise productivity. The need for this kind of framework isn’t going away.

A new framework for engaging with our quantified selves will still have the strengths of gamification, but will also be better equipped to deal with situations that Gamification couldn’t. Built on research from neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics, Behavioral Design is that framework.

To understand this framework, let’s first take a brief look at how Gamification grew out of the Quantified-Self movement, and second, why Behavioral Design is emerging as an effective framework for developers to impact their users.

Quantified Self

As digital sensors began to populate our bodies and environment we gained huge amounts of data about ourselves. New devices and platforms, quietly listening to how we lived, were portals where the analog nature of our lives co-mingled with our digital analytics. Quantified Self (QS) is the idea that having this data would change the way we live our lives. Citing the Hawthorne Effect, we expected that measuring our lives would help us improve them. So we counted our steps, our sleep, and our sustenance.

QS helped improve our lives when the primary barrier was an inadequate quantitative understanding of our behavior. For example, without reliable heart rate monitoring and pedometers, athletes could — at best — rely only on intuition to guess at their level of exertion and whether or not they were reaching their goals. QS gave them new ways to measure, moment-to-moment, how hard they were pushing themselves and how successful they were on the practice field.

However, only collecting behavioral data failed to drastically improve long-term wellness or fitness outcomes. The flood of data that QS apps generated suggested that merely attending more closely to our behavior was not the general panacea to thriving that early adopters and technologists hoped it might be. More numbers didn’t automatically lead to better lifestyles. We expected that the hard part would be collecting the data, but more often then not, we were left asking, “what now?”


The first time I measured my heart rate, my friend looked at the measurement and said, “I bet I can make mine go lower.” Once our behavior was digitized, we immediately found ways to turn it into a contest. These contests became more sophisticated as we applied automated rules, event triggers, and new digital contexts and narratives to our lives.

Games naturally grew out of the data and “Gamification” became the name for applying rules of play and game mechanics to our newly captured behavioral data. From there, the marketing material wrote itself. “Gamified” apps, made a real-life trip to the gym became a ‘quest’ replete with points and public acknowledgement. Workplace productivity could be described with leaderboards where employees competed to be the most productive. Well-behaved students could cash-in on points earned for good behavior and bedazzle their own in-class avatars.

For example, the video game “Re:Mission” helps teenagers afflicted with cancer take a more active role in their treatment. A large part of what makes Re:Mission successful is how it helps patients overcome the temporary behavioral barrier around taking their medication. The game prompts users to become more mindful of their own health behavior by controlling a game character that engaged in cartoon-versions of the behaviors they needed to perform. Research suggests that the Re:Misson improves patient adherence by making medication regimens more fun. This is a serious accomplishment.

But the marketing and methods of gamification seemed so easy to cut and paste, that hundreds of consultancy firms appeared overnight to tell you how to add points and badges to every project. Even without the pretenders, the methods of Gamification are limited. At its best, Gamification creates temporary motivation enabling users to complete small tasks. At its worst, introducing points, badges, and competition compromises authentic pursuits and leaves users feeling silly or worse: demoralized.

As with QS, Gamification only encourages a narrow context of thriving. Transforming short-term motivation changes into long-term behavior changes remained elusive. The tech community was left to collectively scratch our heads: how does Call of Duty keep us hooked and badges-for-bureaucracy doesn’t?

Behavioral Design

As more developers become jaded by the limitations of Gamification, they’re looking for a new design context for interacting with users QS data. Many are turning to “Behavioral Design”. Just as industrial design is the engineering of physical objects, and visual design is the engineering of visual representations, Behavior Design is unapologetically the engineering of behavior.

Many of the challenges that developers face are about creating behaviors for users. Getting users to run more, study more, buy more, or eat healthier are all Behavioral Design challenges. Striped of the marketing puffery, Gamification fits into the larger framework of Behavioral Design. For example, completion bars and funnel analysis are useful for getting users to finish a behavior that they’re never done before. But it’s not about making it into a game; it’s about getting the user to complete the behavior.

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Researchers in a lot of different fields have been figuring out how to create new behaviorschange existing ones, and eliminate bad ones. The best insights and techniques in Behavioral Design come from neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and economics. These fields give Behavioral Design a data-driven toolkit for driving one-time behavior, creating long-term habits, and preventing or eliminating behaviors.

For example, using a Behavioral Design method called “ambient visualization,” one team at Georgia Tech helped Mac users reduce power consumption. They built a coral reef widget that responded to the level of laptop power usage. The less power used, the “healthier” the reef gets. They experimentally demonstrated that emotionally charged ambient visualizations persuaded users to power-down more effectively than quantification alone.

Another Behavioral Design method called “Choice Architecture” focuses on how to design the decision-making context such that busy people make the same decision that they would if they had the time to think carefully about there decision. In this sense, Choice Architecture is the designing of “mental defaults”, and the careful design can help subtly persuade people to make certain decisions. The Obama administration brought on choice architect Cass Sunstein to help write human-friendly bank regulation. Since then he’s left government, but he is advocating for making government more human-friendly, and showing that a Behavioral Design approach can make a difference (even when it’s just about designing paperwork).

At Boundless Mind we use Behavioral Design methods like Reinforcement Learning to let developers help their users create long-term healthy habits. We use behavioral neuroscience and neuroeconomics to find the best way to reward users and reinforce them in ways that turn small behaviors into to big habits. We’re democratizing these methods with our API so that any app developer can help their users thrive.

Other thought leaders like BJ Fogg (and his Persuasive Technology Laboratory) and Nir Eyal are popularizing these methods. Fogg’s Behavior Grid gives Behavioral Design a roadmap for thinking about how people transition between different phases of behaviors — and how different interventions can be best designed. Nir’s blog is an invaluable resource for developers who want to more deeply impact their users by understanding what drives people.

Behavioral Design is a more complete framework for developers and designers to positively affect their users — and it’s starting to grow.  As more developers and designers learn to think like Behavioral Designers, users are going to have a lot of tools to help them develop the fitness, productivity, and health behaviors they want.

Now that we’re learning to design behaviors, what behaviors do you want for yourself, and what behaviors do you want to teach others? What would you build if the control panel to the brain’s motivational machinery were at your fingertips?

Ramsay Brown