How gamification is secretly engaging us

How gamification is secretly engaging us

The best way to understand more about gamification and how it is secretly engaging us every day is by quickly watching the below video, then we’ll dive deeper into the topic!

Hopefully, by watching my video you understand a little more about what gamification is all about. To reiterate ‘gamification is an informal umbrella term for the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems to improve user experience (UX) and user engagement.’ (Deterding et al. 2011:1).

Why does it actually motivate us though? What is going on in our brains to keep us engaged by these streaks, badges and leader boards?

One study suggests the real power in gaming elements is the dopamine loop, which goes: challenge, achievement, reward, dopamine, desire reinforced (Pacewicz 2015:33).

You can see this loop being used on multiple apps. Let’s use the Strava fitness app for example. A user goes for a run (the challenge), they finish the run (achievement), they get the reward (their badges). Duolingo also uses this loop. A user attempts a sentence in another language (the challenge), says it correctly (the achievement) and then levels up (the reward).

Created by Helena Van Den Heuvel using Canva

This challenge, achievement, reward system provides us with feel good dopamine, reinforcing our desire to play the game (Pacewicz 2015:33). This loop is likely the reason these apps are so successful.

Many fitness and health apps like Strava, MyFitnessPal, Apple Health or Headspace are using gamification in an attempt to motivate users to use their apps and get healthier. I’ll bet you know someone that’s always trying to close their rings on their Apple watch or uploads their latest Strava run to their Instagram story.

Through the pandemic and the many lockdowns, I personally turned to these apps to help me get moving when I could no longer attend the gym. The combination of my natural competitiveness and the gaming elements meant I was able to stay relatively healthy and active in a time when doing so was pretty tough.

“Adding a bit of gaming mechanics can transform the ordinary into the awesome”

(SMACK blog 2020)

So, why did they work? On one hand, there is the dopamine loop and the challenge, activity and reward system. On the other, a consumer may continue using the fitness app[s] because the game elements provide enjoyable experiences and/or a sense of achievement (Feng et al 2020:3).

Where else is gamification being used in our daily lives?

Gamification isn’t solely related to phone apps. It’s everywhere. A simple example is when you get your favourite iced almond milk latte and you get a stamp on your loyalty card. When you get five or ten stamps, you get a free coffee! This is to entice you to attend that specific cafe more often and use the loyalty card to chase the free drink (or reward).

An interesting non app related example is when I purchased tickets to a festival and the organisers requested I share this exciting news on various social media platforms. Depending on where I shared it and how many times, I earned a different number of points to go into a draw to win VIP tickets. The more I shared, the more chances I had of winning. This is an example of using gamification and a points system to motivate consumers to do something.

Created by Helena Van Den Heuvel using Canva

Here’s another example. Has a brand on Instagram ever asked you to comment on their post and share it for a chance to win their products? That’s also a smart little gamification hack!

These festival organisers and businesses aren’t necessarily encouraging us to spend any more money, but if I share what they’re asking me to, maybe someone else will. This is a great example of how the practice of gamification, even in subtle ways, can increase engagement and motivation for someone to do something.

Human factors influencing our behaviour with gamification

The below infographic highlights some other apps and websites you’ll likely know or use that incorporate gaming elements.

Created by Helena Van Den Heuvel using Canva

These gamified elements work well because they address three basic psychological and intrinsic needs for us humans (Sailer et al 2017:4).

The need for competence

We need to feel like we can competently complete something i.e., seeing our names on a leader board, completing achievements in an app or beating a previous run time.

The need for autonomy

We need to feel like we are making our decisions based on our own values and we are not being pressured into doing something i.e., you can share that you bought festival tickets to win points, but you don’t have to.

The need for social relatedness

We need to feel like we belong and like we matter in a social group or society i.e., the community on Nike Run Club and their leaderboards, a shared goal on an app or versing friends on Strava or Duolingo (Sailer et al 2017:4).

We may think we are simply playing games and using apps, but we are also tapping into our basic human needs.

To wrap this up, we can see how gamification is driving motivation and user engagement in many ways. From both a psychological and business perspective, I can bet we’ll see it more and more.


Denton M (2021) ‘Best 7 Fitness Apps in 2021’, Gameify, accessed 29 January 2022.

Deterding S, Dixon D, Nacke L, O’Hara K and Sicart M (2011) ‘Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts’, Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2425–2428,

Feng W, Tu R and Hsieh P (2020) ‘Can gamification increases consumers’ engagement in fitness apps? The moderating role of commensurability of the game elements’, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 57, article no. 102229

Pacewicz K (2015) ‘The dopamine loop and its discontents. Analysis of “gamification by design” as biopolitical power/knowledge’, in Kopec J and Pacewicz K (eds) Gamification Critical Approaches, Faculty of Arts Liberales, Warsaw, Poland.

Sailer, M, Hense, J, Mandl, H & Klevers, M 2013, ‘Psychological Perspectives on Motivation through Gamification’, Interaction Design and Architecture(s) Journal, 19:28-37.

Sailer M, Hence J U, Mayr S K and Mandl H (2017) ‘How gamification motivates: An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction’, Computers in Human Behavior, 69:371-380,

SMACK blog (20 February 2020) ‘The Rise and Rise of Gamification’, Creative Pool, accessed 1 February 2022.

Statistica (2021) Number of daily active Duolingo users worldwide from 2019 to 2020. Accessed 1 February 2022.

Vanhaesebroeck J (2020) ‘The best way to boost app engagement like Waze’, StriveCloud, accessed 31 January 2022.

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