The Surprising Relationship Between Gamification And Modern Persuasion

Surprised — Photo by Paul on Unsplash

If you’re like me, then being persuaded requires a scientific approach and concrete examples. And that’s exactly what this article does. It explains how gamification can work by showing the relationship between gamification, UX design, and BJ Fogg’s modern persuasion phenomenon, “mass interpersonal persuasion.” And it has a lot of practical gamification examples that you can apply to your own products for more engaging experiences.

Today, virtually all companies (except for special ones like Basecamp) have to grow non-stop. Why? Well, that’s simply how the capitalist engine works. Investors pour money into startups, banks loan money to entrepreneurs, employees accept stock options instead of cash, all in the hope of the company growing much bigger. That’s why there is so much emphasis on growth. Otherwise, the whole system would collapse. It’s kind of crazy when you think a bit more deeply about it, but I’ll leave that part to you for now.

What we call “growth” in the tech world is called “persuasion” in academia. With this article, I want to show why gamification is a great tool for growth and how persuasion science (more precisely, the “mass interpersonal persuasion” phenomenon) proves that. I’ll do that with examples and facts. Let’s get going.

Two Misnomers: “User Experience Design” And “Gamification”

I think a lot about words, their meanings and how they shape our perception. This is of special importance to us UX and product people because we’re flooded with jargon. Let’s look at the following example to better understand the importance of words.

“UX is not UI” is a common reproach, and it is correct. Thanks to this famous photograph above, we now better understand that UX is not UI. But UX — or, more precisely, user experience design — is not usability either, as implied in the photograph. It requires an understanding of business goals as well as user needs and satisfaction of both, in a coherent fashion. But because the term “user experience design” does not imply anything about business, nobody talks about business. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, has a term for this phenomenon: What you see is all there is. We do not see “business” in user experience design, so it becomes all about users.

Motivation and gamification, from Michael Wu of Lithium.

Gamification is another victim of misnaming. Contrary to popular belief, it does not entail users playing or giving them points. Yes, those are useful components, but not the whole thing. The purpose of gamification is not to make people have fun, either. The purpose is to use fun to motivate people towards certain behaviors. Motivation is the key here. As shown above by Michael Wu, motivation and game components are in parallel. That’s why we use gamification to motivate users. If that parallel were provided by something else — say, biology — then we’d use biologification to motivate users.

So, what is gamification? One of my favorite definitions comes from Juho Hamari of Tampere University of Technology:

Gamification is a process of enhancing a service with affordances for gameful experiences in order to support user’s overall value creation.

My other favorite definition comes from Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania:

Gamification is the process of making activities more game-like. In other words, it covers coordinated practices that objectively manifest the intent to produce more of the kinds of experiences that typify games.

As much as I like the definitions above, I still miss the emphasis on motivation and behaviors. So, here goes my definition of gamification:

Gamification is about using game-like setups to increase user motivation for behaviors that businesses target.

Naturally, my definition resembles user experience design. It does that by mixing the first two definitions. I’ve tried to convey how gamification satisfies users and businesses at the same time. I am not sure which definition is the most accurate, but I know this for sure: We have been playing games since we lived in caves, and we enjoy them for some reason. It’s only sensible to get inspiration from games, be it for business, education or something else.


If we want to understand persuasion, then we should understand, before anything else, that people are predictably irrational. Predictably irrational means that, even though people do not behave rationally most of the time, there are still patterns in this irrationality that help us predict future behaviors. This is why logic alone is not enough to persuade people. If people were consistently rational beings, then we would be living in a completely different world. For example, TV ads would merely consist of logical statements instead of gorgeous video productions. Coca-Cola ads would be like, “Coca Cola > Pepsi,” and Sony’s famous “Like no other” slogan would turn into “Sony !≈ anything else.”

Persuasion requires understanding neurology, psychology, biology, technology… a lot of “-ologies”. But arguably, the most important of all these ologies is technology, thanks to the unprecedented advancements in Internet and mobile in the last decade.

If only persuasion were that easy.

So much so that BJ Fogg said the following:

This phenomenon (Mass Interpersonal Persuasion) brings together the power of interpersonal persuasion with the reach of mass media. I believe this new way to change attitudes and behavior is the most significant advance in persuasion since radio was invented in the 1890s.

Bear in mind that, from a scientific point of view, persuasion is an umbrella term for affecting people’s attitudes, behaviors, intentions or beliefs. It does not necessarily require changing people’s beliefs or ideas.

Let me give you an example.

My father, 62 years old, has always been critical of iPhones because he finds the prices unreasonable — not because he cannot afford one, but because an iPhone 7 Plus (256 GB) costs almost four times the minimum wage in Turkey, where we live. But he bought an iPhone 7 for himself last month. How come? Well, for a year or so, he has been telling me how his friends have these big-screen phones and show him pictures of their grandchildren. Eventually, he got fed up with not being able to do the same and bought an iPhone 7. (All he needs now is a grandchild… sigh!) He still finds it expensive, but he bought it anyway. His idea did not change, but his behavior did. That’s what we call persuading without changing beliefs.

Author: Akar Sumset

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