From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness:
Hans Bredow Institute for
Media Research, Hamburg
20354 Hamburg, Germany
+49 151 400 300 44
Digital Cultures Research
Centre, University of the
West of England
Bristol BS16 1QY, UK
+44 117 3283596
Center for Computer Games
Research, IT University of
2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
+45 7218 5348
Faculty of Business and
University of Ontario Institute
of Technology, Oshawa,
+1 905 721 8668
Recent years have seen a rapid proliferation of mass-market
consumer software that takes inspiration from video games.
Usually summarized as “gamification”, this trend connects to a
sizeable body of existing concepts and research in human-
computer interaction and game studies, such as serious games,
pervasive games, alternate reality games, or playful design.
However, it is not clear how “gamification” relates to these,
whether it denotes a novel phenomenon, and how to define it.
Thus, in this paper we investigate “gamification” and the
historical origins of the term in relation to precursors and similar
concepts. It is suggested that “gamified” applications provide
insight into novel, gameful phenomena complementary to playful
phenomena. Based on our research, we propose a definition of
“gamification” as the use of game design elements in non-game
Categories and Subject Descriptors
H.5.m [Information Interfaces and Presentation (e.g., HCI)]:
Miscellaneous; K.8.0 [Personal Computing]: Games; J.4 [Social
and Behavioral Sciences]: Psychology, Sociology
Alternate reality games, game-based technologies, gameful
design, gamefulness, games, gamification, pervasive games, play,
playful design, playfulness, serious games
Following the success of the location-based service Foursquare,
the idea of using game design elements in non-game contexts to
motivate and increase user activity and retention has rapidly
gained traction in interaction design and digital marketing. Under
the moniker “gamification”, this idea is spawning an intense
public debate as well as numerous applications – ranging across
productivity, finance, health, education, sustainability, as well as
news and entertainment media. Several vendors now offer
“gamification” as a software service layer of reward and
reputation systems with points, badges, levels and leader boards.
This commercial deployment of ‘gamified’ applications to large
audiences potentially promises new, interesting lines of inquiry
and data sources for human-computer interaction (HCI) and game
studies – and indeed, “gamification” is increasingly catching the
attention of researchers [24,48,58].
However, until now, little academic attention has been paid to a
definition of the concept of “gamification” (see  for one
exception). There has also been no close scrutiny of whether the
term actually denotes a sufficiently new and distinct phenomenon.
Therefore, this paper surveys and situates current uses of
“gamification” within existing research to suggest a definition of
“gamification”. The first sections describe the origin and current
uses of the term and compare these with historic precursors and
parallels in HCI and game studies. This leads on to a definition of
“gamification” and a discussion of its elements. It is argued that
“gamification” calls attention to phenomena of “gamefulness”,
which should be considered as complementary to but distinct from
playfulness. The definition is situated in the fields of HCI and
game studies, and the paper concludes by outlining the research
contribution of studying “gamified” applications.
2. INDUSTRY ORIGINS
“Gamification” as a term originated in the digital media industry.
The first documented use dates back to 2008 [54,55], but the term
did not see widespread adoption before the second half of 2010.
Parallel terms continue being used and new ones are still being
introduced, such as “productivity games” , “surveillance
entertainment” , “funware” , “playful design” ,
“behavioral games” , “game layer”  or “applied gaming”
(natronbaxter.com). Yet “gamification” has arguably managed to
institutionalize itself as the common household term.
Despite or because of that, “gamification” is also a heavily
contested term, especially within the game industry and the game
studies community. Discontent with current implementations,
oversimplifications, and interpretations have led some to coin
different terms for their own arguably highly related practice. For
instance, designer and researcher Jane McGonigal redefined
“Alternate Reality Games” as “a game you play in your real life”
(, p. 120) to describe her work, and game scholar and designer
Ian Bogost recommended replacing the term “gamification” with
“exploitationware”  as an act of linguistic politics that would
more truthfully portray the “villainous reign of abuse” that
“gamification” presumably entails.
Current industry uses of the term fluctuate between two related
concepts. The first is the increasing adoption, institutionalization
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and ubiquity of (video) games in everyday life [63,35,18]. The
second, more specific notion is that since video games are
designed with the primary purpose of entertainment, and since
they can demonstrably motivate users to engage with them with
unparalleled intensity and duration, game elements should be able
to make other, non-game products and services more enjoyable
and engaging as well [71,73].
Vendors and consultants have tended to describe “gamification”
practically and in terms of client benefits, for example as “the
adoption of game technology and game design methods outside of
the games industry” , “the process of using game thinking and
game mechanics to solve problems and engage users” , or
“integrating game dynamics into your site, service, community,
content or campaign, in order to drive participation”.1
3. PRECURSORS & PARALLELS
These ideas are not entirely new. The notion that user interface
design can be informed by other design practices has a rich
tradition in HCI. During the first boom of computer games in the
early 1980s, Malone wrote seminal papers deriving “heuristics for
designing enjoyable user interfaces” from video games .
Carroll  analyzed the design of early text adventures such as
Adventure, leading him and Thomas  to suggest redressing
routine work activities in varying “metaphoric cover stories” to
make them more intrinsically interesting, and to urge for a
research program on fun and its relation to ease of use .
With the expansion and maturation of the field and the rise of user
experience as a profession, more researchers began to study such
“hedonic attributes”  or “motivational affordances”  of
“pleasurable products” , dubbing the field “‘funology’ – the
science of enjoyable technology” , again taking game design as
an important source of inspiration. As part of this movement,
some researchers have looked into “games with a purpose”, in
which game play is piggybacked to solve human information
tasks such as tagging images , and using game interfaces and
controllers in other contexts . More importantly, multiple
researchers have explored playfulness as a desirable user
experience or mode of interaction, and how to design for it.
Despite this considerable body of research, no consensual theory
or terminology of playfulness has emerged so far: Sometimes, it is
equated broadly with any “pleasurable experience”  or “fun”
, or indeed every interaction that goes beyond utilitarian work
and task contexts [30,31,52]. To this end, Gaver introduced the
terms “ludic design”, “ludic engagement” and “ludic activities”,
broadly describing “activities motivated by curiosity, exploration,
and reflection” . Other studies focused and defined
playfulness more narrowly [68,51,43]; Korhonen, Montola and
Arrasvuori have made the most systematic attempt in this regard
[43,44]. Combining the “pleasurable experience” framework of
Costello and Edmonds  with further theoretical work and user
studies on video game play, they developed a Playful Experience
Framework (PLEX) that categorizes 22 (originally 20) playful
Finally, in the 2000s, HCI researchers also became increasingly
interested in studying the design and experience of video games in
their own right, developing methods to evaluate their user
experience , “playability” heuristics for their design , and
models for the components of games [29,36] and game experience
In the field of game studies, “gamification” can be seen as but one
further outgrowth of the repurposing and extension of games
beyond entertainment in the private home.
Games used for serious purposes or “serious games”  date back
several millennia , migrating from mainly military uses into
education and business in the second half of the 20th century. In
the early 2000s, the rise of digital games has reinvigorated this
into a substantial industry and research field of its own. Such
digital, serious games can be defined as “any form of interactive
computer-based game software for one or multiple players to be
used on any platform and that has been developed with the
intention to be more than entertainment” (, p. 6). Within
serious games, some authors have proposed differentiating
between serious games and serious gaming . Whereas the
term “serious games” denotes games designed to convey learning
material in being played through, “serious gaming” encompasses
any (educational) utilization of the broader ecology of games –
that is, all of the technologies, practices, literacies and social
processes surrounding games, like reviewing games; producing
machinima; or designing virtual items, avatars, levels, or whole
In parallel to the serious games movement, new game genres
evolved that stretched the traditional limits of games, bringing
games into new contexts, situations and spaces. These are
commonly called pervasive games, games that have “one or more
salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play
spatially, temporally, or socially” (, p. 12). Examples are
location-based games that take gameplay into the public space,
augmented reality games that use digital devices to overlay game
representations over the environment, persistent games that
continually run to be entered and exited during the course of the
day, or alternate reality games which “take the substance of
everyday life and weave it into narratives that layer additional
meaning, depth, and interaction upon the real world” (, p. 37).
On the broadest scale, media scholars observe a “ludification of
culture” [50,57]. With their increasing ubiquity, adoption and
institutionalization in the past three decades, they argue that video
games have become a cultural medium and source of formative
experiences on a par with literature, movies, or television in
earlier generations. Technologies, tropes, references and
metaphors, mindsets and practices flowing from games
increasingly suffuse society and everyday life, most notably
playful identities and playful media practices.
4. TOWARDS A DEFINITION
This brief review shows that “gamification” has grown within a
rich bed of interacting trends and traditions in interaction design
and games, and that there are already a number of potentially
competing, parallel, or overlapping concepts. Thus, if
“gamification” is to be understood and developed as an academic
term, the task is to determine whether the term and current
“gamified” applications are significantly different from previous
phenomena and areas of research – and if so, how to situate them
in relation to these existing fields.
We believe that “gamification” does indeed demarcate a distinct
but previously unspecified group of phenomena, namely the
complex of gamefulness, gameful interaction, and gameful design,
which are different from the more established concepts of
playfulness, playful interaction, or design for playfulness. Based
on this observation, we propose the following definition:
“Gamification” is the use of game design elements in non-game
contexts. The following sections unpack this definition in detail.
Firstly, “gamification” relates to games, not play (or playfulness),
where “play” can be conceived of as the broader, looser category,
containing but different from “games” . In game studies, this
distinction between games and play is usually tied back to
Caillois’ concept of paidia and ludus as two poles of play
activities . Whereas paidia (or “playing”) denotes a more free-
form, expressive, improvisational, even “tumultuous”
recombination of behaviors and meanings, ludus (or “gaming”)
captures playing structured by rules and competitive strife toward
goals. Along those lines, classic definitions in game studies state
that gaming and games – in contrast to playing and toys – are
characterized by explicit rule systems and the competition or strife
of actors in those systems towards discrete goals or outcomes
[42,60]. Recent theoretical and empirical studies have provided
further support for the distinctness of “playing” and “gaming” as
two modes, foci, or “values” of behavior and mindset2
encountered during video game play [4,41]. This distinction also
appears in HCI research on playfulness. The aforementioned
PLEX framework acknowledges Caillois’ distinction of paidia
and ludus in that it explicitly sets out to capture all experiences
between these two poles . Finally, academic as well as
industry critiques of “gamified” applications have repeatedly
emphasized that these focus almost exclusively on design
elements for rule-bound, goal-oriented play (i.e., ludus), with little
space for open, exploratory, free-form play (i.e., paidia) [3,23].
Indeed, this critique of mass-market “gamified” applications
serves as a valuable observation from a research perspective:
namely, that design inspired by games can afford experiences and
behaviors leaning more to one pole of play than the other. These
applications also provide us with empirical data on the design and
experience of systems supporting the rule-bound or ludus pole,
which has arguably received less research attention in HCI.
On these grounds, in contrast to the PLEX framework that
includes both free-form and rule-bound play under “playfulness”,
we suggest adopting the term “gamefulness” recently introduced
by McGonigal  as a systematic complement to “playfulness”.
Where “playfulness” broadly denotes the experiential and
behavioral qualities of playing (paidia), “gamefulness” denotes
the qualities of gaming (ludus). Thus, gamefulness circumscribes
a coherent set of phenomena that is both distinct and has received
little focused attention so far, which provides a meaningful
extensional ground for defining “gamification”. To systemize the
terminology, one may distinguish
• gamefulness (the experiential and behavioral quality),
• gameful interaction (artifacts affording that quality), and
• gameful design (designing for gamefulness, typically by using
game design elements).
In terms of defining “gamification”, this means that it too has to
be analytically distinguished from playfulness or playful design –
indeed, this marks the novelty of “gamified” applications. In
practice, it can be assumed that they often can and will give rise to
playful behaviors and mindsets as well, just as video game players
often switch between playful and gameful behaviors and mindsets
during play . “Gamification” will usually coincide with
2 There is some consensus that playfulness should be construed as an
attitude or mindset with which one approaches a given activity, rather than
a distinct set of observable behaviors. However, several scholars also point
out that although that is the case, there are still certain observable formal
properties of activities when they are playfully approached [11,22,45]. To
capture this, we speak of “behavior and mindset” here.
gameful design as defined above: The most likely strategy of
designing for gameful experiences is to use game design elements,
and the most likely goal of using game design elements are
gameful experiences. Yet analytically, gameful design and
“gamification” frame the same extension of phenomena through
different intensional properties – as the design strategy of using
game design elements (gamification) or the design goal of
designing for gamefulness (gameful design).
Although the overwhelming majority of current examples of
“gamification” are digital, the term should not be limited to digital
technology. Not only are media convergence and ubiquitous
computing increasingly blurring the distinction between digital
and non-digital: games and game design are themselves
transmedial categories .
Whereas “serious game” describes the design of full-fledged
games for non-entertainment purposes, “gamified” applications
merely incorporate elements of games (or game “atoms” ). Of
course, the boundary between “game” and “artifact with game
elements” can often be blurry – is Foursquare a game or a
“gamified” application? To complicate matters, this boundary is
empirical, subjective and social: Whether you and your friends
‘play’ or ‘use’ Foursquare depends on your (negotiated) focus,
perceptions and enactments. The addition of one informal rule or
shared goal by a group of users may turn a ‘merely’ “gamified”
application into a ‘full’ game. Within game studies, there is an
increasing acknowledgement that any definition of “games” has to
go beyond properties of the game artifact to include these situated,
socially constructed meanings [19,67]. For the present purpose,
this means that (a) artifactual as well as social elements of games
need to be considered, and (b) artifactual elements should be
conceived more in terms of affording gameful interpretations and
enactments, rather than being gameful. Indeed, the characteristic
of “gamified” applications might be that compared to games, they
afford a more fragile, unstable ‘flicker’ of experiences and
enactments between playful, gameful, and other, more
This leads directly to another question: Which elements belong
into the set of ‘game elements’? Take the “Ten Ingredients of
Great Games” identified by Reeves and Read : Self-
representation with avatars; three-dimensional environments;
narrative context; feedback; reputations, ranks, and levels;
marketplaces and economies; competition under rules that are
explicit and enforced; teams; parallel communication systems that
can be easily configured; time pressure. Each of these elements
can be found outside of games, and taken in isolation, none of
them would be readily identified as ‘gameful’, let alone game-
specific. Also, there is serious variation between the different
game genres and digital versus non-digital games – avatars are
common in action and roleplaying games, but not necessarily in
strategy video games or card games. In addition, how game
elements are perceived can also be a matter of role, whether this
be designer or user. For example, the MDA model  suggests
that designers work with mechanics to create aesthetics, whereas
players experience aesthetics, and in so doing, infer knowledge
This points to the fact that “game” is a composite category of
multiple necessary conditions. Take the “classic game model” by
Juul : “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable
and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned
different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the
outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the
consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” As Juul
himself argues, no part of this definition on its own constitutes a
game. Only together do they set apart a clear figure against the
background of other phenomena.
Yet as helpful as this may be for defining games, it does not
answer the question of how to identify game elements. One
solution is to treat game elements as a set of building blocks or
features shared by games (rather than a set of necessary conditions
for a game), comparable to Wittgensteinian family resemblances.
A very strict interpretation of this approach – accepting only
elements that are unique or specific to games – would produce an
empty or very constrained set. A very liberal interpretation – any
element that can be found in any game – would be boundless. We
therefore suggest restricting “gamification” to the description of
elements that are characteristic to games – elements that are
found in most (but not necessarily all) games, readily associated
with games, and found to play a significant role in gameplay. Of
course, this is a heuristic definition with much room for debate
over what is “characteristic” for games.
As noted, “gamified” applications are not the only instances
where elements of games have been repurposed. In HCI, there is a
long tradition of using game controllers as input devices for other
purposes. Graphic engines and authoring tools of video games are
also regularly used for non-entertainment purposes (from
scientific visualizations and 3D environments to fan art), as are
practices of the broader game ecology, e.g. in serious gaming. For
the purposes of terminological and conceptual clarity, it is more
helpful to reserve the term “gamification” for the use of game
design, not game-based technologies or practices of the wider
When surveying the existing literature on games and
“gamification”, we found that such game design elements were
identified on varying levels of abstraction. All of these levels
should be included in the definition. Ordered from concrete to
abstract, five levels can be distinguished (tab. 1): Interface design
patterns ; game design patterns  or game mechanics ;
design principles, heuristics or ‘lenses’ ; conceptual models of
game design units [10,13,29,36]; game design methods and design
As can be seen, this ‘level model’ distinguishes interface design
patterns from game design patterns or game mechanics. Although
they relate to the shared concept of pattern languages , unlike
interface design patterns, neither game mechanics nor game
design patterns refer to (prototypical) implemented solutions; both
can be implemented with many different interface elements.
Therefore, they are more abstract and thus treated as distinct.
So to restate, whereas serious games fulfill all necessary and
sufficient conditions for being a game, “gamified” applications
merely use several design elements from games. Seen from the
perspective of the designer, what distinguishes “gamification”
from ‘regular’ entertainment games and serious games is that they
are built with the intention of a system that includes elements
from games, not a full ‘game proper’. From the user perspective,
such systems entailing design elements from games can then be
enacted and experienced as ‘games proper’, gameful, playful, or
otherwise – this instability or openness is what sets them apart
from ‘games proper’ for users.
Table 1. Levels of Game Design Elements
Level Description Example
Common, successful interaction
design components and design
solutions for a known problem in
a context, including prototypical
Commonly reoccurring parts of
the design of a game that concern
Evaluative guidelines to
approach a design problem or
analyze a given design solution
Enduring play, clear
goals, variety of
Conceptual models of the
components of games or game
game design atoms;
Game design-specific practices
4.4 Non-game contexts
Similar to serious games, “gamification” uses elements of games
for purposes other than their normal expected use as part of an
entertainment game. Now ‘normal use’ is a socially, historically
and culturally contingent category. However, it is reasonable to
assume that entertainment currently constitutes the prevalent
expected use of games. Likewise, joy of use, engagement, or more
generally speaking, improvement of the user experience represent
the currently predominant use cases of “gamification” (in the
definition proposed in this paper, gameful experiences are the
most likely design goal). Still, we explicitly suggest not delimiting
“gamification” to specific usage contexts, purposes, or scenarios.
Firstly, there are no clear advantages in doing so. Secondly, the
murkiness of the discourse on “serious games” can be directly
linked to the fact that some authors initially tied the term to the
specific context and goal of education and learning, whereas
serious games proliferated into all kinds of contexts . Thus, in
parallel to Sawyer’s taxonomy of serious games , we consider
different usage contexts or purposes as potential subcategories:
Just as there are training games, health games, or newsgames,
there can be gameful design or “gamification” for training, for
health, for news, and for other application areas.
Some authors have argued that games themselves can be
‘gamified’ , a case in point being meta-game platforms such
as achievement systems [38,49]. In principle, this might be in line
with the definition presented here – the only thing that “non-
gaming contexts” explicitly intend to exclude is the use of game
design elements as part of designing a game, since that would
simply be game design, not “gamification”. However, on closer
scrutiny, classifying meta-games or other additions of game
design to existing games as something other than game design
becomes hard to uphold: Firstly, even in formalist game literature,
meta-games are also understood as full-fledged games, “based on
the effects and outcomes of other games” (, p. 401), not simply
game design elements. Secondly, from the designer’s perspective,
given that the context of design is already that of games, it seems
counter-productive to perceive the design of meta-games (or game
elements) as distinct from the design of those games. Thirdly,
shifting our focus to the user’s perspective, it is a complex and
open empirical question whether (or under what circumstances)
players experience meta-game elements as part of or distinct from
the “primary game”. And in all cases where a meta-game system
is not experienced as distinct from the “primary” game, it appears
unnecessary to create an artificial separation between the two.
Finally, we have argued that part of the novelty and distinctness of
“gamified” systems is the experiential ‘flicker’ between gameful,
playful, and other modes of experience and engagement. Such
flickers are arguably less likely to occur when the user is already
playing a game. Classifying meta-games as “gamification” does
not acknowledge this difference, but we readily admit that this
constitutes a complex case that warrants further empirical
5. SITUATING “GAMIFICATION”
To summarize: “Gamification” refers to
• the use (rather than the extension) of
• design (rather than game-based technology or other game-
• elements (rather than full-fledged games)
• characteristic for games (rather than play or playfulness)
• in non-game contexts (regardless of specific usage intentions,
contexts, or media of implementation).
This definition contrasts “gamification” against other related
concepts via the two dimensions of playing/gaming and
parts/whole. Both games and serious games can be differentiated
from “gamification” through the parts/whole dimension. Playful
design and toys can be differentiated through the playing/gaming
dimension (Figure 1). In the broader scheme of trends and
concepts identified as related, we find “gamification” or gameful
design situated as follows: Within the socio-cultural trend of
ludification, there are at least three trajectories relating to video
games and HCI: the extension of games (pervasive games), the
use of games in non-game contexts, and playful interaction. The
use of games in non-game contexts falls into full-fledged games
(serious games) and game elements, which can be further
differentiated into game technology, game practices, and game
design. The latter refers to “gamification” (Figure 2).
To date, there appears to have been only one alternative attempt to
define “gamification” in academic literature. Huotari and Hamari
have suggested defining “gamification” from a service-marketing
perspective as a “service packaging where a core service is
enhanced by a rules-based service system that provides feedback
and interaction mechanisms to the user with an aim to facilitate
and support the users’ overall value creation.” 
Huotari and Hamari’s definition differs from our own in several
ways. Firstly, by focusing on rules-based systems, it arguably
covers more than games or ‘gamified’ services and is ultimately
applicable to almost any interactive system. Even a touchpad for
ordering snacks in a cinema would qualify as a “rules-based
service system” (driven by software) “that provides feedback and
interaction mechanisms” (people order through the interface,
which confirms their orders) “with an aim to facilitate and support
the users’ overall value creation” (the ability to order snacks
enhances the movie experience).
Secondly, focusing on rules-based systems and situating the
definition within a service marketing perspective underplay the
constitutive social and experiential dimensions of games.
Thirdly, the definition excludes all systems where the provision of
game mechanics (tailored to a specific context) is the core service
itself, or at least an essential part of it: What most ‘gamified’
health applications such as Health Month (healthmonth.com) offer
is the ability to set up rules and goals for personal health behavior,
to then track actual behavior against them – these game elements
are not a deductable “enhancement” of another “core” service. In
contrast, we believe that our definition addresses all these issues.
This paper argued that current “gamified” applications present
emerging phenomena that warrant new concepts and research.
Specifically, it suggested that insight into “gamefulness” as a
complement to “playfulness” – in terms of design goals as well as
user behaviors and experiences – marks a valuable and lasting
contribution of studying “gamified” systems. Partly in reaction to
this, the term “gameful design” – design for gameful experiences
– was also introduced as a potential alternative to “gamification”.
Given the industry origins, charged connotations and debates
Figure 1. “Gamification” between game and play, whole and parts
Figure 2. Situating “gamification” in the larger field
about the practice and design of “gamification”, “gameful design”
currently provides a new term with less baggage, and therefore a
preferable term for academic discourse.
Another important point is the high level of subjectivity and
contextuality in identifying “gamification”. It is not possible to
determine whether a given empirical system ‘is’ “a gamified
application” or “a game” without taking recourse to either the
designers’ intentions or the user experiences and enactments.
Indeed, in comparison to games on the one hand and utility
software on the other, a distinct quality of “gamified” applications
is their relative openness to varying situational modes of
engagement – gameful, playful, and instrumental.
To conclude, one of the big promises of today’s commercial
deployments of “gamified” systems is easy access to more
ecologically valid user data on the different kinds of experiences
and natural categories that arise from interaction with these
systems. This data will ultimately determine the validity of the
distinctions introduced here. Even if they do not remain upheld in
the long term, we believe that our suggested definitions of
“gamification” and “gamefulness” against serious games and
playful interaction clarifies discourse and thus allows research to
move into more detailed study, and clearer conceptualization of
the defined phenomena.
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