Understanding Games: Gamification, Game Mechanics, Game Design

For me, 2011 was the year I discovered games. Not in the football, baseball, basketball sense, or the Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Dungeons & Dragons sense. No, games in the marketing sense. While Oxford may have chosen “squeezed middle” as the Word (words?) or the Year, for me it was “Gamification.” I’m not particularly a fan of the word, but it was the one that seemed to stick. And while it may seem trivial to argue semantics – game theory, gamification, game mechanics – it actually is important to try an understand what these terms really mean. We’ve seen what happens when the marketing industry grabs an idea and runs with it, we end up with people still talking about “viral” videos more than two years after the word was ‘debunked.’

I’m by no means an expert in this territory, but I did have a decent amount of exposure to the ideas and people who are leading this industry forward, and it is indeed an industry.  From working with Badgeville to speaking on a Gamification panel at Social Media World Forum, I was able to really begin to understand the science and art of games and develop an appreciation for how challenging it is.

If you work in marketing communications it’s likely you’re going to hear a client, a vendor or a colleague mention games and one, or several, related terms. The first step to understanding this area is understanding some of the fundamental terminology. So, with that in mind I wanted to give a brief primer on three terms that are often used interchangeably or incorrectly: Game Design, Game Mechanics and Gamification.

Game Design

Let’s start with this as it is the most important, most complex and least used of the terms.  Game design encompasses all aspects of creating a game.  It is the skeletal framework from which everything hangs. People tend to throw around the word gamification to mean creating the game, but that’s incorrect. Here’s the definition from WikipediaGame design, a subset of game development, is the process of designing the content and rules of a game in the pre-production stage and design of gameplay, environment, storyline, and characters during production stage. The term is also used to describe both the game design embodied in a game as well as documentation that describes such a design. Game design requires artistic and technical competence as well as writing skills.

Game Mechanics

Game mechanics refers to how the game works. It’s about the interplay between the game and the player. What happens when a player takes an action? What does a player see or hear?  Again, from WikipediaGame mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay. All games use mechanics; however, theories and styles differ as to their ultimate importance to the game. In general, the process and study of game design are efforts to come up with game mechanics that allow for people playing a game to have a fun and engaging experience.


In essence, gamification is the act of adding game elements to something that doesn’t inherently have them. It’s probably the most misused term, thrown around as a shorthand for Game Mechanics or Game Design. The fundamental misunderstanding is that you can just add a points system, or award badges, and you’ve successfully added gamification to your site/product/service. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: Gamification is the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences. Typically gamification applies to non-game applications and processes (also known as “funware“), in order to encourage people to adopt them. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors, by showing a path to mastery and autonomy, and by taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, filling out tax forms, or reading web sites. Available data from gamified websites, applications, and processes indicate potential improvements in areas like user engagement, ROI, data quality, timeliness, or learning.


Think of the relative importance of these three ideas with this graphic:

Understand the Importance of Game Design


I think we’re going to see a lot of companies try to tack on gamification elements this year without truly understanding its role. Game Design is the core issue. That takes a lot of time and consideration and without it, you’re going to find yourself struggling to understand why people tired of your ‘game’ after one of two sessions.

Here’s three books I’d recommend if you want to learn more about this (and trust me, you do):

The Art of Game Design, A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

Game Frame, by Aaron Dignan