Moving Beyond Points & Badges: How to Avoid the Bad Gamification Trap


If you’ve read anything about gamification recently, you’ve probably come across this definition:

Gamification is the application of game elements and mechanics in non-game based contexts.

It’s in every single article I’ve seen on gamification. And it sucks.

I mean, sure, on the most basic level that is technically what gamification is. But if you just throw points and leaderboards onto any old “non-game based context” you’re going to be disappointed.

The truth is gamification — or at least good gamification — is more than just applying game elements to boring parts of our lives.  

So how do you avoid falling into the bad gamification trap?

Step One: Understand Your Customer

First things first. Your promo isn’t for you. It’s for your consumers.

And in order to get the best results you have to consider how and why they interact with your brand.

Where do they interact with your brand online?

Why do they engage?

What are they looking for?

Then create solutions that either:

a) fit into how they already interact and offer additional value or

b) make it easy and rewarding to interact with your brand in a new way

Example: Game A

Imagine you work for a company that sells health products and athletic wear.  Your consumers regularly use your fitness app.  You want to run a promotion that encourages people to drink more water during the day.

So you decide to include a new game on your app that uses gamification to make drinking water fun. You give consumers points for every cup of water they drink, and shareable badges for meeting their daily goals.

The game launches, and despite your best efforts, no one uses it.

Why? You fell into the bad gamification trap.

What went wrong? Well a couple things:

1) You didn’t offer them additional value for participating in the promo. Why do they care about earning points that have no value in the real world?   

2) The promo doesn't actually change their behaviour. Nothing about collecting points and earning badges makes them remember to drink more water. Even if those points earn them discounts, their behaviour — if it changes at all — is unlikely to continue once the promotion ends.

The promo didn’t solve the main problem keeping them from drinking water: it’s easy to forget.  

Example: Game B

Now imagine instead of earning points for drinking water, consumers had to keep a digital flower alive by “watering” it.  If they don’t drink enough water, their flower wilts and can even die.

Kind of like a Tamagotchi.

The app sends push notifications when their flower starts to wilt. And if their flower stays healthy for five days, it blooms and they are entered into a grand prize draw.

Sound like more fun?

Why this works:

1) The promo appeals to both an external motivation (the grand prize draw) and an internal motivation (not killing the pet flower). Humans are more swayed by the thought of losing something they already own, than gaining something. So avoiding losing the flower is a better motivator than gaining a badge. Part of the value in engaging with the promo can (and should) be prizes and rewards. But the most successful promotions have a good mix of external and internal motivators.

2) The promo makes it easy for consumers to change their behaviour by: a) prompting them to drink water and, b) doing it in a way that makes them want to take action. Sending a reminder like “Hey drink water” is easy to ignore. There’s no motivation to respond. But “hey your flower is wilting and will die soon if you don’t water it” is a bit harder to disregard.  It appeals to consumers’ instinct towards loss aversion, making them more likely to respond. And drink more water.

Step Two: Know What Your Business Goals Are

The next step is making sure your promo achieves your marketing goals. Notice how Step One didn’t deal with your brand’s business goals?

Here’s why: if you think about your brand’s goals first and the consumer second, it’s easy to get stuck in the bad gamification trap.

It’s easy to forget that you have to motivate people to take actions.  You can’t just give them points and expect that to change their behaviour.

The same way you have to motivate the consumer to drink more water, you have to motivate them to complete your business goals.

And to motivate them, you have to understand them.


Let’s look at the Drink More Water promotion again. Say the business reason behind running it is to promote your new collection of water bottles.  Your business goals are probably:

a) Get consumers to tell their friends about the water bottles

b) Get consumer to buy the water bottles

To achieve those goals you have to include them as rewardable actions within the game. In our Drink More Water promotion that would mean earning extra points (Game A) or extra time before the flower wilts (Game B) for sharing the promotion on social media.   

This is why considering what consumers want is so important.  If consumers don’t want those points, they aren’t going to complete the actions.

Just imagine you’re playing Game A.  You get a prompt to share the promotion to earn more points. Do you click it?

Probably not.

Why? Because there is no urgency behind it.  It feels exactly like what it is -- a ploy to get you to share the promotion to your friends. And it doesn’t offer you, the consumer, any real value.

On the flipside, if you get a prompt that says, “Hey your flower is wilting, share the promotion now to start the rain so it doesn’t die!” -- you’re going to be more likely to click it.

Why? You see an immediate value (you don’t want your flower to die) and there is an urgency to clicking (if you don’t the flower will die soon). Plus it feels less like a ploy, and more like a helpful tip because it offers value to the consumer.  

The Bottom Line

You have to offer your consumers real value to see real results.

Points and badges aren’t an effective motivator unless you first consider why consumers would want to collect them.  If you want to change your consumers’ behaviour you have to motivate them. And that means first understanding what they really want.

Ask yourself “What do my consumers want/need and how can my promo offer a solution?” Then add in steps they can take that help you achieve your business goals. And reward them for completing those steps.

Remember, when your consumer wins, so do you. So put them first, and reap the rewards.