Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

The 5 best books about Gamification and Behavioral Design

Yu-kai’s note: through the influence of many of the books mentioned in this article and through my own 20+ year of research, I decided to publish a Gamification Book that is now the de facto education material about Gamification in classrooms around the world.

With non-fiction, I usually read quickly (scan), apply what I’ve learned, then come back later as needed to refresh. I prefer to learn by doing. This is the case for my education in gamification, too (I built an iPhone app instead of reading too much about it.)

For me, books are just a great way to see how others have done it and test against your own approach.

I borrowed my brother’s copy of The Lord of the Rings from his bookshelf. I was nine years old. Ever since, reading has been my favorite way to consume content. With a book in hand or on screen, I can read as fast or as slow as I want, mark the pages, save comments for later, and return to the book when needed. (I still think reading is one of the biggest level-ups any parent can give their child. And I believe that many of us can improve our reading ability and critical thinking well into adulthood.)

An introduction to games and gaming

Like a lot of you, I came up playing a lot of video games. Solo, with friends, against friends. It was our education and our entertainment. I remember sneaking into my mom and dad’s bedroom to play MathBlaster. They were only mildly annoyed I’d woken them up. I was learning, after all.

I also wrote about games. Here’s some notes from my journal when I was 10.

Later, my first real article to hit 50,000 reads was about Super Smash Brothers 64. I was 19 when I wrote that, but had written and discussed and analyzed games ever since I started playing them.

Later, I naturally came to gamification and design through a love of understanding and mastering systems. Even though I was in the “real world” now, I still drew lessons from developing strategies to battle my brothers in Starcraft or in terraforming Venus in SimEarth (tip, use a lot of ice meteors).

Starting 5

If I had to pick a starting five for games, behavior, and psychology, I’d pick the following.

Note: These are books I’ve read. There could be objectively better ones out there. One thing I love about reading is discovering great new texts and stories, so share in the comments what you’ve read that was amazing or helpful. 

1. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior

John von Neumann was a beast of an intellect. So is this book. Co-authored with Oskar Morgenstern, it provides the gammut of intellectual thought and theory about games and economic behavior available when they wrote it.

2. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

Zimmerman and Salen do a fine (and playful) job of first defining, then exploring the building blocks of game design. I’d class it with Jesse Schell’s book on the same topic.

I had a chance to meet Katie Salen in person and she was pleased to know I’d delved into the work. She was giving a talk at Target in 2013 about cultural transitions. She offered some decent ideas about workplace gamification and designing environments that motivated the players to move to win states. Sound familiar?

One interesting point here was that this text was written in 2003. At that time, there wasn’t a theoretical framework for games within design. I thought Katie and Eric did a fine job (688 pages worth) of detailing this work.

I recommend this book to people who want a readable yet textbook-esque book to start their journey of understanding games and game design.

Particularly interesting is the following:

Building an aesthetics of interactive systems, Salen and Zimmerman define core concepts like “play,” “design,” and “interactivity.” They look at games through a series of eighteen “game design schemas,” or conceptual frameworks, including games as systems of emergence and information, as contexts for social play, as a storytelling medium, and as sites of cultural resistance.

Written for game scholars, game developers, and interactive designers, Rules of Play is equal parts a textbook, reference book, and theoretical guide. It is the first comprehensive attempt to establish a solid theoretical framework for the emerging discipline of game design.

3. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World–Jane McGonigal

I met Jane McGonigal in 2012 at a digital marketing conference in Minneapolis, MN, USA. She was very personable and asked me about my iPhone game. A good quick conversation before she went on stage for her keynote ahead of Guy Kawasaki. With a name like McGonigal, for a moment she almost made me feel like Harry entering wizard school (it definitely motivated me to complete the iPhone project).

Her book approaches a discussion of games from the premise that games can do good for the world. Especially if we design them appropriately.

I got the sense that McGonigal’s title, “Reality is Broken” was more of a headline hook than an actual representation of the book’s content. I instead found it to be a treatise for how games and play can improve individual health all the way to changing the way people interact and improve the world.

(As a side note, I also read McGonigal’s 500-page master’s thesis, entitled ‘Ubiquitious Play and Performance at the Turn of the 21st Century.)

Jane won’t give you too many direct examples to apply to your business unless you’re paying attention and applying the concepts to your everyday life.

4. The Art of Game Design–Jesse Schell

Jesse Schell’s book, by contrast to McGonigal’s, goes into depth about the totality of the experience. I liken his book to Norman’s Design of Everyday Things in that it describes the designer as a communicator through the game to the user. But also–and this is important for Octalysis apprentices–he hones in on the Experience of the game. In other words, he understands how experience motivates actions, mechanics, and decision-making within the game space.

5. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

When I slip into writing and two hours have gone by like two seconds, I know I’ve probably done some good work. What’s more, the experience of immersion, though fleeting in memory, is satisfying to accomplish. It also, it seems to me, to help my long-term productivity.

Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi wrote about unleashing creativity and investigated the satisfying feeling of complete immersion in an activity.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s illuminated “optimal experience”, a state of experience or consciousness he called Flow.

During flow, we typically experience a deep sense of enjoyment, creativity, and an involvement above normal experience. The idea is to reliably create the environment that will induce these states and remain in them for extended periods.

While his ideas have been controversial under scientific study, my own experience has suggested at minimum there is a level of focus and productivity that can be reached when distractions are removed.

Csikszentmihalyi discusses how to order the information entering our consciousness and we can discover true happiness and improve the quality of our lives.

This goes a little far in my view. True happiness is as of yet not measurable beyond self report, but I do know my general quality of life appreciates when I accomplish tasks, especially creative ones.

I recommend this book for anyone serious about understanding the creation of optimal experience in work and play.

Future reading

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading, from blogs to books and everything in between.

In a future post, I’ll break down some blogs I’m following, including Scott Young’s (Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment), Cal Newport’s (CD2 and Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback and Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity), and Gary V’s (Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, for emotional and social intelligence).

If you’d like to see me review a specific book, I will do that. Please leave a recommendation in the comments! I love doing mini-book clubs with friends and community members. 🙂

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10 responses to “The 5 best books about Gamification and Behavioral Design”

  1. Thank You Erik! This is an exhaustive post! Wonder how much time it took you to finish writing this and did the monk mode help/accelerate this process?

      • Thank you for being a dedicated reader, Shreyas! The monk mode helps 🙂 The posts vary, anywhere from 2-4 hours of research and writing, and then I move into the formatting and imagefinding and preparing to publish on WordPress 🙂

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