Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

yukai chou gamification

Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy here or listen on Audible.

Why Gamification?

Gamification, or the act of making something game-like, is certainly not something new. Throughout history, humans have tried to make existing tasks more intriguing, motivating, and even “fun.” When a small group of people casually decide to compete against each other in hunting and gathering, or simply start keeping score of their activities and comparing it to their past records, they are adopting principles that are prevalent in modern games to make tasks more engaging.

One of the earlier works done on adapting gameplay practices within the workplace can be traced back to 1984, when Charles Coonradt explored the value of adding game-play elements at work through his book The Game of Work. 1

Coonradt addressed the question, “Why would people pay for the privilege of working harder at their chosen sport or recreational pursuit than they would work at a job where they were being paid?” He then boiled it down to five conclusions that led to hobbies being more preferable to work.


• Clearly defined goals
• Better scorekeeping and scorecards
• More frequent feedback
• A higher degree of personal choice of methods • Consistent coaching

As we dive deeper into our journey together, we will learn about how these factors boil down to specific motivation Core Drives that can be intently designed for.

On the other hand, some early forms of marketing gamification can also be seen in the form of (regrettably) “shoot the duck” banner ads on websites, where an image ad tempts users to click on it by displaying a duck flying around. These tactics have probably tricked many people, myself included, into clicking on them once or twice upon seeing them. Later on, eCommerce sites like eBay and all adapted sound gamification principles to become hugely popular examples of how game mechanics and dynamics can really make a process fun and engaging (in later chapters, we will examine how both eBay and utilize great gamifica- tion design to make purchases exciting and urgent).

Of course, as “games” evolved throughout the centuries, the art of “making things game-like” naturally evolved too. Through the ad- vent of the Internet, Big Data, pluggable frameworks, and stronger graphics, our ability to design and implement better gamification experiences has drastically improved to the point where we can now bring sophisticated and subtle game-like experiences into every aspect of our lives.

In recent years, the term “gamification” became a buzzword because the gaming industry shifted from making simple games that only target young boys, to social and mobile games like Farmville and Angry Birds that also appeal to middle-aged executives as well as senior retirees alike.

As people discover that everyone from their nieces to their grand- mas are playing games, while companies like Zynga, King, and Glu Mobile are having impressive Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), they begin to see the social power of gamification. At the same time, gamification has also been damaged by the lack of sustaining success from companies like Zynga, largely due to bad design, which we will examine closely in Chapter 14 on White Hat vs Black Hat Gamification.

The term “gamification” rose to prominence when organizations such as Bunchball and branded their services with the exotic word, which spurred a whole new industry: one that gives managers, marketers, and product designers tools for creating engagement and loyalty in their experiences.

Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification

In my own view, gamification is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully ap- plying them to real-world or productive activities. This process is what I call “Human-Focused Design,” in opposition to what we normally find in society as “Function-Focused Design.” Human- Focused Design optimizes for human motivation in a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the system.

Most systems are inherently “function-focused,” that is, designed to get the job done quickly. This is like a factory that assumes its workers will do their jobs because they are required to, not because they necessarily want to perform the associated tasks. However, at its core, Human-Focused Design emphasizes that people aren’t rudimentary cogs in a system.

We have feelings, ambitions, insecurities, and reasons for whether or not we want to do certain things. Human-Focused Design optimizes for these feelings, motivations, and engagement as the basic foundation for designing the overall system as well as its functions. (Note: I originally created the term “Human-Focused Design” to contrast with “Function-Focused Design” in 2012, but it should not be confused with “Human Centered Design2,” or “User- Centric Design” by IDEO3.)

The reason we call this design discipline “Gamification” is because the gaming industry was the first to master Human-Focused De- sign.

Games have no other purpose than to please the humans playing them. Yes, there are often “objectives” in games, such as killing a dragon or saving the princess. But those are all excuses to simply keep the player happily entertained inside the system, further engaging them enough to stay committed to the game.

The harsh reality of game designers is that, no one ever has to play a game. They have to go to work, do their taxes, and pay medical bills, but they don’t have to play a game. The moment a game is no longer fun, users leave the game and play another game or find other things to do.

Since game designers have spent decades learning how to keep people consistently engaged with repetitive activity loops towards “purposeless” goals, games are a great source of insight and under- standing into Human-Focused Design. Indeed, depending on how you qualify a game (think of chess, hide-and-seek, and Monopoly), you could stretch back centuries to learn what game designers can teach us on creating compelling, playful experiences.

Through gamification, we can look through the lens of games to understand how to combine different game mechanics and techniques to form desired and joyful experiences for everyone.

The Conquests of Gamification

Games have the amazing ability to keep people engaged for long periods of time, build meaningful relationships between people, and develop their creative potential. Unfortunately, most games these days are simply focused on escapism – wasting your life away on something that does not improve your own life nor the lives of others – besides the game makers of course.

Now imagine if there is a truly addictive game, where the more time you spend on it, the more productive you become. You would be playing and enjoying it all day. Your career would improve as your income increased, you would experience better relationships with your family, create value for your community, and solve the world’s most challenging problems. That is the promise I believe Gamification can fulfill, and it is the vision I continuously strive for throughout my life.

In a few short years, gamification has reached a social tipping point and is starting to creep into every aspect of our lives – from education, work, marketing, parenting, sustainability, all the way to healthcare and scientific research:

  • The U.S. Armed Forces now spends more money on recruit- ment games than any other marketing platform.
  • Volkswagen generated 33 million web visits and 119,000 new ideas through its People’s Car Project to design the “perfect car”.
  • Nike used gamified feedback to drive over 5,000,000 users to beat their personal fitness goals every day of the year.
  • With Beat the GMAT, students increased the time they spent on the website improving their test scores by 370% through a gamified platform.
  • In 10 days, Foldit gamers solved an AIDS virus protein problem that had confounded researchers for 15-years.
  • AccordingtotheEntertainmentSoftwareAssociation,70%of major employers are already using gamification to enhance performance and training at their companies.
  • In a similar report, the market research firm Gartner pre- dicted that 70% of Fortune 500 firms would use Gamification by the end of 2014.The list goes on and on. In fact, I have compiled a list of over “90 Gamification Case Studies with ROI Stats” from reputable and “serious” firms like SAP and Cisco on my blog This list has been one of my most viewed pages to date because enthusiasts and practitioners are constantly looking for actual met- rics that prove that gamification can create a return beyond simple aesthetics. The page can be accessed at

    In my own experience, I also see the trend on the rise too. Just a few years ago, only a handful of people approached me to talk about gamification. Nowadays, I am starting to get invitations to speak or consult in a variety of verticals and industries from every continent except Antarctica.

    Unfortunately, in the same report, Gartner also predicted that 80% of those gamified efforts will fail due to bad design, which we will also explore in depth in this book.

    So the question still remains: what exactly can gamification do? Does it actually create value and return measurable results, or is it just a new gimmicky fad without lasting impact? More importantly, how can my own company improve our metrics just like all those case studies mentioned above, instead of failing miserably like the 80% predicted by Gartner?

    As stated in the Introduction, this book is not about explaining why gamification is valuable and why you should use it. I won’t be devoting much time in explaining its validity because there are enough books out there that already do that quite well. My goal is to explain exactly how to be successful in applying gamification principles and techniques to real world situations. I aim to address these pressing questions and help you design experiences that actually motivate behavior, instead of simply adding some “game shells” on top of a failed idea in the hopes of a miracle. Life is too short to waste on playing bad games.

On that fateful day in 2003 when I decided to quit playing computer games, I never would have guessed that I would end up devoting my life’s work to studying it so many years later. The value games can provide us far exceeds simply killing time. Now is the time to harness that value and make the most out of our time.

The journey begins here.

– – –

This is an excerpt from the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy here or listen on Audible.

Share the Post:

other Posts

2 responses to “Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification”

  1. This excerpt offers a fascinating look into the evolution of gamification, highlighting how Human-Focused Design can enhance engagement and motivation. It’s interesting to see how the principles of gamification have been applied to various fields, from education to healthcare, with impressive results. The key takeaway here is that gamification taps into intrinsic human motivations, making tasks more engaging and enjoyable. The idea that game-like elements can make everyday activities more appealing is truly compelling, showing how we can learn from games to improve real-world experiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *