yukai chou gamification

Serious Games, Advergames, Gameful Design? Implicit vs Explicit Gamification

Serious Games

Serious Games, Advergames, Gameful Design? Implicit vs Explicit Gamification

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book. This is also a flushed out version of my guest post at G.co)

One of the most popular debates and criticisms in the gamification industry is what is considered gamification and how it relates to Serious Games and Advergames.

For those who are unfamiliar with these terms, Wikipedia defines serious games as, “a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.” In other words, games that are generally built for a productive purpose, such as training, education, healthcare, and the like (Hence, the term “serious”).

BusinessDictionary.com defines advergames as, “A video game which in some way contains an advertisement for a product, service, or company.” These are games that basically act as interactive advertisement campaigns which draw potential customers onto a website or into a business. When I refer to “shoot-the-duck banner ads” as early and embarrassing forms of marketing gamification, those banner ads are technically classified as Advergames.

As you can see, both definitions have the word “a game” in them, which seems to go against the core essence of what “gamifying” something means. In my own writings, I talk about how you can gamify anything that involves human motivation, as long as it is not already a game, just like how you can’t liquefy liquid. You can however, apply better game design to games.

So because advergames and serious games are “games,” by that standard you can’t really gamify them. Right?

The Semantics of Gamification vs. The Value of Gamification

To me this discussion is non-productive. I would rather spend my time learning about and harnessing the power of games to change the world for the better, instead of debating over classifications of terms. What good have you created in the world when you spend your day arguing if something is “a game made for traveling” or “travel gamified”?

But there are people who would say, “No. That great example is a serious game! Gamification is just limited to these things that are really lame.” Why do people first define gamification as something lame, and then call it lame? For many years I have also worked on serious game projects and advergames, and if I can utilize that knowledge and experience to help the world, why limit what I can do as a gamification professional just because of some definitions?

Technically, I have three years of serious games experience, three years of loyalty program experience, and six years of gamification experience, consisting of two distinct periods. Throughout the entire time, I was driven by the exact same vision of applying game principles to impact the world. Call me lazy, but I’d rather just refer to my work as gamification and start producing results that make a difference in the world instead of arguing about what I can and cannot do as a gamification professional.

I’ve written about how I (along with many “gamification professionals”) am not a big fan of the word “Gamification.” This is mostly the term that the industry has adopted. I have preferred the term “Human-Focused Design” (as opposed to Function-Focused Design), which is a design process that remembers the human motivations within the system.

Serious Games is a bad name too

On a similar note, I also dislike the term “serious games,” as it implies that pure games are not serious – something that millions of serious gamers out there would heavily disagree with. Think how many sports athletes would be offended if they played basketball for a charitable cause, and people called that the “Serious Sports” industry.

Then there are the more “corporate-appealing” terms like Motivational Design, Behavioral Economics, or Loyalty Programs, which have many blends and overlaps with the vague term “gamification.” Many out there claim that Loyalty Programs are not considered gamification but would then argue that airline reward miles are one of the best examples of gamification.

Gameful Design: an ascended form of gamification?

Further following the battle semantics, many game-based solution enthusiasts like Sebastian Deterding and Jane McGonigal disagree with so many principles from most of the “mainstream” gamification experts and platforms, that they came out and expressed that, if that was gamification, they wanted nothing to do with it. They prefer the term “Gameful Design” to the word Gamification, which they sometimes regard as the ascended form of gamification. Along with Deterding and McGonigal, many other critics of gamification claim that implementations of mainstream gamification are uninspiring and manipulative.

At the end of the day, instead of arguing about what is and isn’t included in umbrella terminologies, wouldn’t it be much more productive for everyone to say, “Lets make everything better with the lessons we’ve learned through so many hours of game-play in our lives”?

Of course, people inevitably have long discussions on semantics, and therefore it makes sense to have a structured way of thinking through the entire conversation so you can communicate with your colleagues or superiors.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable

In my opinion, serious games and advergames should actually be included in gamification, as they are utilizing game design to achieve a non-game productive result.

There’s often a blurry line between the “is a game” versus the “is not a game” spectrum. For instance, sometimes it is difficult to say whether something is a “game” that trains people, or rather just “training that is gamified.” You could say that a game that trains employees to have good conduct is a “serious game,” but you can also say that they decided to gamify their training program. According to my own definition, it feels like you could “gamify” training by introducing a “serious game,” but you can’t gamify that very serious game once it is created. Now since it is already a game, you can only apply better game design to it instead of “gamifying” it.

Some people make the statement that for Serious Games, you need to STOP your current activity and then go to a game to achieve the desired effects, whereas gamification just pushes you towards the desired effects as you go. This differentiation is again challenge when it comes to training. Did you “stop” your training to go into a serious game and do training? Or has the serious game become your training? So, was the training gamified?

You can see how this conversation can quickly become non-constructive.

Learning from games to solve problems

In my own TEDx talk in Lausanne, Switzerland, I brought up 8 world-changing concepts in gamification, each representing one of the Core Drives in the previous chapter. I mentioned that my favorite gamification example for Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback was the “Serious Game” FoldIt. To some, that statement might have caused a heart attack.

My example for Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness was DragonBox, which is a learning game; for Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, it was “Zombies, Run!” which is a fitness game to motivate you to run more. Some don’t consider them gamification examples since they are already games (as opposed to just plastering badges on something boring).

Again, if there is a way to utilize things we have learned from games to make the world better, why work so hard to limit yourself in how you approach it? The audience clearly did not care and were inspired about the potentials of evolving everything in our lives into something fun and dynamic, or more game-like.

And for the record, a tomato is biologically classified as a fruit, but is culinarily treated as a vegetable. It probably matters more to the expert horticulturist than to people who just care about preparing and eating a healthy and delicious meal. (Can you imagine people yelling, “Hey that’s not a vegetable, it’s a fruit! Thought you said fruits should be eaten BEFORE meals!”)

Explicit Gamification: Games that Fulfill Non-Game Purposes

Moving away from what is and isn’t gamification, I think it is more productive to differentiate types of gamification into two ways based on how they are executed and how different types of players respond to them. The two types of gamification implementations in my own work are “Implicit Gamification” and “Explicit Gamification.”

Explicit Gamification involves strategies that utilize applications that are obviously game-like. Users acknowledge they are playing a game, and generally need to opt into playing. An example would be Dikembe Mutombo’s 4 ½ weeks to Save the World. This is an interesting and corky “Advergame” launched by Old Spice, where a reknowned basketball legend tries to save the world by accomplishing a series of challenges in an 8-bit video game world before the anticipated “end of the world” in 2012. Of course, Old Spice powerups and placements can be seen repeatedly within the game. This is a clear example of not only applying game design techniques into marketing, but using a game itself to do the marketing.

McDonald’s Monopoly Game is also a good example of explicit gamification. Everyone knows they are playing a game but the key purpose of the game is to get people to return to McDonald’s and eat more french fries – nothing subtle there. We will examine McDonald’s Monopoly game in more detail in Chapter 9 regarding Game Technique #16: Collection Sets.

Other interesting examples of Explicit Gamification include the famous serious game FoldIt that facilitated AIDS research, as well as AutoDesk’s Undiscovered Territory, a game created for selling their very expensive 3D imaging software. There are also explicit gamification examples such as Repair the Rockaways, which is a game similar to Farmville, but the number of bricks that are available is determined by how much is donated to support Hurricane Sandy repairs.

Again, these examples are all games where people play and opt into, hence “explicit” gamification. The advantage of designing for explicit gamification is that the product is generally more playful and it allows the designer to have more freedom of creativity. The disadvantage is that it could be seen as childish, non-serious, or distracting to some target users such as enterprise firms, banks, or manufacturers. Some corporate managers, upon seeing graphical game-play, immediately feel an aversion to it, though if designed well, the interactive “game” can keep the target user engaged for longer and lead to better business results. Also, more often than not, implementing great explicit gamification usually requires more resources in order to create a high quality game.

Implicit Gamification: Human-Focused Design that Utilizes Game Elements

Implicit Gamification is a form of design that subtly employs gamification techniques and the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis into the user experience. Implicit Gamification techniques are filled with game design elements that are sometimes even invisible to the user. This is like a doorknob, where the best designs are the ones that you aren’t even aware of but simply use to open the door.

Implicit Gamification examples are often discussed in gamification literature, such as the LinkedIn Progress Bar, the intrinsic motivation that drives Wikipedia, competitive bidding and feedback system via eBay, social comparison and motivation in OPower, and Unpredictability and Scarcity within Woot!

Upon seeing the progress bar on LinkedIn, most people won’t say, “Ah, they’re making me play a game! I don’t want to play games.” The Progress Bar just gently builds a Win-State for the user to see and motivates them to get closer and closer towards the goal. Of course, many of the points, badges, leaderboards, and levels are seen commonly in implicit gamification.

The advantages of implicit gamification is that it is technically easier to implement and can be appropriate in most contexts. The disadvantage of implicit gamification is that this very convenient implementation can often lead to “lazy” design where the subtle game dynamics are incorrectly designed for and sloppily put together. This would lead to something completely ill-formed or ineffective in terms of driving business metrics.

Implicit vs. Explicit Gamification

At the end of the day, one type of gamification is not inherently better than the other. The proper use of Implicit or Explicit Gamification depends on the purpose of the project as well as your target market. Some groups like participating in games; some don’t. Some want to have that adrenaline rush when purchasing, while others want to expand their creativity and master a learning curve. Of course, all 8 Core Drives can be implemented into Implicit and Explicit Gamification campaigns, which we will explore in the following chapters.


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7 thoughts on “Serious Games, Advergames, Gameful Design? Implicit vs Explicit Gamification”

  1. Drawing a clear definition line between each words is a ‘needed’ basic requirement in academia, which is totally a 餿主意! 正在被玩死的途中……

    1. It’s very important for academia, but often not as important for communications and value creation. Everyone knows what it is, so arguing about the wording all day long is boring.

  2. To gamify or not to gamify?… that is the (a?) question. On a more serious note… I definitely agree regarding symantics. I am a practitioner at heart and in my classroom. I simply want to try stuff that helps my students learn better and in a more enjoyable manner.

    1. Another thought… I often resist getting involved in something new because of the time/money/resources that I expect would be required to make it worth the effort. Having said that, more recently, I find myself a bit more lax about it as I like to expose my children to new experiences that we can talk about and learn from.

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