Sep 22, 2021 Written by Tamar Barlev

What is Gamification, Why Gamification Works, and How to Gamify Your App

A guide on what is gamification, how gamification works, and how to gamify your app

What is gamification, why does gamification work, and how to gamify your app?

Well, let’s start with an anecdote. In the summer of 2011, a new phenomenon took the mobile app users by storm: Temple Run. We didn’t want to stop, and we couldn’t if we tried. 

Why? The game dynamics of this app—the competition, the challenge, and the sense of achievement we felt at every hop, skip, and monster—made it impossible. 

Gamification has long been a handy tool, but not just for creating (literally) drool-inducing games. 

Loyalty programs—such as frequent flier programs or stamp cards—and grocery store games (i.e., Safeway Monopoly) have long been a thing. Remember the 80’s McDonald’s Monopoly Scandal? I do. That HBO documentary was fantastic.

So, how can you use gamification to boost retention and customer acquisition? 

Let’s find out. 

What is gamification?

Simply, gamification is instilling game dynamics or game design elements into non-game environments. 

Generally, gamification has proven to increase user acquisition, retention (by between 25%—50%; with points and social elements, respectively), and engagement (by 48%68%.) 

TechValidate also found that gamification increases registration conversion rates by >50%.

Moreover, in mobile healthcare apps, 78% of 25 to 44-year-olds said they would prefer gamification in their treatments. Additionally, Apple found a direct correlation between gamification and high user ratings.  

And finally, with Edtech and skill-based apps, an 80% increase in productivity was found due to gamification of training. 

So—it’s very much no small wonder that 87% of businesses are projected to implement gamification techniques before 2026. 

Why does gamification work?

In short, the magic of gamification has to do with our most base and intrinsic human emotional needs. Some connect it to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, others to the psychology of habit formation and its role in user retention

But I like to think of it as such: humans have egos. We have pride—and although at times it’s our greatest downfall, it’s also our greatest motivator.

However, no matter what you think of ego, its role in gamification is simple: we like to be good at things, face and dominate challenges, and (secretly) like others to think we’re good at things. 

Gamification appeals to these basic emotions and uses them to retain and educate users and even improve their health. 

For example, I (quietly) squeal with joy when Grammarly sends me my percentile of productivity every week and then try to beat last week’s word count (humble brag—proves the point above). 

Alternatively, I mourn every time my Uber rating decreases by .01. 

This *ish* works. 

However, does issue one caveat: gamification will not motivate users to do something they do not want to do or work on already disengaged users

It must be implemented with the user’s motivation in mind and be aligned with the overall business objective. But, more on that later. 

Types of Gamification Strategy

Gamification Points + Currency

A point system inherently allows users to track their progress—forward, lack thereof, or—most dreaded—backward. Therefore, it provides a sense of orientation: where the user stands, how far they’ve come, and far there is to go. 

Point systems are so effective that a study reported that 89% of students would be more engaged with an e-learning platform that had a point system.  

Moreover, Reddit Karma is a special thing to brag about with friends, materially meaningless as it is. 

And, if you’re able to exchange those points for virtual goods or even real ones—in the form of currency—you’re really going to be motivated to move forward. 

Levels + Milestones

Levels, such as in DuoLingo,  frequent flier programs, or the Starbucks App, give us a sense of exclusivity and accomplishment—especially if they come with perks. 

So, whether it’s unlocking another challenge, getting priority boarding, or earning that ¢1 per cup of $6 coffee and knowing you’re at “Gold,” they elicit good feelings. 

And same goes for milestones, as minute as they might sound. We all like to check things off of a to-do list. Milestones give a similar feeling—whether it’s a 2-day usage streak or beating the game entirely—we feel a sense of accomplishment. 

Rewards (Badges + Virtual/Actual Stuff)

We already mentioned material rewards that can come from unlocking levels or reaching milestones. But there can certainly be even virtual and free (to you) rewards that can leave your user feeling stoked, with a puffed chest and a head held high. 

Virtual rewards, such as badges that a user can collect or present on a public profile (and share on third-party social networks), are good for everyone. So–good for the user, who feels a sense of satisfaction, achievement, and status, and good for you, who builds retention and engagement with few to no variable costs.   

Leaderboards + Rankings

By allowing users to opt into public or community-based leaderboards, your app generates a sense of community, orientation, competition, and collaboration. 

Generally, humans are social beings—we like to feel a part of a group, whether we’re competing or working together. Leaderboards and rankings give that connection and orientation: how does one place among others, and more importantly, how can one raise their rankings?

Peloton does a beautiful job of encapsulating this—motivating through a sense of simultaneous community and competition.

And, of course, this principle is true for way more than fitness apps. For example, an e-learning study found that more than 60% of students are motivated by leaderboards, rankings, and the ensuing peer competition.


Interactive Communities

As I mentioned above, many of us find a sense of community enormously motivating, both through teamwork and competition. Moreover, user collaboration allows for mutual encouragement. 

For example, Garmin has an app that allows you to compete in step count challenges with a cohort. Flora, a productivity and focus app, enables you to set focus timers with friends. 

So by making gamified community, you’re creating user retention, engagement, and acquisition mechanism:

  1. Existing users continuously engage with the app because they continue to engage with one another.
  1. New users join as they are invited to use and interact in the app with others. 


Let’s go back to “Flora”—the productivity and focus app. This app asks you to gamble on yourself—you set a focus timer and put down a specific dollar amount. If you succeed and don’t touch your phone for a certain amount of time, the app will donate a tree to be planted. If you don’t, whatever money you put down, you lose. 

So, kind of maniacally genius, huh? 

Its gamification strategy does the following:

  1. Present a recurring challenge to the user
  2. Provide virtual (negative mark) and real consequences (monetary) to the user if they fail.
  3. Give a sense of achievement (virtual badge) and “doing good” (tree) if the user succeeds.
  4. And, *most importantly*: incorporates its value proposition seamlessly into its gamification strategy

The user isn’t using the app to lose money or plant trees—they’re using it to increase productivity without touching their phone. The gamification is just a part of it. 

But boy, is it more motivating than someone walking into the room and telling me to stop scrolling.


Loyalty Programs

Lastly, loyalty programs—whether it’s the coffee shop around the corner, or massive retailers, or, really, anything—most businesses (87%) at this point tend to have loyalty programs. And for a reason. 

We like feeling recognized for giving our hard-earned money to someone—even if buying that donut was purely for our own benefit.

How to Gamify Your App

Construct Gamification Around Your Value Proposition (“A.B.A.V”)

As we mentioned earlier, even the most exciting gamification strategy will not make someone do something they desperately don’t want to do

But, it can enhance the experience of someone who wants to accomplish something but doesn’t love the process—dieting. Or someone who wants to do something but needs a little push—learning a new language. Or, perhaps someone who just wants to do the thing with which your app helps—shopping.

The important thing here is to know your user to a “tee” and keep them in mind as you’re building your gamification strategy

So—it’s essential to know their motivations and segment them by type of user to establish to which you should appeal with gamification. 

Keep it Relevant —“A.B.A.V.” (always be adding value)

Speaking of user motivations—it’s crucial to add value through your gamification strategy.

So, set aside for a minute whatever feel-good fuzzy feelings of pride a user might get from the badges they collect. Because those badges have to be relevant and aligned to your user’s motivators for downloading the app in the first place.

For example, Flora does this exquisitely. It provides gentle (yet aggressive) nudges towards staying on task, which leaves the user with rewards that are—yes, encouraging—but supplemental to the main achievement: maintaining focus. 

Set and Remember Your Objectives

When creating your gamification strategy, it’s crucial to start by deciding your key objectives. 


Engagement and retention? 

Changing user behavior (as part of the value proposition?)

When you understand your objectives well, it’s easier to seamlessly integrate gamification into your app and provide value with it. 

For instance, if my credit card had a leaderboard that showed how much money I spent this last year, I’d be pretty bummed to be on it, much less encouraged to compete for first place. 

However, different people find prestige in different things—and that’s why it’s essential to know your audience. So there’s a time, place, and technique for each app and its gamification strategy. 

Ergo, by keeping your objectives in mind, you’ll be better able to tailor your gamification techniques to your app. 

Create Frequent Milestones and Rewards

In this age of immediate gratification, few people like to delay their rewards. However, that’s not a new thing. The reward must follow its anticipation to effectively build a habit cycle, even if both are minor. 

For example, take hearing your phone beep. The beep creates anticipation, and check it releases that anticipation—even if right after, you find out it was just a text message from your S/O about the dishes.

Frequent milestones are key in forming habits, incentivization, and motivation. So, rather than have one big reward at the end of the process, spread them out throughout a user’s journey through the app. 

Stick to Excellent UX Practices

Such as: 

  • “K.I.S.A.U.I.S”—“Keep It Simple and User Intuitive, Sweetheart.” A.K.A., don’t make life more difficult or your app cumbersome for your audience post-gamification.

    You’re likely targeting users you already acquired. So, please don’t make them run screaming by way of over-complicating the workflow or design.
  • A/B testing—because it’s important to segment and test different app versions on your users to understand their motivations, tendencies, and correlated success factors.

By doing so, you can know how you can best gamify to propel their usage success and productivity. 

In-App and Third-Party Sharing (let your users flaunt achievements)

Which as it sounds.

Create a way for your users to be able to show off their accomplishments, both in-app and on any relevant platforms. Facebook and Linkedin are good places to start.

Well, this was a lot. We know. So, it could be beneficial to consult product strategy experts who’ll help you put the theory to the rubber.

Coincidentally, hi, we’re Goji Labs—a product and software development consultancy with experience in designing, “rescuing,” and deploying hundreds of products

Looking to develop a new app or revamp an existing one?

Have any general questions about who we are and our authority on the subject? 

Reach us at

– Goji Labs