Game Mechanics in Gamification

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This is a long post for me, so get a cup of tea now!

One of the main things that I have found whilst research and writing about Gamification, is that the terms and the language we use don’t always seem to fit what were actually doing. As gamification matures, so to should the language that we use to discuss it. One term that seems to get particularly abused, which we have borrowed from game design, is Game Mechanics. This all came from various discussions I had been having with people in the games industry.  All of them told me that they felt that most people in gamification are getting this (and more) wrong.

What are Game Mechanics?

To understand why this might be let’s first take a look at what came mechanics are. The following are quotes taken from various well known game design books and papers.

“Core Mechanics represent the essential moment-to-moment activity of players. During a game, core mechanics create patterns of repeated behaviour, the experiential building blocks of play.
Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman: Rules of Play 

“Mechanics are the various actions, behaviors and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context. the mechanics support overall gameplay dynamics”
Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek: MDA Frame Work

“These are the procedures and rules of your game. Mechanics describe the goal of your game, how players can and cannot try to achieve it, and what happens when they try.”
Jesse Schell: The Art of Game Design, A Book of Lenses

For example, consider Space Invaders. When you shoot at an alien, it is the sets of game mechanics that define how the bullet will travel, it’s speed and trajectory, what happens when it hits the enemy and so on. The inclusion of a shield is also a game mechanic, How you decide to interact with the shield (hide behind it or shoot it) is a game dynamic. Changing these core mechanics will often change how the game plays. So if you change the speed of the bullet fired by your ship, the difficulty changes.

In gamification, we don’t tend to need to talk about this depth of inner workings in a system. However, that doesn’t mean there are no mechanics in place.

For our purposes, I think that we can distil the definition of a game mechanics or more appropriatly core mechanics down to

“A distinct set of rules that dictate the outcome of interactions within the system. They have an input, a process and an output. “

Further to this we can also state that dynamics are

“The users response to collections of these mechanics”

A lot of people in gamification are getting this wrong

I recently asked on Quora what “game mechanics” from the SCVNGR list of 47 were in fact game mechanics.  For those that don’t know this list lives as a deck of cards that can be mixed and matched to create new game ideas. Some of the items on this list such as Epic Meaning, Blissful Productivity and Behavioral Momentum are spoken about a great deal in the same breath as game mechanics when you hear people discussing gamification. In general, of the 47 mechanics listed only a small handful were considered actual game mechanics. Raph Koster, author of “A Theory Of Fun for Game Design”, went so far as to explain what each of the 47 was. The majority were really feedback and desirable outcomes of a well balanced system. His response is worth a read actually. That does not mean they are of no value, far from it. Some of the ideas described are great food for thought when you consider gamified systems and it is well worth looking over. Also, this is not the only list out there that talks about similar concepts in the same breath as game mechanics – it is just well known!

An Example of Core Mechanics in Gamification

As I say, gamification does have game like core mechanics, as a quick example let’s look at a very basic example.  We want to increase the number of Likes content on a brands Facebook page gets. We will use the old classic; points, badges and ladders.

Clicking the Like button gives you points. Points are used as the basis for getting badges and also position within a Leaderboard.

gamified like mechanics

There are several mechanics involved here.

Clicking the button to receive a reward is a mechanic. Changing the balance of the mechanic would then change how many points are given to the user for a click.

These points then get processed through two secondary mechanics. The first awards badges / trophies based on how many points the user now has. The second takes the points and works out where the user now sits on a leaderboard, giving them some level of status.

READ  GSummit,Bubbles, Badges and the Future

Things like progress bars, images of badges and leaderboards are just visual aids to monitor feedback.  The thing is, when we talk about gamification we never really need to get into this kind of depth. This is where developers and also game designers reside in the process. These are the people who can balance the core mechanics of the gamified system to give the best end user experience.  They are the ones who need to worry about the maths and the logic functions.

What should we be talking about?

Personally, I feel we should be talking about game like ideas, desired behaviours, motivators and supporters.

Start by looking at what the desired behaviour is. In our Like button example, we want people to click the Like button, pretty simple.

Next we should consider what may motivate the user to click the button, an activity that has little or no intrinsic value to the user.  I have spoken about motivation numerous times, so will not bore you now with the benefits of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation. For our purposes, we can consider autonomy, mastery, purpose and relatedness (broken down into social status and social connections) as our basic intrinsic motivators and rewards, peer pressure and avoidance (the desire not to be punished) as examples of extrinsic motivators. We should also consider certain emotions, in particular here, loyalty.

Next to look what may support these motivators. With rewards, you’re looking at basic points, badges and achievements in some form of economy. With status you can look at leaderboards and also to certain extent badges and achievements to show off status. The table below shows more examples of motivators that may be used and what could be used to encourage and support them.

Desired BehaviourMotivationSupporters
Click Facebook LikeRewardsPoints, Badges
LoyaltyCustom / Unique Rewards
StatusLeaderboards, Points, Badges
PurposeGiving. Donations to charity every N likes
Social ConnectionsSuggest similar users

This is a very simple example, but goes to illustrate a working method of talking about how we can gamify experiences. Represented in pictures you could use the following.

gamified like motivators and supporters

Notice the arrows are heading towards the desired behaviour; they metaphorically supporting the behaviour.

It is very important to consider some of the potential undesirable behaviours as well though (dynamics if you will). People abusing the like button to gain status, that sort of thing.

Does it matter?

In the grand scheme of things, probably not. However, As I said at the start, as gamification matures so should the language used to describe it.  It is fine to steal ideas and phrases for other disciplines, but as we abuse them they begin to lose their meaning.  Game mechanics are my major example of this, but I am sure you can think of other things we are talking about that may have somewhat changed meaning over time.

Some Thanks

I would like to thank a few people who have been really generous with their time and their knowledge.  As I am not a game designer and in some ways to prove my point here, I had to do an awful lot of research to ensure I knew what I was talking about with game mechanics.  Even now I am not totally sure I have got my Facebook like mechanics analogy totally right!

So thanks to

Special thanks go to the following who have been incredibly patient with me over the last few weeks!

  • Richard Bartle, Game designer, Creator of MMORPG games as we know them.
  • Ian Bogost, Game Designer, author and all round disliker of the current state of gamification.

Some practical bits for you to use now 🙂


Desired BehaviourMotivationSupporter




MotivatorsPossible Supporters
PurposeGiving / Altruism
Greater Meaning
Social ConnectionsSuggest similar users
Cooperative “play”
Peer PressurePeer review / feedback / grading systems
Boasting / Bragging system
Competitive “play”
AvoidanceLose Points
Lose Status
Game Over
ScarcityExclusive / Unique Rewards
Reward Schedules
Fun!Real Games


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32 Responses

  1. Enrique Gutérrez says:

    Do mechanics depend on age of participants?

  2. I was looking for a tool to apply all this in a website. But it was great to acquire knowledge about the strategic point of view before engaging further. Thank you.

  3. Aliyar says:

    Thanks for this post. There is a lot of banter on gamification but how the game mechanics really support certain behaviours is rarely discussed. *hats off to you*

  4. Richard Vaught says:

    Excellent article. Personally, I am inclined to break things down a little more, and in a way that is equally applicable to both traditional game design and gamification. For example:

    Events – Simply put, something happens. The user presses a button. The customer +1’s the brand’s FB page.

    Mechanics – underlying systems that process events.
    For Event: Button Press
    Mechanics: Sound Effect
    Particle Effect
    Bullet Instanced and Moved

    For Gamification Event: Brand +1’d
    Game Mechanic: Status is increased
    reward is issued
    (note that in this manner the status/reward is not a mechanic in and of itself, merely the process of updating it.)

    Currency – This can be your points, badges, status, or any other manner of measure or currency that is used in your system

    Rules – The high level definitions that govern mechanics. e.g. Players will get increased status for liking brands. The rules do not necessarily have to govern the nitty gritty details of how many points, how big of a reward, etc.

    Behaviors – The set of responses, actions, or attitudes desired on both sides of the game, whether that be developers and players, or consumers and businesses.

    Stressors – Elements designed to induce behaviors, can be positive or negative. For example, in a game, you may present the player with an overwhelming force to get them go back and find an upgrade. In gamification, you might present customers with a list of upcoming opportunities, or a leaderboard that ranks them with other players. These items in and of themselves do nothing but add a sort of pressure to perform.

    This is just my own take on things. There are a lot of different view out there. The Game Industry is still coming to terms with its own vocabulary. I really enjoyed your article here.

    • Thanks and a great response. All equally valid and useful to people. As you say, the games industry still had moments where it lacks clarity in what is meant by certain terms. I think game mechanics and dynamics are fairly well established now thanks to the MDA framework. But there is a lot more too it as you point out!

  5. Kevin says:

    Great post, sir! Very well said.

  1. January 14, 2013

    Is this an accurate and simple definition of a Game Mechanic…

    Thanks, he responded to an email I sent him outlining it as [game mechanics] refers to the actions that players repeat again and again as they play a game. Thanks for your help, I have published my blog on this – I include the link, you may like it. Th…

  2. January 16, 2013

    What is a “game mechanic”?…

    After way too much research the definition that has kind of distilled itself from all of them is A distinct set of rules that dictate the outcome of interactions within a game. They have an input, a process and an output.

  3. January 30, 2013

    […] example. Andrej Marczewski describes gamification mechanics in terms we can relate to in his blog Game Mechanics in Gamification as: Desired Behavior, Motivation and Supporters. Andrej uses a game format to illustrate his point, […]

  4. January 31, 2013

    […] and people around the world. While that is still true, we do still talk about game mechanics (perhaps incorrectly according to Andrzej Marczewski) I think the gamification industry does itself a disservice by misusing terms and classifying […]

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    […] By comparing these two lists, it becomes apparent that there is a need for some sort of standarized definition of a game mechanic. For example ‘loss aversion’ in the computer mechanics list, seems like a desired behavior to me, which might be stimulated by mechanics like ‘variable difficulty levels’ in the other list. Luckiliy, I am not the first one to recognize sucvh a need for clarity and even more luckily, others have already acted on this insight. Andrzej Marczewski’s great blog on gamification has a pretty good post on this topic. […]

  14. February 13, 2014

    […] In gamification the term game mechanics gets used very often. The trouble is, most of the time it is used incorrectly. So what should we be talking about?  […]

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    […] Gamification Mechanics […]

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    […] Gamification Mechanics […]

  17. April 20, 2014

    […] game design you use mechanics, themes and more to help to make the game more enjoyable. In gamification design you add things […]

  18. April 20, 2014

    […] I first started looking into gamification, people used to talk about Epic Meaning when speaking of game mechanics (incorrectly, but that is another story).  This is the feeling of being part of something greater. […]

  19. April 20, 2014

    […] Game Mechanics and Gamification […]

  20. May 6, 2014

    […] same can be said of the terms used in games. Just think how much time I spent talking about what game mechanics are and are […]

  21. November 3, 2014

    […] moons ago I wrote about a massive misunderstanding in gamification around game mechanics and what they actually are. There were several lists around that said they were key game mechanics, which turned out to be […]

  22. October 30, 2015
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    Game Mechanics in Gamification – Gamified UK

  24. July 6, 2016


    Game Mechanics in Gamification – Gamified UK

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Andrzej Marczewski
About Andrzej Marczewski twitter facebook    
Gamification Consultant with Gamification Nation. I love to write about it, talk about it and bore people to death with it! If you really want to get to know me, check out the About page.

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