Introduction to Gamification Part 9: Elements and Mechanics
Game mechanics are covered in multiple places on this blog, but to continue with the introduction series, I thought I would have a brief revisit here, with less personal opinion than usual (ish)! There are many definitions of game mechanics, but rather than going into those, I will just present the one that I use.
“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 respond to collections of these mechanics”
A simple example of a game mechanic can be seen in Tetris. The ability to rotate the blocks as they fall, is a mechanic.
The user presses a button, the block rotates. You could alter the mechanic by, for instance, changing it so pressing a button swaps the block to a new block. If you want to know more about the topic of game mechanics, here are a few things to read!
- Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman: Rules of Play 
- Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc & Robert Zubek: MDA Framework 
- Jesse Schell: The Art of Game Design, A Book of Lenses 
Game Mechanics vs. Game Elements
From our perspective as gamification designers, game mechanics is often used as a catch all term for an and all elements that we may wish to use from games. Whilst this drives me a bit crazy, it is the sad truth of the matter.
If you wish to alleviate my pain, please just talk about game elements! An example of this would be the humble leaderboard. This is often referred to as a gamification mechanic. However, what does the user interact with?
A leaderboard is really a feedback mechanic (as are points and badges!). When talking about game elements, there are hundreds upon hundreds of feedback mechanics, game mechanics, scheduling mechanics and more that can be combined and used to create experiences for the user. The trick is to choose a few that will work for the target audience. As such, a long time ago now, I chose 52 that I personally like to use and recommend to people.
They are split up into groups of general elements (applicable to all), reward schedules and elements that are likely to be attractive to specific HEXAD user types. I have also commented on the type of element it is. This is not to say that these groupings are set in concrete, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is a helpful way to think about them! I even created a periodic table to help keep it all in one simple place!
My 52 Game Elements
So here they are. Make of them, what you will. Combine them, use them on their own, but make sure you understand why you are using them and what you hope to achieve with them!
No one uses manuals anymore! Help people get used to your system with a nice tutorial or a gentle introduction on how everything works.
Sometimes, even the best people need to be pointed in the right direction. Signpost next actions to help smooth early stages of a journey. Use “just in time” cues to help users who are stuck.
No one likes to lose anything they have earned. Fear of losing status, friends, points, achievements, possessions, progress etc. can be a powerful reason for people to act.
Progress and feedback come in many forms and have many mechanisms available. All User Types need some sort of measure of progress or feedback, but some types work better than others do.
Give your gamification a theme, often linked with narrative. Can be anything from company values to werewolves. Add a little fantasy; just make sure users can make sense of it.
Tell your story and let people tell theirs. Use gamification to strengthen understanding of your story by involving people. Think like a writer!
Curiosity is a strong force. Not everything has to be fully explained, a little mystery may encourage people in new directions.
Reducing the amount of time people must do things can focus them on the problem. It can also lead to different decisions.
Making something rare can make it even more desirable.
Make people think about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how it might affect the outcomes of the game.
|Element Mechanic Dynamic|
Getting the perceived levels of challenge and skill just right can lead to a state of Flow. Balance is the key.
If the user gets things wrong, what are the consequences? Do they lose a life, points or items they have earned?
When people invest time, effort, emotions or money, they will value the outcomes even more.
Surprise and delight people with unexpected rewards. Keep them on their toes and maybe even make them smile.
|Fixed Reward Schedule|
Reward people based on defined actions and events. First activity, level up, progression. Useful during on-boarding and to celebrate milestone events.
|Time Dependent Rewards|
Events that happen at specific times (birthdays etc.) or are only available for a set period of time (e.g. come back each day for a reward). Users must be there to benefit.
Let people build close-knit guilds or teams. Small groups can be much more effective than large sprawling ones. Create platforms for collaboration but also pave the way for team-based competitions.
Allow people to connect and be social with an easy to use and accessible social network. It is can be more fun to play with other people than to play on your own.
Status can lead to greater visibility for people, creating opportunities to create new relationships. It can also feel good. You can make use of feedback mechanics such as leaderboards and certificates.
A way to find people and to be found is essential for building new relationships. Matching people based on interests and status can all help get people started.
People often don’t like feeling they are the odd one out. In a social environment, this can be used to encourage people to be like their friends. Can demotivate if expectations are unrealistic.
Competition gives people a chance to prove themselves against others. It can be a way to win rewards but can also be a place where new friendships and relationships are born.
|Element Mechanic Emotion|
Give your Free Spirits room to move and explore. If you are creating virtual worlds, consider that they will want to find the boundaries and give them something to find.
Let the user choose their path and destiny. From multiple learning paths to responsive narratives. Remember, choice must be (or at least feel) meaningful to be most effective and appreciated.
Easter eggs are a fun way to reward and surprise people for just having a look around. For some, the harder they are to find, the more exciting it is!
Add to the feeling of self-expression and value, by offering unlockable or rare content for Free Spirits to use. Linked to Easter eggs and exploration as well as achievement.
|Mechanic Feedback Dynamic|
Allow people to create their own content and express themselves. This may be for personal gain, for pleasure or to help other people (teaching materials, levels, gear, FAQ etc.).
|Mechanic Element Dynamic|
Give people the tools to customise their experience. From avatars to the environment, let them express themselves and choose how they will present themselves to others.
|Mechanic Element Dynamic|
Challenges help keep people interested, testing their knowledge and allowing them to apply it. Overcoming challenges will make people feel they have earned their achievement.
Different from general rewards and trophies, certificates are a physical symbol of mastery and achievement. They carry meaning, status and are useful.
What better way to achieve mastery than to learn something new? Give your users the opportunity to learn and expand.
|Mechanic Element Dynamic|
Quests give users a fixed goal to achieve. Often made up of a series of linked challenges, multiplying the feeling of achievement.
Levels and goals help to map a user’s progression through a system. It is as important to see where you can go as it is to see where you have been.
Boss battles are a chance to consolidate everything you have learned and mastered in one epic challenge. Usually, signals the end of the journey – and the beginning of a new one.
|Mechanic Element Dynamic|
Some just need to understand the meaning or the purpose of what they are doing (epic or otherwise). For others, they need to feel they are part of something greater than themselves.
Looking after other people can be very fulfilling. Create roles for administrators, moderators, curators etc. Allow users to take a parental role.
Access to more features and abilities in a system can give people more ways to help others and to contribute. It also helps make them feel valued. More meaningful if earned.
|Collect & Trade|
Many people love to collect things. Give them a way to collect and trade items in your system. Helps build relationships and feelings of purpose and value.
Allow gifting or sharing of items to other people to help them achieve their goals. Whilst a form of altruism, the potential for reciprocity can be a strong motivator.
For some, helping other people by sharing knowledge with them is its own reward. Build the ability for people to answer questions and teach others.
|Points / Experience Points (XP)|
Points and XP are feedback mechanics. Can track progress, as well as be used as a way to unlock new things. Award based on achievement or desired behaviour.
|Physical Rewards / Prizes|
Physical rewards and prizes can promote lots of activity and when used well, can create engagement. Be careful of promoting quantity over quality.
|Leaderboards / Ladders|
Leaderboards come in different flavours, most commonly relative or absolute. Commonly used to show people how they compare to others and so others can see them. Not for everyone.
|Badges / Achievements|
Badges and achievements are a form of feedback. Award them to people for accomplishments. Use them wisely and in a meaningful way to make them more appreciated.
Create a virtual economy and allow people to spend their virtual currency on real or virtual goods. Look into the legalities of this type of system and consider the long term financial costs!
|Feedback Mechanic Dynamic|
|Lottery / Game of Chance|
Lotteries and games of chance are a way to win rewards with very little effort from the user. You have to be in it, to win it though!
Disruptors think outside the box and boundaries of your system. Give them a way to channel that and you can generate great innovations.
|Mechanic Dynamic Element|
Give people a voice and let them know that it is being heard. Change is much easier if everyone is on the same page.
Think modifications rather than hacking and breaking. Let them develop new add-ons to improve and build on the system.
If you want to encourage total freedom and lack of inhibitions, allow your users to remain anonymous. Be very, very careful as anonymity can bring out the worst in people!
Whilst you must have rules, if you are encouraging disruption, apply them with a light touch. See how things play out before jumping in. Keep a watchful eye and listen to the feedback of users.
Sometimes you just must burn it all to the ground and start again. Sit back, throw the rulebook out of the window and see what happens! Consider running short “no rules” events.
Key Learning Points
- Not all game elements are game mechanics!
- There are lots of game elements
- Make sure you understand why you are using certain elements and what you hope to achieve with them.
 K. Salen and E. Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design, vol. 37. 2004.
 R. Hunicke, M. LeBlanc, and R. Zubek, “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research,” Work. Challenges Game AI, pp. 1–4, 2004.
 J. Schell, The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. Morgan Kauffmann, 2008.
Also published on Medium.