Rini Das, CEO, PAKRA

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Let's Nudge Ourselves to a More Inclusive Definition of Gamification


In their seminal book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discuss how to design mechanisms that “nudge” individuals suffering from “status-quo bias.” The goal is to improve the decision-making of individuals who practice “mental accounting” by “anchoring” at specific values when making choices.

Thaler and Sunstein share a story about a lottery designed to reduce speeding in a town in Sweden. Everyone is familiar with “Your Speed is __” markers set by the road to spur drivers to reduce their speed. What this Swedish town did differently—as pictured below—was to choose cars randomly for registration in a lottery if they slowed down. Drivers did not know whether or not their lottery registration depended on slowing down—yet the lottery had the intended effect, which was to induce drivers to pay attention and slow down at a greater frequency than they would in the absence of a lottery. This was a clever (and easily implemented) system for nudging behavior by offering a reward.


This brings me to Rogers’ Bell Curve, popularized by Geoffrey Moore in his book, Crossing the Chasm.

When confronted with new products, ideas, technologies, etc., some people adopt very quickly as “innovators,” others follow as “early adopters,” others are “middle adopters,” and the rest are “laggards.” As shown in the diagram below, the distribution of “types” tends to follow a bell curve. This empirical regularity in the adoption process (known as Rogers’ Bell Curve) was first discussed by Joe M. Bohlen, George M. Beal and Everett M. Rogers in a 1957 analysis of farmers’ adoption of new hybrid corn seeds.

In deciding whether to be innovators, early adopters, middle adopters, or laggards, individuals tend to rely on the anchoring and mental accounting studied by Thaler and Susstein. This brings us to the question: How do we nudge individuals to adopt more quickly?

The solution is obvious: design “easy-to-use” mechanisms that nudge individuals into quicker adoption. Fortunately, we have an entire industry dedicated to designing such mechanisms. These nudging Gamification designs go by many names: Serious GamesMeaningful PlayPure Game Mechanics, and Gamified Environments.

PAKRA and other companies in this industry are dedicated to designing mechanisms that help customers, employees, and even farmers reduce status-quo bias and adopt more quickly.

And these mechanisms work:  An emerging literature shows how Serious GamesMeaningful PlayPure Game Mechanics, and Gamified Environments make middle adopters embrace new products/services, new technologies, new processes, new “anything” more quickly than they otherwise would. On a related note, the industry may be new but the ideas are not: The use of Games to plan, adopt, and change behavior (while having fun) goes back thousands of years; in fact, many game-related mechanisms stem from warfare and conflict resolution.

For the nerds, here is a quick overview of how some of these terms originated:

1. Serious Games was first used by Clark Abt in 1970.
2. Meaningful Play in game design was introduced by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in 2003. 
3. Gamification was introduced into business-speak by Nick Pelling in 2002.
4. History and classification of Game Mechanics can be found in Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design by Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans.

To us any mechanism that nudges people to adopt and change behaviors is a Gamification mechanism.

Despite its storied history, in the past few years I have repeatedly encountered controversy (see references) surrounding what is (and is not) included in Gamification.

Controversy 1: Gamification consists only of pure game-mechanics; Serious Games are excluded from Gamification.

If you Google the phrases game mechanicsmeaningful playgamification, and serious games, you will find blogs, articles, slide-shares, videos, and books in which the authors parse the differences among these concepts. Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball, is among those advocating that we exclude serious-gamified environments and include only pure game-mechanics in our definition of gamification.

Marginalizing the value of serious games seems completely ridiculous, given that serious games have been proven to help nudge middle adopters! For evidence of the value of serious-gamified environments, see the discussion by IBM's Phaedra Boinodiris and Michael Hugos’ book, Enterprise Games. You can also visit our website to review results our clients experience.

Controversy 2: Gamification only includes Digital Play.

In an April 2014 blog by Brian Burke of Gartnergamification was redefined to include digital play only. This, in turn, led to many heated web discussions on the subject.  In his blog, gamification expert Andrzej Marczewski pointedly wrote: “Gartner has now stated that gamification is nothing more than technology, and without technology, it is nothing.  Whilst we know that is nonsense, the readers of Gartner don’t.”

Excluding non-digital mechanisms from the definition of gamification is simply silly, because we have endless evidence that non-digital mechanisms help nudge middle adopters! While I cannot even begin to conjecture the reasons for Gartner’s denial of history, I can point to Ken Thompson of Bioteams, who makes the case for having non-digital games to address problems of fail-fast learning.

It boils down to this: Do the individuals, businesses, and organizations that we are trying to “nudge" care about these epistemological kerfuffles?  What they do care about are the following:

1. How do we acquire and retain customers?
2. How do we hire and retain employees?

These questions should lead us to gain a deeper understanding of how business processes work, and individuals learn and make decisions—and then we should use gamification to nudge customers to engage and adopt to our products and services faster, and to nudge employees to learn and adopt to change more quickly.

We’ve all heard the adage “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

As Gamification experts, we can be more helpful to our customers if we are more inclusive. Let’s ask what problem needs to be solved, and then figure out which tool in the gamification tool-kit is best-suited to fixing that problem.



1. “Speed Camera Lottery Wins VW Fun Theory Contest”; Jonathon Schultz; The New York Times; November 30, 2010

2. “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”; Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein; Penguin Books; February 24, 2009

3. Nudging the world toward smarter public policy: An interview with Richard Thaler”; Dan Lovallo and Allen Webb; McKinsey Quarterly; June 2011

Innovation and Roger's Curve

1. Diffusion of Innovations”; Everett M. Rogers; Glencoe: Free Press; 1962

2. Wikipedia page about Technology Adoption Lifecycle

3. “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Projects to Mainstream Customers”; Geoffrey Moore; Harperbusiness; Revised edition July 1999

4. “The Failure of Most Entrepreneurial Technological Innovations to Diffuse: What the Literatures Say”; E. O. Chukwuma-Nwuba; International Journal of Management Sciences; Volume 1, No. 11, 2013, pages 463-470

5. The diffusion of innovation in practice, Jean Hartley; CLIPS conference, Roskilde, November, 2013

Controversy 1: Serious games is not gamification

1. “Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification right”; Stebastian Deterding; Google Talks

2. “Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design (Voices That Matter)”; Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans; New Riders; 2012

3. “Gamification Can Work — Just Don’t Hire A Game Designer”; Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball; Techcrunch; December 8, 2012

4. “What’s the difference between Gamification and Serious Games?”; Andrzej Marczewski; Gamasutra; March 11, 2013

5. Wikipedia definition of Gamification

6. “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification”; Sebastian Deterding, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke; Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments Pages 9-15; ACM 2011

7. “Gamification, Game-based Learning, Serious Games: Any Difference?”; Kapil Bhasin; Learning Solutions Magazine; January 27, 2014

8. “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education”; Karl Kapp; Pfeiffer and ASTD, 2012.

9. Wikipedia definition of Serious Games

10. “Origins of Serious Games”; Damien Djaouti, Julian Alvarez, Jean-Pierre Jessel, Olivier Rampnoux; LudoScience; 2011

11. “Serious Games”, Clark C. Abt; Viking Press; 1970

12. “Smart Play: Phaedra Boinodiris on Serious Games”, American Scientist, Pizza Lunch Vimeo, May 25, 2010

13. “IBM at Play: Phaedra Boinodiris talks about Big Data and Serious Games”; Gabe Zichermann; Slideshare; April 2013

14. “These are not Serious Games!”; Abhijit Kadle; Upside Learning Blog; August 7, 2009

Controversy 2: Non-digital engagement is not Gamification

1. “Gartner Redefines Gamification”; Brian Burke; Gartner Blog; April 4, 2014

2. “A response to Gartner”; Andrzej Marczewski; April 5, 2014

3. “When is gamification not gamification?”; Andrzej Marczewski; October 18, 2012

4. “Defining gamification – what do people really think?”; Andrzej Marczewski; April 16, 2014

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