The Gamification of Mobile Apps

September 30, 2011 by Lisa Oshima | Developers, Mobile, Monetization, Social Media

In 2010, the most over-used buzz words in my more mobile-focused circles were “monetization” and “virality”. This year’s buzz word bingo winners are  “gamification” and “gaming mechanics,” which encompass both “monetization” and creating “virality.”  The mobile world is quickly catching on to what the gamers and social web folks have known for a long time – one of the best ways to get people to use your app is to improve engagement through gamification. While these two words are often over-used, it’s with good reason. Introducing gaming mechanics into your app can help drive usage in the short, medium, and long term.

In 2009 I wrote an article on how virality is broken in mobile and what to do to fix it.  A lot has changed since then including that creating virality in mobile is getting easier. As more people adopt iOS, Android, and HTML5, fragmentation appears to be less of a problem (although it still is one).  It’s getting easier to find ways to create virality in apps, and developers are getting more and more creative in the ways that they engage users – particularly through the introduction of gaming mechanics.

There are many dynamics that drive game play, but these four appear to me to be the most effective in non-gaming settings, like mobile:

  1. Appointment: This is enticing someone to be at a specific place at a specific time.  All of the “ville” games by Zynga do this… Farmville, Cityville, etc.  They require users to complete a certain task at a specific time or risk losing something (i.e. water your plants now, or they’ll wilt).  Groupon Now is also a good example of this… Users must act quickly, or they’ll lose out on an opportunity. Scarcity is a great motivator. This works not only with games and offers, but also with things like medical apps. I’ve heard of several apps that are either out there or coming soon that remind users to take their medicine on time, or test their blood sugar on time (for diabetics), using this mechanic.


  1. Influence and status: As much I wish we weren’t, people are inherently status driven. This gaming mechanic works by giving users some level of status to aspire to. FourSquare’s badging concept is a good example of this dynamic… If you visit a specific venue more than anyone else, you become “The Mayor,” which encourages repeat check-ins, and users are encouraged to participate in quests that can earn them other status badges.  Retailers do this too… Sephora, for example, offers VIB (Very Important Beauty Insider) status to shoppers that spend more than $350 in a calendar year, which entitles those users to perks like product discounts, early access to new products, invitations to exclusive shopping events, and more.  Users should be able to earn status by buying it, or investing enough time in a game that they earn it (while the developer earns user loyalty and revenue from advertising).
  1. Progression: People are motivated by the desire to move ahead. This gaming mechanic seeks to motivate to get through a certain number of steps.  Companies like LinkedIn use this mechanic to encourage people to complete their online profile by showing an incomplete status bar.  The concept of “leveling up” in a game is standard practice… From the early days of Super Mario Brothers to the more modern MMPOGs like World of Warcraft, giving people the feeling that they’ve progressed/ achieved something gives them a reason to come back. These “epic” or “achievement” moments encourage users to keep coming back
  1. Communal discovery/ shared experience: Most people are generally motivated by shared social experiences. Giving people a common goal and asking them to work together to achieve it often brings that group closer together.  Similarly when users see their friends doing something that looks like fun, they want to try it.  #4 can be used really effectively with #2 (Influence and Status) to drive users in social groups towards a desired action like regular visits, buying virtual goods, etc.

Seth Priebatsch did a great presentation touching on all of these mechanics at TED last year, but there are a ton of others out there that can successfully be incorporated into mobile.  Companies like OpenFeint (Gree), Beintoo, Kiip, and others are trying to drive these and other gaming mechanics into mobile experiences. So, while “gaming mechanics” and “gamification” have become THE buzzword bingo words of 2011, in talking to many of the mobile app developers i know, it appears to be for good reason. These techniques are working to successfully drive repeat and increased usage of mobile apps for many developers.

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