Product Design

Let's move on from badges and points: the psychology of fun

By Nicholas Gracilla  ·   March 16, 2013  ·  3 minute read

Topics: Strategy

Bringing the psychology of game design and the architecture of fun into application design can lead to engaged customers, greater learning and retention, and increased loyalty. 

In my mind, gamification—the adding on of game-like features to products—has been a bit cliché in application design. Too often I hear about products that attempt to glean the benefits of game-style motivation by tacking on external irrelevant features like points or badges. 

Nicole Lazzaro, Founder of XeoDesign, persuasively argues otherwise. In her short but compelling presentation during the Lean Startup sessions at SXSW, she 1) demonstrates the positive benefits that come from the happy brain states brought on by gaming, 2) identifies the core attributes of the psychology of fun game-like experiences, and 3) lays out an architecture of player experiences that shows their different orientations and outcomes. 

Why think about game design at all? 

When a brain is engaged in a game, it’s emotionally engaged and happy, too. There’s an actual ROI on positive emotional brain states. According to Christine Comaford in a recent Forbes article, the happy, emotionally engaged brain is 50% more productive, more creative, and more interested — retention, learning, and curiosity are all bolstered. So, if we accept that play builds skills and leads to greater engagement and happiness, then user experiences that build upon this bring these benefits forward as well. 

This was a major theme for me throughout SXSW: the background context to conscious decision making is deeply, fundamentally emotional. We’re conscious of just a fraction of the decisions we make throughout the day. The majority of decisions are happening at a pre-conscious, emotionally driven level. 

What’s the psychology of fun? 

It’s way more than points and badges. Great games offer a mechanics that: 


  • Simplifies the world
  • Suspends consequences
  • Amplifies feedback, and 
  • Sets clear goals in achievable steps


We recently launched a product into beta for UC Davis' Koret Shelter Medicine Program that utilizes a number of these features to transform what could be an otherwise lengthly and tedious survey of animal shelter practices into something fun, enjoyable, and educational. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Users are engaged, having fun, and learning too. 

What’s the architecture of fun? 

Lazzaro surmises, through contextual interviews with people playing their favorite games, that fun comes in four major kinds (see her great infographic for more details): 

Easy Fun : fosters feelings of curiosity, novelty, surprise, and wonder; its exploratory and creative, with few negative consequences. 

Serious Fun : fosters excitement, and provides meaning and value. It’s physically associated with repetition, rhythm, and collection, and creates feelings of relaxation, zen focus and excitement. 

Hard Fun : fosters filings of frustration and relief, is focused on skills and challenges, and is physically associated with strategy, obstacles, and goals. 

People Fun : fosters feeling of admiration, amusement, and camaraderie. It’s physically associated with actions of cooperation, communication, and competition, less focused on skills, and more focused on groups and social bonding. 

What’s the bottom line? 

Imagine transforming something dull, like necessary data entry, into something fun and game like through these principles. You’d benefit from increase adoption, greater accuracy, and overall happiness and satisfaction with the software. 

Lazzaro points out that the same goes for an office culture. When a team moves forward, accomplishing clear goals, receives feedback, and is in a trusting environment to allow for experimentation, success, and error, then both minds and hearts are engaged in the work place. 

I’m looking forward to learning more about the psychology of games, and thinking more about player experiences.

Neoteric Design helps businesses plan, develop, and improve websites and web applications. We are experts at modern content management systems, user experience design, Ruby on Rails web applications, and API-driven integrations. We clarify business challenges, develop user-centered solutions, and deliver high-quality, well-tested work ready for ongoing growth.

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