Gamification and Interface Design: How Game Elements Affect User Experience

It’s not easy for a video game to be successful. To create an engaging experience that not only persuades users to spend upwards of $60 per game, but also entices them to spend hours of their time is a truly impressive undertaking. To get it right, a myriad of elements must be fine-tuned and adjusted so that the sum of the parts creates such an entertaining experience that thousands, sometimes millions, of users purchase and play the game.

But despite this level of complexity, successful video games are not rare. In fact the industry rivals that of music and movies in terms of revenue, and every year more people become gamers. So what’s the secret? Continued excellence in user experience and interface design as well as the application of engagement elements. Video game elements are so effective at creating engagement that the application of these tactics has grown into its own industry that you’ve no doubt heard of by now – gamification.

While gamification is far from full fledged game design, it’s undeniable that using game elements can have a positive effect on user experience. The key is to find the right context, and the right design. What’s most interesting is the idea that game elements will eventually become integral to design, especially among customer loyalty programs, which leads us to examine where gamification is already prevalent in interface design and how it could influence design in the future.

Gamification that’s Already Happening

Progress, or tell me how much longer

A staple of full-fledged video games, the progress bar isn’t a revolutionary interface element – though it is an effective one. Users respond to signifiers of progress in video games and in interface design because progress is inherently motivating, and difficult to measure outside of the digital realm. In non-digital experiences, it can be difficult to precisely measure your progress, despite the fact that people are always curious how long something will take them.

video game graphic

For example: “How long did it take you to read this book,” or, “How long do I need to work here before I get promoted?”

These types of questions are relevant but difficult to quantify. Consequently, symbols of progress are highly sought after, making the interface elements that track and showcase advancement both refreshing and immediately appreciable. Whether in a video game or an ecommerce checkout.

Badges, or a worse word for Icons

Another prevalent design technique, placing icons beside hyperlinks, or making the icons hyperlinks themselves, often makes it more appealing to engage with navigational elements. While this type of illustrative symbol is referred to as a badge in gamification, the prevalence of the element overlaps with interface design, though subtle distinctions exist.

In gamification, badges are often metered out as rewards that symbolize a level of competence – yes, exactly the same as in the Boy Scouts. The overlapping design concept is the graphic representation of an action or idea. The ubiquitous chart icon implies a link to content that deals with statistics, for instance. The zombie escapist badge, meanwhile, broadcasts a particular adeptness at fleeing the undead.

Obviously, the two concepts don’t have to be separate in interface design. Badges, once earned, can be displayed on a user’s profile, as a symbol of progress, such as in the Xbox Live interface.

Game Elements on the Horizon

Personalization, or technology that knows you

As video game experiences have grown in complexity, game designers have started implementing features that react to the actions of the user, basically building a world that develops with the player. Similarly, newer design elements of gamification involve adjusting to the user’s actions and preferences. Facebook’s new Nearby Friends function is a notable example of personalization in social media (a software medium that actually uses a great deal of game elements).

This signals a move toward interface elements that personalize the user experience, whether it’s as complex as geolocation matching with nearby friends, or as simple as a header that greets the user by name after they login to a site. Personalization plays a powerful role in games because it feeds the user’s need for autonomy over their environment. The Web already allows a great deal of freedom in the way users navigate different interfaces, but personalization elements can be the critical factor in creating a meaningful connection between users, and a user experience.

Delight, or for the love of the game

Designing interfaces that provide users with joy isn’t a new concept for designers, but it can often take a backseat to function. Video games however must focus on delight while also implementing function, resulting in that oh-so-elusive experience of becoming completed enamored with a digital user experience. That’s one of the secrets to crafting an excellent video game: yes, the gameplay must be excellent, but so must the interface.


Gamification has always had this potential as well, though finding delight is often based more on the context in which game elements are used rather than any one specific design. Similarly, using gamification simply as a means to delight users is becoming more common in interface design. Google’s world cup logos are a prominent recent example.

For years, video games have been setting some of the highest standards for interface design. With the growing popularity of gamification, it seems likely that many more interfaces will feel like games in the future.

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  1. well it looks like i won’t be having writer’s block any time soon. that list of topics will take me a while to cover. thanks a lot Gabe. appreciate the help.

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