Does gamification work? Considering Hamari, Koivisto and Sarsa’s review

Drimify
5 min readJan 4, 2023

In a word, yes, gamification does indeed work. But is gamifying a process or path to a desired outcome always the best strategy? Will gamification always be effective?

The more measurable uses of gamification

The application of game mechanics has a lot of high-profile success stories in marketing and leisure. The M&Ms eye-spy pretzel game which helped launch their pretzel-flavoured variety is a standout example of getting eyes on a new product, and in the health and fitness space, “Strava or it didn’t happen,” has entered the language of multiple fitness subcultures.

More people are logging their activities to protect their streaks, entering virtual challenges, following interactive plans, being guided in meditation by an app, spinning to win, earning points to turn into prizes, and so on and so forth. If you do an activity in your leisure time, someone has probably tapped into the main intrinsic motivators that lead to engagement and used them to gamify some — or maybe all — elements of that activity. Gamification is a huge industry, and it touches the lives of nearly everyone participating in modern society, so you might be wondering, is the question of whether gamification works really still worth asking? Surely it’s self-evident that gamification works at this point?

Gamification in learning, training, and the workplace

It’s a fair assumption that the majority of people reading this will have engaged in some gamified learning or training experiences. They could have occurred during a recruitment process, answering questionnaires to assess aptitude, or even taking personality tests to decide which roles to apply for. They could also have been in the form of gamified workplace training, where participants work their way through interactive modules to learn about a new company, or to better understand some new legislation or changes to their job. And as there is still a relatively small amount of publicly available research to quantify how efficient those gamified experiences are at engaging minds and encouraging desired behaviours — specifically in an educational or professional training environment — it might still be worth asking, “Does gamification work?”

The work of Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto and Harri Sarsa

In this article, we’ll be looking at the paper “Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification” (Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, Harri Sarsa, 2014). Fundamentally, their literature review suggests that well-thought out gamification strategies are effective in educational and professional training environments (among others), but that their success depends greatly on context. We’ll break down the paper’s findings, and look at how the gamification space has evolved since its publication.

The study’s caveats and considerations

Despite Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa writing their paper back in 2014, their work is still widely referenced and talked about to this day, making it a relevant and impactful touchstone when talking about the efficacy of gamification. There have obviously been huge advancements in technology since then. The hardware and the software involved in gamification has improved, and so has the gamification industry’s understanding of how to optimise their games for various audiences and purposes.

The authors expressed surprise that of all the peer-reviewed studies on gamification available to incorporate into their framework, none were “explicitly conducted” within a marketing setting. It’s logical to assume that as an area of study, the success of gamification in a marketing setting is quite easy to quantify and quite easy to come by. It either puts eyes on a product and generates buzz, or it doesn’t. If it does, it’s public knowledge, and there’s a good chance its successes have been publicised and repeated.

From an academic point of view, this probably wouldn’t make for as valuable a study as one on gamification solutions which might seem harder to measure and feature less in the public eye, such as for corporate training, education, e-learning, or outreach efforts. Of the studies reviewed, 37.5% were categorised in the context of education and learning, 16.7% in intra-organisational systems, and 16.7% in work. The other listed categories only offered up one or two peer-reviewed studies apiece.

So does gamification work according to academia?

Ultimately, yes. Out of 24 empirical case studies, Hamari et al. concluded:

Most of the reviewed papers reported positive results for some of the motivational affordances of the gamification implementations studied.

All told, 62.5% of the case studies reported positive results. Hamari et al added:

The effects are greatly dependent on the context in which the gamification is being implemented, as well as on the users using it.

The future of gamification is bright

The future of gamification is bright

As mentioned earlier in this article, gamification has moved on a lot over the last few years, both in technological advancement and the industry’s understanding of how to gamify in different contexts. Hamari et al. acknowledge that gamification was a relatively young topic of study when they wrote their paper, and the same is true now.

Even more recent papers, such as “Gamification in the Workplace: A Systematic Literature Review” (Ana Teresa Ferreira-Oliveira, Alexandra M. Araújo, Sandra Raquel Gonçalves Fernandes, Isabel Miguel, 2022), cite a lack of existing material to review due to the nature of gamification’s status as a fairly new field of study.

Ultimately, we can infer a C-grade across the board for gamification by Hamari, Koivisto and Sarsa in 2014, but this doesn’t do justice to the well-executed gamification strategies some of the reviewed papers were concerned with. The studies reporting no positive effects were probably poorly implemented, or not considered properly, bringing that average grade down. As a discipline and an industry (more so than a field of academic study), gamification keeps evolving, and keeps finding itself optimised in more and more environments.

The fact that so many big and successful corporations are broadly uptaking gamification into their inner workings should be seen as a ringing endorsement of the practice.

Get help from the gamification experts

The nature of gamification is dynamic. A good gamification strategy captures data to inform its development. To have been delivering mostly positive results in 2014 speaks volumes about the possibilities of today’s gamification platforms and solutions.

Get in touch with Drimify to get the Drimteam expertise. If you’re in any doubt or in need of advice about how gamification can enhance your organisation’s training and operations, contact us to talk about your project in more detail.

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