The Gamification Equation

super mega achieverI’ve had the fortune to work on a lot of “gamification” systems in my career: reputation, badges, leaderboards, levels, etc. While all of them are very different, they all work because of a few underlying attributes. I’ve tried to simplify this into a single pseudo-equation to make it easier to explain and break down and, while the usual disclaimer applies, this is what I’ve come up with:


Game dynamics, motivation, engagement—whatever you want to call it—this equation can help you architect frequent, repeated, and in-depth community engagement. So, to break it down:


Fun is one of the most basic reasons to do anything. Playing tetris, going down water slides, attending the circus—these things have inherent joy and are easy to pick up…but equally easy to put down. You’ll probably come back to them time and time again over the years, but probably only sporadically. This is generally a completed instant gratification and becomes an end in itself.


Compulsion is also one of the most basic reasons we do anything. Going to work or harvesting crops in Farmville aren’t necessarily “fun,” but you’re driven to do them by internal or external motivations. You’ll come back to these activities frequently, but probably not for the long haul.  This is an incompleted instant gratification because you start an action (go to work, plant Farmville crops) but need to come back again to realize the gratification (a paycheck, harvesting crops).

Fun and compulsion are the basic motivators in life for frequent, long term engagement in anything. Some things are pure fun or pure compulsion, but most things have some degree of both. Fun without compulsion is fluff and doesn’t hold our attention. Compulsion without fun is addiction and will cause burnout. Things that are fun and compulsive are things that we’ll do forever and want to do it on a regular(ish) basis. But that’s only base motivation. We can do better than that by adding a few things:


Recognition is all about ego and self worth. If people share this article (which you should!) then I’m going to feel good and be motivated to write more. It gives me satisfaction that my peers thought that something I did was good enough to be worth their time and the attention of their friends, followers and peers. Recognition is an incredibly powerful motivator with the ability to multiply the power of fun and compulsion. Badges, leaderboards, Facebook “likes”—these are all ways that we show off and get recognition for doing something.

Network Density

But of course, recognition doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Recognition only works if someone is doing the recognizing, and this is where network density comes in. I’ve written about Network Density here before, but the general idea is that the tighter knit a group, the more meaningful the recognition. My friends and this community of community managers are fairly small, tight knit groups and so what they think of me matters a lot. Coworkers in a big corporation are a looser network and so people care a bit less about what their coworkers think. Random people on the street (who are a part of the very large, very sparse network that is your city) don’t even register on most people’s radars. Most people put a lot of stock in what others think about them, and the closer that “other” is, the more someone generally cares what they think. The more dense the network and the more specific the recognition is to that network, the exponentially more meaningful it is.


  • If something is pure fun we’ll do it sporadically our whole lives.
  • If it’s purely compulsive we’ll do it frequently for a short period of time.
  • If we’re getting recognized for that action, we’ll be more eager to do more of it.
  • If we get recognized by a tight group of people who we care about we will be exponentially motivated to do a lot more of it.

That Guy

But there’s always the “that guy” factor. We all know who that guy is—the person who makes everything just that little bit worse, either intentionally or not. This person makes everything worse. A lot worse. If you’re a LARPer because it’s fun and compulsive, you’re the head of your guild and all your friends are from your LARPing group you’re going to do a lot of LARPing…but there’s always that guy that will mock you for dressing up in a wizard outfit and throwing pingpong balls whilst shouting “lightning bolt.” That guy can ruin your experience and really demotivate you from doing it again, maybe to the point of never doing it again. It’s trolls in online communities, it’s the “no but” person in an argument, it’s the awkward family member at Thanksgiving…there’s always someone who’s going to make the experience worse. It’s why we have moderators, police, and others to keep “that guy” in check.

All of these elements alone can be good motivators, but put together they can make your product, community, interaction, or campaign significantly more awesome. If you’re in charge or designing or improving a motivation or gamification system for engagement, try asking where the fun is and optimizing that, then moving on to compulsion, recognition etc.

But, be careful that you’re finding the fun in the activity and not putting fun on the activity—otherwise you risk demotivating people over the long run. But that’s for another blog post.

Every part of this “equation” is, of course, an over-simplification of another equation. But at a high level you find these elements in almost everything in life. If this equation makes sense and you can apply it to what you do in your community building, then you’ll probably do well.

As with everything, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback and if you can break or improve the equation then it benefits us all. So please, feedback, challenges, suggestions—let’s discuss below. Just please don’t be that guy

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About the author

Justin Isaf

Justin is a community management consultant. He founded Communl which mentors and trains in-house community managers to make them more awesome. He has been doing the community management "thing" since 2003, which has including everything from launching communities from scratch to running the largest actively managed community on the interwebs.


"I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism."
(charles Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation)

DavidSpinks moderator

Really like this thinking Justin.  Couple thoughts/questions:

Say I wanted to actually put this equation into practice to measure the success of my community or gamification system. How would I apply actual numbers to this? Can you provide an example?

I found it interesting the network density seems to greatly outweigh all other factors. So even if fun, compulsion and recognition are relatively low, but you have a very high network density, you'll still find the system to be successful. Is that accurate?


@DavidSpinks  great questions

I don't think this is useful for measuring the output (success) of a community or gamification system, so much as it is intended for designing the input (features, psychology, etc) of the system. You'd measure other things to see if this is working (i.e. the specific actions that you are trying to incentivize) 

As for Network Density, just like in a real equation, it's simply an exponential multiplier on what you're doing elsewhere. Higher Network Density makes the Fun, Compulsion and Recognition mean a lot more...on it's own it means relatively little. A bunch of friends sitting around doing nothing is still doing nothing and can be pretty boring, but playing computer games (fun) with friends is usually a lot more fun than playing alone.