Using Gamification in Federal Projects

Nov 30, 2012
Vector contest banners in flat style winners

Gamification is the practice of using game technology or design principles for something that is not inherently game-like. Some examples include: bronze, silver, and gold badges for reading a set number of books, progress bars in online surveys, leader boards for top grades on an exam, or rewards for attending in-person events. As gamification projects are becoming increasing common in the government, here are some basic principles and policies to help program managers and project directors make informed decisions around this popular technique.

Gamification should not be confused with serious games—games that are designed to teach, motivate, practice or train for interactive simulations. Instead gamification uses the psychology and philosophy of video games employed by video game designers to motivate behavior. Gamification also tends to involve leveraging social media. This can also be used as a feedback loop. For example, allowing users to perform an activity that trigger a bonus for both encourages users to motivate each other to contribute.

Why It’s Important

Consider using gamification when you are trying to motivate behavior, reach a general public audience, build community, or reach non-traditional learners. It should be used only where appropriate. For example, if you are trying to increase business participation in a webinar it would be appropriate. However, some formal regulatory processes would be a poor fit.

How to Implement

Design Principles
Social Connector icon from gamification concept achievement icons

Some common design principles include: leader boards, achievements, and virtual assets. Consider adding social aspects into the “game” to increase its longevity and user engagement.

  • Avoid kill-and-drill: Some game-based projects rely on gameplay or activities that are interspersed with learning. For example, the game might allow students to shoot monsters only to have the game pause and force the student to solve a math problem in order to continue. While this is game-like, it’s not taking advantage of the psychology of games. Generally speaking, this is not very effective. Students will not play it for “fun”—they have products that compete for their time and have no reason to choose this product. In addition, during the shooting portion they are not learning math. Consider alternative approaches to merging game aspects and the learning activity. For example, as a student completes math problems, a progress meter fills. When it is filled to 100 percent, the student gets an award that is displayed on his or her Facebook page.
  • Social: Gamification often leverages a social aspect such as comparing scores to encourage competition and motivate action towards a desired goal. If the gamification campaign design is solitary (single player), consider incorporating a social media campaign around it that leverages augmented reality. For example, participants could be encouraged to visit a physical location, such as an endangered estuary (for learning), and receive a code that gives them a reward on a social media site.
  • Currency and financial issues: Many platforms and systems are increasingly tied to financial transactions, such as in-app-purchases or marketplaces. Project champions should be aware that making use of many of these frameworks might involve financial issues for the end users. For example, a developer might want to enable in-app-purchases inside a system. There is no law against this, but it may require working with the agency’s General Counsel to ensure legal obligations are met.


Procurement can be a great challenge. It is critical that the right mix of skills be present for the project to be successful. The project lead or champion should be someone who is comfortable with game design.

Device Neutral

While it is desirable to build for all devices, this is often unrealistic. If resources are constrained, the project champion should use metrics to determine what the expected audience is using and then build to that system.


Integration of applications with social media or requiring registration (useful for leader boards or other competitive approaches) may have privacy impacts. Be sure to consult with your agency’s Privacy Officer and/or General Counsel when developing the project plan.


The evaluation of gamification projects can be very difficult. However, the project champion should design a robust evaluation that follows metrics (not qualitative user feedback) to make informed decisions about how to improve the process and experience.