Theory of Gamification - July 23, 2021


In this article we'll go back in time to understand when gamification was born, who coined the term and which personalities helped its spread.

Today’s hypercompetitive environment pushed entrepreneurs to look for new ways to emerge. Gamification became an inspirational source to look up to embed in one’s business. If you take a look around, you might notice examples of  gamified structures maybe in your running app, in education or in the loyalty program of your favourite coffee shop. But it wasn’t always like this: believe it or not, the first gamification personalities weren’t taken seriously when they exclaimed: “Ok guys, let’s play a game now!”

In this article we’ll travel back in the history of gamification to discover how “fun and games” became the new “serious and business” and who were the main figures who gave relevance to the subject.

Hop on our (borrowed) time machine!

de lorean time car

The 70s & 80s

In 1978 the first multiplayer game was invented. 

In 1978, two brilliant young students invented the future of video games, not in a garage, but in a university computer lab in Essex, UK.  Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle conceived the Multi-User Dungeon – or simply MUD – a text-based adventure. This was the first time an adventure could be played by more than a player. 

Trubshaw had already started working on MUD, when Bartle added the “game component”. Indeed, Mud was originally intended to be more of a virtual world than a game.  But Bartle was a keen computer game player and took inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons for the interactions in the multi-user dungeon. 

“You can’t imagine what it was like, you were playing a game and suddenly another real person would enter.”

R. Bartle

In an interesting and melancholic interview to the Guardian, Bartle explains how repressive the society was at the time and how easily one would be put in a box. Therefore MUD was conceived with the intention of unleashing people’s real self and helping them to shed what was holding them back. You could be whoever you wanted to be, thanks to the avatar transformation.

Today Bartle is a professor in the Essex University where he teaches game design. He still advocates that games have a positive impact on society and they are especially empowering for people who feel oppressed by it. In games, he sees a model for tolerance and ethical behaviour.

Although this discovery may seem not strictly correlated with the history of gamification, it gave an immense contribution to the concept of community creation and competition between players.

In the same year: the Bee Gees sang “Stayin’ alive” while John Travolta brushed his hair with “Grease”.

vintage games, cassettes and consoles
Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

In 1980 Professor Malone published the paper “What makes things fun to learn”

Thomas W. Malone (born in ‘52) is an american organizational theorist and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. With more than 50 articles and 40 years of experience, he was one of the first to publish in the nascent field of video game design, in the 80s. 

His paper aims at answering two questions: 

  • Why are computer games so captivating
  • Which of their features would make learning more captivating as well?

Considering that at that time, the video game industry was not as flourishing as today and was maybe also strictly confined to the ludic world,  Malone was ahead of his times. 

Analysing two specific games in particular, “Breakout” and “Darts”, he concluded that three dimensions are very important to stimulate intrinsic motivation:

  • Challenges
  • Fantasy
  • Curiosity

The paper was the first to claim the importance of game elements in education and learning processes.

But this is not the right place to dive into the Motivational Theory. You can read more about it in the articles coming. 

Malone’s theory would be the first milestone in the history of gamification.

In the same year: Pink Floyd wrote “Another Brick in the Wall”; Dallas was very popular  and Robert Ludlum wrote “The Bourne Identity”

In 1984 the first theory of gamification applied in business. 

the game of work book cover

That year Charles Coonradt wrote “The Game of Work”. In the book he sought to understand why people would put 100% effort into sports instead of work. After all, they gain money out of it…

He claimed that the secret were five key principles of gaming:

  • Clearly defined goals
  • Better scorekeeping and scorecards
  • More frequent feedback
  • A higher degree of personal choice of methods
  • Consistent coaching

In other words, he discovered that when you give people constant and immediate feedback on their performance, their improvement and motivation accelerates. 

“If you even wait until the end of the month to provide feedback, you have basically done nothing to move the needle on behavioral change. All sports and recreational activities offer immediate feedback to drive success.”

The scorecards and goals are classic methods used to give immediate feedback. 

In the same year: Culture Club records the hit “Karma Chameleon”. Many cult movies came out such as Ghostbusters, Footloose and Gremlins; meanwhile AIDS begins spreading.

More to come

In the next article, we’ll continue travelling through history, discovering when the term gamification was first introduced, covering the 90s and the first 10 years of the millennium. 

See you in the nineties!

Share with:

Was this article helpful?

Related Posts

Theory of Gamification - July 26, 2021


Welcome back time-traveller! If you landed here in the nineties, you’re probably coming from The History of Gamification – Part one where we talked about the first historical pillars of gamification. If not, may…