The Truth About Gamification

We see gamification all over the place on the web and mobile. We are collecting followers in Twitter, likes in Instagram, levels in Candy Crush (I don't play Candy Crush but I know people who d0), and mayorships in Foursquare. People like playing games.

But as the folks from Stack Overflow say in their fifth birthday post on Stack Overflow,

gamification has never gotten a single person do anything they didn’t already basically like to do

When I read that line, it struck me as basic truth. Gamification can amplify things people already like to do. But it cannot get someone to do something they aren't inclined to do in the first place.

So as we design gamification into our apps, games, and lives, it's worth understanding what it can and can't do and what it is good for and what it is not good for.

And a big happy birthday to Stack. Five years, five million programming questions answered. And those answers are viewed by 45 million people a month. I didn't realize there were that many programmers in the world. Maybe services like Stack are making it easier to be a programmer and the number of programmers is growing as a result. Hmmmm.

#Games#hacking education

Comments (Archived):

  1. jason wright

    didn’t FS move on from ‘mayor’ a while back?gamification often seems like gilding the lily, on a product or service that isn’t really a lily, and that lacks core utility for enough people to gain critical mass.

    1. fredwilson

      you can still be the mayor of venues in foursquarei am currently the mayor of fifteen of them…

  2. Barry Nolan

    As a ‘non-technical’ co-founder, Stack is invaluable to me in answering in advance my all too frequent product itches.I really recommend Jason’s interview with Joel here: http://thisweekinstartups.c

  3. Joseph Valente

    You’re absolutely right, and I think this is part of the reason that Stack Exchange has been so many times more popular than the other Stack Overflow sites – the desire to answer questions is much stronger in the technical (especially software) community than in other verticals. You only need to look at how many thriving technology communities there are on SO to see that.Lawyers, doctors, accountants and other people who charge for advice, or charge people to answer questions hate the idea of answering people’s questions for free because of the feeling that it devalues what they already do. Attempts to change this feeling by ‘gamifying’ the behaviour won’t work because culturally it doesn’t gel with the behaviour of people in those professions. Regulation often plays a big part in this as well, as the act of answering someone’s question can often create liabilities for professionals that aren’t covered by their insurance if it is construed as advice (hence why you see disclaimers after almost every legal advice like post on SO or Quora).It reminds me of something else I read, which is that you should never have to convince the customer why they should behave in a certain way. Having to change or evangelise a behaviour amongst your customers is a sure fire way to waste a lot of time that you don’t have.

    1. LE

      Lawyers, doctors, accountants and other people who charge for advice, or charge people to answer questions hate the idea of answering people’s questions for free because of the feeling that it devalues what they already do.Whoa.Maybe it’s also because they have to earn a fucking a living and realize that they can’t spend time to help people for free? That feeling good doesn’t pay the bills?Also you have to remember that there are actually questions that to answer require more info than can be presented in a two line request and a pattern in thinking that isn’t doesn’t result in a simple “here is how you do that”.Programming is one of those things that probably lends itself more to a short answer to the question “How do I sanitize php input values” than a question like “should I lease or buy my car” or “should I form an LLC or a Sub S” etc. Or “I have a pain in my tooth and my dentist says I should do X what do you think”? (Great – can I see the xrays before I answer that question?)

      1. falicon

        Agree. It’s math questions vs. philosophy questions…one has an agreed upon/factual answer…the other requires a conversation, possible a debate (and possibly some wine) and still likely won’t have a consensus…

      2. Joseph Valente

        I think what I was getting at was that programmers need to make a living too, and yet they seem to love answering questions for free and often see it as lead generation. This is because they’re not paid to answer questions whereas lawyers and doctors are.Also I agree with your idea that programming questions easier to answer with a short reply – probably another reason why they work so well.

  4. Andrzej Marczewski

    The point is that the gamificaiton here had other uses. It helped other find out who the most active users in particular fields are. It shows who excels at certain things, so thenin turn shows (potentially) how effective their answers will be. The other things is that it has amplifed what those users are doing.Stackexchange works because people are much more altruistic than we give them credit for – they thrive on purpose! The points and badges are nice pats on the back – but little more for most.No one with any sense is going to claim gamification can make you do things you don’t want to do. It can make boring things more bareable for a time and it can encourage you to repeat things you were already doing. That is where the power lies. If you have to force people to do somthing, the thing itself is broken!

  5. kidmercury

    Stack might be my favorite company youve ever invested in. They truly understand how people learn.Gamification can get people to do what they dont like, but then its a negative and is often referred to as “gaming the system.” I.e. I might sign up for extracurricular school activities I dont care about so I can earn extra recognition that will help me get into college (do they still have national honor society or am I too old?). I migth game the system in that case and sign up for something that I dont care about like the yearbook club (assuming they still have yearbooks)

    1. falicon

      I love Stack as well…and they continue to kill it…but if there is any one company that is at the mercy of Google it’s them (they don’t even have their solid search within their own network of sites!)

      1. Cam MacRae

        Word. It’s not a destination site for me. If it ain’t in the first SERP I’d probably never get there.

        1. LE

          Agree. Same here.

      2. kidmercury

        yup, basically an app built on top of google……i’m down with that strategy, though one has to be careful and look to de-risk it……

      3. Elia Freedman

        Forget what I said below. You are absolutely right. I misinterpreted what you said. Mercy meaning “search” not mercy meaning “business model.”I’m not certain I agree, there are tons of question and answer sites. What makes Stack Overflow amazing is the quality of results with the ratings for best answer. Yes, I go through Google to search it because it is better, but if I see ten search results I always go to the SO posts first.

        1. LE

          Interesting I don’t. I prefer a long form article in a traditional format and presentation.

        2. falicon

          They almost always have the best answer, but if it’s in the woods next to a pile of bear skat and none of us can find it…it doesn’t matter how good the answer is.I’m a fanboy of Stack…but when I have a problem (tech or not), I google it…if stack is in the results I follow that link…if it’s not, I follow another…and that’s the problem. The second that google decides (for whatever reason) not to put Stack in that list, it’s essential dead to me…not because I want it to be, but because that is my learned behavior now…BTW – I believe Stack’s profits are mostly around recruiting and from what I hear, they are killing it there…so as long as they can continue to bring the eyeballs (via google), I think they are in great shape…ultimately it’s not much different than any other SEO company, they just aren’t traditional ‘ads’ and their content is *way* higher quality.

          1. kidmercury

            textbook longtail SEO play. belongs in the SEO hall of fame. no one can touch wikipedia, but stack is cream of the crop amongst for-profit ventures. yelp also has killer SEO, but i don’t like yelp’s business model and don’t believe in it. i’m def more bullish on stack in all regards.

      4. LE

        Yeah even at that it doesn’t even come up for many of the things I search for surprisingly.

      5. fredwilson

        they are a google bitch on the demand side of their market.

        1. falicon


    2. fredwilson

      wow. that’s high praise coming from you Kid. made my day.

      1. kidmercury

        in light of how much i’ve learned from stack, at such little cost, it’s the least i can do!

  6. William Mougayar

    Gamification is a good engagement strategy, but if the benefits aren’t there, users won’t change their behaviors. That’s fake engagement or badge puking.If it’s well done, it works because it taps into core human drivers: competition, collaboration, social connection, status seeking, goal setting, rewards, mastery building, etc..But it must be tied to a real benefit that we can value.

    1. pointsnfigures

      totally agree 100%. I never got the gamification thing as an incentive to do something. You might get a user once, and then you are hoping that they stay with it. Hope isn’t a strategy.

      1. William Mougayar

        yup. it’s easy to hook someone with anything. retention only happens if there’s substance or something beneath.I saw some stats once that if engagement drops within 45 days after a gamified activation, that’s it, they’re gone.

    2. awaldstein

      The success of socialization for me has less to do with value than with the paring of what we do and how we do it.School in a lecture hall. School in an open discussion with full reign to human interactions captures it for me.Value is of course key. But value is part of how things are bought or learned as much as what is received.When it works, this is what it does.

      1. William Mougayar

        “value is in the eyes of the beholder”?

        1. awaldstein

          Marketings job has always been to bridge the gap between what you sell and what the customer knows they are buying.So–to your question, most certainly yes.

          1. William Mougayar

            You’re setting me up to share my post 🙂 “You can hack your growth, but don’t hack your marketing”http://startupmanagement.or…

    3. kevando

      ^ This.”Gamification” => Making something fun => Engagement => ? => Profit!

      1. William Mougayar

        Exactly. From Cory Doctorow, For the Win:A certain amount of difficulty + a certain amount of friends + a certain amount of interesting strangers + a certain amount of reward + a certain amount of opportunity = The economics of fun

  7. the_infonaut

    Think that’s probably true of business in general?The best businesses unlock or amplify underlying needs, wants & desires, rather than create them.I’m sure someone will offer examples where I’m wrong, but I think as a general rule…

  8. LIAD

    People don’t start out wanting to kill/rape/pillage. Put them in front of Grand Theft Auto. Reward the desired (albeit bad) behaviour and look what you can achieve.Gamification offers both carrot and stick, reward and punishment. Offer the right mix and pull the correct levers and people will jump through hoops all day long. We are but easily impressionable mice.Even if Stack is right and I can’t get you to do what you don’t want to do, I can definitely do the inverse and use gamification to stop you from doing what you do want to do. Speeding points on driving license. 3 strikes and detention at school. downvotes for offensive comments etc.

    1. Joseph Valente

      I do think that there’s a big difference between actual games and gamified experiences. One is a pure fantasy which draws different kinds of reactions out of people whereas the other builds upon reality. If you gamified some kind of antisocial (but not illegal) real world behaviour like trolling, you still wouldn’t see ordinary people taking up the activity.At the end of the day, speeding points and detentions work because people intrinsically believe them to be wrong so they see the punishments as just. When there’s a discord there you get social unrest and people rebelling against the punishments. I think good web companies get this too – they need to do more than just rewarding the desired behaviour, they need to tap something inside the customer’s mind.

      1. LIAD

        1. gamification is a terrific force-multiplier. it’s in our interests to piggy-back off an existing desire/behaviour rather than try and create a new one. we already know most can be distilled into one of the 7 deadly sins.2. ton of social experiments show rewarding terrible behaviour encourages it

      2. awaldstein

        Games like movies work because we suspend disbelief to engage.Not so with on the social nets for me. We are not suspending disbelief to engage here, we are adopting it as an extension, a virtualization which carries very different criteria with it.

    2. CJ

      Right video games create criminals just like movies and music and…

  9. Brandon Burns

    E-commerce could use some gamification; it can actually use all kinds of UX enhancements, but it doesn’t seem to be an area where the best talent wants to play.We’re gamifying the checkout on Shopping cart abandonment is maybe the single largest problem for a lot of folks who sell online. I’m anxious to see how a couple, simple game design elements will affect our conversion rate when we launch Nov 5.

  10. awaldstein

    The best social nets simply platform behaviors that were already there.True for Stack, true for Facebook and Twitter certainly as well.Changing consumer behavior and educating the masses are acts of marketing madness. There are shorter ways around the block.

  11. chrispa

    re: Stack and becoming a programmer – it absolutely makes it easier to be/become a programmer. I started teaching myself Rails at the beginning of this year (I had a background in html/css.) I’ve got one app live in production and another that I’m tinkering with. Stack has been the #1 most important resource for solving my problems.

    1. Russell

      Yes agreed! has been a huge help and codeacademy as well. Both paid and free education are stepping up their game!

    2. falicon

      +100 and congrats on your progress…you should share a link to your production app so we can all check it out!

      1. chrispa

        Thanks @falicon:disqus! it’s – a SaaS product that helps independent fitness instructors track the passes they sell and class attendance.I’ve got a LONG way to go as a programmer (which is partly what is so great about it), but the ability to get ‘unstuck’ with Stack has been a big help.BTW – love Coach Wizard. That’s a great idea.

        1. falicon

          Awesome! We should def. chat as what you are working on is def. inline with some of the things I’m working on/thinking about around coach wizard (my email is info at falicon dot com — drop me a line when you have time. Thanks!)

          1. markslater

            hey we should all talk! Chris – we are agregating the demand that meets the supply issues you are solving. We’ll send more people to your instructors through API.@falicon we have a company here called coachup….familiar?

          2. falicon

            I’ve checked out coachup a bit, I think it’s a great idea.What I’m currently building is more about helping coaches become more efficient and effective coaches (and help *anyone* learn to be coach with positive results)…so not really a competitor to what coachup is doing, but def. a value-add that I hope their private coaches will also use some day 🙂

          3. markslater

            brill – I share my CFO with them so if you ever want an intro just let me know.

    3. Elia Freedman

      You are so right. Been learning Javascript and don’t know what I would have done without Stack Overflow. My technical partner and I were trying to remember how you learned this stuff before the web. We remember the piles of books and the shopping at Borders or Barnes and Noble, hoping one of them had an answer. Now, almost every question I have is at SO and if it isn’t there, I ask and generally have an answer within a half hour. Amazing resource.

      1. andyidsinga

        “use strict”;that is all

        1. Elia Freedman

          Oh, sure. Now you tell me, now that it is all working. It even runs on IE9 and above! 🙂

    4. Peter

      I code Microsoft Dynamics CRM for a living. For all the community investment and incentives Microsoft gives people to use their community I still get about 50% of my answers from Stackoverflow. Oftentimes they are by far the best and most thought through. Amazing.

      1. fredwilson

        this thread is turning into an “i love stack” partyand that makes me very happy!

        1. sigmaalgebra

          I agree on the utility of SO forprogramming.How do they keep the qualityof the content so high?

    5. fredwilson


  12. Andrew Kennedy

    “gamification has never gotten a single person do anything they didn’t already basically like to do” #TruthIt’s like sugar in someone’s morning coffee. Oh, you don’t drink coffee? Try it with sugar and you’ll start drinking it on the regular. #notgonnahappenI take my coffee black.

  13. Timothy Meade

    I would say the current generation of programmers (I’m 29 now) was created by the last generation of technology, from the early microcomputers with the BASIC language, and from the early days of the web where ‘view source’ is the window into how sites are built.For everybody that teaches themselves Rails or whatever as a new programmer, there are plenty of us that might have never gotten started in the modern touch-based, mouse-based world where programmers is a completely optional activity on the computer. Contrast this to systems where typing commands is part of doing anything, launching games, etc. Now you have machines that are less general purpose computers and more single purpose mobile entertainment devices for most people. You have generations of young people that are never exposed to the power and joy of controlling a machine with their words (and I’m not talking about Siri here), but who have used a mobile tablet since they were 3 years old.There is this popular mythos that ‘web natives’ are ‘good with computers’ but what they really mean is they are good using computers, not that they understand how computers work, or that they know what to do when the computer at work stops functioning as expected, or that they will ever create new functionality for any system they use (even macros in something like Excel might be considered too advanced.)I hear this all the time, from ‘digital natives’ as well as older generations, that they ‘could never do that’I’m not really all that surprised that there are 45 million programmers looking up answers on StackOverflow, including web developers who might not have the programming skills to create a jQuery plugin but are able to integrate pieces of jQuery code and PHP code from sites like SO into a project they are working on, which can be a great way to learn new skills if you so desire. But you have to so desire.

  14. carribeiro

    Well said, but some people in fact are inclined to badge hunting – and gamification appeals to these folks. Some people collect coins, others collect stamps, and some are inclined to collect online badges. If they’re the customers you’re looking for is another matter. (But they may help to inflate the numbers a little bit, which may be good for you).

  15. Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Lots of great comments below especially by @wmoug:disqus @liad:disqus @daverage:disqus – All do a great job of explaining the benefits of gamification even if it doesn’t force you to do something that you don’t want to do!

    1. William Mougayar

      I have learned something about Business Gamification from @influitive 🙂

  16. mark

    At (currently live in London) we’ve combined a location based game with a listing service (a little like Foursquare meets eBay). One of the benefits of using a game (and related mechanics like points, badges, levels etc) is that we can naturally migrate people from beginners to power users via a set of nice hopefully rewarding steps.So, I agree that gamification can’t get people to do things they don’t want to do, but, once they start, it’s a very nice way to get them to do more.

    1. tasco

      Interesting. Is there any way to view Flooting from outside London?

      1. mark

        Possibly. If you’re not in the UK, browse to to view the home page. If you register, you’ll find a link to “change location” on the main page under the map. Set it to something like E9 and mark it as default. That should work. Do let me know if you have problems?

  17. falicon

    The definition of gamification is wrong…or at least the understanding. Just awarding points or badges for doing a task is not gamification, that’s just ‘rewards’ and the *real* truth is that most rewards (even monetary in some cases) are not motivating enough on their own to get someone to change/add behavior.Real gamification is goal based (tangible and interesting goals) and I think requires iterative levels (the type that you unlock as you go, and can’t get to without having completed the prior ones)…very few companies, services, or apps (outside of *actual* games) are really doing this…

    1. kidmercury

      yes. school is my favorite example of gamification (i.e. unlock high school diploma to access undergrad)

      1. Matt A. Myers

        Unfortunately that game and the contents of that game aren’t generally what people really wanted to be playing – or at least the usefulness doesn’t fully play out (no pun intended) to what their future aspirations and passions are.

        1. falicon

          I think it was Ben Horowitz that said a undergrad. degree is really more akin to insurance than anything else…people go after it in hopes that it will provide the safety of a job/career…not so much to set out to learn to change the world (which is what I think the idealist would hope people are seeking degrees for)…In the game @kidmercury:disqus mentions (the game of the industrial revolution)…the final level is retirement…you start working towards it around the age of 4 or 5 and lose points every time you rock the boat along the way…history is starting to show that it’s not really a fun game (suicide and depression rates sky rocketed since we started playing it)…but we are having one heck of a time stopping ourselves from playing it…

          1. Matt A. Myers

            The yoga teacher training I did a few summers ago was my backup plan – though I still plan to teach yoga regularly when I have a bit more routine. 🙂

          2. Matt A. Myers

            Re: Kidmercury view point of the industrial revolution game (great way to view it BTW) – It’d b best to fit and incentivize the life-quality and style that people have at retirement – or expect / hope to have – and integrate them into daily life from birth until death.Luckily we live in an interesting, dynamic and changing game environment – where technology unlocks with time – along with skills and knowledge evolving for each person. Entrepreneurs will be the ones who have the opportunity to lead the change to make the ‘game’ fun and enjoyable again – for all.

          3. Alessandro Pellizzari

            Industrial Revolution looks a lot like Call of Cthulhu! 🙂

          4. Mark Essel


      2. Henley Wing

        If it’s a game, it’s a rigged game. Go to school sitting in a desk all day.. and you’ll get a job… where you’ll sit in a cube all day… What a reward

    2. LE

      is that most rewards (even monetary in some cases) are not motivating enough on their own to get someone to change/add behavior.And in fact, (as discussed in chapter 3 section 19, paragraph 2), money can also act as a disincentive if the monetary reward doesn’t match the value expectation of the person doing the behavior.Some examples (I normally give the lawyer example):Your friend is moving:————————–“Help me move?” – Sure”Help me move and we will have pizza?” – Sure”Help me move and I will pay you $10″ – No way.

    3. Jenny Hayward

      By the original definition, this axiom is not necessarily true. There is a move towards gamification on most social platforms. Look at recent trends on Twitter, with the “Flock to unlock” mentality. If the “action” that needs to be taken is simplified to such a basic level, many more people are inclined to participate, especially if it elicits some sort of “unlocking” or bonus. The subsequent “levels” can be seen as the increase in demands, or numbers of “flocking” required for the “unlocking”.

      1. falicon

        I think many platforms are def. moving to more ‘real’ gamification (partially because they are realizing that ‘rewards’ is not enough if you really want to go down the gamification path).The ‘flock to unlock’ counts in my book because there is something that is locked up and there is a goal that needs to be reached before you can get it…where these services have to be careful is in making sure that the ‘unlock’ is a value add to user or community…and ideally, the ‘flock’ is also a value add to the overall system…otherwise, gamification is really just cluttering the system (or better labeled ‘gaming the system’ like @kidmercury:disqus mentioned)Social platforms are very interesting and special cases…because they don’t really have a purpose outside of ‘hanging out, entertainment, and keeping/catching up’…gamification feels like a no brainer because most ‘games’ have that same ultimate purpose…but the reality is that traditional games have plots, and working through that plot *is* what is driving the player…social platforms don’t have plots or a specific driving goal (that I know of) and so building a useful/popular/powerful game out of one is probably more awkward and difficult than it would seem on the surface…Anyway – it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the years as I really do believe gamification done right can be completely addictive, engaging, and powerful…and I would love to work that into the things I build…but *actually* doing it right seems to be quite difficult so far…

        1. Jenny Hayward

          Thanks for your insights on that! How do recommend working gamification into the things you build?

          1. falicon

            very tough question…I don’t have a good answer yet…lots of good ideas and thinking in this book as a starting point though ->

          2. Jenny Hayward

            Thanks @falicon:disqus!

        2. Dan Farfan

          “…gamification feels like a no brainer because most ‘games’ have that same ultimate purpose…”Games have an objective. “The object of the game is…”

    4. ShanaC

      rewards are part of gamification. I think we need to start separating elements of, from the whole thing.

      1. falicon


      2. panterosa,

        Rewards are the thrill of unlocking the new level, and the reward of a new tool or coins. Yes, these two types of reward need separation. Reward itself as an idea is becoming fuzzy.

    5. Aaron Klein

      +1 Kevin. So, so true.

    6. panterosa,

      Thanks for calling it out @falicon:disqus .False gamification is rampant since companies decided to “engage” us, rather than really ‘play’ (games) with us. I have no 4sq, no badges. I’m actually a game designer, so this kind of pander is very light weight to me.

    7. Dave Pinsen

      Like your Wing Chun — getting to wooden man level is a reward, and so on.

  18. Cam MacRae

    45 million? Nah. Maybe 9 million all behind 7 proxies with ghostery, adblock, clickToPlugin installed viewing 5 questions a month 😉

    1. LE


  19. takingpitches

    Some great comments in the Stack post illustrating the power of networks for talent elevation. A few:”Stackoverflow is a place for me to get the best solution to a problem. If the problem is common enough, a solution is proposed within minutes. And at the end of the day, the best option always wins on stackoverflow. And I can use this collective wisdom to impress the clients I work for.If I don’t get a solution here, I know that I hit something new. So it is time to get on the drawing board. When I do find the solution, I share it so that the next person can gain from it.””You’ve really transformed my career from another resume on Monster to somebody that can point to a portfolio of content.”

  20. William Mougayar

    The anti-thesis of Gamification is Earn and Burn.If you earn but you don’t deserve, you will burn.

  21. Bruce Warila

    As a non-developer, I think I have tweaked the developers I work with more than once by finding the answer to some technical problem on Stack Overflow.

  22. Richard

    ” Gamification can amplify things people already like to do. But it cannot get someone to do something they aren’t inclined to do in the first place.”I’m not sure I agree. Are the examples of foursquare and twitter gamification?“The use of game attributes,”“To drive game-like player behavior,” “In a non-game context,” which can be anything other than a game (e.g. education, work, health and fitness, community participation, civic engagement, volunteerism, etc.)In their truest form Games engage and motivate us to “change” our behavior.

    1. Matt A. Myers

      Leading us to new or specific directed behaviours doesn’t mean we aren’t initially engaged because we wanted to be or were drawn to.

  23. William Mougayar

    The comments on that Stack birthday post are incredible. It shows how much the community loves them. Kudos on the birthday celebration.

    1. fredwilson

      yeah, we got a lot of the same herewhat do you think their Net Promoter Score is?

      1. William Mougayar

        Prob 95-100% is my guess?

  24. Matt A. Myers

    Excessive gamification and environmental control leads to bullshit detectors firing too strongly – or having pressure put on them and won’t interest or even turn off certain people.The idea of Mayorships does nothing for me. Usefulness does. I know some people who are addicted to Mayorships – and they’d likely be in casinos if they had the money or if they got into a really negative unhealthy cycle.I tried Farmville once – just to see what all of the buzz was like. The cadence of the music, the pace of actions, the speed of movements, etc. felt like I was in a casino – without the oxygen being pumped to make me high – but I felt like I was getting high and being influenced more strongly than I wanted (positively influenced – the making feel good – in an unuseful way).The best gamificaton is when you’re facilitating the mimicking of real-life behaviours – e.g. virtual reality – “This is useful, I’d love to share this with people – oh cool, here’s a way I can share it and get X by helping grow this community.”I do think in some instances rankings can be useful, though it really depends on how that information is being interpreted. If you’re already into a game though, for the purpose of entertainment, then rankings are a fun competitive reenforcement or reward – though there’s a whole style of games where people don’t care about that aspect either, and is more about the story and the relationships / connections that exist and are maintained through those games / platforms.Gamification tied into usefulness is where I think the pudding is. If it’s purely for entertainment value, it’s not for me.

    1. Drew Meyers

      “Gamification tied into usefulness is where I think the pudding is. If it’s purely for entertainment value, it’s not for me.”Likewise. In general, I’m not a huge fan of it at all…but I think there are edge cases where it can work. But that said, I can’t think of any site I use regularly that uses it.

      1. Matt A. Myers

        Or do you just not realize it? 😉

        1. Drew Meyers

          They are doing a good job of masking it if so. When I think of gamification, I think leader boards or badges/awards. I can’t think of any sites I use where those are part of my experience.

          1. Matt A. Myers

            There are a few, though subtle – and I think there’s space and a need for more in specific areas. Hopefully as better, more visible examples become seen – hat there will be more innovation and use in this area.

  25. Carl Rahn Griffith

    “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” ~ Sholom Aleichem.

  26. Guest

    stack is my homeschoolin’ for code

  27. LE

    And those answers are viewed by 45 million people a month. I didn’t realize there were that many programmers in the world.I find that impossible to believe for several reasons.First, forgetting the wide disagreement between numbers (1.2 mm unique for compete, quantcast 9.5 mm unique (US only for both)) while we can definitely conclude that there is more traffic to than to say the answers are viewed by 45mm people per month doesn’t even pass the smell test.Because if there were even that many programmers in the world that needed stackoverflow it would assume that the majority of them use stackoverflow and they probably don’t.By the way stack has the number at “fourty-four” million not 45 million:So far, you’ve provided helpful answers to over five million questions. Those answers are seen by forty-four million people looking for help each month.

    1. Peter

      I have some of the explaination for those numbers. I run about 5 virtual machines with a couple of different browsers in them. different clients and setups. I continuously clear the browser cache…. If I were to guess I probably end up as perhaps 20 uniques in their web analytics…

    2. fredwilson

      so i got the number wrong by a million. sorry about that.but there is no way that Joel would lie about his numbersand compete numbers are complete and total garbage.stackoverflow is quantified and quantcast has them at 34.6mm global UVs a month…i am not sure what the reason for the difference is but i am certain Joel can and would explain it if he were here

      1. LE

        You got the number wrong probably because your brain was primed by the previous thought which was: “Five years, five million”[1]”but there is no way that Joel would lie about his numbers”(post was by Jay Hanlon iim).I don’t think he would lie either that wasn’t what I was implying.But he made the following statements with regard to the 44 million number to reinforce that there are actually 44 million people that are actually interacting and it reminds me a bit of when in the olden days the mainstream media used to confuse “hits” on a page with actual visitors.There is also no attribution to where the 44 m comes from but there are statements as to the fact that that number is:- “more people helped each month than visit the New York Times, Bank of America, or”- “If the people helped each month were a US state, it’d be bigger than California and almost twice as big as Texas.”- If they were a country, it’d be in the top 15% of nations in the world, with more people than Canada, Argentina, or Poland. It’d be practically two Yemens.As far as compete they are a real company with a real management team that seems to be selling their product to someone. I’m sure they would be interested to give their feedback on why their numbers vary so much (even though they are US numbers) for stackoverflow. I’m curious about that.[1] (Note: I just used 45 also and had to correct it before I hit submit the same thing happened to me…)

        1. spolsky

          No, we’re not confusing “hits” with people. The number of page views (not hits) on the entire Stack Exchange network worldwide is about 473,000,000, source…And we don’t report our traffic to Compete, so whether they have a “real management team” or not, their data is deeply flawed

          1. FAKE GRIMLOCK


          2. spolsky

            yeah, I get it, but Quantcast accounts for that when they report “People” which is substantially lower than “Uniques”. For us the number 45m is the number of unique “people” calculated by Quantcast worldwide.Based on 475m page views, that implies an average of 10 visits to stack overflow per person per month. That doesn’t seem out of whack to me. If you think Compete is right and we have 1.2 million people, they must be visiting 400 times a month.

          3. LE

            Some suggestions.Want to note that I just ended up at “ask different” as a result of a google search for a usage question about VNC on Mac.Anyway what I immediately noticed was the following:1) I didn’t know “ask different” had anything to do with stack at first. My eye saw the logo and the “command” graphic. Because I ended up on a answer page I didn’t immediately realize the connection to stack. Lost opportunity. (I liked the logo and name by the way.)2) When I saw the “stack exchange” in the upper left corner I clicked. It opened up and said “stack exchange is a network of free, community driven q&a sites. In order to go to and see those sites though I would have to hover and click over the words “Stack Exchange” and I didn’t do that so I didn’t see I could get there from here. And I thought “why is there not a big stack logo also that I can just click on to go to stack from here?”Normally if stack wasn’t on my mind (from what I said yesterday) I would have just abandoned the shopping cart at that point.So I think by default you would have lost an opportunity to put “stack exchange” into my brain one more time branding wise.I think you could benefit from a common identity tie in and at the same time maintain the fact that you have separate sites.While this is not exactly what does (they don’t have separate identities) I definitely know them as a resource to get a lot of shit answered.Bottom Line: A good idea to figure out a way to tie in the stack branding to any and all of the stack sites. I think you are missing out on traffic.Not only that but I would think that you could also work in predicatively the most likely sites that a person visiting may be interested in as well. For example quantitative finance visitor might also be interested in mathematics and linux visitor might also be interested in super user etc.

          4. LE

            Raises an interesting question though.What is more valuable 12 people who visit one time per time period or 4 people who visit 3 times per time period.While the “12” seems like a better or bigger number in advertising repetition matters (you want to imprint the subject) so I could also argue that your scenario in the end isn’t that bad.Also in terms of “community” one of the things that works at AVC is that the same people comment multiple times which to me works better than if every day there were 100 comments from 100 different people.By the way I figured out who you actually are. Took me less than 2 minutes to figure that out once I decided to look into it.

      2. spolsky

        The Quantcast numbers are very accurate, actually measured using a script in the page, and correspond closely to what we see in weblogs, router traffic, Google Analytics (which is also measured using a script in the page) and Alexa.…We don’t have a Compete script in the page, so they report punitively low numbers for us. Since Compete is the outlier and they have a business incentive to punish us for not signing up for their publisher services, we consider that a useless data point.Nobody can actually measure the number of human beings behind all the unique browsers that visit us, but Quantcast does have a method for scaling the numbers down to reflect users that use multiple browsers which is.Also, LE if you think that the majority of programmers don’t use Stack Overflow, you haven’t met very many programmers.

        1. LE

          Are you really suggesting that they are punishing you? How would such an obvious bias like that help them sell more product?:We don’t have a Compete script in the page, so they report punitively low numbers for us. Since Compete is the outlier and they have a business incentive to punish us for not signing up for their publisher services, we consider that a useless data point.Here is what it says on the site:Compete’s site profiles estimate how many people visit your site from a diverse sample of people that is statistically normalized and projected to represent the size and demographic composition of the total active U.S. Internet population.”And this:Also, LE if you think that the majority of programmers don’t use Stack Overflow, you haven’t met very many programmers.Well forgetting for a second how long I have been programming for or how many programmers I know personally it would seem that the amount of people that you come in contact with would certainly be biased toward being stack users as opposed to not knowing about it or not using it as a resource.



  28. Matt Zagaja

    I’ve been using DuoLingo a lot lately. I didn’t care about the game mechanics of it much at first, but when I got an e-mail saying a friend passed me in points I suddenly found myself returning to the site after a long hiatus a month or two ago. Can’t let people get out ahead of me. 😉

    1. fredwilson

      duolingo is another example of a product that is simply great at what it does. #productsbuiltbygeeks

  29. andyidsinga

    no doubt anyone interested in gamification theory should read about Ian Bogost’s work. This article in wired covers Bogost’s cow clicker which was an extreme example of gamification gone weird :…on a separate note: cheers to stackoverflow!

  30. Oren Moravchik

    “Gamification can amplify things people already like to do. But it cannot get someone to do something they aren’t inclined to do in the first place”In my opinion there’s a between – things people want to do but a hard time finding the motivation to do. Fitness is a great example. People pay a lot of $s for their gym membership because they really want to go there and reach some goal. When they fail, it’s not because they didn’t want to. sExamples for gamification’s effect in that space are:- Keas – using gamification to improve employees’ wellness, – Strava – another GPS tracking app, but I heard of people driving over to a route and doing the same bicycle leg 20 times over, just because the app gives ranking per leg, too..I believe it’s a powerful tool for one of the user segments.

  31. Drew Meyers

    If used for the wrong reasons…it can kill an entire community/company. ActiveRain, which was a very popular community in the real estate space in the mid 2000’s…is largely irrelevant today. What killed it is the “Great post” comments which drove away all the great contributors. People were given points for leaving comments, and the whole thing was driven by leader boards…so comments got to the point where 70% of comments left (I’d guess) were extremely low quality.

  32. LaVonne Reimer

    My interest in gamification is how tools and concepts can be applied in B2B apps to make an action that once seemed daunting simpler and maybe even sort of fun. Motivation and inclination play out a bit differently in that context. For example, I’m currently working with some partners on how to design badges that stand for credentials, certifications and other forms of good standing relevant in business credit decisions. That method leap-frogs so many complications in sharing data from one source to another. At a minimum, I’m having more fun imagining how to effect that kind of data sharing than were we noodling through integration challenges of the distant past.

  33. Bob Mason

    There are mechanisms to harness the power of negative reinforcement to drive positive behavior change as well. This is best exemplified by app GymPact that has been seeing tremendous success having people put money on the line as a motivator to work out and improve their lives. The team at Pact studied behavioral economics at Harvard and released that badges, awards and other gamification techniques won’t have any material effect to get people healthier.

  34. Robert

    I’d say that fantasy football has gamified watching that sport, and many people weren’t doing the type of analysis associated with it. On the whole I agree with the sentiment that gamification amplifies pre-existing actions, but it *can* change behavior as well.

  35. Youssef Rahoui

    Yes. Gamification is an accelerator.

  36. timrpeterson

    great thought @fredwilson:disqus thanks for sharing

  37. PeterWayner

    I know several people who lost weight once it became a game for them to input their calories into their iPhone. It provided the structure and the simplicity for them. Did they “want” to do it? Yeah, but they didn’t manage to do it without the game.

  38. Chris Mack

    Stack is an invaluable resource. It helps with so many of the little gotchas – literally saves me hours a month – it absolutely helps with learning new languages, frameworks or even just discover new things about frameworks you’ve been using all along.

  39. Druce

    it’s not gamification, it’s market design or social engineering. basically building a platform that acknowledges and rewards people for doing the things that build a valuable community.

  40. Kunaal Arya

    Completely agree. A lot of the gamification today is trying to drive usage and none of is natural/organic and won’t last long term. Look at’s comments and people are commenting for NFL points for their rewards. Even some reward platforms on mobile do the same thing and users aren’t using the apps for the app itself but for the points to get rewards. Making gamification/rewards spontaneous for doing what you were doing anyways is much more powerful.

  41. Irving Fain

    So much to say on this topic! First of all, one of the fundamental problems with “gamification” is that no one really knows what it means. If you were to poll 10 people in the marketing / technology space on the definition of the word / concept, you would likely get 5+ different answers. Some people think gamification means points, others think it means virtual badges, other people think it’s just a leaderboard and then there’s a school of thought that view gamification to mean creating a full “game” experience around a non-game property. So which is it? And those are just a few potential answers…As you said above, gathering likes, follows, mayorships, etc is a form of gamification. Does that mean gamification is simply the accumulation of recognition and status?More importantly, gamfication has sadly become a default for many people to replace bad user experience, design and product. This of course isn’t true in all cases, but as companies like Zynga and all the casual games and apps took off, people looked on with wonder and envy and said to themselves, “I want some of that.” Gamification was born to offer seemingly astronomical engagement and involvement for products, apps, sites, etc. that may not have enjoyed those types of metrics.The problem is, as you have clearly pointed out, just adding badges, points, leaderboards or other game-like elements to a site (essentially bolting them on) doesn’t a game make (nor does it provide candy crush-like engagement numbers). Gamification has the potential to offer short-term lifts in certain types of actions, but what truly great products and companies are looking for is long term loyalty and customer engagement. Simply adding an engagement layer (essentially what gamification is), doesn’t solve that problem.

  42. Murali Apparaju

    Huh?… why?Gamification declared explicitly isn’t that anymore & sure won’t generate any new coverts – no-brainer really.Sound gamification which is social engineering essentially should be built-in/ employed subtly & work it will.

  43. Pablo marambio

    Kudos to J Spolsky et al for such an useful tool. SO has become indispensable today.

  44. stationstops

    In Jr High I only *really* studied for/received an A+ in one class, and that’s entirely because it was gamified and I battled my friend Tom for first place twice a week. I was not otherwise interested nor inclined to study for any class.That was in 1982, so I’m only guessing statistically there are a few million more examples on earth since then preventing it from otherwise being a basic truth.Now gamifying education is big part of my job, and I know enough about it at this point to understand that its far too complex a subject to make declarative statements about, even if you have experience with one or more applications.For example – that was my only gamified class – but what if ALL of my classes had been gamified? I wouldn’t have been able to apply the same time, it wouldn’t have been as much novelty, and some of my classes would not have been shared with my competitive friend Tom.Obviously, I would have had different takeaways about gamification even from the exact same class.No one likes it when YMMV, but that’s the case with gamification.



    1. mattlacey

      As a developer it’s an invaluable tool, but I never cease to be amazed by questions along the lines of:”My client’s requirement is that I create X to do Y. Can someone write this for me?”



        1. mattlacey

          That’s true, though if I didn’t know what I do about CPU architecture (which is very, very little) I’d call those things magic even as a developer 🙂

          1. FAKE GRIMLOCK





      I am anxious to see someone invent a game that overlays routine productive work (e.g. workers play ‘dots’ all day with each dot coded to some data extraction / data entry task).Bunchball kinda tries to do it, and Van Ahn’s Re-captcha / translation project is cool.But I think we can still get more ‘Matrix-like’; the impact on productivity and engagement could be enormous.

  47. James Tryand

    If you believe that, then you’re doing it wrong. The principal is to couch desired outcomes, that people would otherwise have no vested interest in doing, in such a manner that they feel rewarded such that they have the desire to achieve your outcomes.

  48. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    That’s an excellent point. Sounds exactly right: amplifies, but doesn’t make people want to do things they didn’t already want to do.

  49. gzicherm

    Fred, I think you’re generally right – with one small caveat: it can also help people uncover the inner discipline (and strength) to do things they *didn’t think they could*. This is especially apparent with gamified systems like Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s true of many successful behavior change elements. In my mind, that’s an even more important truism: if you help people succeed in the things they want to do (progression to mastery), you build lifelong loyalty. That’s the core of the gamification design practice that I run.Jeff Atwood (founder of StackOverflow’s) talk from GSummit is very interesting, and a must-watch for anyone interested in applying gamification to their business:…Gabe ZichermannChair, GSummit

  50. Wes Darling

    It is the same phenomenon as hypnosis. The successful hypnotist becomes a master at getting people to do things they wouldn’t allow themselves to do, normally. Things they want deep down but they just need a little push to get there. A successful game strategy demands the programming is powerful enough to address, prepare for and provide the adequate stimulus to enable the user to express their secret desires or even pedestrian needs and then push them just a little to live them out in an input rich environment. Of course secret desires don’t have to be bestiality or anything so complex as a well-executed murder. It can just be a simple experience of controlling game variables in a crafty way, juggling interfaces or what have you that produces the neurochemistry the user is seeking. Asian anime games are often socially rich environments that can stimulate oxytocin release. Fighting games trigger testosterone and dopamine. But most games deplete serotonin and can create insular lifestyles that deplete oxytocin. And balance demands a healthy diet which gamers tend to lack. So the best games in my mind are going to be those that have low penalties for early withdrawal (of attention) and high rewards for returning, educational benefits, or drive problem solving by nesting hidden games within games, which could be carried out much farther than I’ve seen done. But really it’s all up to the user. Gaming industries find a rich market foundation in a capitalistic system… but are gamers rewarded by feeding their minds with an economic philosophy (attitude) that is degrading the natural environment that supports all life, including their own?

  51. yudashkai

    I think it strongly depends on if the site is using White Hat Gamification or Black Hat Gamification (in the Octalysis Framework: White Hat techniques inspire and motivate, while Black Hat techniques manipulate and/or uses psychological conditioning to drive behavior. The issue with Zynga is that it uses too many Black Hat Gamification techniques, which is great with bottom-lining actions (like Core Drive #8: Loss & Avoidance), but like gambling, once people CAN leave the system, they will. I know a decent amount of people who no longer derive joy from playing Farmville but still do it because they feel like they HAVE to. It’s always a balance between the two.

  52. Mark Essel

    44 Million of those stack queries/searches are me.Read that again, 45M uniques? whoa! That’s likely because non-devs are finding handy documentation worth reading there.

  53. Chris McCoy

    Real trophies are won in sports.

  54. john smith

    Real gamification is goal based (tangible and interesting goals) and I think requires iterative levels (the type that you unlock as you go, and can’t get to without having completed the prior ones)