Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Understanding Gamification

John Kirriemuir reviews the ALA Tech Report "Understanding Gamification" by Bohyun Kim, and finds a high quality introduction to the subject.


There is a vast range of articles, reports, papers, stories and other ephemera concerning ‘gamification’, both online and in print. As an increasingly weary reader of several hundred of these items, it is obvious that there are extreme variations in the quality, bias, depth, analysis, and related and cited research within many. Though unsure of whether the world needs yet another introduction, or perhaps just needs a few high quality pieces, I reviewed this particular publication for Ariadne.


The report [1] is a 35 page, A4 2 column print publication, published in early 2015 and also available online. Highlighted examples appear regularly in the text, as do (black and white) screenshots of examples. The text is non­technical in nature, and is suitable for people with little gaming, and no gamification, knowledge or experience. A careful read and study of the references should take around 2 hours.

Surprisingly, for an ALA publication, there are a few typographic errors in the text. However, unsurprisingly for a text from the ALA, the references and citations are of a consistently very high quality and pleasingly well­ presented.

Chapter 1: The popularity of gamification

This chapter forms an introduction, positioning gamification as an emerging technology enabled by the increasing use of mobile services e.g. apps, and social networking. Pleasingly, the author gives a clearer definition of gamification than most publications:

“As the term suggests, gamification is not quite creating a game but transferring some of the positive characteristics of a game to something that is not a game, thus, gami­fy­ing it.”

The chapter introduces and describes several social and commercial examples of gamification systems, though with mention of educational applications such as the Quest to Learn charter school [2].

Though the chapter ­ and report ­ are largely neutral, a few more counter­arguments against gamification may have been useful. For example, the three annual NMC Horizon Higher Education reports, from 2012 to 2014, are mentioned in this chapter in terms of their positive inclusions of gamification or game­ based learning. However (though this may be unfortunate publication timing) the 2015 [3] report is not mentioned, where the NMC no longer predict gamification being a mainstream tool in the classroom.

Chapter 2: Gamification

The chapter describes fourteen game­ based and gamified systems, using examples that address areas as diverse as household chores, fuel efficiency and personal contentment. It moves on to examine five definitions of gamification from different researchers, and considers the relationship of the concept to games and playful design.

The chapter concludes with a sensible argument for gamification not to be considered (as many do) solely in terms of a PC­ oriented technology, but one which can be implemented on mobile devices, and analog media such as simple paper and pen.

Chapter 3: Game mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics

This short chapter starts with mentions of the most well­ known gamification mechanics, such as badges, points and leaderboards, but moves on to list a few of the many other elements, such as narratives, avoidance, pride, quests and appointments. Some are explained in more detail; for example:

“... behavioral contrast means the shift in behavior depending on changed expectations ... free lunch means a situation in which a player gets something because of the efforts of other people ...”

The chapter introduces the MDA framework, which can be used to define a game in terms of mechanics (rules), dynamics (system) and aesthetics (fun). These three categories are discussed, and the chapter concludes with a mapping of some gamification elements into them.

Chapter 4: Gamification in education and libraries

This chapter discusses the blurring of the division between ‘serious games’ and ‘gamification’, and how it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the two concepts. Several examples from the business world which straddle this division are described. It progresses to examine several gamified systems from the education sector, such as Fantasy Geopolitics [4] (where students hunt for political news stories concerning specific countries), and a variety of badge oriented systems.

The chapter points out that libraries (and librarians) have functions such as education, self­ marketing and PR which provide a variety of possibilities for gamified library systems and services. Several are introduced and described, including Scout [5] which encourages people to explore the content available at Pierce County Public Library, and Lemontree [6], which gamifies and hopefully further encourages the use of resources in the library of the University of Huddersfield.

The chapter concludes with examples of gamifying library instruction and library orientation, and examples of library gamification apps.

Chapter 5: Designing gamification in the right way

This chapter opens with the (correct) point that the gamification base currently lacks a significant body of systemic and robust studies. The need for clear goals before, and during, gamified system design is stressed. Users (or players) of such system are put under the spotlight, in terms of how to define their relevant characteristics and how to match them to effective types of gamification mechanisms. Other attributes of system users, such as age, gender and academic performance are discussed, with a reference to research showing that serious games, and possibly gamification, is of more benefit to those students with less self­ motivation and (initially) lower grades.

The chapter continues with a discussion of which types of knowledge are possibly best suited to which gamification mechanics. It concludes with a discussion on a controversial and oft ­discussed critique of gamification, that the extrinsic motivations introduced by a system, such as winning badges for attaining learning goals, can harm already­ existing intrinsic motivations, such as an interest in the learning subject matter or self­ esteem.


This is a high quality introduction to gamification, far better than the large majority of similar texts available in print or online. It is not a comprehensive discussion, or analysis of gamification; there are several books and academia meta ­reviews which provide more depth. However, for an introduction to the topic which is relatively unbiased, non-technical, non­commercial, factually accurate, contains a good spread of relevant examples from many sectors, describes many of the essential concepts of gamification, and has a very high quality list of references and citations, there are few better guides available.

Though not cheap to purchase in print form, the report is free to download [7] and I highly recommend this text.


John Kirriemuir
Independent researcher
Games and gamification in education


[1] The report in the ALA online shop. https://www.alastore.ala.org/detail.aspx?ID=11370

[2] Overview of the gamified aspects of the Quest to Learn charter school in New York. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHtj6PCpyLQ

[3] Report: Is it Game Over for Gamification? http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2015/06/k-12-nmc-horizon-report-preview-it-game-over-gamification

[4] Alex Magdaleno, “How a High School Teacher Is ‘Gamifying’ World News,” Mashable, February 3, 2014. http://mashable.com/2014/02/02/high-school-fantasy-geopolitics

[5] Scout. https://scout.pcls.us/

[6] Lemontree. https://library.hud.ac.uk/lemontree/

[7] Downloadable versions of the report. http://journals.ala.org/ltr/issue/view/502