OnQ Blog

Developers: The psychology and benefits of gamifying apps

Jun 16, 2021

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Even with a well-designed app and a robust marketing campaign, you can always do more to reach your target level of success. That’s why many developers outside of game development are now using gamification in their apps to further build their user base while increasing user engagement and retention.

Quite simply, gamification is the introduction of some form of game mechanics to acquire, engage, and encourage users to continually return to the app. And while the name might conjure up images of annoying pop-up prize ads or even full-fledged video games, today’s app developers are increasingly integrating sophisticated gamification into all kinds of apps, including eCommerce, health and fitness, and more. For example, Whole Foods has successfully used game mechanics to encourage users to make healthier choices , and Nike has combined gamification with wearable technology to track and monitor walking/running distances while encouraging users to push harder through friendly competitions.

And the use of gamification isn’t just limited to smartphones. In XRHealth: Crossing Realities into the Future of Telehealth, we showed how gamification is used in a VR healthcare app to help improve the outcomes of therapies.

With some users checking their phones up to 80 times per day on average, and a forecasted gamification opportunity of $38.62 million by 2026, it pays to understand why gamification is worth investigating for your mobile apps.

Psychological factors

To understand the success of gamification, you first need to understand a bit of psychology. At the heart of the matter are humans’ fundamental needs for rewards, self-expression, achievements, competition, and status. Over the years, numerous psychological effects have been hypothesized and observed to explain these needs. For example, the Zeigarnik Effect is the notion that users remember uncompleted tasks and seek to complete them, and the Gambler’s Fallacy is the belief that the next outcome (e.g., in a coin toss) will be in the user’s favor due to preconceived assumptions around probabilities.

By understanding such factors and explanations, app developers have been better able to integrate gamification through clever designs that enhance rather than disrupt their apps’ user experiences.

Common gamification elements and key considerations

Gamification is centered around metrics like participation measurement (e.g., the amount of usage/time spent in an app), achieving goals or reaching levels, and adhering to prescribed activity levels (e.g., fitness movements measured by sensors). Below are common elements used when implementing gamification in mobile apps:

  • Point/reward systems: based on the knowledge that users are more inclined to complete actions if they know their efforts will be rewarded. The use of points or rewards like virtual goods, badges, etc. can be a strong motivator to retain users.
  • Level/feature unlocking: similarly, reaching a certain level or unlocking new functionality can be rewarding for users in and of itself and can keep them coming back.
  • Leaderboards: to fulfill one’s need to compete and show off their status, leaderboards allow users to view and compare results (often through social media), while creating an inherent competition that keeps users coming back to outdo each other.
  • Performance Graphs: users are more likely to stick with something if they can see their results. Performance graphs, progress bars, and other metric UIs can help users see their accomplishments and understand them in the context of their goals.
  • Avatars, sprites, and Icons: visually recognizable graphics like avatars, sprites (2D characters), and icons can be created and associated with the elements listed above.

Although gamification can be added to an existing application after the fact, ideally it would be part of an application’s initial design. As with all app functionality, gamification requires careful planning to use these elements effectively. Below are some steps to follow when designing and integrating gamification into your app:

  • Set Your Goals: decide what you want to achieve with gamification, as this will set the general direction for how you approach and implement your gamification system.
  • Identify Your Target User Persona(s): understand your users, including their interests, behaviors, and tendencies. Knowing this will help guide you in many of the steps below.
  • Build Value: design elements that suit your app and your target personas. They should tie in with your app’s look and feel both visually and functionally.
  • Keep it Simple: build tangible achievements and goals which are relevant to your app’s purpose and your user(s). These gamification elements should be self-explanatory, easy to work with, and enhance or augment the experience.
  • Sharing Loop: to satisfy users’ needs for status and achievements, consider integrating with social media so your users can share and compare their results with other users of your app.
  • Continually Monitor: think of gamification as an ongoing process. Continually monitor metrics like participation levels, user reviews, etc., and update or optimize your gamification functionality as needed to ensure it is meeting high-level goals like target user counts, increased revenue, etc.

Putting theory into practice

Developers can build gamification functionality from the ground up or integrate with specialized third-party gamification tools and libraries. For example, Google Play Game Services provides a rich API, in C++ and as REST endpoints, for performing gamification tasks like achievements and leaderboards. There are also third-party developer companies that can be contracted to integrate gamification functionality so that you can remain focused on your app’s core functionality.

Developers building apps with gamification targeting devices powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile platforms can further take advantage of our rich library of SDKs. For example, our Snapdragon Profiler could be used to monitor gamification code (e.g., memory usage, CPU consumption, etc.), while our Snapdragon Power Optimization SDK could be used to balance CPU power consumption versus performance for gamification tasks.


Qualcomm Snapdragon is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.


Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.

Rajan Mistry

Sr. Staff Engineer, Qualcomm Technologies

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