Game Mechanics and Game Theory

Game Mechanics and Game Theory


A quick intro into the science behind game mechanics.

Last updated: June 15, 2017
Compiled: September 20, 2011

We’ve compiled a list of ways companies and marketers alike use game mechanics and game theory to help move people through a decision process, increase participation, and come to the desired outcome. These are various game mechanics and game theory strategies used and at work in games, UI/UX, websites, mobile apps and even workplace design, structure and strategy. The use cases may vary but the mechanics are easily recognizable.

Here’s some game mechanics we’ve collected over the past decade.


Achievements are a virtual or physical representation of having accomplished something. Achievements can be easy, difficult, surprising, funny, accomplished alone or as a group. Achievements are a way to give players a way to brag about what they’ve done indirectly as well as add challenge and character to a game. Achievements are often considered “locked” until you have met the series of tasks that are required to “unlock” the Achievement.

Example: On Steam you can collect Achievements from every game. You are shown the Achievement’s you already have and others that you could get. To the right you will see a screenshot of Achievements from the game Team Fortress 2 for the Medic player class.

Achievements can be applied to almost anything to show progression and add challenge and depth. Companies like Foursquare and Booyah have used Badges for visiting real world places.


Appointment Dynamics are game dynamics in which at a predetermined times/place a user must log-in or participate in game, for positive effect.

Example: In Farmville, players are required to return to harvest their crops after a specific amount of time has passed after planting. If they do not return within the specified time period, their crops can rot and the player will not earn the value for harvesting the crop.

Behavioral Momentum

Behavioral Momentum is the tendency of players to keep doing what they have been doing.

Game Mechanics Theory

Example: From Jesse Schell’s awesome DICE talk: “I have spent ten hours playing Farmville. I am a smart person and wouldn’t spend 10 hours on something unless it was useful. Therefore this must be useful, so I can keep doing it.”

Blissful Productivity

The idea that playing in a game makes you happier working hard, than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard, and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk wherein she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours / week (a part time job), often after a full days work. They’re willing to work hard, perhaps harder than in real life, because of their blissful productivity in the game world.


Bonuses are a reward after having completed a series of challenges or core functions. Can be from completing a Combo or just for a specific special task. Also see: Mega Bonuses.

Cascading Information Theory

The theory that information should be released in the minimum possible snippets to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during a game narrative.


Combos are used often in games to reward skill through doing a combination of things. This also can add excitement or incentivize doing another action after already having completed one. The successful completion of a combo usually comes with the reward of a bonus

Gamification: You could give people bonuses for completing a combination of actions or achievements.

Community Collaboration

Using the concept of an entire community, this  game dynamic is used to rally others to work together to solve a riddle, a problem or a challenge. Immensely viral and very fun.

Example: DARPA balloon challenge, the cottage industries that appear around McDonald’s monopoly to find “Boardwalk.


The dynamic in which players are only given a certain amount of time to do something. This will create an activity graph that causes increased initial activity increasing frenetically until time runs out, which is a forced extinction.


Also called Exploration, players love to discover something, to be surprised. This also can be seen in the Game Feature, Discovery. Discovery encourages players to discover new pages within a website. This drives up page views and time-on-site.

Example: In World of Warcraft, as players discover new lands they earn bonus experience points. Also there can even be special Achievements for Discovery.
How this applies to Gamification: An example of this would be to give the player a multiplier bonus based on how many new pages they read each week.

Epic Meaning

Players will be highly motivated if they believe they are working to achieve something great, something awe-inspiring, something bigger than themselves.

Free Lunch

Using this dynamic, a player feels that they are getting something for free due to someone else having done work. It’s critical that work is perceived to have been done (just not by the player in question) to avoid breaching trust in the scenario. The player must feel that they’ve “lucked” into something.

Infinite Gameplay

Games that do not have an explicit end. Most applicable to casual games that can refresh their content or games where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.


Levels are a system, or “ramp”, by which players are rewarded an increasing value for a culmination of points. Often features or abilities are unlocked as players progress to higher levels. Leveling is one of the highest components of motivation for gamers. There are typically three types of leveling ramps: Flat, Exponential and Wave Function.

Loss Aversion

Loss Aversion is a game mechanic that influences user behavior not by reward, but by not instituting punishment.


A game dynamic in which the winner is determined solely by chance. This creates a high level of anticipation. The fairness is often suspect, however winners will generally continue to play indefinitely while losers will quickly abandon the game, despite the random nature of the distinction between the two.


Ownership is a powerful Game Dynamic that creates Loyalty.

Game Mechanics Balance

Game Mechanics Balance: Achieve balance in a game by comparing frustration versus bored and stay out of bounds from both.


A dynamic in which success is granularity displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks.

Points are a running numerical value given for any single action or combination of actions. +1 Knowledge of Points!



Also known as Challenges. Challenges usually implies a time limit or competition whereas Quests are meant to be a journey of obstacles a player must overcome.

Reward Schedules

The time frame and delivery mechanisms through which rewards (points, prizes, level ups) are delivered. Three main parts exist in a reward schedule; contingency, response and reinforcer.


It’s the rank or level of a player. Players are often motivated by trying to reach a higher level or status. Also relates to envy.

Urgent Optimism

Extreme self motivation. The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.


A game element that requires multiple people to play (or that can be played better with multiple people).

Game Mechanics Summarized

We use a variety of these methods and game mechanics and game theory whenever and wherever possible as long as they don’t interfere or prevent the desired outcome. Try adding some of these into your marketing mix, mobile app, even your company culture and see what happens. We’d love for you to share how these or others make a difference.

Game Mechanics and Game Theory
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Game Mechanics and Game Theory
Some ways companies and marketers alike use game theory and game mechanics to help move people through a decision process, increase participation, and come to the desired outcome.
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