Extra-gamified: why are some apps so satisfying?

According to Statista, an average of 6,140 apps were released in Play Store everyday in the first quarter of 2018. Yet, 77% of users never returned to the app after 72 hours of installing it. What makes some apps stick so much better with users than others?

Gamification and a psychology behind Tinder

Satisfying Tetris Game (Image source: imgur)

Gamification is, “the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities,”

Yu-Kai Chou, an author of Actionable Gamification
Piano stairs gamify cumbersome climbing stairs (Image source: KJ Vogelius)

Gamification is the process of incentivising users with mechanics commonly used in games, broadening them to non-game contexts. The term gamification was first introduced by Nick Pelling, a British programmer and video game designer. In 2002, Nick intended to apply gamification to common electrical transactions, such as ATMs, vending-machines, and early mobile phones. These devices had been traditionally perceived as simply mechanical and anti-user-friendly. The introduction of gamification was meant to ease potential stress and help users in proceeding with common transactions. For example, some charms from gamification have helped solve network issues, which in turn has greatly helped user experiences positively amongst the domain of early technologies and mobile devices (UX Case Study: Handling Offline for Impatient Users).

In Chrome browser, users can play a dinosaur game in case of a connection error.

“It’s the gambling-like reward, that dopamine rush of the ‘It’s a match,’ screen [… from] a variable reward that encourages continued swiping to experience this [rush] again.”

Scott Hurff, former product manager and lead designer at Tinder

Gamification can also be a useful mechanic to retain users engaged with applications on their phone, computer, and/or other electronics. For example, Tinder recently explained how its famous swiping mechanic is inspired by a psychological experiment that was conducted in 1948, by Harvard Professor Burrhus Frederick Skinner. The experiment involved feeding pigeons in a cage at random time intervals with a fake button. Moreover, the pigeons were tricked to believe that pressing the fake button would give them food. Following this, experimenters would observe the pigeons and speculate plausible correlations between their actions and the actual rewards they were given.

Additionally, a later study in 2010 showed that the anticipation to receive rewards releases more dopamine than receiving the actual rewards! The same logic is applied to the psychology behind slot machines and why people are so mesmerized and amused by them. Evidently, the swiping mechanism used by Tinder speaks to a reward that is strongly tied to the human instinct in the form of an addictive winning odds. In other words, people enjoy games and activities that are accomplishable, but challenging enough to not bore them. This “addictive winning odds,” actively used by Tinder, nails this perfect balance.

Tinder’s Swiping Was Inspired By Pigeons | cheddar

General Pillars of Gamification

Gabe Zichermann, the co-author of Gamification by Design, explains how rewards can be categorized based on different powers and costs. The hierarchy is comprised of stuffpoweraccess, and status.

The lower end of this hierarchy represents rewards that are easy to grab users’ initial attention, but can also lose their long-term interest. Stuff, for example, refers to free coupons or monetary rewards that may cost a lot to maintain. Climbing the hierarchy, the types of rewards represented are more challenging for those incentivizing to employ, but result in recipients being more attached to the according services. For example, limited access to venues or special badges require users to invest their time or assets to earn and maintain them. It’s hard to imagine users letting go of their VIP statuses, despite the struggle they may need to endure to keep them.

The chart and list are from Jeni Miles’s The right app rewards to boost motivation


  • VIP perks that are clearly visible to other users, sometimes demonstrating “superiority” in the game/app’s accomplishments
  • Points, badges, and/or leaderboards that serve as status indicators


  • Sale previews for certain users preceding the general preview for all users
  • Unlocked access to exclusive content and features
  • ”First to know” standing for new updates and features


  • Enhanced power to vote on or contribute to the formation of new features
  • Moderator status or some other form of superiority over less engaged users


  • Freebies
  • Monetary rewards

Stuff is extremely effective for acquiring new users. A lot of marketing campaigns involve free trials and free gift cards. These light entries can definitely hook users to the service by properly introducing them to badges, points, or leaderboards. However, these sticky mechanics can be hard to appeal for both new and hyper users. The intensity of this technique could help retain heavy users, but it could also overwhelm new users, hence the reason why companies must appropriately balance the use of rewards as to not alienate either hyper or new users. After exploring different reward mechanics in various services, I categorized mechanics into four groups.

Common Reward Mechanics


1. Anniversary

This reward is given based on a specific time duration after joining the service. This type is relatively easy to receive, but it can disturb new users when they are surrounded by veterans. The reward does not have any ties to the quality or quantity of a user’s activity or interaction with a given service.

2. Activity counts

This reward is based on how many times a user has accomplished a particular action. For example, Super Mario gamers gain virtual coins, steps on enemies, and passes during the course of the game. These “achievements” are often translated into points or currencies. More points prove a user’s accomplishments in the game. Thus, the more one has, the more of a skilled Super Mario gamer he/she is. Similar to the anniversary reward, there is an advantage for veterans. However, activity count accomplishments require certain qualities to achieve high counts.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

3. Activity quality

This reward is strongly tied to the quality of activities. Sometimes, the quality can be measured numerically such as likes or the amount of endorsements users receive. Player levels are often also comprised of some activity quality counts. In this regard, other similar rewards could be provided by qualitative judgements from moderation groups or other power users. One could argue these groups are too subjective, nonetheless, they are more challenging to earn and thus tend to be more valuable.

4. Easy earners

This reward is so easy that anyone can earn it. For example, some apps give badges to users when they simply upload their profile photo. They can act as bridges to attain harder rewards. Moreover, by earning these easier rewards, users become more attached and interested to earn the harder-to-earn rewards. In this way, users can enjoy creating tutorials to teach new users how a given application works and its rules.


Reddit Premium creates core rewarding style mechanics

In 2018, Reddit reintroduced a premium membership, Reddit Premium, which was made available for new users at $5.99 per month ($3.99 a month for existing gold members). The membership gives following benefits:

  • 1,000 Reddit Coins as an initial sign up bonus and 700 Reddit Coins each month thereafter
  • Access to the member only Subreddit “Lounge” (r/lounge)
  • Automatically hidden advertisements
  • Premium trophy icon on profile

Users can use Reddit Coins (formerly called credits) to award or accolade their favorite posts or comments. In other words, they get to have some power to influence the conversations that take place in the community. The recipients gain status, which motivates them to stay active on the platform.

An ad-free experience and the lounge provide exclusive access to these premium users. The trophy will add to their status.

The awards that people can purchase with Reddit Coins (Source: Reddit)

Awards and Trophies

Aside from the core rewarding mechanic, Reddit has a long list of awards, some of which are extremely easy to earn. For example, there are yearly clubs, like the Four-Year Club, which highlights continuous dedication to the community. New users will have new user badges and earn badges by verifying email addresses. These rookie trophies also imply more trophies are awaiting users. Other awards are based on the quality of users’ contributions, such as appropriate maintenance of comment quality and streaks. Reddit doesn’t explicitly disclose how users can receive all of their trophies. This mysteriousness gives room to be flexible, which should help the moderators to keep the community active.

Some of trophies that are available in Reddit. The full list is available in their wiki.


Trophy emojis take users to in-depths

Similar to Reddit, users can collect emoji trophies on Snapchat. The trophy tab on the profile page is much more prominent than the one on Reddit. When you open the tab, the page is full of locks for new users. If users follow onboarding properly, they should receive their first trophies regarding their email and phone number verifications. Some of trophies can be achieved by numbers of Snaps users send. As they earn more trophies, the rest of the locks create curiosity gaps for heavy users; they go online and research the full list of possible accomplishments. Achieving full trophies has become a game for core fans, and many of them post their accomplishments accordingly.

Full of locked trophies in the trophy case page

Sometimes, these trophy challenges also function as tutorials introducing different functions in the app. Some trophies are received when users successfully apply the use of pen tools, front-facing cameras, or filters. Additionally, some invoke users creativity with rather absurd, yet still funny challenges. For instance, one trophy is awarded to users when a 50 times zoomed text is added to one snap. These trophies help Snap posts from getting into ruts.

Some of emojis that are available in Snap. The full list is available in their site.

Educational apps

Motivational features for educational apps are straight forward. These rewards are meant to show progress for the users themselves, rather than in competition or accordance with other users. Each step to get next reward is much more granular, so users can keep up with continuous progress easily.

Duolingo shows meters for achieving each reward (Image source: Snarky Nomad)
Elevate shows a learning progress in a meter format. Trophies also give incremental goals to achieve the holistic goals. (Elevate)
Brilliant org tracks your daily streaks in its calendar. Each learning progress can be seen in meters and graphs. (Brilliant.org)

Follow on medium: https://uxdesign.cc/extra-gamified-why-are-some-apps-so-satisfying-7ae8df998394


A Brief History of Gamification: Part II — The Name | Education & eLearning 2.0

Tinder’s Swiping Was Inspired By Pigeons | Chedder

The right app rewards to boost motivation | Jeni Miles

What Is Gamification? Everything You Need To Know To Get Started | Captain Up

How You Can Use Reddit’s New Premium Accounts to Better Connect With Your Audience | Inc.

How to Unlock All of the Snapchat Trophies | HIGHSNOBIETY

Snapchat Trophies: What They Are and How to Get Them All | MUO

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