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How Google got Gamification wrong: Tips to avoid making the same mistake

Updated: May 31, 2023

In January 2015, Google introduced a ‘Local Guides’ program on its Maps app. It rewarded users for sharing photos and reviews of local businesses on the App. Within 12 months, 50 million users contributed to the program.

On 1st April 2017, Google gamified their maps app again by changing its interface to Ms. Pacman.

And on 21st October 2019, GPay launched #StampsWaliDiwali Campaign. Users were rewarded ₹251 for collecting all 5 Diwali stamps. The campaign was such a hit that its deadline was extended by 2 weeks.

When it comes to gamification, Google has truly mastered the art. From its logo to its work culture, the company has employed various game mechanics.

But what if I told you that its Gamification journey started with a massive failure?

Google’s failed Gamification campaign

In 2011, Google News started rewarding users with shareable badges. The idea was pretty straightforward - Read more, Earn more.

Let's say you enjoy reading about current affairs. Google will reward you with a Politics badge which will show up on your profile. The more you read, your badges start leveling up from bronze all the way to platinum. You can also choose to make these badges public. This would allow other users to check out what you read on a regular basis.

When Google launched this new feature, users were really excited about it. But it fizzled out rather quickly. Users started opting out of receiving these badges and eventually, the campaign was scrapped within 15 months.

Why did Google Badges fail?

To understand this, we have to go back to 1980.

Rewards should reflect competence

3 researchers from Southern Methodist University (USA) conducted an experiment with 118 female psychology students. They were asked to play a modified version of the crossword game "Ad-lib".

Students were divided into Group A & Group B. Both groups were promised a cash reward at the end of the experiment.

Group A were told that the reward would be based on their competence. Top 15% performers will be paid higher, middle 70% will be paid an average amount, and bottom 15% will be paid the lowest.

Group B were told that they would be paid based on completion. The more time they spend solving the puzzle, the more money they will get paid and vice versa. Again, top 15% will be paid higher, middle 70% will be paid an average amount, and bottom 15% will be paid the lowest.

Researchers conducted two sessions to observe how students responded to the rewards. Here are the results -

In Group A, students in the top 15% continued playing longer than the rest. Higher rewards led to higher intrinsic motivation to play the game.

The opposite happened in Group B. Here, higher-paid students lost interest in the game.

Students in the bottom 15% played the game longer than the top 15%.

Top 15% students in Group B knew they were rewarded higher because they played slightly longer than others. It did not reflect their actual ability to solve the puzzles.

This is called Overjustification Effect - a situation where an external reward such as cash or badges decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a task.

This was the mistake Google News made.

Users were rewarded with badges for simply reading the news. They did not have to challenge themselves or compete with others to achieve these rewards. Basically, it served no purpose.

To create a compelling gamified experience, you have to understand what drives all of us.

The Keys to our motivation

In his book Drive, Dan Pink perfectly sums up the three elements that drive our intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  • Autonomy: Being in total control and able to decide what we do and how we do it.

  • Mastery: Our pursuit to constantly keep learning, improving and bettering ourselves

  • Purpose: Working towards something that is larger than ourselves. Having something to aim for.

The goal of every good gamified system is to tap into one or more of these intrinsic motivators.

Game mechanics like points, badges, leaderboards are to help users assess their milestones. Without something to master, they are useless.

How a Fitness App tapped into my intrinsic motivation

In September 2021, I decided to run or walk a minimum of 5 km every day.

My colleague asked me to download the Impact App and join him & his friends in their private leaderboard.

Impact is India’s 1st fitness philanthropy app that converts my steps into charity.

With every kilometer I walk or run, Impact donates ₹5-₹10 to a charity of my choice. This is the perfect example of Autonomy. I am in complete control of my workouts and my contributions.

The App allows me to create and join teams, have monthly challenges, and compare my donations with others on a leaderboard. And yes, I get badges when I beat my previous record [I currently have 10 rare badges].

Every day, I am motivated to keep improving and pushing for more. In 4 months, I levelled up from walking 5 km to running it. This gives me a sense of Mastery.

In the last 5 months, I have not missed a single day. My streak as of January 30, 2022 is 141. I have donated a total of ₹5252.

When I check my fitness level and contributions at the end of the month, I feel connected with a Purpose.

5 Lakh+ users use this app daily to contribute to the society and reach their fitness goals.


Instead of looking at gamification as adding points, leaderboards and badges to your App, think in terms Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. That’s the only way to unlock its long-term potential.


1. What is gamification?

Gamification is the act of adding game-like elements like points, leaderboard, badges etc, to non-game environments to encourage acquisition, engagement and retention.

2. Where can I apply gamification?

Application of gamification is subjective which depends on your business use cases. For example, a fintech company can use it to increase transactions.

3. When should I use gamification?

If you’re facing low engagement and high churn, it’s possible that your customers aren’t motivated to engage with your business. That’s where gamification comes in.

4. Does gamification actually work?

Gamification makes your business tasks seem like a game which increases customer engagement and satisfaction. It also improves customer acquisition and loyalty.

5. Is gamification all about points, leaderboards and badges?

Gamification isn’t about just points, badges and leaderboards alone. Thoughtful design, storytelling, strong content, narrative and purpose hold equal importance.




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