Game-changer: A Guide to Game-Based Behavioral Science Innovations

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Jan 25, 2024

The successful application of game design into non-game contexts in recent years has attracted more and more attention from fields such as marketing, sales, app development, health, education, and human resources (just to name a few). This process has been addressed with a myriad of different terms – from “gamification” to “serious games” to “learning through play” – making it nearly impossible to navigate which specific type you may want to implement in your business. 

With this in mind, here is a quick guide to provide you with some clarity surrounding these definitions, how they relate to behavioral science, and how to apply them.

Level one: Gamification

What is gamification?

Gamification was the first concept that I heard of involving the application of game design into non-game contexts. It’s usually understood as incorporating game elements like points, leaderboards, and badges (otherwise known as PBLs) into novel situations, such as exercising, learning a new language, training employees, educating students – the list goes on. For example, several health apps compare your time on a run with that of similar users and give out trophies when you break records. 

In practice, however, gamification is more complex than simply adding a few game elements. It’s not quite like throwing a few new spices into a stew. We need to understand the core ingredients: how to select, test, and iterate the game elements that will tackle users’ preferences, motivations, and behavioral barriers. Furthermore, the play experience needs to be meaningful to potential users – that is, they need to be intrinsically motivated to do the desired behavior. There are platforms and shortcuts to add PBLs to non-game contexts, but this generalized approach can backfire. Unless we reveal the behavioral barriers and understand what drives our users, PBLs are random tools without a clear purpose.

When should I use gamification?

If you are interested in motivating users to engage in a desired behavior by making it seem more attractive, fun, or easy to do, try gamifying your experience. Gamification has proven particularly successful in the educational sphere by innovating curriculum delivery and evaluation, such as through online learning platforms.1


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Level two: Serious Games 

What are serious games?

The goal of playing most games is just for fun. Meanwhile, serious games are intentionally designed to tackle a specific objective beyond having a good time (even though these aren’t mutually exclusive, but more on that later). For example, serious games2 have taught kids about the consequences of climate change, trained pilots and healthcare providers, and taught men how to do household chores. 

In practice, designing a serious game requires expertise in game design and testing, thematic knowledge in the area of interest, and experience in applied behavioral science. Serious games can range from board games to digital games, as long as they deliver content through enjoyable gameplay. Currently, TDL is helping Health Canada design a serious game to encourage young Canadians to engage in healthy behaviors such as washing their hands before they eat or dusting their bedrooms regularly. 

When should I design a serious game?

A lot of serious games focus too much on the “serious” and not enough on the “game” and end up being boring. There is a risk of losing your player’s interest and attention if they feel they’re being imparted a lesson, making it difficult to balance enjoyment with content delivery. 

If you simply need to increase your player’s knowledge, you should go with gamification instead because games are not great for encoding new information. A serious game is best suited for developing your player’s skills by presenting a scenario in the game that is close enough to real life. By integrating behavioral science principles, serious games can be effective tools for influencing real-world behaviors and skill-building. 

You should also keep in mind that developing a game is generally more expensive than gamifying an experience. Since these tools are usually used in contexts of high uncertainty, it’s important to test their effectiveness before investing too much in them.      

Level Three: Learning Through Play

What is learning through play?

Learning through play refers to an educational approach that incorporates play into the education process. Here, it’s important to distinguish between “play” and “game” to ensure you are embarking on the right approach. According to Johan Huizinga, author of the very influential Homo Ludens, a game is a structured activity with a clear goal and a set of rules (think soccer, chess, and Call of Duty). Playing is a more spontaneous and less structured activity, pursued voluntarily and without an agenda (think playing a musical instrument, playing pretend, or exploring your artistic side with drawing or painting).

Huizinga notes that play is at the core of social norms, the creation of order and meaning, and the artistic expression of human beings. Learning through play fosters creativity, problem-solving, social and emotional learning (SEL), and overall cognitive development. Play provides a natural and enjoyable way for us to encounter new situations, practice decision-making, and receive feedback. In short – play is pretty awesome!

The advantage of adding a behavioral lens to learning through play is that it allows you to measure the effectiveness of play in skill-building and development. Gathering evidence is key to understanding if your program or intervention should be scaled up or iterated. For example, there is a lot of noise in the toy industry about the advantages of social and emotional learning through SEL-labeled toys, but unfortunately, their innovations are usually not backed up with evidence. There’s enough evidence about play and increased SEL, but developing a new SEL-labeled toy or intervention and saying it effectively promotes SEL requires more science than a fancy seal.     

When should I base my intervention on learning through play?

When the context allows for a lot of experimentation and you are more interested in soft skills and cognitive development than specific thematic lessons, learning through play may be the right path. The goal is to leverage intrinsic motivation in play to encourage desired behaviors and skills, but if the motivation is not inherent to the activity, the subjects would not be playing at all. 

Learning through play has been used successfully in younger audiences for less structured programs like community outreach, awareness campaigns, and body awareness programs – but this strategy can enhance engagement and information retention in other areas as well!

Game Over: Wrapping Up the Wins of Game-Based Behavioral Innovations

A game-based approach to program design and delivery can be an innovative and engaging way to increase knowledge, develop skills, and encourage new behaviors in your audience. Whether it is through gamification, serious games, or learning through play, applying a behavioral science lens to your innovation will allow you to engage and understand your audience better, deploy tailored tools and solutions, and prove the added value of these game-based solutions with sound evidence. Sounds like a game-changer to me!


  1. Sailer, M., Homner, L. The Gamification of Learning: a Meta-analysis. Educ Psychol Rev 32, 77–112 (2020).
  2. Hainey, T., Connolly, T. M., Boyle, E. A., Wilson, A., & Razak, A. (2016). A systematic literature review of games-based learning empirical evidence in primary education. Computers & Education, 102, 202-223.

About the Author

Juan Roa Duarte headshot_square

Juan Roa Duarte

Juan Roa is a Consultant at TDL. He has a background in philosophy and holds a Master’s in Public Policy from McGill University. Juan is passionate about education, public innovation, and peacebuilding. Specifically, he wants to use behavioural science and policy-making to tackle inequality and improve people’s lives worldwide. Before joining TDL, Juan was a Policy Advisor on Behavioural Change at Bogota’s Department of Transportation and a Senior Design Researcher at Corpovisionarios, a Colombian think-tank that pioneered applying a social norms approach to social change.

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