Gamification in Publishing: A Brief Argument for its Current Use and Future Expansion

This essay argues that gamification in publishing is a beneficial development and should be sustained in any of its present forms or potential uses. Gamification, as will be defined, can influence positive reading behaviour through the reader’s play and interaction with the content by means of intrinsic and/or extrinsic motivators. Presently, companies like Scholastic, Kobo, and the Huffington Post have successfully integrated gamification into their publishing (or platform) models, but many publishers remain skeptical of its intrinsic, long-term value to the reader’s experience. It should be noted, however, that “gamification” strategies—although not traditionally defined as such—have been a long-standing part of print editorial, production, distribution, and marketing plans even before the inception of digital reading. Furthermore, reader psychology naturally allows for the acceptance of a gamified environment through the reader’s inherent motivation to complete, share, and collect content. As such, a publisher or content provider’s adoption of gamification in digital production, while not only benefitting the industry as a whole, should be expanded beyond the elementary use of points, badges, and leaderboards (PBL), and adopted cross-genre.

Gamification is a buzzword coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, British-born computer programmer[1], to describe the use of game structure and mechanics in a non-game context. Gamified content is such that a user’s motivation within a game structure cultivates higher engagement with the content. Yu-kai Chou, in his book Actionable Gamification, references games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds that “require the same repetitive action” from the user over weeks or months; in the real world, this would be described as a chore or “grunt work”, but it now becomes “fun and addictive” because the user gains a feeling of accomplishment and gratification that is immediate and tangible[2]. These feelings are produced by extrinsic motivation—obtaining checkpoints and awards—or by intrinsic motivation—fulfilling creative expression or social contribution. Chou says, “[users] want these feelings enough that anything that stands in the way, be it grunt work or otherwise, is worth doing and doing urgently[3].”

It should be noted that publishers don’t consider reading a chore, and they assume that “people buy books for the joy of reading[4],” likening enjoyment of books to the act of reading itself. This is misguided. Reading is simply a tool in our toolkit, much like our ears are for listening, and our eyes are for watching. Our ability to read is not the reason why we do it; it is, in fact, emotional drivers that motivate us to read, like learning new information, being entertained through storytelling, escaping the real world, empathizing with a character, keeping up-to-date on current affairs or hot topics, etc. Furthermore, any of these emotional drivers do not require that we read; fulfillment of any of these drivers can be achieved through alternate forms of media, like music, video, and video games. As such, and as a result of a converging media field[5], gamification is helping to justify the act of reading in its substantiation of a reader’s emotional drivers through a system of reward. Now, those people who believe reading is a chore, those who replace their valuable time in watching YouTube, or those who can’t seem to finish a book they started three times over, are given the motivation they need to engage with the book in a positive way. Nancy Davis Kho an online content professional agrees, saying, “game theorists believe that integrating [gamification] techniques into [digital] interactions appeals to a range of fundamental human desires, including rewards, status, achievement, self-expression, competition, and even altruism[6]” that can, at the same time, be highly profitable for the publisher, author, and third party content provider.

Examples of successful gamification can be seen in Scholastic’s 39 Clues, an online game room that supplements the book series, driving kids to creatively problem-solve to discover clues in the book that help them level-up in their online adventure. Kobo, in its newer devices, overlaid a system of points, badges, and leaderboards that track the user’s progress, awarding them for things like fastest reading time, which can be shared on social media. One of the earliest adopters of content gamification was the Huffington Post, who enabled readers to earn points and badges for any article comments that gained respect from the community[7]. They also developed a long-standing game “Predict the News”, that engages users through a system of voting and ranking. In gamification, profitability is inseparable from the reader’s engagement with the content. If content gamification is designed with consideration for the reader’s emotional drivers, publishers can expect return on investment, like enhanced brand value through reader loyalty, enhanced product value through added features, higher visibility through social sharing, and data collection through reader interaction.

Furthermore, a sound gamification strategy cannot rely on the developer to gauge the reader’s emotional drivers; audience information that is best gathered from the publisher is necessary in developing a successful product. Acquiring reader loyalty, for example, may require new levels or hidden chapters of fresh content because “players quickly become disillusioned with games that don’t present new challenges[8].” Publishers are best suited to either generate new content or recommend further reading at these milestones. As a second example, fully engaging the reader within the gamification funnel (the game mechanics that pull a reader through the book[9]) may require the publisher’s insight on a reader’s changing needs and motivations as the story unfolds. At each point of reader interaction that the publisher can foresee and implement into the gamified reading structure, they are furthering their knowledge of reading behaviours and reading communities through the collection of live reader data. This information can then be reintegrated into the system, perhaps to help build a reader’s profile avatar, to perfect recommendation algorithms, or simply to optimize later iterations of a similar game.

It should be noted that publishers have been using “gamification” strategies—although not traditionally defined as such—since the beginning of modern publishing. While this essay will not cover gamification history, some examples of its use in editorial, production, distribution, and marketing plans for print books will help to contextualize its natural fit within the publishing industry. Firstly, the use of chapter headings, subheading, and other textual organizational devices act as physical milestones for the reader to work toward and track their progress. The use of badges and leaderboards are new gamified devices to assert the reader’s progress, but they mirror exactly the kind of motivation and sense of accomplishment that the reader naturally feels. Using broken up chapters to engage audiences has been a publishing strategy since the serialization novels in the Victorian era. Now, a reader who unlocks a hidden chapter level, or who wins an excerpt trophy has the same level of engagement. Secondly, readers naturally want to share their knowledge and opinions of a book, and this motivational driver has been baked into the publishing model through reviews and critiques, ratings and book awards, reader-to-reader recommendations, etc. Social media, as a subset of content gamification, is essentially the digital version of a book club where readers are motivated to share, lead a discussion, gather followers, etc. Gamified books can reflect this by having the user login with their social account. Finally, the reader’s urge to collect and/or display books has informed print production and design throughout history. Whether these books are collected with the aim of acquiring an award within the game community, or displayed in an online library that people can rank and share, these gamified devices are not changing a reader’s behaviour from what it once was in the print age; gamification is simply enhancing innate reader behaviour to comply with a digital reading world.

As such, a publisher or content provider’s adoption of gamification in digital production, while not only benefitting the industry as a whole, should be expanded to adopt new gamification devices that would allow for its cultivation cross-genre. Some of the examples mentioned previously are not genre specific and could be applied to literary fiction, non-fiction, genre fiction, educational books and the like. However, as Kho suggests, “one obstacle preventing deeper penetration of gamification into publishing organizations may be the concern that gaming will sully the seriousness of how content is received,” noting that, “earliest forays by some publishers into gamification were around relatively ‘light’ content, such as recipes[10].” As such, publishers see potential for gamification and interactivity within a limited scope of “light” or “playful” content, like children’s books. In Kho’s same article, Bunhball Inc.’s founder and chief product officer, Rajat Paharia suggests, “publishers may think that gamification is more appropriate for entertainment properties[11].” Again, these are misinterpretations on the part of the publisher and reveal their bias that some content should be, and desires to be consumed in a “serious way”. In fact, gamification devices are neither inherently serious nor are they inherently playful; they simply reflect human motivational drivers that we all share in interacting with the world around us. Our need to, for example, find meaning, become empowered, influence others, be surprised, avoid hazards, acquire rarities, take ownership, or accomplish a goal[12] can each be playful or serious endeavours. The fact that publishers can digitally harness these powerful motivational drivers through gamification should be an exciting development in the history of publishing.


[1] “Gamification.” 2015. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

[2] Chou, Yu-kai. 2014. Actionable Gamification. Leanpub.

[3] ibid.

[4] Kalder, Daniel. 2011. “Ready Reader One: Why Gamification Is Key to Publishing’s Future.” Publishing Perspectives.

[5] Ruth, Linda. 2013. “Gamification: Publishing’s Most Important Challenge.” Publishing Executive.

[6] Kho, Nancy Davis. 2012. “Getting Gamified: Publishers Score Big With Online Games.” EContent Magazine.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] Rathi, Nandini. 2015. “10 Proven Gamification Strategies for Publishers to Maximize Engagement.” Betaout.

[10] Kho, “Getting Gamified: Publishers Score Big With Online Games.”

[11] ibid.

[12] Chou. A summary of Chou’s Octalysis concept.

Greenfield, Jeremy. 2013. “One Idea to Save Illustrated Ebooks: GamificationDigital Book World | Digital Book World.” Digital Book World.

Nawotka, Edward. 2015. “Does Gamification Turn Readers Into Winners and Losers?” Publishing Perspectives.

Star, Kam. 2013. “Behavioural Design”. presented at the Behaviour Design day at Digital Shoreditch.

One Reply to “Gamification in Publishing: A Brief Argument for its Current Use and Future Expansion”

  1. A curious set of considerations on how gamification is and can be used by publishers. The essay successfully opens questions and thinking on the subject, while not getting bogged down on examples. However, in staying on the generalities, the essay is at times a little too detached from the concrete manifestations that would provide the reader with sufficient clarity to fully appreciate the vision of the author.

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