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The Science of Gamification and How It Has Been Optimized by Skylab USA

Game theory principles and strategies have been applied by a variety of social media platforms as a method of increasing user engagement, satisfaction and motivation. This is often referred to as “gamification” or the application of game theory and gaming technology to a business or social environment which by itself is not technically designed as a “game”

Skylab USA was created specifically to take advantage of the powerful reinforcement power inherent in a well-designed gamification system. (Hamari et al 2014). Gamification has been cited as a method of supporting user engagement as well as increasing positive patterns of app usage. The reasons for this are what authors refer to as the positive, intrinsically motivating and game-like experiences that are inherent in a gamified system which has been designed to optimize motivation.

Because of these ideas, gamification as been referred to as the next generation method for marketing and customer engagement by many authors. For example, the influential Gartner group estimated that over 50% of organizations will gamify business processes by the end of this decade. Although the press has been generally positive and very optimistic forecasts of the impact of gamification have been, there is a lack of understanding of what is meant by the term “gamification” as well as coherent understanding (Hamari et al, 2014) of the results of available research. Hamari et al offered a definition of gamification: “a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioral outcomes” Haetari and Hamari highlight the role of gamification in invoking the same positive psychological effects as games generally do. However, Deterding emphasized that the affordances implemented must be the same as the ones used in games regardless of outcomes.

According to many authors, there are three main parts to the gamification process :

  1. Motivational Affordances

  2. Psychological Outcomes

  3. Behavioral Outcomes

Skylab has created a gamification platform that incorporates all of these main components, especially affording users multiple opportunities to be motivated for success and to sustain this motivation over days, weeks and months. For example, Skylab has had some users on different planets with over a year of sustained engagement (i.e., more than 400 days in a row). These “streaks” are shown on users’ behavioral profiles affording other users opportunities to provide positive reinforcement to those highly engaged super users.

Badge Research

Although badges are widely accepted as the standard method of positively reinforcing behavior and increasing engagement, there have been some negative results on the effects of using badges as reinforcers in a gamified platform. For example, a German study published in eLearning Inside in early March 2018 questioned the widely held assumption that badges have positive effects on users across the board. Their research results clearly showed that the impact of badges varied widely across user experience and demographic variables.

Two other recent articles in the same publication reported somewhat more positive findings including a study by White and Shellenberger on gamification in Nursing Education. They reported results that showed that digital badges provide new opportunities for designing engaged and individualized learning experiences. In their paper, the authors indicated that not enough research has been conducted to date to draw meaningful conclusions on the impact of badges in higher education settings and also summarized earlier research that “the value of badges may be entirely dependent on the design of the badge and user characteristics such as internal vs external motivation (which evokes Julian Rotter’s inner-directed and outer-directed personality and behavior typology).

Skylab’s gamified platform is firmly based on the social cognitive learning theory of Rotter, Bandura and others. (see our February 2018 white paper: Skylab and the Science of Engagement).

Skylab planet architects and developers have created a wide variety of colorful and meaningful badges which not only increase the likelihood that users will perceive them in the most positive light possible but also help maximize the intrinsic motivation that users, of such a compelling social cognitive and self-reinforcement platform, quite naturally develop.

Another negative effect of badges was reported by White and Shellenberger and that is the fact that some users become discouraged because they fail to gain recognition and thus may be distracted from the purpose of the course, spending too much time worrying about winning badges and competing with others in a distracting way.

In contrast, Skylab’s system has been designed to provide reinforcement to all users not just those with the highest engagement levels. And Skylab users are encouraged to provide positive feedback to others even for minimal achievements, the good of the whole is definitely emphasized over the good of just a few.

Another 2018 study by Mellor et al showed that the use of digital badges in a gamified platform with high school and college undergraduate chemistry majors led to very positive outcomes in a gamified setting teaching students how to develop eco-friendly (i.e. “green” ) chemical processes. These authors concluded that more research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be reached regarding the impact and effectiveness of digital badges.

Best Practices for Applying Digital Badges for Behavior Change

According to Dr. Amy Bucher (2017, there are at least 5 best practices that digital badge designers need to consider in order to maximize the effectiveness of badges as reinforcers in a gamified platform.

  1. Clearly define behavior goals and key milestones: Although this may seem obvious, many gamification systems have not emphasized this and may have overlooked it entirely when they created badges as reinforcers.

  2. Use badges to encourage growth and progress: For most people learning a new behavior takes time and it is very easy for people to become discouraged and feel like giving up before the goal is reached. It is important to create a sequence of behavioral goals from those that are easy to achieve to those that are more difficult. Using badge reinforcers at each step will help maintain the user’s motivation.

  3. Don’t try to over-reward: Giving too many rewards over a short period of time may actually decrease the desired behavior due to satiation effects (the badges lose their reinforcement value) Scarcity actually creates greater value for each badge awarded. There is also a neurophysiological effect called the “undermining effect” which means that too many rewards (i.e., too many badges) leads to a negative physiological effect, an aversion to the behavior which produced these excessive rewards. Instead of motivating engaged behavior such behavior actually becomes less intrinsically pleasurable to the user.

  4. Make badges unpredictable: Using a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement will lead to greater engagement. This is a fact well known to behavioral psychologists and anyone who has ever played a slot machine in a casino; slot machines may not pay out as well as card games like “blackjack” but they are a lot stickier. However, for more complex behavior, a fixed level of reinforcement is better

  5. Make sure that badges are connected to other motivational sources: By themselves, digital badges have no real value but you can create a sense of value if you set up badges as connecting processes to help users complete other motivational affordances to reach real, meaningful goals. The self-reinforcement theory as originally developed by such influential psychologists as Bandura, Rotter and Kanfer and the dozens of research studies that followed have shown that supporting such psychological needs as autonomy and competence lead to greater engagement. Bucher referred to this as “self-determination theory” but other authors and researchers have connected this behavioral phenomenon to Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory (see our previous paper “The Science of Engagement” Feb. 2018) and the development of what he termed “self-efficacy”.

Skylab USA generally follows Dr. Bucher’s five best practices however it has gone beyond these 5 and created additional badge development practices internally, adhering to the principles of social cognitive learning theory and practice. Because of this strict adherence to the behavioral learning scientific tradition, Skylab USA has created a highly effective, white-labeled social media app and platform ( with very high brand engagement. which on a relative % basis has 730 times greater brand engagement than Facebook (March 2018) and 16 times greater brand engagement than Instagram (March 2018). In addition, Skylab USA has demonstrated very high retention rates and has a very high percentage of “super-engaged users”; those with consistent day to day activity sustained well over a year or more. (In Skylab parlance, these are referred to as streaks)

Below are some examples of the digital badges available to Skylab users; the variety and design of the badges are fully customizable and can be modified to improve engagement behaviors and these images are followed by a table showing all of the digital badges available on Skylab planets organized by behaviors or user actions.


  1. Sharing

  2. Shared the app

  3. Received a sign up

  4. Shared a Post

  5. And More…

  6. Liking

  7. Liked an Activity Card

  8. Other Liked an Activity Card

  9. Liked a Photo in a Voting Contest

  10. And More..

  11. Recommending

  12. Recommended a Lesson

  13. Recommended a Post

  14. Others Recommended Your Lesson

  15. And More…

  16. Commenting

  17. Commented on an Activity Card

  18. Commented on a Lesson

  19. Commented on a Post

  20. And More…

  21. Chat

  22. Authored a Chat

  23. Authored a Targeted Chat

  24. Received a Chat

  25. And More…

  26. Channels

  27. Completed a Post

  28. Followed a Channel

  29. Others Completed Your Post

  30. And More…

  31. Leaderboard

  32. Ranked #1 on the Leaderboard

  33. Ranked in the Top 10

  34. Ranked in the Top 25

  35. Ranked in the Top 50

  36. And More…

  37. Participating in Contests

  38. Participate in an App Sharing Contest

  39. Participate in a Voting Contest

  40. Participate in a Challenge

  41. And More…

  42. Getting Trained

  43. Completed a Lesson

  44. Completed a Program

  45. Completed a Course

  46. And More…

  47. Taking Actions

  48. Organic Fuel

  49. Workout

  50. Replenish

  51. And More…

  52. Using the App

  53. Getting on the App

  54. Visiting Skylab Universe

  55. Visiting Skylab Team

  56. And More…

  57. Scheduling

  58. Registered to an Event

  59. Attended an Event

  60. Booked a Personal Service

  61. And More…

  62. Dashboard Actions – The buttons you see on the home screen of an app also allow you to earn points.

How does gamification change behavior

In an experimental study, Sailer et al (2016) found that “gamification” per se is not effective in causing behavior change however some of the elements which make up a gamified system are effective change agents.

The authors did find that badges, leaderboards and performance graphs positively affected feelings of self-competence and satisfied certain psychological needs as well as providing participants the sense that the tasks involved were meaningful. On the other hand, avatars, meaningful story lines and having teammates increased users’ feelings of social relatedness. Thus, instead of an overall global positive effect on behavior, it was discovered that specific game elements have specific psychological effects.

Motivation and Gamification

Video games are known for their strong motivational impact on those who play them regardless of age and socio-cultural factors. And it was this knowledge that led some to apply gaming principles and practices to “real world” situations as a means of motivating individuals to achieve higher levels of achievement and engagement.

Gamification in this context is defined as taking the fundamental key components of video games and applying them to a non-game environment.

There are six key components to understanding motivation as it relates to gamification: personality traits, behavioral learning theory, cognitive learning, self-determination, interest and emotion (Sailer et. al. 2016).

Of these, perhaps, the most important is self-determination because it encompasses elements of all the other five perspectives and, also, because it places the proper emphasis on the importance of environmental factors in producing optimal motivational levels in a gamified environment.

According to Deci & Ryan(2002), self-determination theory is centered on three basic human needs:

  1. Need for Competence

  2. Need for Autonomy

  3. Need for Social Relatedness

Competence is defined as feelings of efficiency and success; Autonomy is defined as having a sense of psychological freedom (i.e, feeling of making decisions based personal values and interests) and volition (i.e., acting without external pressure or enforcement; Social Relatedness is defined as an individual’s feeling of belonging to a group and represents a basic desire to have coherent integration with one’s social environment.

These motivational resources are the key to Skylab’s current success not only due to its optimized gamification platform but also, and perhaps, more importantly to Skylab’s focus on Social Cognitive Learning theory as the foundation for developing its overall social media platform. Self-determination is directly related to the self-reinforcement/self-efficacy theories of Bandura which are the result of the decades-long research on Social Cognitive Learning.

The PBL Triad

Another way that Skylab has optimized gamification methods concerns how it set up the key game design elements such as badges, points, leaderboards and avatars. These are considered the most significant elements and most authors refer to them as the PBL triad (the interplay among points, badges and leaderboards is considered the primary source of motivation in gamified systems). Skylab established its PBL triad in a manner which is aligned with the best practices of social cognitive learning theory to maximize reinforcement value and intrinsic motivation.

Points are one of the basic elements of any game or a non-game gamified system. Generally points are awarded for successful accomplishments of specific activities that are essential to the gamified environment. Types of points vary from experience points to reputation points or even points that can be redeemed for a tangible reward.

Perhaps the most important purpose of points is to provide feedback to the user and the group regarding an individual’s “in-game” behavior.

Badges are the visual equivalent of points and reflect an individual’s achievements and levels of success for in-game

behavior. Badges are an effective validation of a user’s achievements and symbolize their success. Badges generally have more than one function; a reward as well as feedback to the individual user and the community as a whole.

Because badges can signify membership in a unique sub-group of users, they can be a source of extrinsic motivation to drive other users to achieve similar goals and thus, can motivate more than just a single individual and have a spill-over affect on the entire community.

Leaderboards rank users or players on the basis of their relative success or achievement over a specified time period (daily, weekly, monthly, all-time). Leaderboards are tremendous motivators and other users can readily compare their success to others in the community. However, leaderboards may also be de-motivating if the gap between levels on the leaderboard is too high and some users become discouraged and stop trying to succeed.

It is true that the leaderboard can have very positive effect on motivation and increase engagement levels throughout the entire gamified system but the positive effects are negated if there is a significant disparity in ability levels in the community.

An alternative option to leaderboards is the performance graph (or what Skylab refers to as a user’s behavioral profile. Because the reference point is individual rather than social, the performance graph or behavioral profile is focused on small incremental improvements in behavior and this tends to foster Mastery Orientation which is a key concept in self-efficacy theory and known to be significant for learning new behaviors.

Another Skylab innovation is the Recognition Wall (highlighting “today’s most active users” or “newest users”) which helps reduce the gap between high performers and average performers and evens the playing field somewhat. In addition, Skylab has instituted a calibrated leaderboard which means that any individual can locate exactly where he or she stands compared to other users which provides more precise information regarding precisely who is just below the individual and who is just above. This allows the individual the opportunity to gauge his or her progress in relation to other users and helps define accurate and measurable levels of success which are especially valuable in a self-reinforcement model.


Skylab has been so successful (especially in terms of its very high brand engagement levels which has been measured to be much greater than Facebook, Forrester Research, 2015) since its inception because it has optimized a number of key elements of Game Theory to motivate users and drive high levels of engaged activity. These key elements include creating a wide variety of badges to enhance user motivation and increase the value of these rewards. Skylab has also created a point system which leverages the motivational influence of differing schedules of reinforcement.


Bandura, A.(1977)Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Bucher, A. Five best practices for digital badges for behavior change. Blog-Psychology for Health and Happiness, July 12, 2017.

Deci, E.& Ryan, R. (1985) Self-Determination. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.

Deterding, S., D. Dixon, R. Khaled, and L. Nacke, “From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification”, In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, September 28-30, 2011, Tampere, Finland, ACM, pp. 9-15. [10]

Forrester Research, Top 50 Global Brands, 2014; 2015, blog post

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J. and Sarsa, H. (2014) Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification,47th Hawaii International Conference on System Science.

Rotter, J. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal vs external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80,1-28. (whole #609).

Rotter, J. (1975). Some problems and misconceptions related to the construct of internal versus external control of reinforcement. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43, 56-67.


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