Article: Gamification lessons from Dr. Angry Birds


Gamification lessons from Dr. Angry Birds

It would be worth imagining if there were any elements of Angry Birds game design that we could reflect and apply in the real world in domains like organization change, culture or employee learning.
Gamification lessons from Dr. Angry Birds

What are the odds of a 'serious' adult getting actively engaged in slinging strange looking birds at a bunch of pigs hiding under precariously placed structures? Well, as it turned out, this apparently 'redundant' and 'lame' mission when designed as a digital game became a worldwide rage and an epic money guzzler, turning around the fortunes of Rovio. With close to 3 billion downloads and epic follower counts across all demographics and cultures, there ought to be a merit in exploring some of the secrets behind its intriguing design especially from a human motivation perspective. And, it would be worth imagining if there were any elements of Angry Birds game design, that we could reflect and apply in real world — may be at our workplaces, products, websites, blogs, society to garner a larger engagement (if not epic like this game!) within our employees, customers and fellow citizens. This in fact is also what Gamification means to me — observing the elements that make some great games so endearing and applying the same principles in real world, opening amazing possibilities for human learning, motivation and engagement.

Angry Bird_1

Here are a few excerpts from my imaginary and insightful conversation with the legendary Angry Birds on Secrets of Successful Gamification.


"Remember the game had a very simple but engaging narrative? We birds were mad and angry as our eggs got stolen by the naughty pigs. So we went all out slinging hard at pigs!"

Learning #1 Weave a Story

We all love stories and love to be a part of them. Curating a larger (sometimes even a larger than life) purpose or a  captivating  narrative around the core mundane tasks can just be the right spark to set the user engagement stage on fire later. Isn't it harder to motivate someone for a sustained period to do a string of tasks or exhibit certain ‘ideal’ behaviors just to win some random points? From saving the planet, turning around a business as a virtual CEO, mentoring massive online followers or simply finding one’s own version 2.0! Gamification powered by captivating narratives stand a better chance at giving a compelling and sustainable reason for the players (users) to be a part of something bigger than the usual.


"You remember...every time you had a new bird to play with, there was a little hint on your screen on how to sling and our secret powers? And you got it like a pro in a few shots!"

Learning #2 – Welcome Onboard!

One way to ensure stickiness to your gamified environment is to give your new players a great onboarding experience which can seamlessly familiarize them on the rules, win states and tools with bare minimum effort. The impatient users of today's age are not the ones to read lengthy manuals, dragging FAQ pages or even lengthy tutorial videos. The early experience and the interface must be highly intuitive to get the user started and bag some quick yet meaningful early wins. At their first date with your gamified product, the user ought to feel comfortable, smart and yet curious to explore more. 

Imagine a world where you can wake up to  see a metamorphosis of your daily checklist, career goals, sales targets or health resolutions  into a quest to conquer, a monster to shoot at or a thrilling worldwide countdown race to zero hunger


"Though you saw the game in just a single frame with a handful of characters, it had some amazing level of detailing of each character and events. The different faces of birds, the way the trajectory of our slings unfolded, the explosions, the monkeys, balloons and then of course the great fall of  mega structures and the agony  of pigs under them! You could feel action- just about everywhere!"

Learning #3 The Devil is in Detail

Even though your workplace plot or real life subject may be limited- a Plain Jane product, a company’s website, an online accounting course, a serious social cause they all have their little components which when made to look ‘play-like’, can be given some sort of life, a character or a metaphor acting as a great scaffold to the original plot. For example, a product demo video as a war briefing, course levels as alien superpowers to unlock, may be some engine roaring simulation effects as we explore the tech specifications of a heavy duty SUV/bike or simply a priceless smile of a child slowly unfolding as you progress through the donation payment process! Every user action and touch-point is an opportunity to imagine harder and gamify!


"Remember, with each passing level you had a new set of limited birds (Red, Chuck, Bomb, Matilda...) with unique superpowers to bust more sophisticated structures including the criminal piglets of course! But, YOU had the choice and autonomy to strategize, to hit the most suitable part of the structure with the bird you deemed fit. There was a clearsense therefore, that there can be more than one way to crack the ultimate goal. Also, you could even go back in game to replay past levels to earn  that extra star! Within some broad rules, you enjoyed the freedom and control to pace your journey, to be the master of your own fate."

Learning #4 – Boost User Autonomy

Game-like experiences, just like games are most engaging only when they are voluntary. User consent and autonomy hence are one the most crucial X factors for a gamification effort to be successful and sustainable. It is thus recommended to add enough avenues for your users to express their unique creativity- to explore, to fail, try new paths rather than follow a pre-decided road to your content. It is better for the user to sense a tactical depth than the same old task with some points and a 'mandatory to play' clause thrown in. And lastly, just like we ‘choose’ to play our favorite games, users must have a choice of ‘not to play’ if the experience is not worthwhile. The easiest way to kill a gamification effort is to push it down the throats of your players! It is no longer game-like if one ‘has’ to play or play only to a script.

The easiest way to kill a gamification effort is to push it down the throats of your players! It is no longer game-like if one ‘has’ to play or play only to a script


"I bet you enjoyed the little creative ways the game reacted to your smallest of actions. The noisy chirps from all of us, the contemptuous laughter of the surviving pig(s) once you lose, the screeching sound your sling makes when stretched to
max, your points making a glorified entry from the smoke of clouds, star count for each level to know how spectacular or ordinary your win was. The game was ‘intelligently’ speaking to you at all times!"

Learning #5 – Feedback Loops 

How eager will you be to upload photos on your social network if all your contacts can still see them but not like, comment or share? Likes, Retweets, Shares, Comments, Applauds, Trolls, a thank you note or just a tiny emoticon — feedback is everywhere and it indeed is a vital engagement thread. The opportunity to give your users a feedback is immense — to encourage, tease, glorify, challenge, amuse, or surprise. But sadly, while gamifying this aspect is largely underutilized or more often oversimplified in form of predictable points or elementary congratulatory, try again, welcome or thank you messages. 

Well spread out, creative and iterative feedback loops in sync with the narrative keeps the gamified environment ‘alive’, interactive and empathetic, laying deep foundations for long-term engagement, neural associations and habit formation. 


"I bet there were times when you entered a new level and saw humongous concrete structures with only a handful of sling shots- and you almost gave up! And then you tried and failed a few times and then... Whoa! You nailed it! But guess what? The next level threw an even more obscene challenge  which you felt will be your ultimate skill threshold and thwarted it again and marched ahead! It was as if you were on a roller coaster! Challenge and triumph playing on loop!” 


Learning #6 – Stay in the ‘Flow’ Zone

Users slowly evolve in their skills with more familiarity and experience. Hence, smart gamification designs incrementally throw in the right amount of complexity and win states to keep the skill levels adequately nourished as well as challenged also known as the ‘flow zone'.  

A limited or poor appreciation of target audience’s profile and capabilities while designing win states and reward policies can often get a reasonably seasoned player into either a state of boredom or frustration. Both of these emotions can naturally trigger withdrawal symptoms from games as well as game-like environments. Handing out points or rewards just about for anything, predictable challenges after some early wins, major rule loopholes, over-glorifying relatively average achievements — all of these can make the game experience too easy and boring. On the other extreme, too many rules or disclaimers in your game or win states, no early win opportunities, too many controls and dashboards, poor instructions — all sound like a lot of mental fatigue, anxiety and futility than a worthwhile challenge. 

Getting the ‘flow’ right requires a deep sense and pulse of your target audience’s skill and learning curve. Test runs with a sample audience, success and failure rate insights, using elements of surprise and unpredictability and ongoing game feedback from users must be a part of design review to tweak and possibly evolve  the game’s challenge factor in order to keep maximum players in the ‘flow zone’. 

Thumb Rule - Make your gamification easy to play but difficult to win!

Gamification vs. Pointsification

A sustainable gamification needs smarter storyboards than sleeker leaderboards.

Interestingly, we did not see the PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboard) in the list above, which sadly is perceived as the most convenient way to gamify a task or process. The harsh reality, however, which is backed by academic research, proves that it is in fact hard to expect a sustained long-term engagement by just  slapping some extrinsic motivators like points, badges and leaderboard on a task. PBL indeed is a potent tool but only as one of the ‘mechanics’ to power an engaging gamification plot, largely to keep achievements quantifiable and comparable better termed as 'Pointsification', if done in isolation. 

Successful gamification as we see is more holistic in its approach, dwells deep into understanding the core human drives in action while gaming, and then bases its worldly application on the same fundamentals, giving a compelling intrinsic incentive to fuel the desire to collect, save or showcase the eventual badges, points or ranks. Great games and gamifications therefore, blend principles of rewards, habit building with incremental chunks of knowledge and experiences that eventually are entrenched into our long-term memories.

If done in the right spirit and expertise, gamification can help bring a ‘play like’ yet an intelligent and productive environment  to wide-ranging domains like organization change and culture, employee training and learning, education, sales, recruitment, service competitions, product campaigns, customer loyalty, health and fitness to even social welfare and development.

Imagine a world where you can wake up to  see a metamorphosis of your daily checklist, career goals, sales targets, health resolutions  or community initiatives into possibly a quest to conquer, a monster to shoot at or a thrilling worldwide countdown race to zero hunger!

Sounds more than just a game! 

Thank you, Dr. Angry Birds.

Read full story

Topics: Watercooler, HR Technology

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?