Game Design in Business Applications

By  Stori Walker  Senior UX Designer projekt202

By Stori Walker
Senior UX Designer

Over the past few years, there has been discussion in the user experience design world about how to bring the successful elements of game design into the rather staid realm of business applications. At p202, we’ve found that most business executives have accepted that gaming is here to stay and as their user-base matures and the next generation of users becomes more predominant, a good gameplay experience is likely to be more critical to the success of their product.

Building Anticipation

Gameplay design can also be used to generate anticipation in current users about a new version of an existing business application. One inventive game experience I’ve seen was in the World of Warcraft build up to both of their expansions….sudden invasions to main cities, occasional shaking, rumbling earth under your virtual feet. These interactions helped players begin to prepare mentally & emotionally for the changes that would be happening as the expansions were released.

Since more and more business applications are becoming online experiences via VPNs, it’s very feasible to consider designing “teaser” improvements to get existing users to look forward to new product versions while making incremental changes to their experience ahead of time. It’s important to not make these anticipatory changes ones that make it more difficult for the user to accomplish their goals. The aim should be exactly the reverse.


Adding gameplay elements to business applications is tough to do well. Using game design analysis tools can help. While we don’t design business applications that have trolls and elves or aliens and soldiers running around in them, we can examine what makes game playing an engaging experience and then strive to bring those qualities to a business application.

Playing games, like conducting business, requires the player to make decisions. This simple fact is what makes it possible for game design to work in the business world. A business application reveals goals to the user such as “today you have X reports to process”, or allows the user to set goals “I want to reduce our expenses by X%” and then, hopefully, helps the user make the correct decisions, manage resources, and take the correct actions to achieve those goals. And just like game players, business people need guidance and motivation to accomplish their goals.

Marc LeBlanc developed a Taxonomy of Game Pleasures that can be applied when adding gameplay elements to a business application.

  • Sensation: It may be a given that games will be appealing to our senses, both visual and audio. Sadly, it’s not always a given with business software. Poor visual design is a frequent issue in business applications.
  • Fantasy: An inherent part of gameplay is the sense of flow, or the feeling of timelessness and total involvement, being completely immersed into what you are doing so that that the world outside of that ceases to be your main focus. A well-designed business app will allow users to achieve that sense of flow, even outside of a fantastical environment.
  • Narrative: Some games tell a story, some games don’t. All business decisions and actions arise from a narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end, even if the end is a variable stopping point such as “how many widgets did we produce last month.”?
  • Challenge: The gamer must beat the monster or navigate a maze. Likewise, there is always a struggle in managing/conducting business.
  • Fellowship: Being human means being social. We’ve all seen the success and growth of casual, social Facebook games. Business is no different from games in that users should have the ability to help and motivate each other via the application.
  • Discovery: The process of discovery is integral to the gaming experience. Exploring an imaginary world and/or learning how to use the skills and tools you have in the game can bring both joy and frustration. Likewise, a business application should invite and encourage exploration and reward discovery.
  • Expression: We all have the need to express our individuality, whether it’s through character customization, applying “themes” to our software interfaces, or having a flexible navigation structure that allows us to move how we prefer through a system.
  • Submission: In games, this means accepting that you’re going to have to follow certain rules to play a game. Likewise, most of us have to work in order to pay the bills. We’ve made the decision to use the tools provided to perform our jobs. We just hope they will be pleasant, effective tools.

The taxonomy above is just one of many game design analysis tools that can be applied to designing business software. As a gamer & business app user experience designer, I can’t help but be excited by the possibilities of combining gameplay and business. It’s yet another way to help users have the best experience possible and improve their quality of (work)life.

Related Links

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek

I Have No World & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games by Greg Costikyan

Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces Interview with John Ferrara