How To Gamify An Event Part 1: Design Constraints

Sam Liberty
5 min readDec 11, 2023

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Professional events. Conferences. Some people love them. Some people dread them.

If you’re hosting one, you’re probably teetering on the edge of anxiety about how it will be received and haunted by images of the delegates staring at their phones, answering work emails, and editing powerpoint slides rather than paying attention to the critical information you have to share.

I’m here to tell you, there’s another way. A way that will make your event memorable, engaging, and actually elicit actions and follow-up after the session (the real reason you’re there)!

By using fun, gamified or game-based design, and the best practices of behavioral science, you can gamify your workshop. I’ll tell you how.

Design Constraints — what are they?

Before we get started, it’s important to know that “gamifying” a conference isn’t like flipping a switch. You can’t just drop some fun activities into an otherwise boring session and hope it solves your problems. That’s why this article will come in three parts. The first is on constraints.

Designing an event session is like designing anything else. It starts with asking questions.

The design constraints will tell you how you need to conduct the rest of your process. Who is this for? What will you be asking them to do? Why? Without solid answers to these questions, your session may be fun, but it won’t achieve anything.

Step 1: Ask “Who?”

An important first step is knowing who the audience of this session is. This is critical for a variety of reasons. Are these practitioners? Learners? Policy makers? Will they share a discipline or will the audience be cross-disciplinary? What level of experience and responsibility will they have? Where are they from? How many people will be there? It is important to understand all of these.

People at different stages of their careers have different tolerances for “fun” in their work. You may find that a wisened policy maker wants to be engaged, but doesn’t appreciate being made to look foolish in any way. Alternatively, a room full of young scientists looking to make friends with others in their domain might desire a highly playful event.

Not here to play.

If delegates will be mixed between officials (such as government ministers) and their subordinates, any games or activities you design will need to reflect these dynamics, especially if they are from cultures that are socially guarded in work environments, for instance those from East Asia. U.S. Americans and people from Latin-America are generally very open to games and play, but it can still vary from country to country. Play has a way of degrading authority (picture the playfulness of a court jester, for instance), so those who trade on their dignity may be overly cautious in environments such as these.

Equally important is “how many?” A workshop for six or 12 is much different than a ballroom of 70 or 200. What will the space be like? Can you ask for a customized space (cocktail tables, round tables, etc)? Or will you need to design activities for people in rows of chairs?

Get these basic facts straight as early as possible.

Step 2: Ask “What?”

So you have all these people together. What do you need them to do?

Is there basic information that must be conveyed before anything else can happen? How long will you have to accomplish all your goals? What can you do here that these delagtes could not do on their own? This is especially important if people are traveling far distances to attend your event.

Is the main goal peer-to-peer sharing? Dissemination of data? Feedback gathering or perspective taking? Or perhaps creating urgency around a topic? This will greatly influence your design.

The topic itself (global health, the science of rivers, sustainable infrastructure, etc) will effect the tone of your session and what kinds of activities are appropriate.

This will generate 1–2 of your design goals.

Step 3: Ask “What next?”

This is the critical part that many session planners ignore. It’s all well and good to teach somebody about river science, but to what end? I could have titled this section “Ask Why,” but this is more specific than that. “What next?” implies future action.

One of the most powerful features of a game or gamified activity is that it creates action. So when I design these sessions, I always ask my clients “What is the action you need them to take?”

This could be downloading a report, following up with your staff, referring you to some one else in their organization, beginning some official process at home, or something else. But key to this is that it is an action and not some state of being such as “awareness,” “education,” or “interest.”

Once you know the real action that needs to happen, you can laser focus the workshop procedure to achieving this. This should come in the form one one action statement that will serve as your primary event goal. “After the session, delegates will DO X.”

Materials from WWF “Get The Grade”

My work with the World Wildlife Fund on river basin report carding proved that a game-based conference session can lead to significant follow on action. Get The Grade was so successful that not only did it advance the report carding initiative, many asked to take versions of the game home to play with their teams.

Next up…

In Part 2 of this series I exlplain you how to use the answers to these questions to design an effective and memorable session. If you’re interested in learning more, let’s get in touch.

Sam Liberty is a games and gamification consultant specializing in playful interactions that create real-world change. He teaches game design at Northeastern University.

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Sam Liberty

Lead Game Designer at Sidekick Health. Co-Founder of Extra Ludic; Designing and teaching serious games for social change and real-world impact