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Gameful Design and the Human Touch


Shared By Michael Itkoff

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Over the past decade, gaming has become intertwined with mainstream culture. From the rise of live streaming as a primary form of lean-back entertainment to the embrace of esports from ESPN and university programs, gaming culture has proven so strong that two in five humans are gamers.

Insightfully, IPG Media Lab points out, one reason for the rise of gaming may be that “the gaming industry has adopted the best parts of the media sectors that come before: it franchises the popular titles like movies, prioritizes long-term engagement like TV, and enjoys high replayability like music.”

The rise of gameful design

With this new robust media segment comes an inevitable knock-on effect to other parts of the culture. Design elements of games are now commonly used in many experiences that go beyond gaming. The term for this phenomenon is gameful design, which refers to using game design elements in a user experience whose primary purpose is something other than playing games.

According to Sebastian Deterding, one of the pioneers of gameful design, “Practically, [gameful design] is almost always a form of design with intent that also has to support functional needs – like a printer that both allows printing and motivates users to print less. In short, gameful design attempts to design systems that serve specific functions and uses and facilitate both through motivating enjoyable experiences.”

In what can be described as a conceptual blend, gameful design combines concepts from gaming with other domains to generate new interactions and experiences.

Today, gameful design is integrated into products and services all around us. Whenever an experience includes elements designed to keep you motivated and engaged, whether it be through competition with others, mastery of a skill, or rankings and rewards, gameful design is being utilized. For example, take the recent rise of connected fitness machines that let you live stream workouts and compete with other users halfway around the world. People love to compete and to see a track record of achievements.

Haptics: A game element whose time has come

As games go, so goes all interaction. As long as gaming remains near the center of culture, new design elements in games will always proliferate to non-gaming interactions and market offerings of many kinds. One particular game element – haptics – has been central to gaming for decades, but technology limitations have constrained its growth and application to new markets.

Haptics has always been important to gaming but has only recently achieved a level of fidelity and scale that will allow the sense of touch to be included in non-game contexts. The world is at the beginning stage of a new evolutionary step of haptic games, exemplified by HD haptics in smartphones and the Nintendo Switch and the new DualSense game controller from Sony.

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However, a broader convergence is underway that will have implications for gameful design. At roughly the same time that gaming graphics and audio have advanced to a level of fidelity that approaches sensory saturation, haptics has reached a threshold where high definition vibration and next-generation force feedback actuators are widely available as a part of gaming controllers and peripherals. This means that haptics will be a key innovation area for the gaming experience, and beyond, in the coming years.

This leads to a critical question. How will haptics be used in other fields that already take advantage of gameful design? Here are some interaction designs and current market offerings that have either integrated haptics or are primed to do so. As gameful design advances, look for haptics to play an increasingly important role in the evolution of these experiences.

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An example of an online Kahoot Game (that happens to be about haptics). Kahoots are used in educational and training settings to make learning fun. Natural roles for haptics in these interactions include alerts that trigger on wrong or right answers, ticking clocks that let you know time is running out, or feeling the subject itself, requiring the user to determine the correct answer based on the feeling of the haptic feedback. Discover Kahoots here:


In lower education, gamified educational programs like Kahoot and Prodigy, along with Zoom lectures and other techniques, have been used extensively while schools remained closed due to the global pandemic. They will continue to play a role in how teachers engage with their students in the future. Research indicates that well-designed, multisensory learning environments may use visual, sound, and touch stimuli to reinforce each other, reduce cognitive load, and increase the likelihood that material will be retained. With remote education and e-learning set to continue growing even as schools reopen, haptic features in game controllers, mice, touchpads, and other devices will be used in creative ways to further enhance the efficacy of remote education.

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Laparoscopic Surgical Simulator unit with haptic feedback simulates a realistic experience of suturing and tying knots within the abdomen for training.

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An endoscopy surgical training unit with haptics provides tactile feedback to the user. The simulator provides a realistic experience for teaching and assessing motor skills and knowledge, enabling novices and experienced physicians to hone their skills in a safe way.


Surgical and other medical simulators have been part of the training program for medical and nursing students for some time. Typically, these programs include a virtual reality headset with physical, tracked instruments that interact with mannequins or other physical training elements. This was because, until now, high-fidelity virtual haptics required a high-end, expensive technology stack. As haptic technology becomes less expensive and more capable, expect to see haptics integrated into more VR-based training programs. That said, building muscle memory in haptic VR is not straightforward. In fact, we are so sensitive to tiny variations in haptic feedback that, if the tactile cues in a virtual training experience are slightly imprecise, haptics may reduce the value of training overall. The key to ensuring the viability of haptic VR for training and simulation is high fidelity and robust haptic interfaces with carefully designed multimodal interactions.

Materializer smartphone app simulates the feeling of grass, metal, sandpaper, brick wall in a mobile device.


E-commerce will utilize haptics to convey the physicality of products, from their surface textures to their material qualities. One of the earliest successes for AR was the use of mobile apps for furniture shopping that let people see what new furniture would look like in their house. Another related use case is shopping for clothes, where AR lets you “try on” new garments digitally. The next step is to add haptic sensations to these interactions enabling people to feel the products. It is well known that when a shopper touches a product in a store, the likelihood of purchasing skyrockets. Haptics will bring the same phenomenon to e-commerce, radically changing consumer behavior online.

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Online credit card transaction with haptics.

Financial services. When we think about immersion in a digital experience, financial services is not the first thing that comes to mind. Nonetheless, we want to feel confident and secure in our financial transactions. From its common use in touch screens and touch surfaces, we know that haptics is capable of providing unmistakable confirmation that a digital interaction has taken place. Visa has taken advantage of this with their Visa Sensory Branding API. Developers who create apps that interact with Visa may integrate any combination of branded visual animation, sound, and a brand-specific haptic pattern to confirm transactions. Going beyond branded confirmation, providing a sense of transaction magnitude through touch may encourage responsible spending behaviors. Immersion has experimented with designs for tactile payment confirmation that convey the size of the transaction through intuitive tactile metaphors, such as the weight of physical money as it exchanges hands to confer emotions of confidence and solidity, while providing additional confirmation that the transaction has taken place and with the intended amount.

The future of gaming with haptics

With the goal of a game designer to immerse and engage gamers, haptics has always played a natural role in game design. As gameful design is applied to new use cases for technology, we can expect designers to utilize haptics for many of the same advantages it confers to gaming. Here’s to a gamefully-designed future, where human enterprise is playful, rewarding, and multi-sensory.


David Birnbaum, Senior Director, Technology Strategy at Immersion Corp.

Dave Birnbaum is a designer, inventor, and public speaker on the topics of emotional design, embodied communication, and immersive entertainment. He has been creating haptic experiences for over 15 years, in which time he’s been named as an inventor on over 100 patents in the fields of gaming, XR, automotive, mobile devices, and rich interactive media. Dave is a founding member of the Haptics Industry Forum, the leading industry group focused on standardizing and scaling haptic technology. Dave holds the position of Senior Director of Technology Strategy in the Office of the CTO at Immersion Corporation. He also hosts the INIT Podcast, where he interviews leading thinkers and innovators at the intersection of technology and humanity.

About Immersion

The leading expert in haptics, Immersion Corporation develops and licenses essential haptic technologies and software that allow people to use their sense of touch to engage with their digital environment. The company invents, accelerates, and scales haptic experiences by providing technology solutions for mobile, automotive, gaming, and consumer electronics. The company licenses its technologies to major brand manufacturers and is adopted in more than 3 billion digital devices worldwide. Haptic technology creates immersive and realistic experiences that enhance digital interactions by engaging users' sense of touch.

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