How to decide whether to use characters and avatars in gamification

In gamification design, we are typically adding game elements to a business process. People don’t need to step out into a game world but rather stay involved in what they were doing all along. Sometimes narrative can help but other times a character or avatar can be used. We occassionally get the question, when is a character or avatar useful and when is better to stick with regular text or forward ndging through game mechanics. Here are our top reasons to include a character or avatar in your gamification design.

Top reasons to include a character or avatar in your gamification design


A character can act as a guide through a process. Those of us old enough remember Clippy the helpful annoying assistant that travelled with the early version of Microsoft Office. As a concept the intention of giving help is a good reason to have them, having the character randomly pop-up makes it annoying. Some companies opt for text based on-boarding on new tools with speech bubbles indicating what you should do next and in others we have used and seen avatars representing the company guiding people through the process. In some of our learning related quests we use relatable or specifically chosen characters to give instructions. Especially if in real life on the job, a person will give you direction, then using it in learning and other communications seems like a natural extension.

Personification of something desired or undesired

Away from and towards motivation are strong reasons why we do or don’t do some activities. In gamification we are often tasked to steer people away from undesirable behaviours and towards desired behaviours. By creating a character that represents this undesirable, we can create a bit of fun narrative to help people build a new habit. We are working on an application called Stressy, where the monster Stressy is a monster character representing your stress levels. The key is to keep your monster in check. A bit of stress will get us functioning, but too much over sustained periods of time will become toxic. So we encourage people to take focused action to destress.

We have used characters in compliance and certification training that has to be renewed. In some professions a yearly course or renewal of a certification has to be taken to be allowed to use certain equipment, carry out specific duties, etc. Think of the care professions, health and safety personnel, firemen, etc. In a care proposal we used a flower that blossoms when all your certifications are up to date. Once specific areas of your work represented by the flower petals started to come up for renewal the flower would start to wilt and the petal for that specific skill would eventually drop when it is out of date.

Cultural or organisational fit

Some companies have a leading figure or historic figure that played a great role, who can be the guiding character for communications, learning etc. Using a living person as a character can well add a dimension that people pay attention to. For one company, one of the senior executives was used in augmented reality and through a number of clues people would discover where she would show up next. The purpose of this was a launch campaign for a new product, team and some exciting new information. It was only revealed in a peace meal way and teams across the company had to collaborate to unlock the challenge. This worked because the person was senior in the company and known to spread important news, but also the company culture of collaboration across borders was essential to make it happen.

When not to use an avatar or character

No value add

When there is no extra value gained by having the character there. In each of the above examples the character had a purpose and were a good fit. The acid test is when you start asking yourself ‘why’ is it there. When pilot testers are asking you why a certain character or avatar exists, you must equally find out why they are asking and whether they find it a useful addition or not. I think in the example of Clippy, he was useful at times to help you do something, but the fact that he intruded and popped up when you didn’t need him made him annoying.


As we already alluded in the previous paragraph, having a character that interrupts someone in mid-flow is never appreciated. Most of us don’t respond well to pop-ups and interruptions of any kind, hence having a character or avatar doing it will increase frustration levels. Most characters, avatars and I would even say bots, should let the user know they are there, but hide when not in play or not needed. Unless off course a pattern interrupt is what you are specifically trying to achieve.


When a character is unrelatable either by what it triggers in terms of feelings or because it is so far away from what is acceptable in a specific culture, then I would say don’t use it. Imagine a frivolous Pokemon in a military setting, to me that just doesn’t fit, however a captain or commander that is more lifelike would work. Again use your pilot testers to give you feedback. If they have very strong reactions against a character, then dig deeper and find out why and potentially consider removing it. When you want to personify a feeling, it is typically better to use an abstract character like a monster or friendly ghost instead of a human avatar. That way you avoid creating bias against people that look alike.

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