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What makes Basketball Fun? Gamifying Exercise

by Tom Johnson on May 1, 2013
categories: technical-writing

I owe a lot to James Naismith, the man who invented basketball. In case you're unfamiliar with the origin of basketball, basketball is actually an evolution of running. Naismith was an exercise coach who tried making exercise more fun by placing peach baskets at both ends of a gym. Previously, people would run around or do other exercises with no explicit purpose. Now they would try to put a soccer ball in a peach basket.

In other words, Naismith converted an onerous task (exercise) into something fun (basketball). He made it into a game. Or he gamified exercise. Or he engaged his users by incorporating elements of a game into their exercise context. However you want to say it….

I almost never run, but I play basketball several times a week. I run up and down the court chasing after a ball, or dribbling and passing it. The game is so addictive that I couldn't quit if I wanted.

Basketball is an excellent example of gamification worth examining more deeply, since I'll be applying my mental wheels to gamify other contexts (e.g., tech comm) using similar principles.

What makes basketball fun? Here are seven factors in the equation that produces fun:


In basketball, you're matched against others, hopefully with similar skill. If you've ever played with others below you're skill level, the game ceases to be fun.  Basketball taps into our evolutionary nature to dominate others and win. We have competition baked into our DNA, as it's our survival for millennia has depended on whether we can win over others.


Interestingly, while drawing upon on our competitive natures, basketball also draws upon its opposite: cooperation. You have to cooperate with the others on your team, passing the ball, to win. Although some teams have ball hogs that constantly shoot and drive, those teams rarely win. Teams that win are teams that consist of 5 players passing the ball and moving among each other until someone gets an open shot.

By the way, competition is traditionally assigned as a Western cultural trait, while cooperation is assigned as an Eastern trait, so basketball provides both the ying and yang for a complete motivational whole, appealing to many different cultures.

Inherent Value

The inherent value from basketball is exercise. When you finish playing ball for an hour, you're sweaty and tired – and more importantly, you've burned around 700 calories. It feels good to be healthy. This gives the activity some inherent value (as opposed to playing something like Uno).


Basketball includes a strong social value as well. When I'm sitting on the sidelines waiting to play, I often comment with another player about what's happening on the court. I might point out how someone travels or commits a foul that's not being called. But sometimes I'll chat about other things, not too unlike guys sitting at a bar. How is work, the family, what else do you do – that sort of thing. For guys like me who are too old to have friends outside of family, basketball provides a social connection that fills a void.

There's also a bond that forms through winning, of course. When you come together as a team to overcome a difficult opponent, it feels good and you often high five your teammates.


Basketball requires a lot of strategy. (I'm sure running does too, but it's a lot more subtle.) Strategies in basketball include decisions such as whether to play zone or man defense, whether to shift around your position to exploit the opponent's weakness, whether to push the ball up court (fast break) or slow down, how much to pass the ball before shooting, and so on.

For example, one strategy I like to employ is figuring out how to guard a really tough opponent who can both shoot and drive. I often choose to guard another player, the team's worst player, so I can sag off on defense and double-team their best player. The more you can force the other team to pass it to their worst player, causing him or her to take more shots, the better your chances of winning.


Status is also a huge motivator in basketball. Have you ever noticed that the near the end of the game, when you really need some points to win, the worst guy ends up taking a lucky three point shot to win it? This act of bravery (if successful) is followed by high fives and congratulations. Even though the worst player shouldn't be launching this hail mary three pointer, the incentive for status – to be the player who wins the game for the team – is so strong it often compels the person to shoot.

Other status situations are apparent with the one-on-one style that you often see in inner-city courts, where one player purposely singles out his opponent in a one on one situation at the expense of passing it to other team mates. Once while playing in the Bronx, my opponent kept two scores – the score of our one-on-one inside game and the score of the the overall team.


Finally, difficulty is an incentive. Activities that are simple and easy don't provide much reward in the long term. We crave challenges and the opportunity to overcome a difficult obstacle, using our cunning and smarts. The whole of literature is centered on opposition, which is difficulty, and basketball draws upon this motivator with every game. Some games you win, others you lose. The games that are most satisfying are those you come back from behind to win, making moves at all odds to overcome a deficit and succeed.


Here are the characteristics that make basketball fun:

  • Competition
  • Cooperation
  • Inherent value
  • Strategy
  • Sociality
  • Status
  • Difficulty

Now the question for our tech comm context is how to bring these same elements into the tech comm scenario.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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