How to think about gamification

How to think about gamification

The MoPei phone swing device is brilliantly depressing. It’s a smartphone cradle that rocks back and forth when connected, and it’s designed to trick fitness apps into thinking you’re on the move. If you have a pedometer, this phone shaker can think you’ve taken 8,700 steps in an hour. “Ideal for those people who don’t have the time or energy to get your recommended steps,” boasts the product blurb.

Such cheating is pointless, but not uncommon. Blog posts go through ways to trick a Fitbit into recording exercise, from attaching it to your kids to swinging it on a piece of string. Strava is an app for runners and cyclists to record their times; Becoming the fastest rider on a track segment is much easier if you use a motorcycle. Players of Pokemon Go, a smartphone game, are supposed to walk a certain distance to hatch virtual eggs; taping your phone to a Roomba, an automated vacuum cleaner, is the couch potato’s alternative.

This behavior is a predictable side effect of a ubiquitous digital phenomenon: gamification. Adding game-like elements to non-game activities is part of app design. Streker encourages users to log into products every day. Achievement points reward them for completing tasks. League tables add to the competition.

Such features are powerful, although the effects often fade over time. Just as gamification can cause some people to cheat, it can help others stay motivated in the pursuit of a goal they find difficult to stick to. When Duolingo, a language learning app, went public in 2021, the prospect was clear about the importance of game-like features to keep users engaged. Streaks, virtual currencies, leaderboards and a feisty cartoon owl called Duo are all designed to encourage people to keep learning. On October 26, the firm launched a new math app that relies on similar techniques.

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But as “You’ve Been Played,” a thought-provoking new book by Adrian Hon, a game designer, makes clear, companies should be very careful about how they gamify experiences. She argues against throwing generic equipment with rewards, points and badges at activities without thinking carefully about the context. Get gamification wrong and you can annoy three types of stakeholders.

One is the customer. The obvious dangers—boring people with endless streak alerts, for example, or demotivating them by showing how low down on a leaderboard they sit—aren’t the only ones. Gamification can work with the grain of a product, or against it. Apps designed to encourage people to save money may like to use gamified features such as totalizers and money jars to track progress: the technique fits well with the product. But some activities don’t really need extra “fun”. One reading app offers to unlock animations if users hit certain reading landmarks; if you present reading as a chore, a kind of mental flossing, you tell readers that they have the cultural hinterland of a tapir.

The other stakeholder, and a new one to worry about, is the regulator. Gamification is meant to encourage people to do more of something. If it’s something that teaches Japanese, great. If something eats lard, less good. Concerns about how gamified financial trading apps could cause investors to make more transactions than is good for them have prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a market regulator, to look into what it calls “digital engagement practices”. Companies are already changing their behavior as scrutiny intensifies. Last year, Robinhood, one of the apps now in the SEC’s sights, felt compelled to get rid of a confetti animation that showed when a customer made their first trade.

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The third group is employees. Turning repetitive work into video games is a technique Amazon has reportedly used in its warehouses, by representing workers’ progress picking and boxing items in a race car format. Companies that sell employee engagement software offer the usual arsenal of points, leaderboards and virtual currencies.

These ideas are likely to backfire. Forced ranking motivates some people and stresses others. GitHub, an open-source coding platform, withdrew its dash feature after concerns were raised that it was causing programmers to work every weekend. And as Mr Hon observes, games are a lot less fun if you have no choice about whether to participate. Producing fun can work, but only if it is taken seriously.

Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist: Archeology of the office (October 27) When bosses walk in employees’ shoes (October 20) It’s getting harder to take a sick day (October 13)

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From The Economist, published under license. The original content can be found at

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