What do Peloton, Starbucks, Pokemon Go, and Reddit all have in common? They all use gamification to engage you and keep you motivated to continue to use their services. Though these four companies represent different industries and different customer use cases, they all leverage techniques from games to help drive their business goals.
Three out of four people report playing games. Many people don’t realize, however, that the ways games drive forward momentum and draw you in can be—and are—used in the real world. While the techniques themselves are neutral, they can be used for both good and bad. Positive gamification can be used to promote walking, such as via Pokemon Go, or energy conservation, as cited in the book Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler, and Cass R. Sunstein. Negative gamification can come in the form of encouraging repetitive or addictive behavior.
Noticing and understanding the applications of gamification in the real world can allow you to leverage it for positive change in your life while avoiding negative pitfalls that can ensnare you.
Improving Product Adoption and Engagement through Gamification
Early on, PayPal had a hard time getting buyers to put their bank accounts on file. Most people signed up for the payment service using their credit card, but PayPal focused on something it called “funding mix”. PayPal charged sellers a standard rate, similarly to credit cards, but when buyers paid through a bank account, PayPal made the spread instead of paying credit card companies. This significantly lowered the costs for the company. Getting people to add their bank accounts and pay with them was the key to profitability. Buyers didn’t understand why they should add their bank accounts, so PayPal called it “verification”, gave it a badge, and added it as one of the steps for creating your account. This drove a significant uptick in bank account additions.
Reddit leverages Karma as a way to encourage engagement, increase positive community behavior, and discourage negative actions. Upvotes from other users increase Karma, and downvotes on posts and comments reduce it. This rewards prosocial actions and demonstrates someone’s investment in the community. Reddit also created “Cake Days” to celebrate the day each user joined the site. When you engage on your Cake Day, everyone who interacts with you sees a cake badge by your name.
An often-cited example of gamification is Robinhood, a stock trading app that made stock buying and selling nearly frictionless. First trades and milestones were celebrated with confetti, something that became a point of criticism, fair or unfair. Later, the app dropped this feature in favor of something more neutral. At Facebook Pay in Messenger added a “make it rain money” animation to make the experience of sending money more engaging. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this also increased transactions among those who saw it.
Each of these products leverages a version of gamification to drive growth and engagement. These techniques are often so integrated into the core experience that they are difficult to distinguish from the product itself.
Specific gamification tools can drive behavior:
Engagement: Streaks, leaderboards, achievements, leveling up
Prosocial actions: Community awards, social currency, ratings, and badges
Discovery and exploration: Mini-games, achievements
Specific behaviors: Bonuses for actions, leveling up, social currency
Improve Work Productivity through Gamification
While I was at Facebook, we got a lot of feedback that our leadership team wasn’t communicating as much with our far-flung organization. In order to make the change, I encouraged each of the members of my team to share on Workplace, engage in posts, and communicate more widely. This was met with half-hearted support. I then changed it to a competition. Each post was rewarded with points, with bonuses for the posts that got strong engagement. Suddenly, Yuji Higaki, our engineering lead, went from someone who didn’t focus on internal comms to the most active writer and the top of the leaderboard. He had specific techniques to make his posts go viral (which he still refuses to reveal), which he used to win the first contest, then the second, then the third. Finally, he reached emeritus status and retired from the competition to give others a chance.
Gamification can be leveraged in the work environment to drive productivity and output. On the Facebook Ads and Business Platform team, we had trouble getting some key bugs fixed, so Boz created something called Countdown. He picked ten user-facing issues and posted them for the whole organization. Suddenly issues that had once been hidden within teams surfaced widely. At first, teams focused on fixing things so their team wouldn’t appear on the list. Over time, however, fixing one of these top issues became a badge of honor, something teams vied for. Suddenly, something that would otherwise have been a tax turned into a reward.
Individuals and teams can improve productivity by leveraging gamification to drive positive change. When using these techniques, being upfront about what the process is and what the benefits are is critical to ensure that teams don’t feel like they are being manipulated. Making something difficult or onerous into a fun activity, with the pride of accomplishment at the end, helps drive desired outcomes.
Improving Efficiency at Home through Gamification
Harnessing the value of these gamification techniques can increase achievement and progress in something like language learning. It can also increase your stamina through more difficult parts of the game or experience.
I leveraged the temptation bundling technique to drive me to work out. I reserved my favorite podcasts and games for workouts, so that it felt like the reward was part of the process. According to research, those who paired something they enjoyed with something they disliked were more likely to complete the tasks they were dreading.
When we were about to go to China, I spent hours on Duolingo to brush up on my Chinese skills ahead of the trip. Duolingo uses gamification to get you to compete—both against yourself, by finishing specific lessons, and against other people on the leaderboard. It mixes a variety of game elements, including XP (experience points), crowns, streaks, leaderboards, and tiers. These are each used to drive engagement and push you toward continuing your language learning.
NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, is in November of each year. Tens of thousands of people attempt to write novels together in a month. Communities gather to talk about their progress and track how they are doing. It was during one of these months that I made significant progress on a novel, which I later completed. NaNoWriMo leverages goal setting (50K words), progress (1,667 words daily), and “winning” (completing a 50K word novel) to help aspiring writers achieve their dream of finishing a book.
If you have a goal, leveraging techniques such as New Year’s Resolutions, community-based challenges like NaNoWriMo, or apps, such as MyFitnessPal or Habitica, can help you go further than you can imagine. Decide what you want to achieve for 2022. Whether it is learning a new language, tracking your eating, or hitting new goals, you can use gamification to get there.
Reducing Gamification in Your Life
Gamification cuts both ways. It can help you exercise or watch your diet, but it can also be a distraction, causing you to engage in something longer than you want. Here are a few tips to reduce negative gamification in your life:
Turn on Do Not Disturb: This holds notifications until you have time to process them, reducing the sense of FOMO.
Remove badging from apps: Apps use red badges to signal something needs to be done. This triggers us to want to clear the badge.
Unsubscribe relentlessly. Many services use the lure of discounts to get you to subscribe to emails. Reduce distractions by only subscribing to what you need. You can find most discounts online.
Determine upfront how much time you want to invest. Video games and social apps do a good job of making you want to play just one more level or watch just one more video. Decide up front how long you want to spend engaging, and set a timer for downtime so that you don’t overindulge. Turn off sound, autoplay, and video chaining.
Focus on asynchronous processing. Services and apps on phones and computers drive engagement through a number of techniques, like celebratory events, streaks, and badging. Determine which ones you want to check regularly. Bookmark those, or put them on your home screen, and move less important items to the next screen.
As you head into the new year, think about how to incorporate gamification and anti-gamification into your life to help you achieve your goals. You will find that the things that make gaming so fun and engaging can also help you in other, more important ways.
Looking for a comprehensive list of the techniques mentioned above? Click here for the list with examples for paid subscribers.
How to change the course of your life and product with game-inspired techniquesPerspectives