Todd Wasserman

Jul 9th 2018

Game On: How Gamification Technology Is Motivating Us


Taking prescription medication is not a game, but that may be changing. App maker Mega Meds is applying gamification technology to the mundane task of pill taking. Users earn rewards by sticking to their pill-taking schedule and watching their “life force” grow as they earn more points.

If gamification can make taking pills fun, it could add a dose of competition to anything. Gamification of education is one example. The application of gaming in education is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 66.22 percent through 2020, according to The Journal.

Despite such estimates, not everyone is convinced that gamification is the answer. When United Airlines, for instance, tried to gamify its bonus system by rewarding random employees with as much as $100,000, employees complained and the company dropped this lottery-like approach, according to The New York Times. But proponents of gamification argue that it can boost productivity, accelerate learning and influence consumer behavior by tapping into our competitive nature.

The Science Behind Gamification

The human brain has evolved to offer dopamine as a reward for certain behavior, according to Psychology Today. Since the brain experiences dopamine as pleasurable, it will repeat the behavior to experience a dose of the neurotransmitter. For instance, since we are wired to experience food as pleasurable, we experience a rush of dopamine when we take our first bite of something delicious. But we can also get a rush before we eat the food — when we smell it cooking or hear the microwave go off to tell us it’s ready to eat. This is likely an evolutionary adaptation to motivate us to find clues to where food is. Gaming manipulates this system by offering random rewards. The classic example is the slot machine, whose rewards are sporadic enough to keep us engaged.

In addition to random rewards, gamification also frames events in a story-like way. For instance, a gamification program, like the UK’s Growth Engineering, which offers superhero badges for completing learning programs, might take place across months or even years, so workers feel like every day is part of a puzzle that they’re working towards solving.

Gamification also allows users to gain competence, and motivation increases when we master small tasks. As the tasks become slightly harder, the motivation to continue rises as well.

Gamification in Education and Industry

For most people, there’s a stark difference between work and play. The former is often seen as drudgery, while the latter includes dopamine-induced pleasure, the ability to increase competence and a narrative. It wasn’t a far leap to try to adapt play elements to a work environment.

One example is Badgeville, which applies gamification technology to the workplace. For instance, while salespeople are intrinsically motivated to make more sales, Badgeville unlocks rewards and achievements to get them to hit other goals, like improving the quality of their sale leads, making the boring parts of their jobs more like a game.

Retailers have also experimented with gamification. PINK Nation, a unit of Victoria’s Secret, uses in-game apps to offer prizes and exclusives. The brand has also run scavenger hunts aimed at engaging its audience. Loyalty programs have elements of gamification in which shoppers “win” by racking up return purchases. eBay pioneered the idea of an auction framework, which lets users compete to obtain the lowest price for goods they’re buying.

Gamification is also useful in schools and education. Companies like Gradecraft and Classcraft apply elements of gamification in education, with badges, leaderboards and points systems.

The Downside of Gamification

Not everyone is a fan of gamification. Critics argue that it brings a Big Brother-ish element to work environments since everyone’s performance is tracked. Despite the hype, the evidence that gamification actually improves performance is also pretty thin, so the practice has earned some derision in tech circles.

On the other hand, putting new thought into making people learn faster and work more productively is a worthy goal. Gamification may just be part of a winning approach to reaching those goals.