Nov 7th 2022

The Gamification of Modern Life: Is It Good or Bad?


Gamification — which incentivizes certain behaviors through badges, achievements and other rewards, akin to video games — is nothing new. Anyone who engages regularly in an online gaming community or has apps downloaded on their phone will recognize incorporating video game elements into modern life. Whether it’s unlocking secret locations for checking into a weather app, earning badges for meditating daily or accruing achievements for working out, gamification is everywhere, incentivizing us to act in certain ways, whether it’s for our own personal good or for our workplace.

Incorporating game elements into modern life isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s very useful for motivating “good” behavior, such as maintaining fitness, monitoring health and developing positive habits. But gamification can also have its negatives, such as when workplaces use online gaming community traits to increase productivity. The key to whether gamification has overall positive or negative effects lies in how it’s used and how individuals respond to it.

Gamification in Work and Play

Though the gamification of life and culture has been a hot topic of discussion recently, it’s actually been around for decades. Some trace the term back to game designer Nick Pelling in 2002, but the idea became mainstream around 2010, when companies began using online gaming community techniques to incentivize employees, according to Fortune. However, gamification has been shown to have a negative impact on sales teams in particular, where it leads to an increasingly toxic and hostile environment. Unless these gamification techniques are designed to be collaborative efforts — and they are often not — they tend to only incentivize already high-performing salespeople, driving motivation lower for those not already at the top.

In our personal lives, apps and tracking devices make it possible to treat every aspect of life as if it’s an online gaming community. From counting steps to reading books to learning a new language, you can turn anything into a game. Of course, some critics feel that incorporating video game elements into life, work and school could displace intrinsic motivation — doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. But studies show that buy-in is necessary for gamification to be a net positive. Gamification doesn’t work without the consent of the people playing it.

The Design of the Game Matters

The key to gamification and whether it works well or backfires is simple: People have to care. As researcher Sebastian Deterding pointed out in a Fast Company article over a decade ago, video games are fun because they’re well designed and people want to play them. Adding video game mechanics into daily life when you’re trying to incentivize behaviors people don’t want to participate in? That simply does not work. This is why gamification may work for something like increasing step count or drinking more water, but it often fails when it comes to motivating employees to be more productive.

Deterding might have been one of the first people to point this out, but his conclusions have been supported again and again by science. In a 2017 study published in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers studied gamifying behavior from a psychological perspective. Their conclusion was that gamification in and of itself isn’t effective; instead, it’s the design of the game that determines whether it can be motivational and effective.

What Determines Successful Gamification?

Gamifying isn’t inherently good or bad; it can be either or both. The real question is whether it works to help you move toward your goals; if it does, then it’s a positive. A 2014 study from Wharton Business School found that consent is key to the success of gamification. If you want to see positive effects from gamifying your life or your work, then you need to buy into it. Video game mechanics are only a positive if it’s something you want to participate in.

It’s why gamifying editing Wikipedia entries — a volunteer activity that people undertake because they want to — worked beautifully, while Amazon’s gamification program for incentivizing employees in warehouses is optional.

“Games can have powerful effects that can be either positive or negative, depending on the underlying consent of the employee,” concludes the Wharton Business School study.

Gamifying can be effective — but when it comes to getting the best results, it’s important to stick to the science behind when, how and where to implement it.

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