Hate the games, not the players

Imagine that you are lead strategist for the Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump campaign (take your pick). Your job is to maximize voter turnout in November. You hypothesize that more people would vote if doing so were fun. If your campaign could turn rallies and voting into a game, you’d drive more people to the polls, right?

No, not exactly. You’re about to fall into the same trap as dozens of consumer apps, B2B services and companies that have misapplied gamification.

Unaware of your mistake, you build a social photo app that encourages rally participants, and eventually voters, to post photos. You reward them with digital tchotchkes for participating (“Hil Points” or gold “Trump Cards”). Six months and seven figures later, no one uses the app.

This hypothetical scenario illustrates why gamification has floundered. In the example, we attempted to create a game — a solution — without understanding the problem. If voter turnout is lower than it could be, why? Our reward, digital junk, was probably incongruent with the problem. Who cares about points and badges if the distance to the polls, long work hours and carpooling kids keeps you from voting?

We can’t make successful games without understanding the problems we aim to solve. Moreover, we can’t apply gamification successfully without understanding the behavioral science principles on which it stands. To revive gamification, we need to reconsider why it failed and how it actually works.

Hate the games, not the players

Let’s define our term: “Gamification” is the application to other activities of game-playing elements (such as point scoring, competition and rules of play) in an attempt to achieve a measurable goal. In business, that goal could be greater productivity, user engagement or employee satisfaction. In our personal lives, goals might include losing weight, exercising regularly or unplugging from mobile devices.

If you don’t understand a game … what’s the point of playing?

A few years back, the business world was bullish on gamification. In customer service, sales, loyalty programs and corporate health, everyone thought games were the answer. And then the bubble deflated. Gamification darlings like Zynga and Foursquare cratered. By 2014, commentators were writing eulogies for gamification.

So what went wrong?

In the B2B space, the game objectives were unclear and complicated. Players weren’t sure how to win points and badges, and, frankly, they didn’t care. Gold stars didn’t motivate behavioral change; there was no compelling value exchange for players. Combined, those two failures created a bad user experience. If you don’t understand a game, and don’t care to win, what’s the point of playing?

The behavioral science principles

The first wave of gamification ignored the behavioral science principles that underlie every effective game. To revive gamification, we must understand and apply these four principles:

Intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation

With intrinsic motivation, playing the game is an end in itself. We do it for fun, pleasure or some other personal reason. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for a tangible benefit, whether that be cash, a reward or recognition.

When the desired behavioral shift is small, intrinsic motivation works. A great example comes from Volkswagen, which wanted to motivate subway commuters in Stockholm, Sweden to take the stairs instead of the escalator. Overnight, they transformed into a massive piano keyboard the stairs leading out of the Odenplan subway. As commuters stepped on the keys, they played musical notes; 66 percent more people than normal used the musical stairs over the escalator.

When the desired behavioral shift is significant, intrinsic motivation doesn’t cut it. Musical keyboards will not make your developers write more code than normal. Cash or experiential rewards might.

Decision fatigue

In the same way that your muscles tire from repetitive use, your brain tires from making decisions. We work that decision “muscle” every waking hour of the day: What should I wear? What do I eat for breakfast? Should I answer this text now or later?

Straightforward rules save people from decision fatigue.

Decisions can become overwhelming; as we use up neural fuel, we deplete our willpower. That’s why President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same outfit every day (one less decision). That’s also why grocery stores put candy at the checkout. After you’ve spent your decision fuel shopping, it’s harder to resist the sugar.

The point is that in gamification, rules must be simple. If you fatigue players, they’ll make the easiest decision, not the decision you want.


When making decisions, we rely too heavily on the first piece of information presented to us. That’s why car dealerships make the MSRP so high. That elevates your sense of what is a reasonable price to pay. It also makes discounts seem bigger than they really are.

Anchoring is a powerful tool in gamification. For instance, Fitbit makes 10,000 steps per day the default goal for users. They have good reasons for using that number, but it’s still a brilliant anchor. It predisposes Fitbit users to think that walking 10,000 steps daily is a reasonable, attainable goal.

Loss aversion

As psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky discovered in the 1980s, people are more strongly swayed by a desire to avoid losses than to secure gains. We ascribe greater value to things we already own. That’s why free trial periods are effective, and that’s why a $5 surcharge is more influential than a $5 discount.

In gamification, the extrinsic motivation — the reward — must be immediately tangible so players feel like they stand to lose if they fail to change their behavior.

Tying it all together

Gamification begins with a why question. Why aren’t employees productive? Why can’t I lose weight? Why don’t voters turn up at elections? Once you have the answer, deploy the behavioral science toolset in your solution, and keep the following points in mind.

If you’re trying to motivate change, points, gold stars and badges do not matter on their own. Quantitative measurements of change do matter because they enable you to use extrinsic motivation, anchoring and loss aversion.

For example, betting on diets is effective because it invokes those three factors (credit to Tim Ferris for promoting this idea). You have two quantitative measurements: pounds and dollars. Diet betting websites like DietBet.com anchor by setting a target weight goal, such as lose 10 percent in six months. Both loss aversion and extrinsic motivation come into play because you don’t want to lose the $150 you incrementally bet over six months. Dollars trump digital badges.

In business gamification, competition isn’t an end in itself. It’s more important to show how individuals compare to their peer group. For instance, in sales, most people don’t care whether or not co-workers hit their quotas. Those are pass-fail goals. But, if you notice that co-workers dial twice as many prospects as you do, that anchor will influence your perception of a reasonable workload.

And finally, keep the rules simple and clear. Straightforward rules save people from decision fatigue, whereas complicated rules intensify it. In a business setting, “rules” are a synonym for expectations. Unlike ambiguous mantras (e.g. “Spend The Company’s Money Like It’s Your Own”), rules don’t hide their intention.

I wrote this piece because gamification can do immense good in our personal lives, businesses and presidential elections — if we apply it wisely. Understand the principles of gamification, then deliberately choose or create the games that will enhance your world.