“Gamification” is the practice of adding game-like elements to non-game contexts. It isn’t new, nor it is always a negative, but it is being aimed at consumers and employees more and more frequently, whether to keep you addicted to an app, motivated at work, or inclined to spend your money on something.
If you’re going to be forced to play different games (even when they don’t look like games)—and you are, right now—you should at least recognize how you’re being played, and try to learn the rules. Because knowing the rules is the first step to bending them to your advantage.
When does gamification become manipulation?
There’s nothing wrong with gamifying our lives. We do it all the time, like when we promise ourselves a reward for cleaning the garage, or work out extra hard to get a little higher on Strava’s leaderboards. But marketers, salespeople, and employers can involve us in games we don’t even know we’re playing: games where the rules aren’t clear, the playing field isn’t level, and there’s often no way we can quit.
Nir Eyal is an investor and author who spent his career in video games and advertising. In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, he lays out the simple reason companies use gamification tactics: They want you to get hooked on their products. It’s not “addiction” in a clinical sense, but it’s close. It’s conscious manipulation designed to get you to connect an endorphin rush with the use of a product.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with making consuming a product or doing a job “fun,” but when marketers and employers are hacking our pleasure centers in ways we don’t fully recognize, that’s manipulation, and that’s not really a game. Below are some of the tricks of the gamification trade, so you can spot it before it happens to you.
Variable rewards and suspense
Behaviorists’ studies of rats and humans prove that both species are more motivated by intermittent, unpredictable rewards than anticipated ones. Rats will pull the lever more often if they sometimes get a food pellet than if they always get a food pellet, and gamblers would never play a slot machine that returned 89 cents every time they put in a dollar, even though that’s what will happen over time.
We love anticipation and suspense. We also like a pause between our action and the eventual reward or non-reward. This is the basis behind both slot-machine wheels spinning and Twitter’s load time.
I used to think Twitter just loaded a little slowly because that’s how long it took, but it turns out that it’s a feature not a bug. Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites reportedly artificially lengthen the time between when you click on the app and when the content shows up in it as a way to increase the sense of anticipation—and keep you coming back again and again.
How to fight manipulation through variable rewards
Desiring intermittent rewards is so ingrained in your lizard brain, I’m not sure you can combat your response to it, but you can ask yourself if the reward actually matters to you. If companies are going to build pauses into their endorphin-delivery service, why not use that time to ask yourself, “Do I actually care about this?”
Manipulating our desire for progress
Whether it comes from nature or nurture, we want to accomplish something. We like striving toward achievable, understandable goals. In a video game, you might have a progress bar that tells you how much XP you need to get to level 12. A consumer reward program works the same way. If we get a card from Starbucks that will give us a free coffee if we buy 12 other drinks, we’re more likely to buy coffee there than the spot across the street. We’re also more likely to fly on an airline if we are collecting frequent flyer miles. even if the ticket is more expensive.
Employers often use this same tactic to motivate employees. The path to a promotion or a raise may be laid out in easy-to-understand steps, which keeps employees on-point, striving toward something more than a paycheck. Most people prefer this to a more opaque advancement system—as long as the rules are clear and adhered to by both parties.
How you can fight against the “progress bar” effect
If you’re collecting checks on a card or frequent flyer miles, ask yourself why you care. Decide whether getting your 12th sandwich free is actually worth the effort it takes, and whether the game of collecting stamps on your loyalty card is fun enough for you to keep doing it.
It’s a little trickier at work. If you’re asked to meet specific benchmarks to progress in your career, remember that, unless you have a contract of some kind, your employer isn’t necessarily bound to uphold their side of the bargain. So do a little research on the company. Check out their reputation on Glassdoor.com. Ask fellow employees how things worked for them. If your company is notorious for making promises it doesn’t keep, don’t get your hopes up about your chances of advancing through the ranks. Spend your free time looking for other work instead of knocking yourself out for a reward you may not receive.
Engagement and “streaks”
A cup of coffee or a new job title are tangible rewards, but often intangible or nearly worthless rewards are used to gamify employment or consumption, sometimes in the form of streaks. A streak offers nothing beyond the streak itself. The longer a streak goes, the more you’ll be motivated to keep it going, mainly because breaking it would cause you some tiny amount of disappointment. It’s a variation of the sunk-cost fallacy, where we keep paying into something that’s not worth the money because we’ve already put so much money into it.
Snapchat is notorious for this. If you exchange snaps with someone continuously, a number appears next to their name on the app. Each day you communicate adds a point, encouraging both parties to engage with their app until the magical day when a “100 emoji” appears. Congratulations! Hope it was worth it.
How to fight manipulation through streaks
Unless you have some a personal reason to keep a streak alive, like maybe filling your rings every day on your Apple Watch because you want to get more exercise, just don’t get started. Don’t add another obligation to your already obligation-heavy life. Saying, “I don’t care about this manipulative bullshit” while deleting an app is surprisingly empowering.
Competing against others is the basis of most games. It can be healthy, although it’s often an external drive: We want to beat other people or teams for the sake of winning itself, not because it’s beneficial to us. Many/most workplaces are competitive in terms of employees vying for recognition or advancement, but companies often codify competition with sales contests, leaderboards, and more.
In terms of consumer manipulation, companies use leaderboards and ranks to set us against each other and drive engagement, just like video games do. While a healthy competitive spirit at work can lead to productivity and innovation, it can also lead to ruin, like when Wells Fargo employees created millions of fraudulent bank accounts due to pressure from management, ultimately costing the company billions, forever tarnishing its reputation, and leading the ouster of its CEO.
How to fight manipulation through competitiveness
When I was fresh out of college I had a job I hated, in a competitive workplace. I never engaged in any toxic office politics; I felt no need to “pick a side” because I held everyone in equal disdain. I just kept my head down and my attitude noncommittal while I plotted my escape. Surprisingly, this gained me a reputation as dependable and level-headed, the guy who got along with everyone, and I was offered a promotion over my back-biting colleagues even though I didn’t seek it and didn’t want it. I never forgot that lesson, and I pass it on to you: Sometimes, not competing is the best strategy.
As much as we like to compete with others, we also crave a sense of community, a drive that corporations are eager to exploit. Like the rest of these gamification tactics, it’s not that companies are just discovering that people like to feel like part of a like-minded group, but the artificiality of attempts to manufacture “community” is concerning.
Apps or services might offer membership in tiered groups to users who complete specific tasks. Or manipulate the information you see to keep you feeling close to the ideological “team” you belong to, reinforcing social media echo chambers instead of challenging beliefs.
Companies might stress their corporate culture to keep the players—I mean “employees” —motivated. This is where your manager saying “we’re all in this together” comes from, and why you occasionally have to participate in team-building exercises.
How to fight manipulation through community
If you think your co-workers are a swell bunch of folks and you’re all working together towards a laudable goal, by all means, be part of the community. If you recognize how fake it is though, your best bet is usually to play along. No one know what you’re thinking at a mandatory team-building pizza party after all, and you need the paycheck. Plus you get free pizza.
Keep in mind what the real teams are though. I’m a devout capitalist, but Marxists are at least right about the separation between the ownership class and the working class. You can like and respect the people who own your specific means of production, but don’t forget that you and your manager have entirely different, often diametrically opposed motivations, and that’s probably why they keep telling you that you’re in this together, and why they hate unions so much.
Money: The game behind the game
Companies may employ all kinds of gamification tactics to keep employees motivated and consumers coming back, but they rarely, if ever, own up to the true point system: Money. They are playing a game where the idea is to score as many money-points off you as possible, and if they can get a few more hundreds through manipulation, they will.
Gamification is essentially you trading the small endorphin rush you get from a Facebook “like” for your time paying attention to advertising and for giving up your personal information. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but you should at least know the play if you’re going to be in the game.