The students who worked at the Winona State University library were good at their jobs, but Mackenzie Morning, a circulation technician, thought they could be even better.
So she created a game.
She made simple buttons she called “library flair” and gave them out when she noticed a student doing an especially good job. The students went nuts for them, picking up extra shifts, going out of their way to help people find books or lock up at the end of the day.
“They pretty much will do anything we need them to do if we include a piece of flair,” she said.
Morning motivated her workers by tapping into “gamification,” an increasingly popular strategy that employers, marketers and even diet plans use to turn everyday tasks into competitions.
The games are fun, but subtly powerful because they influence our choices — sometimes without our even noticing. And while the rewards might be minimal (an electronic attaboy, more coupons, extra frequent flier miles), it’s enough to keep us playing for one reason: Our brains are hard-wired to respond to rewards.
Anyone who has ever clipped coupons or earned a Girl Scout badge has been a player. But technology has made gamification more ubiquitous, more personal and more forceful. Our phones are collecting a constant stream of data about us, and some companies are using that data to directly target their pitches — and to win our loyalty.
Motivated to win
Gamification works because of the way the brain works.
Getting a reward triggers a release of dopamine, the same neurotransmitter activated by stimulants such as cocaine. Dopamine is addictive, and people will do what it takes to get it. That’s the foundation of motivation.
“We are very strongly responsive to any kind of cue that tells us that we’re moving toward a goal,” said Colin DeYoung, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who studies the neuroscience of personality.
“Gamifying things means building in frequent enough information that is telling you you’re on your way,” DeYoung said. “You keep checking, and if you’re doing well, you get a burst of dopamine and you’re more inclined to do it again.”
That desire for dopamine pushes people to check that Fitbit after a walk to see how much further they’ve gotten toward their goal — and then maybe decide to keep going.
To save on health care costs, insurance companies are working to gamify health.
Many businesses offer employees discounts on insurance premiums if they participate in wellness programs. In the past, these challenges were one-size-fits-all. Everyone filled out a form to prove they went to the gym, or took a quiz about stress. But with the advent of individualized meal trackers or calorie counters, the challenges can be personalized and, hopefully, more motivating.
HealthPartners is in the process of launching apps that will beep, buzz or text message a user to, say, choose a healthier food at their next meal.
“We definitely think this is the right way to go,” said Joel Spoonheim, director of health promotion at HealthPartners. “We’ve been doing elements of this for years, but we just haven’t had the technology to wrap it all together till now.”
But while gamification can encourage healthy habits, it also can trick us into acting against our best interests.
Getting a “stamp” on a coffee loyalty card gives us an emotional boost, even if the freebie is still another nine full-priced cups away. Research indicates we’re willing to go out of our way to get that stamp, even if we like another place’s coffee better. In other words, games can coax us into brand loyalty.
“This isn’t a new problem,” DeYoung said. “It’s just that people now have better and better tools to manipulate people.”
Minneapolis Web design firm Internet Exposure offers companies gamification services. For CenterPoint Energy, it made a game that taught customers about billing changes through a series of quizzes — certainly more engaging than a fine-print manual.
CEO Jeff Hahn describes it as applying a “team sport perspective” to necessary tasks. He calls gamified applications “psychological hooks” that are inspired by social media programs.
“You’ve got Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest — masters at manipulating you and getting you to come back. And that same concept is used with our gamification. It’s not quite as manipulative, but they really put those little hooks into you.”
Badges, which proclaim you’ve achieved a goal, have proved to be a hot ticket online.
“People are very excited about collecting badges, like in Pokemon Go,” Hahn said. “There’s no real reward, but that graphic icon, it works.”
Target is one major corporation that is counting on it.
The retailer’s Cartwheel app allows shoppers to earn badges that trigger additional coupons, as well as bragging rights on social media. The store’s intention is that shoppers’ posts will encourage their friends to get in on the competition to see who can save more. So far, more than 36 million people have signed up for the app since it was launched four years ago.
“Our guests, and consumers in general, have long sought to make a game of their savings,” said Target spokesman Eddie Baeb. “Cartwheel makes couponing more fun, makes it feel like you’re saving money, and there’s an experience where there is some reward. It’s been extremely successful for us.”
Playing with danger
But what happens when gamification puts a company’s gain above a user’s?
Ride-sharing app Uber took some heat for using virtual badges to encourage drivers to stay on the road longer. Drivers found they were ignoring urges to stop for bathroom breaks, or were driving well past the hours they’d planned on, all to reach a benchmark set by the app.
The company received widespread backlash about psychologically exploiting its contractors.
“That’s a cautionary tale we should all watch out for,” said De Liu, a gamification researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
He warned that gamification can cause “psychological burnout and physical harm.” He said, “There are cases where people compare it to an electronic whip.”
Liu and other researchers are calling on companies to be more socially responsible when developing ways to gamify tasks. After all, there is still an upside to making something we may not want to do — staying on a diet, working hard at a job — more fun.
And gamifying can be helpful. When our devices monitor our preferences, they can fine-tune our search results or steer us toward coupons and products we want.
But Liu said there’s a trade-off.
“We live in a world of algorithms,” he said. “We enjoy them, because they do bring us value or help us find information quicker. But we give up something.”
What we lose, he said, is our ability to make our own decisions, uninfluenced by technology’s data-driven grip.
“Reality, as we call it,” he said, “may not exist.”