Somewhere around the late 2000s, the word “Gamification” began popping up. It slowly began gaining traction, before peaking in 2014 on Google searches.

Since its peak, the term hasn’t waned in popularity and has pretty much become ubiquitous – at least in my opinion, it’s become a relatively notorious tech-consulting buzzword. Gamification suffers from either being slapped onto every other project as a “fix-all” for user engagement, or being shunned due to its aforementioned notoriety.

However, I think it should be viewed like any other tool in the toolbox. It works, when applied properly. And to do so, it’s important to keep in mind the core concept in gamification. It’s defined as the application of game elements to non-game contexts.
Essentially, to “gamify” something, I believe we have to first understand what elements make a good game, before deciding what elements to include in our gamification strategies.

Where to start?

I’ve seen so many examples of apps simply throwing around confetti and badges, then calling it a day. While that indeed is still an application of game elements, so often the implementations don’t fit at all.

A good example of this unfortunate “slap it on and call it a day” instance stares boldly at us (at least those living in Singapore) in the face almost every day. I see it travelling to work, school, as long as I’m taking the MRT. It’s Wink+, and I hate it.

It’s really not that simple…

It’s the “leading commuter engagement and rewards programme in Singapore”, and essentially tries to reward commuters points and prizes through QR codes. Embarrassingly enough, I actually downloaded the app. Sure enough, there were the hallmarks of contrived gamification strategies to “engage with commuters”.

The very first thing that stood out to me, though, was the confusing and user-unfriendly interface that didn’t make sense at all, and the overly complex reward point system. I couldn’t figure it out and within a few minutes, I’d uninstalled it without a second thought.

This exemplifies my point that in order to actually engage users, we have to understand what makes a good game. Before getting to the behavior modification and conditioning tactics, we have to understand that good games are good because they are intuitive.
Intuitive UIs, intuitive systems and rules – you grasp a good game within the first few minutes.

Oftentimes, we forget that the best way games engage us is in immersion. This is built upon carefully constructed UIs, and seamless user flows. Actually, the best way to “gamify” your product is to create clear and defined user flows, and make sure the user is not interrupted while engaging with those user flows.

Only when you have built this foundation, then you can stack on the behaviour modification strategies.

In fact, one of the sure fire ways to fail in implementing those strategies is for the users to notice what you’re doing. But if you’ve already created an immersive system, chances are they won’t notice.

Ethics and gamification

So as mentioned, a factor in gamification is behaviour modification, and at its most effective, you don’t even notice it. I’ve included this section because I haven’t seen much literature on the ethics of this.

I’ll keep the ethical debate brief. In essence: to what extent is it ethical to, in a sense, manipulate our users?

I’ll illustrate this dilemma. On one end of the spectrum, we have things like the Nike+ Run Club, or Duolingo. Relatively harmless, they motivate users to exercise, or pick up a new language. Sure, the companies profit off of this, but running or learning extra languages doesn’t sound too insidious.

Then, we have apps like Robinhood, who uses gamification tactics to motivate users to trade more, and to keep on trading. It doesn’t help that their targets are young, inexperienced, novice retail traders.

I’ve never seen any other trading platform throw around confetti after making a purchase

Any professional trader will attest to the incredible psychology behind trading, and anyone who underestimates the mind games can read “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf” by John Coates.

Then, is it ethical to essentially cloud the decision making process for something like that? Especially for Robinhood’s aforementioned inexperienced demographic?
From my tone, I think most of you can already tell my stance on this. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but nevertheless, it’s interesting food for thought.

Concluding sentiments

For better or worse, gamification is here to stay in the foreseeable future.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I quote Ben Franklin, who I think sums up all the better parts of this field:

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].