Gamification is a buzzword that gets tossed around all the time, but the basic idea is simple: if you turn your life into a game, with digital rewards for real life achievements, you’ll be more motivated to do something—or so the theory goes. Does it actually work? Let’s take a look at what we know.
What Is Gamification?
Gamification uses game mechanics in a non-game context to reward you for completing tasks. It’s like the games you probably played in your head as a kid where you’d task yourself with cleaning your room in under five minutes, or doing the dishes as quickly as possible just to keep yourself from getting bored. Basically, you complete a task, you get a reward. This might be a little digital badge in an app or a coupon for a store.
These days, you can gamify pretty much every boring aspect of your life with an app. We’ve talked about a ton of fitness apps that turn going to the gym into a game and even money management as a game. Some of the more popular gamified apps include SuperBetter, HabitRPG, Fitocracy, and Zombies, Run!
Gamification is just a means to set goals and track your progress for achieving them. The carrot and the stick approach adds a little motivation, but gamification still mostly relies on our own ambitions.
Dopamine, Motivation, and Your Brain
The psychology of motivation is a complicated topic with lots of theories. To understand how gamification works we need to have a basic understanding of what happens in the brain when you’re motivated. That means we’ll need to talk about dopamine, which is the chemical signal that gets passed from one neuron to the next.
We’ve talked about how dopamine and motivation relate to each other before, so we won’t go into it too deeply here, but the basic premise is simple: your body releases dopamine when you experience pleasure. This pleasure includes all kinds of things, including rewards. Psychologist Jamie Madigan explains how this works using the example of loot-based games:
[L]et’s consider slot machines and a type of brain cell called “dopamine neurons.”The latter are the bits of your gray matter responsible for monitoring levels of the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine in order to regulate behavior and figure out how to get more of a good thing. It’s these cells that light up when something nice happens in your life (say a delicious Hot Pocket or a fuzzy puppy belly) and triggers a gush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. But what’s more, dopamine neurons play the role of trying to predict the rush from nice things, and they may fire before you actually encounter them. Given a couple of chances, they’ll learn to light up when you hear the microwave timer beep that precedes your delicious Hot Pocket. This is a pretty useful thing as far as evolutionary advantages go, since it clues you in ahead of time that something good is in the vicinity.
But this is only part of what makes loot-based games work so well. The real key is that while dopamine neurons fire once your brain has figured out how to predict an event, they really go nuts when an unexpected, unpredicted gush of dopamine shows up, giving you an even bigger rush. It’s like DUDE! UNEXPECTED HOT POCKET! Again, I’m guessing that this is an evolutionary advantage that causes us to obsess over unexpected pleasures and try to predict them so that we can get more of them.
Basically, dopamine is your brain’s version of a carrot. The more goals you achieve, the more dopamine it releases, and the easier it is to stay motivated. Gamification tries to tap into this by offering you rewards for the completion of small goals.
How Gamification Taps Into Your Motivation
Gamification only works when it motivates you to do something, which is why it’s good to have a basic understanding of where our motivation comes from. Tons of theories exist about what motivates us, but Scientific American breaks it down into three basic elements:
- Autonomy: You gain motivation when you’re in charge. When you feel like you’re in charge, you tend to stick to your goals for a longer period of time.
- Value: You’re more motivated when you value a subject. If you think a goal is important there’s a better chance you’ll complete it.
- Competence: The better you get at something, the more likely it is you’ll continue doing it. Likewise, when you know that something takes hard work as opposed to some innate talent, you’re more likely to keep trying at it.
This is a bit simplified, but these points help us understand how gamification taps into our innate motivations. A review published in Contemporary Educational Psychology divides these motivations into two types: extrinsic motivation (from external factors like money or grades) and intrinsic motivation (from internal factors like you’re own interest or enjoyment).
In the context of gamification, this means the best games tap into your intrinsic motivation while providing rewards. Take an app like Zombies, Run! as an example. It taps your intrinsic motivation to get into running by using badges and a story as extrinsic motivation. You want to start running, which is hard, but you also want to find out what happens in the narrative. If you’re not interested in running, Zombies, Run! isn’t going to magically change that. If you want to start running and you like zombie stories, Zombies, Run! gives you a little extra push.
Intrinsic motivation also comes from friendly competition. Several studies have shown that competition positively motivates some people. Gamification usually does this in the form of leaderboards for things like exercise and health. It’s not for everyone, but if you have a competitive spirit, gamification in apps can get you going.
The Case Against Gamification
Gamification sounds great on the surface, but it isn’t perfect. Many argue it isn’t effective at sustaining long-term goals. In a review of studies published in Proceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, researchers found mixed results with the gamification studies done so far:
[T]he literature review suggests that, indeed, gamification does work, but some caveats exist. The majority of the reviewed studies did yield positive effects/results from gamification. however… most of the quantitative studies concluded positive effects to exist only in part of the considered relationships between the gamification elements and the studied outcomes.
In the case of gamification, context matters. No evidence shows that gamification could motivate someone to do something they don’t want to, and there isn’t enough research into the effect of actual game design on the outcome. Likewise, gamification seems to work best in helping with short term and smaller goals.
Beyond the science, many criticize gamification as a lazy implementation by people who don’t understand the psychology behind it. Most apps are made by game designers and not psychologists. Game designer Ian Bogost explains his issues with this:
I’ve suggested the term “exploitationware” as a more accurate name for gamification’s true purpose, for those of us still interested in truth. Exploitationware captures gamifiers’ real intentions: a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullshit trend comes along.
Bogost claims most apps don’t actually look at the psychology and just add a game layer to something simple like a habit tracker. When this is done incorrectly and you download the app, hoping for a motivation boost, you waste your time and money.
Should You Try Gamification?
So, we have some anecdotal evidence in favor of gamification, some studies with mixed results, evidence that the benefits are short-term, and handful of warnings to be wary of apps that over-promise. Gamification is a tool that might help you achieve your goals. It isn’t a miracle worker, and like any kind of tracking, it’s more about how you use the tool than anything else.
If you aren’t motivated, gamification won’t get you in shape or lose weight, make you more productive, or make you a better person. However, it can add to an existing foundation that could help you get there, if you want it to. Like any game, designers need to create a compelling experience that brings you in, and if they can’t do that you won’t maintain interest for long. Which is to say, if a gamified app doesn’t appeal to you right away, don’t bother with it.
As an actual gamer and pretty motivated person, I’m the target for gamified apps, but in my own experience, gamification doesn’t usually work for me. The exception is Zombies, Run! which I used for a few weeks when I first started running. Zombies, Run! helped me get out the door in the short term, but didn’t keep its hooks in me for long. However, it did help me run regularly enough to form a habit, so now it’s part of my routine and I don’t need Zombies, Run to get me out the door. So it’s a good example of how gamification can help with the early stages of forming a habit but over promise a bit in their long term reach.
All that said, if you’re interested in getting more into the specifics of how gamification works, Coursera’s free Gamification course is a solid place to start. The class runs through game design, psychology, and more.