Gamification is everywhere —from our smartwatch to our social media feed or our teleconferencing apps. In fact, the adoption of gaming elements into non-game environments has become so ubiquitous, we don’t always recognize it when we see it. Are you throwing a flattering filter over your Zoom call? That’s gamification. Are you working assiduously to meet your 10,000-steps goal for the day? That’s gamification. Are you paying closer attention than you would like to how many “likes” your latest Instagram post gets? Gamification is working its magic.
This powerful tool harnesses our intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for personal growth, social status, and financial gain. And it’s only become more powerful over the past year when our interpersonal interactions happened online. To look at this phenomenon, and learn more about how it works across generations and in different settings, we spoke to Maxwell Foxman, Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Game Studies at the University of Oregon. Here’s what he had to say.
(The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
The video game industry—the grandfather of gamification—is 50 years old and last year, the pandemic pushed video game sales up by 23%. Why have games become so important to people during COVID?
I think that during COVID, so much of what has been going on in our lives is out of our control. We don’t have control over the disease or when we’re going to get vaccinated or when our kids are going to go back to school. Our regular workplace policies are out of sort and deadlines are kind of amorphous. Having games as a way of motivating us and giving us a sense of control is incredibly appealing.
I actually started gamifying my own work using just a spreadsheet at the start of the pandemic. And I gave myself a little reward system for hours worked. And what's interesting is that my productivity took a dip at the beginning of the pandemic. And then I was able to slowly build it up because I started getting a mastery of my own week. Again, I think that's a powerful tool.
What about restoring a sense of community or enabling socialization? A lot of platforms allow for online, real-time competition and collaboration in game-playing.
The short answer is, it really depends on the platform. For something like fitness, it's great. Because we're all doing the same task together. Swift and Peloton work really well because everyone’s cycling, and you can compete against yourself or you can compete against others. But not all gamification situations are created equal.
One of the things I always recommend to anyone employing gamification is that they should really think about the community they're designing for. If it is imposed onto the workplace, there can be complications. There has to be some buy-in or some awareness of how to best integrate it into the workplace. You need to know how people work together—whether the team is competitive or whether they're more sociable. And then you can tailor that type of activity to the type of socializing that they do.
Some gamification requires face-to-face socializing. There's been a huge rise, for instance, even in playing tabletop games virtually because the social activity is so important to that experience. But then other forms of gamification where the tasks are somewhat uniform and everyone has buy-in to what they're doing are great for bringing in that wider community.
A lot of people think about gamification as a tool to engage primarily younger audiences. In 2020 gameplay surged among older groups, with people 49- to 54-years old spending 59% more time playing video games. Are there generational differences in how people respond to gamification?
For years now, the average age of a gamer has ironically tracked with my age, which is 36. So I am I for better or worse, literally the average gamer in terms of demographics. The misperception that games are for the young, as much as it persists, there's just no evidence for it.
But there are generational differences when it comes to gamification and a lot of it comes down to acculturation. The gamification strategies of yesteryear may not appeal to Generation Z because they haven’t grown up with them. So, someone who’s looking at the space might start planning for the next generation of gamified apps or gamified strategies.
Look at the most popular games of today. What are they doing to engage people? E-sports has so much gamification built into the act of competitive gaming, including ranking you, giving you all sorts of accouterment. You can design your character and add fashion to them based on achieving certain tasks, things like that.
So, looking 10 years down the line, you might see that ranking systems are going to be very normal for GenZ. You might see that the use of avatars might be much more normal for Gen Z than they are for Gen Y or Gen X. And the fact of the matter is that that's all gamification. It may feel unusual to those of us who didn't grow up with it and aren't used to that sort of flavor.
What about older “players?”
Almost all of us in the 35 or older category have grown up with some form of healthy, physical, competitive activity, whether we were, you know, on a sports team or whether we were biking around our neighborhoods. So, seeing what sticks with the gamification of physical activity, I think that badges or prizes or badges and leaderboards appeal to the 35 or older set.
For the 55 or older crowd, gamifying everything is probably not as appealing. The traditional workday in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, looks really different than what we see today... Recreational activity was recreational activity. Non-recreational activity was work, you know, with a capital “W.” So reward systems that actually have financial rewards will certainly appeal to an older crowd.
Amazon recently drew criticism for gamifying some warehouse tasks. Is it fair play to tap into the psychology of gamification to motivate workers? Or is it exploitative?
Gamifying is not a way to just extract extra time and effort from workers. At its best, it’s really a way for them to find new modes of creativity. Animal Crossing, for example, can provide ways of reframing our mundane activities into something more fun and playful. It can be a great way for retraining or for articulating and clarifying reward systems. But you know, there is that other side of it. I could imagine a system where that just intrinsic desire for me to just level up could be easily exploited by my employer.
How can managers incorporate gamification in a healthy way so it's meaningful and beneficial for employees?
One is to choose your platform carefully. A good platform will be nimble… so you can gamify in the right way for your office. The second piece of advice I would give, which I can't emphasize enough is managers should really survey their employees to understand what motivates them. Is it a competition for a gift card? Or is it something more sociable? Or maybe it’s more cooperative. There are plenty of playful ways to create stronger networks and stronger ties. There’s no a one size fits all answer. As long as a manager is flexible and is willing to see what their employees might want and be as willing to throw things out that aren't working, I think they can find success.
With the vaccination rate ticking up, it seems like there’s a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Do you think gamification is likely to fall off a bit once we’re able to see each other in person again? Or is it here to stay?
I’m a bit biased as a game studies professor, but I would say it's absolutely going to continue. First, the digital games industry is not going anywhere.
We have yet another generation—Gen X grew up on games, Gen Y grew up on games—and now Gen Z grew up on games, and frankly, more games, and more complex games. So I think you can see that the literacy of an average Gen Zer is just significantly higher than, than previous generations. And all of that comes together when thinking about the everyday platforms that we are using for communication for work.
So I see absolutely no reason why you won't see these elements be included as just one of many in any platform. It might not be the first thing that you see, but it's there.