Business
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Rules of

the game

How to have fun, develop new skills

and drive business growth

Games were once the preserve of children, but today they are deployed across markets and industries, for  everything from learning new skills to buying goods online and recruiting staff. Used wisely, they can be a real force for good. But there are dangers to gamification, too.

G iven the choice between watching a corporate training video or playing a compelling computer game, there’s little doubt which option most people would choose. So it is perhaps not surprising that forward-thinking businesses are increasingly looking at gamification as a way to keep employees and customers engaged.

 

Put simply, gamification is the process of applying the psychological and entertaining aspects of game playing to other activities to make them more fun, increase engagement and improve results. Or, as Mario Herger, founder of innovation consultancy Enterprise Garage, puts it: “Gamification is when video games and business have a baby.”

 

Gold stars

Some markets, for example education, are particularly suited to the concept. Teachers have been awarding gold stars or black marks for centuries, so the process of encouraging good behaviour and chastising bad is built into the sector. Gamification is also widely employed in the ever-expanding fitness industry, as rewards, badges and leaderboard competitions are employed to maximise motivation.

 

But the techniques can be applied to virtually any business or sector, says Toby Beresford, the author of Infinite Gamification: Motivate your team until the end of time. “If you can count something, it can be gamified,” he says. “As soon as you put a target number in front of a person or organisation, you are gamifying. You have turned them into a player.”

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Britain’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, deployed gamification to help recruit future generations of spies

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That special feeling

The term gamification emerged in the early 2000s, coined by British computer programmer Nick Pelling. But the concept has been around for much longer, as Beresford explains. “Just look back to the Boy Scout movement in the early 1900s, where achievements were rewarded with badges,” he says. 

 

Even eBay, established in 1995, uses the thrill of competition to keep people interested. Customers bid to buy goods via the website’s time-limited auctions. When their offer is accepted, they’re told: “You’ve won!” 

 

“This is gamification at its most primal,” says Andrea Thorpe, a professor of entrepreneurship, innovation and strategy at France’s Kedge Business School. People love to feel like winners, even if they’ve just bought a used kettle. 

 

Student motivation 

One company that has put gamification at its core is online language course group Duolingo. Launched just nine years ago, the Pittsburgh-based business was recently valued at more than $2 billion in a funding round and is considering a flotation this year.  

 

Duolingo’s growth has been dramatic, as customers have signed up for courses that use traditional gaming techniques, such as leaderboards and badges, to keep students motivated. Offering tuition in around 40 languages, the group’s reach extends to lesser-known tongues, such as Gaelic, Welsh and Navajo – even Star Trek’s Klingon can be studied on its app. And with more than 500 million downloads, it is now the world’s most popular way to learn languages online.

 

Gamification has spread into the political sphere as well. In the US, Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election team developed an app that offered prizes to those who downloaded it and encouraged friends to do the same. Points were earned for sharing campaign news, with prizes ranging from a photo with the president for the most prolific sharers, to a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat.

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Every time I take a drive, the car tells me how ecologically-friendly my journey has been. It gives me a score, which of course you want to try to beat

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Baffling code

Entire countries can deploy gamification. In an effort to boost post-Covid visitor numbers, the New Zealand tourist board has developed a sophisticated, multi-layered video game, billed as “the first gameplay walkthrough of the real world” and offering users an immersive tour of the country’s greatest attractions.

 

While sales and marketing teams the world over will be familiar with targets and bonuses, gamification can also be applied to other areas of business, from new skills and training to retention and recruitment. Britain’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, for instance, deployed gamification to help recruit future generations of spies. Some years ago, it launched a web page, Can you crack it?, containing a cryptic puzzle. Those few who successfully broke the apparently baffling code were rewarded with a hidden message revealing a keyword that could be used to unlock a web address. Once there, the codebreakers were invited to submit a formal job application.

 

The process was fun – at least for those who succeeded – and, for GCHQ, it yielded applicants with at least some of the qualities needed to work there.

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Even before the Reddit-inspired trading frenzy over GameStop at the start of the year, there were worries that the addictive, game-like aspect of the Robinhood app might encourage financially irresponsible behaviour, particularly from inexperienced investors

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Prize draws

Financial services firms have been embracing gamification in recent years. One of the early adopters was Spanish bank BBVA, which created a game in 2012 to encourage customers to bank online. Account holders were awarded points for viewing information videos, completing online transactions and referring friends. 

 

The points could be cashed in for music and film streaming services, or tickets to La Liga football matches. And the process worked. Just six months after its launch, the bank had signed up 100,000 customers to its online service.

 

Prize-linked savings accounts are becoming more popular, too. In the US, retail giant Walmart added a “virtual vault” to its popular prepaid card four years ago to encourage customers to save. There are monthly prize draws and the app regularly prompts customers to “stash some cash”. The retailer says users have saved 35 per cent more on average than they otherwise would have done. In the UK, Nationwide Building Society offers prizes on its Start to Save accounts and last year launched a fixed-rate bond that put savers in a £10,000 prize draw.

 

Blow to morale

But gamification is not just about making serious things fun or turning real life into a game, says Beresford. There can be a dark side to it, particularly if the process is shrouded in secrecy or “players” have no choice but to take part. Badly thought-through schemes can reap havoc with employee morale, with those at the bottom of the scorecard feeling excluded and demotivated. Sometimes, particularly if cash or valuable prizes are offered, the game becomes too addictive, a distraction from work, or open to manipulation.

 

Thorpe explored the moral aspects of gamification in The Ethics of Gamification in a Marketing Context, a paper she co-wrote with Warwick Business School’s Stephen Roper. Published in the Journal of Business Ethics, it explored the need for transparency in gamification, and suggested that people must be made aware that they are being gamified.

 

Grey area

“Employing marketing techniques to influence behaviour is standard practice, but when does persuasion become manipulation? Rather than a thin line, it’s a more of a ‘fuzzy grey area’,” she says. 

 

The stock trading app Robinhood, for example, has come under criticism for gamifying investment. Even before the Reddit-inspired trading frenzy over GameStop at the start of the year, there were worries that the addictive, game-like aspect of the app might encourage financially irresponsible behaviour, particularly from inexperienced investors.

 

“Most of us are aware of marketing techniques. We know adverts are used to sell us things, they’re not just pretty pictures. But with gamification, when it really works, it goes quite deeply into people’s consciousness, and they are often unaware they are being manipulated. Some of it works quite deeply and rather darkly,” Thorpe says.

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Badly thought through schemes can reap havoc with employee morale, with those at the bottom of the scorecard feeling excluded and demotivated

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Clear choice 

It’s important that employees and customers opt in to gamification – and not just by signing a small-print waiver that few people bother to read when accepting terms and conditions. 

 

“It needs to be made clear, and people should not be asked to sign up to something that could be harmful to them. It’s not good enough for a company just to say, ‘Well, they agreed to this.’ Sometimes people don’t realise what they are signing up to,” Thorpe adds. In this regard, there are growing concerns about the increasing power and influence of the big tech companies. She says: “They have so much money behind them and can invest in really sophisticated methods to delve deeply into people’s psyches. 

 

“Part of me is a little bit frightened of the future and how we might all be manipulated. I don’t want to give impression that we’re walking zombie-like into a dark place, but we do need to be alert.”

 

Powerful appeal 

Responsible gamification is fun, though, and it can be used to foster good behaviour, too. Even Thorpe admits she enjoys playing along, particularly in the car she shares with her husband. “Every time I take a drive, it tells me how ecologically friendly my journey has been. It gives me a score, which of course you want to try to beat.

 

“I’m locked in a battle for best-ever score with my husband – and I’m winning at the moment. I know it’s a game, but it has a powerful appeal,” she admits n