Gamification Is Changing How We Work — and Succeed

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‘For the Win’ authors Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter discuss the revised and updated edition of their book and how gamification has changed the way we work toward goals.

The story of gamification isn’t fun and games. It’s serious.

Authors Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter have been at the forefront of the development of gamification tools in business. In a revised and updated edition of their book, For the Win: The Power of Gamification and Game Thinking in Business, Education, Government, and Social Impact, they explain that when used carefully and thoughtfully, gamification produces great outcomes for users, in ways that are hard to replicate through other methods. Other times, companies misuse the “guided missile” of gamification to have people work and do things in ways that are against their self-interest.

The authors recently sat down with Brett LoGiurato, senior editor at Wharton School Press, to discuss their revised and updated book.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows. 

Brett LoGiurato: I wanted to talk first about your initial interest in gamification and what drew you together. I understand it started as a shared interest in World of Warcraft, so how did you develop it from there?

Kevin Werbach: It was a shared interest in games and the power of games. We were originally both faculty at Wharton, and we were both studying what was then called “cyberspace”—virtual worlds. Dan actually did this work before I did, but he and others started looking at virtual worlds of games and comparing that to the virtual world that was getting built with the internet in cyberspace. I found that incredibly fascinating, and I found Dan to be a really brilliant guy, as well. So we became friends, and one of the things that we did was with a group of researchers, journalists and others who studied games in virtual worlds — we got together and started playing a game, World of Warcraft, back when it originally launched, now 15-plus years ago.

That experience of seeing what it was actually like in this incredibly sophisticated virtual world really further kindled our interest. Then when this phenomenon of gamification started to develop a couple of years later, people were saying, “We can learn from games and take insights from developing effective games and apply that to business and apply that to the things in the real world that we are studying.” I think that’s really the point where both of us jumped and said, “Yes, we really think this is something significant, and we can contribute to the understanding.”

Dan Hunter: Kevin is exactly right. That was the process, but for me there was this crystalline moment where we were both playing World of Warcraft, and we’d heard all about gamification. It was starting to become a movement, and I remember having to do these things in World of Warcraft that took forever. I mean, there was just this grinding kind of hole that you had to do in order to do something that was a little bit later on in the game. It’s often called “grinding rep” or “farming,” and we were doing this, sort of happily doing this. And the actual cost of doing it, if we went out and actually bought the gold on the open market, would have been a few cents. And so here were these two people with advanced degrees who otherwise were seemingly pretty smart, doing something that was absolutely ridiculous.

“It really struck me … that games are this incredible motivator, that if you can wrap up a process inside some kind of game elements, then people will do the most amazing things.” –Dan Hunter

It really struck me at that point that games are this incredible motivator, that if you can wrap up a process inside some kind of game elements, then people will do the most amazing things— sometimes really dumb things. But really, they will enjoy it. That was the moment when we were sitting down, thinking about gamification, and I said, “You know, there’s really a book in this, and this is going to be a big thing.”

LoGiurato: When you two published the first edition of For the Win back in 2012, The Economist called gamification a “management craze” when it reviewed your book. What do you think has changed most in the gamification sphere since that time?

Hunter:  For me, I sort of think about this in terms of the Gartner Hype Cycle, right? There’s that big, initial wave. It’s cresting, and everybody wants to get on it. Gamification is going to be in everything. Burger King is going to be using gamification to sell more burgers, and indeed, I think they did. Then there were providers jumping in saying, “We can do this for you. We’ll provide you with a platform.”

Then, of course, you end up on the downside of that particular wave, and everyone goes, “Oh, gamification, it was just a management craze.” It turns out now that we’re in that sort of happy point that you see in the hype cycle wave of a gradual kind of acceptance that’s going upwards, [where gamification is] being used in areas where people don’t even think about it as being gamification. They’re just thinking about how you get people to do things.

So one of the really interesting things about this has been how we’ve ended up with people just doing this — implementing these kinds of systems — without going, “Oh, we’ve got to put out a press release that is all about gamification.” You know, “We are the first with the latest.” Because it’s not the latest anymore, but it’s still really powerful.

Werbach:  Yes, and if anything, it’s bigger. When we started, the hype was really ahead of the reality. Now, frankly, the reality, if you ask how much implementation there is of gamification, often as Dan says, without thinking of it as that, it’s really much more than the hype of people talking about it. The example that struck me was there’s a meditation app that I use, and they had a feature of streaks, which is if you use the app two days, three days, four days in a row, it says, “Your streak is this many days.” And they took it out. The developer of the app did a little audio thing, where he talked about taking it out, and he said, “You know what? I don’t even know why we put this in the app. We basically did it because every other meditation app does this. And we realized for us, it actually wasn’t what we wanted. We don’t want people thinking about their streak and focusing on their streak. It works. People are really motivated. People write to me all the time saying, ‘Isn’t it great? I’m using this every day because of the streaks.’ But this is a meditation app. What we care about is how engaged you are in the moment, and that’s what you focus on. So we took it out.”

What was striking to me about that was he didn’t know it was gamification. He didn’t know why he did it. It had just become something that you do, and something that is actually effective. And it’s an example where it was right for that app to take it out, because they hadn’t thought about consciously how and why they were doing gamification, which is what we emphasize in the book. And it didn’t make sense for them, which is fine. But that, to me, really brought home the point that people are talking about gamification as a phenomenon a lot less, but people are doing it a whole lot more.

Hunter:  The other thing that’s kind of funny about that example — it’s a great example — [is that] I bet that the developer got a lot of pushback from the users who said, “Please put the streak function back in. We really love that. It really is important to us.”

LoGiurato:  In the new edition of your book, there are a lot of new examples. What is the most encouraging and positive use of gamification you’ve seen in the last few years?

Werbach:  I wouldn’t pick just one. I think the expansion of gamification in particular into education and health care — there are many terrible examples in both of those fields, or examples like we’ve been alluding to where gamification is done thoughtlessly. But some of the examples where it really is valuable in terms of educational experiences — the one that we talk about in the book is Duolingo, which is a language learning app, which is really thoughtfully designed around gamification, and that’s a big reason it has been so successful. But we’ve seen the same thing in health care, where it’s really changing people’s lives on things like getting people to take their medicine. We talk about a stroke rehabilitation company in the book that’s based on gamification. So it’s a really great thing, I say as a business school professor, to talk about this as a technique to motivate people at work and a technique to help drive business metrics. But changing people’s lives — that’s a pretty important thing.

“People are talking about gamification as a phenomenon a lot less, but people are doing it a whole lot more.” –Kevin Werbach

Hunter:  Yes, the one that stands out for me is Neofect, which we talk about in the book, which is a South Korean company that is doing rehabilitation of stroke patients by getting them to visualize moving their hands and doing things using games. And that’s a really sophisticated use of gamification. So it’s not just, to your point, badges and leaderboards, which are great. They motivate people, and you see them in lots of different areas. But that’s an example of, as Kevin says, really changing people’s lives.

Within health and fitness, it’s almost impossible to find an app that doesn’t have gamified elements, whether you’re talking about Strava or Fitbit or any of these sorts of ones. And the rise of that and the movement of that throughout the entire industry, I think has made a huge change in people’s fitness in aggregate, right? Any individual person might decide not to do it, but a little bit of motivation that gets someone across the line to actually exercise, in health care terms for society, is a really huge thing. So I definitely agree with Kevin around health care and education. That’s where we see it the most.

LoGiurato:  On other side of the token, you talk about a lot of potentially negative effects from gamified thinking, and you mention some in the book: China’s social credit system, an incident in which a Robinhood trader is said to have died by suicide after seeing his losses on the app. Do you believe that concerning trends like these will continue in the future, and how can companies looking to gamify their systems avoid these types of consequences?

Hunter:  Well, they should read the book to start with and be aware of the issues. You know, I see this as the inevitable downside that you get with any of the types of technologies, digital technologies, that we see these days. You know, the “techlash” that we see in relation to Facebook and Google, and the current hullabaloo about TikTok, and so on. There is always going to be some kind of negative that gets generated by the widespread adoption of these sorts of technologies, just because they change people’s lives really dramatically.

So the one main principle, the lesson that I think the developers or people who are doing this should be thinking about, is to say, “This is a big change in people’s lives. This can motivate people in really, really significant ways.” And that’s great for business. That’s great for the outcomes that you’re looking for. But it can have some really serious implications in their lives. And so just as we have to bring ethical precepts to the way in which we design technology like social media, then we have to bring those same sorts of ethical principles to gamification, because the downside can be really pretty significant. And so just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it. And just because people will use these gamified approaches and do the things that you want them to do — that doesn’t mean that you should be doing that. And that’s the sort of care and responsibility that we all need to take in relation to any of these sorts of approaches.

Werbach:  Yes, there was something striking when we went back to do the update of the book and looked at what we had written, something like eight or nine years ago, when we originally put it together. We were talking about these issues back then. We were talking about, very explicitly, the need to be concerned about ethical and other problems with gamification. We’ve put a lot more in the book because it’s an even bigger concern now. But it was there at the beginning, and it’s also really embedded in all of the structures in the book for how to do effective gamification. We talk a lot about thinking about players. If you think about what the goals of your gamified system are, if you just sort of assume, “Well, our goal is to just get people to trade more because we make more money on our exchange if people trade more,” and you don’t talk about the users … then there is always a danger that you’re going to manipulate them. [You could] create something like that tragic Robinhood trading example, where someone loved the game so much that it drove them to suicide.

“It’s about putting people first and saying, ‘Okay, if people really matter, then let me make this experience a really good one for them.’” –Dan Hunter

If you focus in on what’s in the interest of the players, and you can truly say to yourself, “I am building this as something that helps them get to where they wanted to go, anyway,” then you are much less at risk of those kinds of ethical failings. And so the kinds of structures that we provide in the book — and again, a lot of the book is very practical how-to guidance that we’ve updated in the new edition — then I think that’s really going to be a way to avoid sliding into some of these manipulative activities.

LoGiurato:  Can you provide a quick overview of the six steps you give in the book to implement gamification?

Werbach:  There are six steps, and they all start with the letter D, so it’s sometimes called the “D6 Framework.” The basic notion here is don’t just jump in and build something. Start with defining what your objectives are. What are you trying to do with the gamification? Then delineate target behaviors. What is it specifically that you want the players of the system to do? Then describe your players. Think about and structure the categories that people are using. Just what exactly is going to motivate different categories of your users? Then the fourth one is to devise what we call “activity cycles.” What are the feedback loops that drive the actual progress of that gamified system?

The next one is don’t forget the fun, because one thing we found is that people can get so focused on the structure and the process that they build something that people don’t actually want to play. So step back and ask, “Is this fun? Is this something that’s really engaging?” And then only after you do the first five, the sixth one is deploy. Pick the appropriate tools and actually go and build it. If you put things in that order and have that kind of structured process, you really will hit all of the key elements for an effective system.

LoGiurato:  So Kevin, you launched a massive, open online course right before publication of the first edition, and Dan, you founded a startup based on using gamification and Edtech. What has the response been through the years for both of you, and how have gamification and game thinking affected your teaching and your own experience in the real world, as well?

Werbach:  So I created one of the first MOOCs, and it’s still running. Over 500,000 people around the world have signed up for it. And there was a recent spike when everyone went into lockdown around the world with COVID-19, there were tens of thousands of people who signed up for my MOOC, as well as other MOOCs, because they were stuck at home. I had to stop reading the emails and the success stories that people posted because it was just overwhelming. You have so many people finding ways to change their life, to change their business, to structure what they’re doing based on these techniques. And so that’s tremendously gratifying. I wasn’t thinking about gamifying it when I built the MOOC, but when I look back at what I did almost by accident — well, I realized that it actually matched up quite accurately with what we talk about in the book.

And the point is that gamification doesn’t have to be about what we call “PBLs,” the points, badges, and leaderboards. There are no little rewards you get for getting a certain number of points in the MOOC. And that’s not how I teach, either. But if you look at the structure, how content is introduced, the feedback loops and a lot of the principles that underlie the flow of the course and little bits that jump in that make the course interesting and surprising and so forth — it’s all game-based. It’s all gamification. So again, I realize I wasn’t even doing it necessarily explicitly, the way I should have, but for me it reinforced that you can think about gamification in lots of different ways, once you understand what the basic game design principles are.

Hunter:  Yes, for me the big change was really focusing on people. When I started out on this particular journey, it was about, “Okay, gamification. This is a really cool tech. We can use this.” And so the first startup I did out of education was explicitly a gamified learning app. It pushed videos out. People would then answer questions of students who would engage with it. Then they would get a series of rewards, based upon all of the explicit gamification kinds of principles that we outline in the book.

“If you focus in on what’s in the interest of the players … then you are much less at risk of those kinds of ethical failings.” –Kevin Werbach

In the subsequent startups that I’ve done and also in my teaching, it’s not so much about gamification as the be-all and end-all. It’s about saying, “Hey, what do people really want to do? How can I make this experience of teaching or of an online community, for example, in one of these other startups — how can I make that really a pleasurable experience for people so that they don’t feel like it’s work, they don’t feel like it’s really hard? You know, I’m not going to class and being bored out of my mind. I’m going to class and really enjoying it. Or I am engaging with this community in a way that actually makes me feel good. So I don’t explicitly gamify my classes. The startups I’m doing now are not explicitly about gamification, but they use those principles. And it’s about people. It’s about putting people first and saying, “Okay, if people really matter, then let me make this experience a really good one for them.” And that’s what we try to do in the book, where we give you the kinds of knowledge and content that allows you to start making those sorts of steps so that you can create really just wonderful, appealing experiences in a range of different areas.

LoGiurato:  We’ve talked about a lot of different examples of gamification so far. What is sort of the one, outside-the-box, most creative use of gamification that you’ve happened upon?

Werbach:  It’s hard to pick just one. The one that I’ve always been really impressed by is something called Quest to Learn, which is a school in New York, partly because it’s not the kind of simple gamification of points and leaderboards. It’s really thinking deeply about what if we organize the entire curriculum and structure of a middle school and high school along the kinds of principles that we learn from games? And they’ve been able to show really wonderful results from doing that. So that one for me was striking, just because of the comprehensiveness of implementing it as basically the foundational principle for the entire school.

Hunter:  That’s a great example. The one that I keep coming back to and just think, “Good God, that is just a beautiful system,” is Duolingo. And the reason that Duolingo is so good is it has been created by geniuses of this sort of stuff. And we talk about that a little bit in the book.

But what it actually is, is a series of gamification mechanics put together in a way that just works beautifully for a range of different sorts of users. So those people who really engage with narrative are handled there. The people really will love it because of that. People who just love points and want to amass points because it’s significant to them—that’s the sort of the thing that drives them—they’ve got that, as well. When you take the entire system together and build all of these things in this particular way, you look at it and go, “Okay, that actually is just gorgeously designed. It allows for lots of different user types. All of them are different. Everyone is going out there and learning languages. It has changed the lives of a huge number of people, particularly those who are seeking to learn English and take the test of English as a foreign language in order to be able to study in the States or wherever it might be. That has been something which is, I would say, probably the most impressive use of gamification that’s out there at the moment.

LoGiurato:  Final question: What’s one lesson that you hope readers take away from the new edition?

Hunter:  People matter, right? Focus on the people. Never lose sight that you are making people do things that otherwise they wouldn’t do. So make sure that you do that responsibly, and at the same time, you make sure that they have fun.

Werbach:  I can’t add anything to that.

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