This story is adapted from How to change: the science of getting from where you are to where you want to be by Katy Milkman.
When you walk 10,000 steps a day, your Fitbit rewards you with a virtual shake and fireworks, giving you a reason to take a break and smile with pride. When you practice a foreign language on Duolingo for several days in a row, you gain “streak” and are encouraged to maintain it, which gives you yet another reason to strive for repetition. When businesses, teachers, coaches, or apps add features like token rewards, competition, social connections, or even just funny sounds and colors to make something look more like the game, they rely on “gamification” to enhance an experience that might otherwise be boring. I would bet most of the apps on your phone use an element of gamification, but we also see gamification in our workplaces and health insurers.
Gamification began over ten years ago. At the time, there was not much evidence of its value; the concept just seemed to make sense. Business consultants promised organizations that the gamification of work could motivate employees more effectively, not by changing their work itself, but by changing the packaging, and thus making achieving goals a little more exciting ( “Yes, I won a star!”). Tech companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and SAP, for example, have found ways to play it all since learning social media skills, at verification of linguistic translations, to boost sales performance.
Today, thanks to science, we know a lot more about when gamification really works and what its limits are. Beyond the applications and gamified software that we use to acquire new skills, companies like Amazon and Uber deploy it now to increase employee productivity. But to get the results we’re looking for, in our own lives and in the workplace, it’s important to understand when gamification will work and when it will only make matters worse.
In 2012, Jana Gallus, a brilliant young economist studying for her doctorate at the University of Zurich, learned of a problem plaguing Wikipedia – and saw an opportunity to launch a first test of the value of gamification. Despite the popularity of the 50 million entry online encyclopedia available in more than 280 languages, Gallus found that its top editors were leaving en masse. And since the so-called Wikipedians who keep the site’s articles on everything Game of thrones In order for accurate, up-to-date quantum mechanics not to pay a dime, the organization needed to find a way to keep its major publishers engaged in the sometimes monotonous task of curating content online without offering them any money.
Hoping to reduce revenue, Wikipedia let Gallus run a experience with 4,000 new volunteer editors. On the basis of a coin, she told some deserving Wikipedia newcomers that they had earned accolades for their efforts and that their names were listed as winners on a Wikipedia website. They also received one, two or three stars, which appeared next to their username, with more stars awarded to top performers. Other newcomers who had contributed equally valuable content on Wikipedia but came out on the other end of the draw did not receive any token rewards (and were not made aware of the existence of such awards). Gallus believed the rewards would make a monotonous task a bit more like a game by adding an element of fun and praise for a job well done.
She was right. Volunteers who received recognition for their efforts were 20% more likely to volunteer for Wikipedia the following month and 13% more likely than those who received no praise to be active on Wikipedia a year later.
Examples like this might make gamification a no-brainer: why wouldn’t a company want to make work more fun? Despite Gallus’ exciting results, more recent research shows that as a top-down strategy for behavior change, gamification can easily backfire. Two of my colleagues from Wharton – Ethan Mollick and Nancy Rothbard – led a experience it proved that. It involved several hundred salespeople who had the somewhat boring task of contacting businesses and convincing them to offer coupons for discounted products or services that were then sold on their business website (think Groupon). . Sellers earned commissions for each coupon ultimately sold online.
In order to make this more exciting, Mollick and Rothbard worked with professional game designers to create a basketball-themed sales game. Sellers could earn points by making deals with customers, with more points awarded for larger offers. Sales from warm leads were called “layups”, while cold calls were called “jump shots”. Giant screens on the sales floor displayed the names of the best players and occasionally showed basketball animations like a successful dunk. Regular emails informed the “players” of who was winning and, at the end of the game, the winner received a bottle of champagne.