The Power of Play

Was Gamification a Terrible Lie?

Turning work into play was sold as a miracle for increasing productivity–but was that ever really plausible?

9 min read

A person pushes trolleys back and forth in a giant warehouse, beneath a large sign that displays this message: "The job's a game! in every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap!"
Power of Play logo featuring a star popping out of a jack-in-the-box

How much timber does it take to fill a truck? For American loggers in the early 1970s, it was a question of estimation rather than specification: anywhere between 60 and 123 trunks, depending on their length, diameter, and the driver’s eagerness to clock off for a cigarette.

For the logging company bosses, any discrepancy could prove costly. If staff members, who were paid by the hour, filled their trucks with significantly less than the maximum legal net weight–possibly as a way to secure a longer lunch break, or simply because they wanted some time on the road to pick the splinters from their hands–operating costs would escalate.

At that time, staff psychologist Gary Latham (in the zeitgeisty world of 1970s logging such tantalizingly modern roles were de rigueur) at the Tacoma, Washington-based Weyerhaeuser logging company had recently read an article by an American psychologist named Edwin Locke. In it Locke suggested that if companies added game-like goals and feedback to work tasks, they could see drastic improvements in employee performance.

"The job's a game! You find the fun and snap!"

It was an alluring theory, but one supported by little evidence. Latham and his colleague, James Baldes, decided to test Locke’s idea on their logging teams in Oklahoma. They picked out six teams, each comprised of six loggers and one truck, and quietly monitored how well each one filled its truck with the logs it felled. The results were worrying: an average of just 60-percent truck capacity.

Latham and Baldes met with the men. While they admitted that no truck could ever reasonably be expected to come in loaded at 100 percent, the psychologists suggested to the logging teams that, with some effort, it might be possible to hit an average 94-percent fill rate.

Prior to Latham and Baldes’s arrival, the company had simply told the loggers to “do their best” to fill the trucks. Now, the men had a specific target to aim for. Even without the promise of rewards or punishments to goad the teams into action, the results of the experiment–published in the February 1975 edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology–showed an extraordinary effect. Just four weeks after the loggers were given a target goal, their productivity rose precipitously, from around 60 percent to more than 90 percent.

The logging teams were seen to have devised plans to optimize their loads, which were now quantified by a read-out of the truck’s weight, offering a kind of score that could be used to tweak their strategy. Soon enough the teams began to compete with one another for the top average. Loading logs onto the truck had become something of a game.

With the exception of one small drop a few weeks into the experiment (the loggers later claimed they wanted to see whether they would be punished for unsatisfactory loads) the improved work-rate persisted. A year later, the company estimated that generating a similar increase in performance with conventional approaches would have required an expenditure of a quarter-million dollars on the purchase of additional trucks alone.

The term “gamification” would not be coined for another 30 years, but it’s likely that researchers today would recognize Latham and Baldes’s intervention as a classic form. Gamification is a fresh neologism, but its core tenet is much older than bedazzling consultants might have their clients believe. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun,” sings Mary Poppins in her eponymous 1964 film. “Find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.” With brevity that few contemporary gamification gurus can match, Poppins encapsulated the movement’s mantra.

“I probably first heard the term in 2008,” says Richard Landers, associate professor of organizational psychology at Old Dominion University where he studies the art and science of understanding, predicting, and changing employee behavior. “My initial thought was that it sounded terribly familiar. Gamification echoed techniques we had been using in psychology and education for close to a century, albeit from a different perspective.”

Buzzwords are often able to repackage old truths in profitable new ways, especially when they’re married to new technologies. So it has been with gamification. Multinational companies such as Starbucks and Unilever have, in the past few years, added game-like elements to staff training and customer loyalty programs. Nike and Weight Watchers have used points and badges to inspire people to jog and diet using related apps and schemes. Some companies have implemented game-like systems to help their employees get to know one another better, while more than 70 percent of Forbes Global 2000 companies surveyed in 2013 said they planned to use gamification for marketing and customer retention, acting upon game-designer Kathy Sierra’s oft-repeated claim that “gamification is the high fructose corn syrup of engagement.”

In the era of quantification, every step we take can be recorded, the length of each night’s sleep measured, and the number of calories we ingest counted, often by nothing more intrusive than the phone that sits in your pocket. This technology has enabled companies to gamify our lives, allowing us to “optimize” different aspects of them–just like loggers loading a hungry truck.

Some have gone even further in their claims of gamification’s muscular potential. Jane McGonigal, in her 2011 book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, claims that large-scale crowdsourcing games could help end poverty. Her follow-up book, 2015’s Superbetter, presents a 30-day gamified program that offers to “significantly” reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, decrease suffering, increase optimism, make you “more satisfied,” and even lead, astoundingly, to a life “free of regret.”

Not everyone has been so convinced by the notion of gamification’s redemptive power. The British critic Steven Poole once described gamification as “moronic marketing-led cultural quackery.” He described Reality Is Broken as “an egotistical manifesto,” pointing to its bold claim that gamification will wash away the world’s ills as evidence of its sham.

(Poole later penned a faux philosophical about-turn. “There’s no money in saying the emperor has no clothes,” he wrote. “What there is money in is clambering aboard the latest glibly cyber-utopian bandwagon and cheering it on in PowerPoint presentations to corporate audiences in order to trouser enormous consulting fees. Therefore: gamification is awesome!”)

In the past few years, the initial buzz and cult surrounding gamification has cooled. “I’d say gamification was certainly over-hyped, like just most new technologies that claim they will “‘disrupt’ something,” says Landers. “There’s increasing acceptance that while gamification can help in certain circumstances if designed well, just throwing virtual points at someone is unlikely to change their behavior in any meaningful way.”

For critics of gamification, it’s the lack of true game-like elements that rankles. In many cases the gamifiers seem to do little more than appropriate the language and terminology of videogames, while ignoring the underlying elements that make them rich and rewarding. They employ points and badges as rewards, rather than designing systems and rules to promote playfulness and joy.

Not that rewarding people with meaningless points is ineffective. Most hierarchical organizations, from the Boy Scouts of America to the Masons to the U.S. Army, employ point systems to incentivize members. Point systems are perhaps the most effective way of communicating advancement and assuring a person that the system in which they operate has noticed their effort. But good games do more than simply monitor effort. They set player goals that are intrinsically interesting. This is what sets a game apart from a reward scheme.

“Many of the applications of gamification that we see are quite rudimentary still,” says Juho Hamari, newly appointed “professor of gamification” at the Tampere University of Technology, Finland. “If you look at the majority of gamification systems out there, they are not very different to basic points systems. Gamification only becomes something unique when it draws from a broader set of different design disciplines.”

Landers agrees. “Points are a very limited interpretation of what games have to teach us,” he says. “We’ve been studying the effects of adding stories to both employee and student instruction, and to employee assessment. Storytelling in learning is not a new concept by any stretch, but games do provide some new perspective on how storytelling can be implemented most effectively.”

For many, Zombies, Run! offers the most successful example of this kind of playful story element onto a routine activity. The app, which transforms running into an audio adventure game, has been downloaded more than three million times and enjoys more than 250,000 active players, many of whom pay to subscribe to new episodes and challenges.

Its concept is disarmingly simple, yet expertly implemented. As players run outdoors or on a treadmill, the app tracks their distance and speed while relaying an audio story in which they help a small remnant of humanity survive and thrive after the zombie apocalypse. Players are periodically chased by zombies, at which point they must increase their speed by 20 percent to outrun the danger. The game now includes more than 250 episodes, its story arc structured like that of a TV series.

Naomi Alderman, the game’s co-creator and lead writer, first experienced a gamified fitness app when she stood on a pair of scales to play Nintendo’s Wii Fit. It was a disastrous first encounter. “The game measured my weight and then gave me an enormous frowny sad face,” she recalls. “Talk about anti-motivation. Instead of telling me I’m doing great for getting exercise, this fitness game was disapproving of my body.”

A stick figure runs away from grasping hands.
The logo for the game Zombies, Run!

Zombies, Run!, by contrast, takes a more welcoming approach. It doesn’t chastise unfit players, nor hassle anybody to pursue personal bests. “I have always wanted to make the game a safe place for everyone in any body to feel OK,” Alderman says. “We work hard to make the game friendly to people of all genders, ethnicities, physical abilities, ages, body size, and so on. Our job is to make you feel good about exercising, not tell you your body is wrong, or you’re not welcome here.”

Adrian Hon, CEO of Six to Start and co-creator of the game, says that the secret to its success is in its combination of story and gameplay. “People run to find out what happens next and to hear more from the characters they love,” he says. “Seriously–there are thousands of fan-fiction stories about Zombies, Run! I doubt you can say the same about Runkeeper.”

Zombies, Run!‘s narrative-based approach is powerful in ways that approach those advertised by some of gamification’s staunchest proponents. Research suggests that the game helps distract people from the pain and exertion of running far more effectively than normal running apps. Distraction, it seems, can be an effective medicine.

But despite being the perfect example of a gamified system, Hon recoils from the label. “We don’t want to be painted with that brush,” he says. “There is a vast story and a world and characters and soul and imagination in Zombies, Run!, easily the equal of Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. You can’t say the same of Nike’s leaderboards and badges.”

Hon believes the skepticism surrounding gamification today comes from years of “over-hyped promises” that, he says, have “manifestly failed” to come true. “There was, and still is, this notion that you can gamify literally any boring or difficult task, whether that’s learning programming or eating healthily, by adding achievements and experience points and leaderboards and to-do lists–like throwing on a coat of paint. It’s astonishing that anyone ever believed this, but I guess people just wanted to believe in yet another quick fix.”

More prosaically, Hon says, there is little data or effective study about the efficacy of gamification. “That’s partly because it takes time to run the studies, and partly because many of the studies were poor in quality, meaning that it was difficult to prove one way or another whether gamification worked.”

Hamari at the Tampere University of Technology is hoping to redress that balance through a number of empirical studies. In the past few years he and another researcher, Jonna Koivisto, have been working on a paper titled “Does Gamification Work?” “The prevailing idea has been that gamification will automatically transform any user’s behavior, regardless of the activity,” he says. “Our empirical studies have confirmed that this is not the case at all.” (Hamari also admits, however, that the research hasn’t matured sufficiently in any area to be able to “ultimately say anything.”)

The problem, as he perceives it, is that games are fundamentally difficult to design, even before they are burdened with the additional requirement of making people do things they might not otherwise choose. “That has been one of the pitfalls of gamification,” he says. “We have hundreds of thousands of terrible games on the Apple Store, on the Google Play Store, on Steam, everywhere. And if you think about gamification design, which is not only trying to create a system where the player feels joy and motivation, but also bring about some sort of behavior, it’s another layer of complexity added to the already difficult task of making a good game.”

"And hence they find their task is not a grind."

Execution is everything, then. “If I can blow my own trumpet for a moment, I’m an award-winning literary novelist and I haven’t treated writing Zombies, Run! as “‘hack work’ that I can dash off in a few days,” says Alderman. “I wanted it to be good enough that people are so desperate to hear the next episode they walk an extra mile.” To ensure quality and diversity, Alderman has also invited guest writers including Elizabeth Bear, Joanne Harris, and even Margaret Atwood to contribute to the game.

For Landers, the true value of the emergence of the term gamification is in the way it affected the conversation around labor. “Talking about things like fun in the context of work has been a desperately needed change,” he says. “The old saying is that people spend a third of their lives at work, a third sleeping, and a third doing things volitionally “¦ like eating and spending time with your family. So an increase in the attention paid to people actually enjoying a third of their lives is an important one, not just for their own sake, but also because worker stress and misery cost the world a lot of money in healthcare and unemployment.”

Was the promise of gamification overstated or misrepresented? Certainly, in some cases. “Lots of unscrupulous people sold their clients gamification that they really should not have expected to have done anything,” says Landers. There remain, however, demonstrable truths within the underlying story. For some creators like Hon, gamification has become a toxic label that must be rejected.

Landers, on the other hand, remains confident that the word can be redeemed. “This happens with every new fad technology,” he says. “As things settle out, the gamification efforts that actually met their goals should rise to the top, and the companies that peddle in points should go out of business. At least, that is my hope.”

Power of Play logo featuring a star popping out of a jack-in-the-box

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our The Power of Play section, which looks at how fun and leisure can change the world. Click the logo to read more.