Monday, Feb 26th

The Gamification—of Everything

gamificationSeen Squid Game?

It’s a wildly popular South Korean survival drama series that’s become a global sensation on Netflix. The plot revolves around people who are deeply in debt and struggling financially. Exploiting their economic straits, a shadowy organization invites them to participate in a survival competition as a way out.

Superficially, the contest involves a series of six traditional kids' games. These games seem innocent at first glance—belying something sinister. There’s a deadly twist: losing a game will result in the player's death.

The ultimate prize for the last survivor? A massive cash reward.

Just as the Hunger Games reveal just how far some will go to survive,

This K-drama serves as a cautionary tale on the dangers of reducing complex human experiences and struggles to mere games. Can Squid Game show us the negative aspects of over-gamification in today’s society? And how can the continual pressure to compete—even in safer, more banal contests—transform individuals and their value systems?

To put it in simpler terms, if our incentives in life revolve around scarcity and a zero-sum mentality, how can we ever retain our principles?

In today’s fast-paced world, where the average attention span is not much better than a goldfish’s, businesses are adopting an intriguing strategy to keep consumers and employees engaged: gamification. This approach, which injects game-like elements into non-game environments, is revolutionizing everything from language learning apps to the food industry and beyond.

Of course, markets don’t follow trends unless there’s a payoff involved—its own kind of game. So why does gamification work so well? Psychology.

At its core, gamification taps into basic human desires for reward, achievement, and status. By incorporating challenges, points, leaderboards, rewards, risks, and the possibility of loss into everyday activities, innovative businesses can motivate and engage audiences more effectively.

Writer and entrepreneur Nir Eyal captures this phenomenon with what he calls the “Hook Model.” The Hook Model is a cycle comprised of four parts: trigger, action, reward, and investment. According to Eyal, this method is vital to creating desired habitual behaviors—or gamifying our brains.

One of the most well-known examples of such gamification is Duolingo. A popular language learning app, it exemplifies gamification in education. Turning language proficiency into a series of challenges with rewards for progress keeps learners both engaged and motivated.

The result? Users spend more time on the app, learning more effectively. It’s yet to be seen if people en masse will go so far as to master a second language via Duolingo, but it’s clear that the app has impacted the market.

Similarly, other educational platforms like CodeAcademy harness gamification to enhance student engagement and learning retention.

Beyond consumer apps, gamification is making workplace inroads. Companies are leveraging game mechanics to increase employee productivity. From sales competitions to gamified training modules, this approach transforms how employees work, incentivizing tasks in novel ways.

For more evidence, look no further than the everyday apps we use, such as Slack. While Slack is not a game per se, its design and functionality incorporate elements characteristic of gamification, enhancing user engagement and interaction. Slack provides instant feedback through notifications, which can be gratifying for users. The immediate response to messages or actions (like someone reacting to your message) mimics the instant feedback loops often found in games, which can be psychologically rewarding. These feedback loops are useful, especially for remote managers tasked with retaining engagement during the work-from-home revolution.

While gamification offers benefits, it's not without its challenges. Critics argue it can lead to addictive behaviors, often overshadowing the intrinsic value of activities. Even eLearning leaders who extol gamification as a net-positive, grok the potential risks for increased addiction. Companies must, therefore, design gamified systems responsibly, ensuring that they encourage healthy behaviors, not exploit users' psychological vulnerabilities.

Like anything else, gamification is best in moderation.

But the essential key? Consent. A study from Harvard Business School concluded gamification is only successful when participants are willing and eager to play. According to the authors, “We highlight the role of consent (Burawoy, 1979) as a psychological response to mandatory fun, which moderates these relationships and, in a field experiment, find that games, when consented to, increase positive affect at work, but, when consent is lacking, decrease positive affect.”

So where do we draw the line? Should everything be gamified? Or like with AI, should we develop a “Dos and Don’ts” list? Similar to how our data is now appropriated by so many advertisers—eliciting societal concern— should we also be more cautious about how gamification commodifies our attention?

After all, there is a risk that gamification, particularly when tied to essential aspects of life, such as finance, health, or education, can be used to manipulate people for the benefit of those in power, rather than for the participants' benefit.

From making learning more effective to turning routine tasks into exciting challenges, gamification has the potential to enrich our daily lives. In fact, we’re only at the beginning, because as technology advances, the potential for gamification grows. Augmented Reality (AR), AI, and machine learning may soon offer even more personalized and immersive gamified experiences.

Still, as we move forward, it’s best we relegate gamification to responsible realms and away from our most crucial institutions. Otherwise, we risk the reality portrayed in Squid Game where we’re willing to eschew our principles for rewarding feedback loops—even ones threatening dark outcomes.

Author Sameer Ahuja is a tech executive and Scarsdale Village Trustee Ahuja who writes a newsletter, Consume at Once, that discusses how technology is transforming how we create and consume movies, videos, TV, games, sports, and social media.

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