Gamification isn’t all fun and games. It’s serious business

In ‘For the Win,’ Wharton professor Kevin Werbach and coauthor Dan Hunter argue that gamemakers need not be the only ones benefiting from game design.

booksleeve with pictures of two authors on either side
Authors Kevin Werbach (left) and Dan Hunter (right). (Image: Wharton School Press)

Millions flock to their computers, consoles, mobile phones, tablets, and social networks each day to play Call of Duty, Pokemon Go, Madden, Fortnite, and countless other games, generating billions in sales each year.

In a revised and updated edition of “For the Win: The Power of Gamification and Game Thinking in Business, Education, Government, and Social Impact,” authors Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School, and Dan Hunter of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) argue that applying the lessons of gamification could change one’s business, and the way people learn or teach.

“The careful and skillful construction of these games is built on decades of research into human motivation and psychology,” says Werbach.
Werbach is a leading expert on the legal, business, and public policy aspects of the network age. He currently leads the Reg@Tech roundtable and the Wharton Cryptogovernance Workshop.

Hunter is an international expert in internet and intellectual property law, in artificial intelligence and cognitive science models of law, and in legaltech and legal innovation. He serves as executive dean of the Faculty of Law at QUT in Australia.

A well-designed game goes right to the motivational heart of the human psyche, says Hunter.

“Design principles from games can be used as a valuable tool to address serious pursuits like marketing, productivity enhancement, education, innovation, customer engagement, human resources, and sustainability,” he says. “Our book reveals how, why, and when gamification works—and what not to do.”

Werbach and Hunter are lawyers and World of Warcraft players who created the world’s first course on gamification at Wharton. Werbach also teaches a Coursera course on Gamification which is open to all and has enrolled more than 500,000 learners around the world.

“For the Win” originally appeared in 2012. In the revised edition, the authors show how the approach has matured. “For the Win” reveals how a wide range of companies are successfully using game thinking—addressing problems like a game designer. It also offers an explanation of when gamifying makes the most sense, and a six-step framework for using gamification in areas such as marketing, teaching, crowdsourcing, employee motivation, and customer engagement.

When used carefully and thoughtfully, gamification produces great outcomes for users, in ways that are hard to replicate through other methods, according to the authors. For example, in the book they discuss how a South Korean company called Neofect is using gamification to help people recover from strokes; or, how a tool called SuperBetter has demonstrated significant results treating depression, concussion symptoms, and the mental health harms of the COVID-19 pandemic through game thinking.

The authors also explain how companies at times misuse the “guided missile” of gamification to have people work and do things in ways that are against their self-interest. They illustrate how the ride-hailing giant Uber once used gamification to influence their drivers to work longer hours than they otherwise wanted to, causing a swift backlash.

This revised and updated edition incorporates the most prominent research findings to provide a comprehensive gamification playbook for the real world.

This is an excerpt adapted from “For the Win,” which was published in 2020 by Wharton School Press.

The first edition of “For the Win” appeared just as gamification was cresting its hype wave. There have been some significant changes in the development of gamification since we published it in 2012. These can be boiled down to five notable trends:

1. Gamification has expanded well beyond the domain of business. The subtitle for the first edition of the book was “How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business,” which now sounds much too limited. Game mechanics are widely dispersed and are found not only in business settings but also in health, government, philanthropy, and day-to-day life.

2. Gamification has been incorporated into the widespread adoption of “nudges” to change people’s behavior. Named after the wildly influential book by cognitive psychologist Richard Thaler and legal academic and policy maven Cass Sunstein, nudging involves creating “choice architectures” to push people toward making better decisions—saving for retirement, eating better, or even being recruited for military service. Gamification addresses a further dimension that behavioral economics researchers like Thaler and Sunstein ignore: People sometimes act not out of irrational biases, but in service of self-determination goals such as competence, autonomy, and relatedness. They can powerfully be motivated by well-crafted fun.

3. Points, badges, and leaderboards are no longer the gold standard of gamification. These three mechanics are still a core feature of many gamification projects, but nowadays we see many more game mechanics that intelligently use different mechanics to meet their designers’ ends.

4. Most of the gamification practiced today doesn’t arise from a stand-alone effort to apply game design techniques. Gamification is mostly seen as just good design practice. So, for example, having virtual fireworks explode on the screen of a health app when the user hits a meaningful goal is a powerful motivator by itself. The app designers don’t necessarily need to create an elaborate game-like experience. The good news is that it’s easier than ever to get started with gamification. The bad news is that if you don’t appreciate why the fireworks are effective and the deeper design patterns they exemplify, you won’t be nearly as successful.

5. Unprincipled and sometimes unethical gamification is on the rise. We warned about this in the original edition, but the problem has become significantly worse. It’s clear that some gamification designers have cottoned on to the fact that games can make people do things against their interest, because they fulfill a shallow need or on the surface seem “fun.”

Games haven’t lost their pull on us; they never will. We can all still use a healthy dose of fun to achieve our goals in business—and beyond.

Excerpted from “For the Win: The Power of Gamification and Game Thinking in Business, Education, Government, and Social Impact,” by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, copyright 2020. Reprinted by permission of Wharton School Press.