Gamified design uses rewards to shape user behavior. At the most superficial level, this can take the form of progress metrics such as leaderboards or achievement badges. But true gamified design has more to do with behavioral psychology than Mario Kart tokens. And while it can be an incredible tool for boosting user engagements and conversions, there’s a catch.
Gamified products establish a rewards cycle that floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps the brain associate certain behaviors with feeling good. These dopamine reinforcements are a normal part of daily living, recreation, and learning. However, if the rewards cycle is abused or improperly modulated, people can become addicted to gamified products.
When working with clients, I rarely offer gamification as a first-line solution because of the short-lived benefits of novel features and the potential for user harm.
So how can designers drive revenue while still ensuring a healthy user experience? There’s no easy answer, but we have a unique responsibility to advocate for user well-being. And sometimes that means pushing back against client requirements in the name of consumer health.
How Gamification Benefits Your Brain
Gamification is popular with both businesses and users because it can shape your behavior without you noticing. Here are some of the ways it affects your brain:
One 2016 study showed that when people used a gamified learning product, the areas of the brain responsible for wandering thoughts deactivated. In other words, our focus is much stronger when we feel like we’re playing a game.
A landmark 1998 study showed that gaming floods the brain with dopamine. Dopamine, in turn, modulates the hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s a key player in memory and learning. In short, dopamine makes learning simpler and satisfying.
Multisensory elements in games, such as audio and visual feedback, help us assimilate that learning into our working memory, the processing systems in the brain that apply our memories to tasks.
However, too much audiovisual input at once can inhibit long-term retention. That’s why gamified learning apps like Duolingo tend to organize games into short modules.
Gamification also plays on our tendency to learn through positive reinforcement. “It’s proven in psychology that it’s much better to give positive feedback rather than negative,” says product designer Gytis Markevicius. “All of these apps use exactly the same principles: likes and shares and all that.”
The boost you get from that flood of dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) initiates a feedback loop. Here’s how it works. You:
- Encounter a challenge.
- Overcome it and achieve a goal.
- Get a reward.
- Feel great.
- Crave more good feelings and seek another challenge.
This is where things can go wrong in gamified designs.
Highly Engaged or Highly Addicted?
The gamification strategies that most often spur user action are also the most addictive. These Black Hat gamification techniques try to make the user surrender control to the product by fostering uncertainty and anxiety.
Think of the emotional hangover you get from an inbox of gamified Cyber Monday deals. There’s the countdown clock at the top of the email (scarcity), the digital scratch-off that reveals your discount (unpredictability), and the huge savings you’ll miss out on if you don’t act (loss and avoidance).
If your inbox was always flooded with Cyber Monday deals, you’d probably feel exhausted and possibly be in debt. Effective design can make you act against your own best interests. Good design, meanwhile, uses White Hat gamification techniques to tap into your goals and preferences while encouraging life balance.
Best Practices for Ethical Designers
Ethical designers and businesses can still reap the benefits of gamification by ensuring their UX benefits users.
Pair Behavioral Triggers With Real-world Meaning
Gamification becomes unethical when the user loses control of their behavior or they receive no real-world benefits in exchange for their time and attention.
One way to balance business and consumer interests is to design products around your user’s core motives. White Hat UX gamification focuses on empowering the user and enhancing their sense of meaning, accomplishment, or connectedness. This, in turn, creates a healthier, more sustainable relationship between consumer and product.
For example, in 2010, American Kevin Richardson won a Swedish design contest that challenged contestants to make positive social change fun. Richardson proposed a road safety program that automatically entered drivers traveling below the speed limit into a lottery. Later that year, contest sponsor Volkswagen demonstrated the idea on a multi-lane street and saw average speeds drop from 32 kph to 25 kph.
This is White Hat design at its best. Participants were given an opportunity to consciously change their behavior in exchange for benefits that triggered feelings of empowerment (earning money) and epic meaning (contributing to community safety).
Use Black Hat Drives Sparingly
The problem with White Hat design is that while it promotes good feelings, it doesn’t often spur the user to action. That’s why Black Hat gamification techniques can be useful adjuncts at pivotal moments in the user’s journey.
White Hat techniques can recruit and retain users, punctuated with Black Hat techniques to drive action. Once the user has performed an action, the product should default to a White Hat environment.
For example, a charity membership program might offer badges for donating or attending events. Collecting badges would give you a sense of accomplishment and epic meaning. However, if the charity has some unsold seats for an upcoming banquet, it might use a Black Hat core drive—scarcity, for example—to pressure you to buy a ticket.
But because that purchase would feed back into a White Hat core drive—epic meaning and calling—you’d probably still feel good about it.
Don’t Assume Good Intent Is Enough
White Hat design outcomes aren’t always virtuous, just as Black Hat tactics in moderation aren’t necessarily unethical.
For example, a fitness app designer may want to use White Hat core drives to boost engagement. The designer decides to empower users by adding a leaderboard for the most miles cycled in a week. So far, so good. But if some of those users become addicted to maintaining their rankings at the expense of their health, then the app is triggering their Black Hat core drive to avoid loss.
In other words, the interplay of design and psychology is unpredictable. Outcomes matter as much as intentions when it comes to cultivating healthy relationships with users.
“If the ethos is to benefit the user as much as possible and at times forfeit small amounts of profit in favor of the user, then I think designers can flourish in their role of gamifying experiences,” says Oliver Efesopoulos, a UX designer and founder of the application Filmshape.
But what about companies that thrive on addiction?
They’re out there, according to Efesopoulos. “I attended a talk for a globally known gaming platform,” he says. “The speaker, a UX manager, [described keeping] players engaged for the maximum amount of time possible during testing. When I asked if there are any precautions in place to consider the players’ mental and physical health, he said he wasn’t aware of any.”
Know Your Users
If a client’s engagement metrics are based on arbitrary KPIs, such as the number of times a user opens its app, your design will likely encourage unproductive or even harmful behavior. Instead, work with the client to set KPIs that map to real-life user behavior and goals.
“Invest the time into the user research and really understand, on a psychological level, what are the motivators,” says Edward Moore, a UX designer, gamification consultant, and VR/AR expert. “What are the behaviors that you’re trying to encourage? And what behaviors are resonating with the audience? What forms of feedback loops are effective versus not effective?”
According to Moore, once you know what habits you want to encourage, you can start building the goals and feedback mechanisms in your UX.
For example, if you’re designing a gamification experience for a financial savings app, you should speak to your users to understand their goals and motivations. These might include saving for retirement and getting investment advice.
Based on this input, you could use progress bars to indicate how close a user is to their savings goal and provide a rewarding experience at the end that motivates them to save appropriately. You could also offer a series of short investment training sessions and reward users with badges as they complete parts of the program.
After designing that concept, you could have users test your ideas to see if they resonate and motivate them in the ways you expect.
Monitor for Side Effects
According to Gail Ollis, PhD, a researcher who studies the intersection of psychology and software, gamification is a form of behavioral conditioning. In behavioral conditioning, people (or animals) learn to perform certain actions in response to certain stimuli, regardless of how they feel about that action. In other words, gamification reduces user behavior to a series of reflexes.
Ollis cautions that it’s difficult to ensure that you’re reinforcing only the behaviors that benefit both your business and your end user. This difficulty stems from three challenges:
Choosing which behaviors to encourage, figuring out how to measure those behaviors, and ensuring that the metric you’re tracking reliably correlates to the behavior you want.
For example, if your e-commerce store rewards customers whenever they review products, customers might start writing reviews for products they don’t own.
“It’s very, very difficult to measure the thing you want rather than some proxy,” Ollis says.
Monitoring and iterating is the only way to ensure that both businesses and users benefit from gamified products. Continued research should include two types of elements: qualitative (user surveys or interviews) and quantitative (trends in behavioral data).
If you find that your gamified shopping experience is causing low-income customers to spend money they don’t have, you can tweak it to make it less addictive. If you discover that your fitness app is causing some users to adopt dangerously restrictive eating habits, you could replace the calorie counter with an element that provides a more holistic measure of nutrient intake.
Set Engagement Guardrails and Limits
Over time, unchecked gamification can lead to user burnout. It’s good practice to limit user engagement when it jeopardizes health and safety.
For example, you can disable notifications if your user is driving, remind them to take screen breaks, or set healthier limits on their achievement targets.
Likewise, if you discover your users—particularly young ones—are spending so much time on your app that it’s likely that they’re neglecting other areas of their life, you can set daily or weekly engagement targets or time limits that disable the app once they’re reached.
If you suspect your client’s requirements will yield poor-to-dangerous outcomes for users, push back. If the client isn’t interested in ethical limits, reframe them as a means of enhancing its brand reputation and cultivating a healthy consumer base in the long term. Remember that customer acquisition is a lot more expensive than retention.
The Tide May Be Turning Against Unethical Gamification
Addicted users fuel profits, so it can be difficult for ethics-driven design to win the day. The upside for designers who put user interests first is that increasingly educated consumers are starting to take note.
With the steady trickle of media exposés on manipulative UX design, users may start placing a higher value on gamified products, applications, and services that encourage healthier lifestyle choices—or at least limit unhealthy ones.
This growing demand for industry responsibility is also a call to action for designers to rethink how gamification in product design can fulfill client needs while contributing to a healthier society.