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The Power and Pitfalls of Gamification

WHEN YOU WALK 10,000 steps in a day, your Fitbit rewards you with a jiggle and some virtual fireworks, giving you a reason to pause and smile with pride. When you practice a foreign language on Duolingo multiple days in a row, you earn a “streak” and are encouraged to maintain it, giving you an extra reason to strive for repetition. When companies, teachers, coaches, or apps add features such as symbolic rewards, competition, social connections, or even just fun sounds and colors to make something feel more like play, they’re relying on “gamification” to enhance an experience that might otherwise be dull. I’d wager that most of the apps on your phone use some element of gamification, but we also see gamification in our workplaces and from our health insurers.

Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, host of the Choiceology podcast from Charles Schwab, and Co-Director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative.

Gamification first took off more than a decade ago. At the time, there wasn’t much evidence for its value; the concept just seemed to make sense. Business consultants promised organizations that gamifying work could more effectively motivate employees, not by changing their work itself, but by changing its packaging, and making goal achievement a bit more exciting as a result (“Yes! I earned a star!”). Technology companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and SAP, for instance, found ways to gamify everything from learning social media skills, to verifying language translations, to boosting sales performance.


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