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Design is becoming behavioral: here’s how to ethically implement gamification 

Introduction

The global value of the gamification industry increased by $7.03 billion USD between 2016 and 2021: it now stands at a whopping $11.9 billion USD.1

Gamification is a manifestation of behavioral product design: a vision of design that exploits the brain’s predictable irrationalities to induce desired behaviors.

And these induced behaviors can have big impacts — 90% of employees say gamification improves productivity. This leads gamified companies to be 7x more profitable than non-gamified companies.1

Despite its climbing popularity, current implementations of gamification are not always aligned with consumer interests. Transparency for users on how, why, and when gamification is used is vital to its healthy and ethical development.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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The global value of the gamification market from 2016-2021, in USD.

The global value of the gamification market from 2016-2021, in USD. (Source)

Behavioral design presents new implications and ethical dilemmas

Accessibility is key to the exponential growth of behavioral design

The paradigm shift to behavioral design has been amplified not only by the rise of behavioral science, but the accessibility of design tools like Figma.

Web design tools are now more accessible than ever, and the democratized nature of computer science allows aspiring developers open access to both design tools and communities that help flatten the learning curve.

A perfect example is Figma: the first design tool to integrate collaboration into its functionality. It’s been key to expanding the practicality of web design!

The expanding interest in behavioral science

The behavioral component will be inevitably brought to the table by behavioral scientists, a rapidly expanding pool of talent. Behavioral research is now more publicly accessible than ever, drawing many interdisciplinary practitioners towards the field. 

Deceptive behavioral design presents ethical questions

As behavioral science permeates design culture, not all of its implementations are used for good. Some behavioral design has been criticized for being exploitative, often in the interests of profit and to the detriment of their users.

Behavioral design concepts (like gamification!) are powerful for habit change: they decrease the cognitive load required to make decisions. 

Gamification can leverage the use of points, achievements, leaderboards, progress visualizations, or community interaction.18 These design elements take advantage of our instinct to socialize, receive recognition, be validated, and challenge ourselves.12

However, gamification works just as well for positive habit change as it does for negative change.

Case study: The behavioral design behind TikTok

Internet addiction is on the rise,13 and the widespread, deceptive adaptations of behavioral design may be partially responsible. 

Take TikTok: its exponential success is unique, and it’s largely due to how deeply its algorithms, content, and UX design considers the nuances of the human brain.20 The uniquely intimate content16 controlled by effortless vertical scrolling makes “doomscrolling” an easy habit to acquire. The possibility (but not certainty) of the next video being engaging conditions the user to keep scrolling forever for reward, like a rat pulling a lever.6,21

This type of gamification — the type that contradicts the goals of its users — is deceptive, and dangerously so. Behavioral design like TikTok can lead to negative mental health impacts like social media addiction, eating disorders and low self-esteem. But just as it can manufacture self-destructive habits, behavioral design has the potential to kickstart good ones under the correct circumstances.8

Effective behavioral design and impeding user autonomy are not mutually exclusive: if implemented with transparency, these behavioral nudges can be used as an ethical tool to achieve a consumer’s autonomous goals.

The rise of behavioral design unlocks new opportunities for positive growth: in revenue and for individuals

The health and wellness industry has already begun to implement gamification for the mutual benefit of users and providers. Gamified UX design uses behavioral insights to help users reach their own goals, whether it be motivation to exercise or eating well. 

Another industry that has begun to integrate gamification in their design processes is education. Again, the interests of the corporation are aligned with those of the users. An example of a more explicit way of gamifying education is Microsoft’s Minecraft: Education Edition.

The growth rates of game-based learning worldwide from 2019-2024, separated by region in descending order.

The growth rates of game-based learning worldwide from 2019-20243, separated by region in descending order.

When Microsoft licensed Minecraft in 2017, it had roughly 2 million users. In 2019, it more than doubled, jumping to 5 million.3 This period was when Minecraft: Education Edition began to take off.

Minecraft not only uses basic gamification principles like badges and leaderboards, it also follows natural developmental cognitive strategies by emphasizing limitless creativity and using building blocks to create larger concepts. Their redesign of education is a win-win — it keeps children engaged in their learning and their parents willing to pay for it.

Duolingo is another example of successful, educational gamefication. The program uses badges, achievements, streaks, and leaderboards to keep tens of millions engaged in language-learning across the world. These features subconsciously transform learning from a tedious, intensive activity into a fun and challenging one. 

Solutions: Considering customization and transparency in behavioral product design

Blind gamification is ineffective: customize designs to each user’s unique cognitive biases

When implementing gamification solutions, customization is key. Being able to customize self-improvement tools is conducive to more sustainable habit changes. 

Different demographics have different cognitive biases based on factors like age, gender, and race. Using a one-size-fits all approach would have contradictory effects on different groups. 

For example, components that target competitiveness, like leaderboards, do wonders on younger people - but older adults tend to be more self-conscious of inadequacy. Depending on age, you may want to tone back competitive components in favor of more supportive design features.9

Tip: Health and wellness apps should gather demographic information from the beginning, and tailor the app presets towards respective demographics. The app can either make customization accessible to the user themselves, or frequently ask whether certain features motivate them or are detrimental to their self-esteem.

Making behavioral design ethical with operational transparency 

With the high visibility of psychologically manipulative social media apps, users’ distrust can lead to non-compliance, lowering the effectiveness of said products.

Behavioral design approaches should allow the user to peek behind the curtain to get a sense of the scientific research incorporated into the behavioral design. This is called operational transparency, and it can help foster trust between the user and the product. It also encourages process compliance — for users to hold up to their end of the bargain by putting in equal effort.2 

When the city of Boston developed a publicly accessible website that visually tracked every pothole and broken street lamp that was fixed or currently being serviced, users were more supportive and trusting of their government. They could visualize the government’s effort and intentions. 

Apps should emphasize their efforts to help the user achieve their goals to further build this trust.

Tip: On-board the user with a simple summary of what your gamification features aim to achieve. Or you can include a pop-up explaining that the app uses nudges, and explain how to opt out. Clearly communicate how the product was behaviorally designed in order to benefit the user and help them achieve their goals.

Does operational transparency decrease design effectiveness?

The user’s awareness of psychological design methods won’t reduce the effectiveness of the product. Just like an optical illusion still works when you know it’s an illusion, cognitive biases still exist even if you recognize their existence.

In fact, a placebo effect may even take place. Users may show signs of growth regardless of effectiveness rates.

Transparency enables product use to be an autonomous act of self-construction rather than a profit-motivated act of psychological trickery - like getting us to doomscroll for hours at a time. A product with transparent behavioral design empowers users to use their own psychology to achieve their goals.

Getting ahead of the shift: laying ground rules for the future of design

The future of product design will fundamentally require some understanding of behavioral psychology. As a dynamic duo, they hold the power to enact positive change through transparent implementations, and could become a non-negotiable tool for consumers, fundamentally integrated in the journey of self-improvement.

The Decision Lab is a behavioral consultancy using science to advance social good. Behavioral design is becoming an inevitable aspect of product design. Implementing it more intentionally holds the key to its long term success. We work with leading organizations to create human-centric, effective products that are fueled by behavioral science. If you’d like to work together, contact us.

References

  1. Boskamp, E. (2022, February 15). 25 Gamification Statistics [2022]: Facts + Trends You Need To Know. Zippia.com; Zippia. https://www.zippia.com/advice/gamification-statistics/
  2. Buell, R. W., Porter, E., & Norton, M. I. (2020). Surfacing the Submerged State: Operational Transparency Increases Trust in and Engagement with Government. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management. https://doi.org/10.1287/msom.2020.0877
  3. Chang, J. (2019, July 25). 54 Gamification Statistics You Must Know: 2021/2022 Market Share Analysis & Data; FinancesOnline.com. https://financesonline.com/gamification-statistics/
  4. Duolingo Announces Record Bookings in First Quarter 2022 and Raises Full Year Guidance | Duolingo, Inc. (2022). Duolingo, Inc. https://investors.duolingo.com/news-releases/news-release-details/duolingo-announces-record-bookings-first-quarter-2022-and-raises
  5. Duolingo Inc. annual revenue 2021 | Statista. (2021). Statista; Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1247833/annual-duolingo-revenue/#:~:text=In%202021%2C%20language%20learning%20and,percent%20from%20the%20previous%20year
  6. Goetz, D. (2020, July 11). The Psychology of TikTok - Dana Goetz, Ph.D. - Medium. Medium; Medium. https://medium.com/@dana.b.goetz/the-psychology-of-tiktok-87b9743677d1
  7. Hamari, J., & Parvinen, P. (2016). Introduction to Gamification: Motivations, Effects and Analytics Minitrack. 2016 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS). https://doi.org/10.1109/hicss.2016.165
  8. Herrick, S. S. C., Hallward, L., & Duncan, L. R. (2020). “This is just how I cope”: An inductive thematic analysis of eating disorder recovery content created and shared on TikTok using # EDrecovery. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 54(4), 516–526. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23463
  9. Kappen, D. L., Nacke, L. E., Gerling, K. M., & Tsotsos, L. E. (2016). Design Strategies for Gamified Physical Activity Applications for Older Adults. 2016 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS). https://doi.org/10.1109/hicss.2016.166
  10. Konrad, A. (2022, May 29). How Figma Became Design’s Hottest Startup, Valued At $10 Billion. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2021/08/10/how-figma-became-designs-hottest-startup-valued-at-10billion/?sh=16a7123c726e
  11. Kumar, Vd., & Prabha, Ms. (2019). Getting glued to TikTok® – Undermining the psychology behind widespread inclination toward dub-mashed videos. Archives of Mental Health, 20(2), 76. https://doi.org/10.4103/amh.amh_7_19
  12. Landers, R. N., & Callan, R. C. (2011). Casual Social Games as Serious Games: The Psychology of Gamification in Undergraduate Education and Employee Training. Serious Games and Edutainment Applications, 399–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4471-2161-9_20
  13. ‌Li, Y., Sun, Y., Meng, S., Bao, Y., Cheng, J., Chang, X., Ran, M., Sun, Y., Kosten, T., Strang, J., Lu, L., & Shi, J. (2021). Internet Addiction Increases in the General Population During COVID‐19: Evidence From China. The American Journal on Addictions, 30(4), 389–397. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajad.13156
  14. Lister, C., West, J. H., Cannon, B., Sax, T., & Brodegard, D. (2014). Just a Fad? Gamification in Health and Fitness Apps. JMIR Serious Games, 2(2), e9. https://doi.org/10.2196/games.3413
  15. Martin, K. (2022). Gamification, Manipulation, and Data Analytics. Ethics of Data and Analytics, 357–361. https://doi.org/10.1201/9781003278290-52
  16. Murphy, C. M. (2022). Using TikTok for public and youth mental health – A systematic review and content analysis - Darragh McCashin, Colette M Murphy, 2022. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1177/13591045221106608
  17. Paul, S. C., Bartmann, N., & Clark, J. L. (2021). Customizability in conversational agents and their impact on health engagement. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, 3(5), 1141–1152. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbe2.320
  18. Sailer, M., Hense, J. U., Mayr, S. K., & Mandl, H. (2017). How gamification motivates: An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 371–380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.033
  19. Thorpe, A. S., & Roper, S. (2017). The Ethics of Gamification in a Marketing Context. Journal of Business Ethics, 155(2), 597–609. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3501-y
  20. Wang, Y. (2020). Humor and camera view on mobile short-form video apps influence user experience and technology-adoption intent, an example of TikTok (DouYin). Computers in Human Behavior, 110, 106373. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2020.106373
  21. Woolley, K., & Sharif, M. (2022, January 31). The Psychology of Your Scrolling Addiction. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/01/the-psychology-of-your-scrolling-addiction

About the Authors

Janessa Pong's portrait

Janessa Pong

Janessa is a rising junior at the University of California, Los Angeles pursuing a BS in Cognitive Science with a Specialization in Computing, and minoring in Bioinformatics. She believes that psychology holds the power to ameliorate many of the world’s biggest problems, with climate change being one that she holds closest to her heart. It ultimately serves as a roadmap to why humans do what they do. Understanding this roadmap — our predispositions, biases, and instincts — are crucial to guiding people to make better choices for themselves, others, and our planet.

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sarah Chudleigh

Sarah Chudleigh

Sarah Chudleigh is passionate about the accessible distribution of academic research. She has had the opportunity to practice this as an organizer of TEDx conferences, editor-in-chief of her undergraduate academic journal, and lead editor at the LSE Social Policy Blog. Sarah gained a deep appreciation for interdisciplinary research during her liberal arts degree at Quest University Canada, where she specialized in political decision-making. Her current graduate research at the London School of Economics and Political Science examines the impact of national values on motivations to privately sponsor refugees, a continuation of her interest in political analysis, identity, and migration policy. On weekends, you can find Sarah gardening at her local urban farm.

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