Nine months ago, Earth was invaded by virtual cartoon monsters. I know this because throughout last summer and well into the fall, I watched small cadres of (mostly) young people wander around for hours on end, smartphones in hand, eagerly tracking them down.

I’m talking, of course, about Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, a smartphone-based video game that, just days after its release, had more active users than Twitter. The app became a global phenomenon simply because (I'm told) it was fun. Players’ only compensation for their time was the joy of the game itself; Nintendo, on the other hand, gained $9 billion in market value—in five days. The game’s creators had mastered a simple truth: fun can be massively profitable.

Though the hysteria surrounding Pokémon Go has largely faded, the mechanisms that drove millions to wander the streets staring at their phones have not. This is our topic this week: the migration of game design into multiple domains of life. What if, we ask, the very same forces that compelled millions to play Pokémon Go are being marshalled to entice us to do all kinds of other things?


Gamification is the application of principles of game design to non-game contexts. In Vol. 88, we wrote about how technologies become addictive by harnessing the power of habit: by dispensing sensory “rewards,” addictive technologies entice us to perform small repeated actions that, over time, become our default response to a psychological trigger like boredom or loneliness. Gamified technologies do just this: by harnessing the power of fun, they appease our deep psychological cravings for feelings like adventure, mastery, and accomplishment, while always leaving just enough unfinished business to keep us coming back for more.

In a recent and fascinating piece for The Guardian, Adam Alter reveals the mechanics behind some of the world’s most addicting gaming technologies (article also available as a podcast). One of the most interesting tricks of the trade is the outsized importance of positive sensory feedback—what some game designers call “juice.” “Adults never really grow out of the thrill of attractive lights and sounds,” Alter writes. “If our brains convince us that we’re winning even when we’re actually losing, it becomes almost impossible to muster the self-control to stop playing.”

Alter traces this tactic back to its roots—slot machines. Since the house takes more money the longer gamblers play, slot machines are explicitly designed to increase “time on device.” Today’s game designers know that it’s this positive sensory feedback—not the money—that keeps gamblers hooked; and consequently, simple online games with no real money at stake have made millions for their creators in advertising revenue.


The habit-forming power of games has not been lost on corporate strategists. Last week’s New York Times ran a front-page story by Noam Scheiber on how Uber uses gamification to keep drivers on the job. Since Uber’s drivers are not technically employees, they can’t be compelled to work long or inconvenient hours; but, as the company has discovered, they can be nudged. Simple prompts, encouragements, and badges—all packaged in graphics brimming with “juice”—have become a core part of Uber’s driver retention strategy. The upshot of Scheiber’s piece is a striking prediction about the future of work: “pulling psychological levers may eventually become the reigning approach to managing the American worker.”

As Scheiber notes, psychological lever-pulling isn’t altogether new to the American workplace. Consider his example of retirement savings plans: “Because humans tend to be governed by inertia, automatically enrolling them in retirement savings plans and then allowing them to opt out results in far higher participation than letting them opt in.” But, as Scheiber explains, platform-based employers have far more levers to pull:

Uber can go much further. Because it mediates its drivers’ entire work experience through an app, there are few limits to the elements it can gamify. Uber collects staggering amounts of data that allow it to discard game features that do not work and refine those that do. And because its workers are contractors, the gamification strategies are not hemmed in by employment law.

Uber is just one example of many. Since gamification became a management buzzword around 2010, its principles have permeated America’s tech-savvy companies, many of whom have also gamified user experience: think of the way TurboTax gamifies tax returns with pleasant progress bars and cheerful encouragements, or how Fitbit gamifies exercise by tracking progress toward arbitrary step-count goals. Apple captures the spirit of gamification nicely in a recent 15-second ad encouraging Apple Watch wearers to become masters of daily fitness with a simple slogan: “Close your rings.”


Gamification in business represents the confluence of two cultural trends that we’ve been tracking here at Culture Briefing: the spread of addictive technologies and the growth of platform-based employment. Both trends are fueled by business models that incentivize attempts to capture and direct customers’ time and attention. As with many of the trends we follow, gamification is neither wholly helpful nor wholly harmful. It can be highly effective at motivating us to do things we want to do, like exercise or finish our taxes. But it can be just as effective at enticing us to do things we don’t want to do, or at least not for as long as we find ourselves doing them. It’s important to recognize just how many of the technologies we use every day are designed specifically to capture our attention for as long as possible. If we have other objectives for our attention, it’s going to take a conscious effort to limit our exposure to habit-inducing triggers.


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