How Gamification Has Crept Into School, Work, And Fitness

16:43 minutes

a headshot of a man with glasses and a goatee wearing a blue and white striped long sleeve shirt with a pink background
Adrian Hon, courtesy of Adrian Hon

Gamers often spend hours embarking on quests, unlocking new levels, and collecting badges. But what about when aspects of games start popping up in other parts of life—like work, school, and exercise?

Adrian Hon created the fitness app “Zombies, Run!” and has thought a lot about how the principles of gaming have crept into so many different corners of our lives, and why it may not always be as innocent as it seems. 

Ira and co-host Kathleen Davis talk with Adrian Hon, author of You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. Hon is also the CEO and founder of the game developer, Six to Start, based in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Read an excerpt of You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, And Schools Use Games To Control Us All.

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Adrian Hon

Adrian Hon is the author of You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, and the CEO and Founder of Six to Start, based in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis.

Ira, I have to ask you– do you have a favorite game?

IRA FLATOW: If I think about it, my favorite computer game would be Zelda. Why are you asking this?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, I’m asking because most of us, at this point, have a game or two downloaded on our smartphones. I personally am partial to Candy Crush, which is a classic.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Some of us may even have spent hours lost in game worlds. I personally really like Zelda as well. I also like Stardew Valley, where you are a little farmer in a town. And I’ll spend hours going on quests, unlocking new levels, collecting badges. But what about when aspects of games start popping up in other parts of our lives, like work, school, or exercise?

IRA FLATOW: I get this. I have this happening to me. I try to make a game out of driving my electric car, seeing how I can max out the driving mileage before having to charge it.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, our next guest has thought a lot about how the principles of gaming have crept into so many different corners of our lives. Adrian Hon is the author of You’ve Been Played– How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. He’s also the CEO and founder of the game developer Six to Start. He’s based in Edinburgh, in the United Kingdom.

Adrian, welcome to Science Friday.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, welcome.

ADRIAN HON: Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let me begin by asking you– throughout the book, you’ve used gamification to describe how game elements have worked their way into other places, like what we’re talking about, at work or at the gym or in your car. What is the history of the word? Tell me about that.

ADRIAN HON: The idea behind gamification has been around for a long time, using principles from games– or board games or video games– for decades, if not centuries. But the word “gamification” really only started being used about 15 years ago in its modern term, to describe the way in which apps and websites, like Foursquare or LinkedIn, or social media, use game design elements for non-game purposes.

IRA FLATOW: But you make a distinction in your book. You talk about the difference between generic and coercive gamification. What is coercive gamification?

ADRIAN HON: So coercive gamification is where you have no choice but to play the game that is being put in front of you. So a lot of gamification, like the ones you have in health and fitness, in an app like Strava, or an app like Duolingo, you are choosing to use the app, and you can choose not to use the app. But if you work– if you drive for Uber, if you work at a lot of companies, then you have no choice but to undergo the gamification of the workplace that these employers have put in. And that’s what I call coercive.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to ask a little bit about your background. Because you are a game designer. You created this incredibly popular smartphone fitness game, which is called “Zombies, Run!” And it turns running into a game. And you are running to escape pursuit of zombies. So it makes me wonder what made you, as a game designer, decide to look more critically at this role of gamification in society?

ADRIAN HON: Yeah. It’s funny, because I never really wanted to write this book. I hoped that the generic gamification and coercive gamification would eventually just go out of fashion after people realized it didn’t work that well. And it seemed like that might happen in the early 2010s. But then, in the last few years, after I started seeing it cropping up in so many places, especially in the workplace and in schools and governments, I started thinking, wow, this is not going away.

I think people are aware of it where they encounter it in their own lives, but maybe they aren’t aware of how pervasive it has become in other parts of the world. And that’s not just in the US or the UK or Canada. I mean, in India, Indonesia, China, gamification is huge.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I think one of the most obvious examples of gamification in our lives is with fitness apps. I personally, every time I go for a run or go for a bike ride, I use Strava, which tracks your mileage, and it gives me a congratulations if I beat an old personal record or if I’ve gone farther than I have before. I mean, why do you think fitness was so ripe to be gamified?

ADRIAN HON: Well, fitness is a really good example because it’s something that people are highly motivated to want to do themselves. I think everyone understands that it’s better to do more walking than no walking. But it’s also one of these activities which is just often extremely boring and quite hard to motivate yourself to do.

And so while people really want to become a runner or they want to become a walker, getting up on that rainy Sunday morning and putting on your shoes, I mean, it’s really hard. And so anything that can give you those training wheels to get going is a big help. And so I think that’s why gamification has become a big part of fitness.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of the negatives. Because you know, every time you have some positives, there are negatives to balance it out. It seems like it couldn’t really hurt to encourage people to walk a few more steps. Isn’t that what the gamification– 10,000 steps– was all about?

ADRIAN HON: Yeah. So the issue is where it’s not able to make distinctions for individuals. So for example, my Apple Watch, just a couple of days ago said, hey, do you want to go and complete this October challenge, where you can win a shiny badge if you do more exercise than you did last month? And I did a lot of exercise last month.

So it probably wouldn’t be healthy for me to do more this month, you know. And you see this a lot in health and fitness apps, the concept of streaks, where you get an award or recognition if you work out for 10 days in a row, 50 days in a row, or 100 days in a row. And of course, if you know about exercise and fitness, you know that that’s not a good idea really. I mean, you should be taking rest days. But people can get really compelled into earning those badges and hurting themselves in the process.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. My Apple Watch tells me in the middle of the night– time to stand up, right? Do you get those?

ADRIAN HON: Yes, I get that as well.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So I’m wondering if there’s actually scientific evidence to back up that playing games, gamifying activities, makes us more likely to do things that maybe are a little boring or that we just flat out don’t want to do.

ADRIAN HON: It’s really quite mixed because there are so many different kinds of gamification. When we look at the studies, and sort of meta studies, that have been done on gamification, it does seem like there can be a positive effect on people’s behavior at least in the short term. And that’s because people are just excited about the change. But I think that an issue that we see, especially with generic gamification, is that eventually people just get bored and they might even get a little bit less motivated.

If you imagine giving people 10 points for picking up a box and putting it into a tray at Amazon, and you just give them a sticker every time they get 1,000 points, that might seem interesting for the first week or the first month. But after a few months, you might realize– nothing’s actually changed about my job. And so that thin layering of gamification is not really going to change anything.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me a bit more about how games are used in the workplace. You brought up Amazon. How are companies like Amazon using gamification to squeeze even more productivity from their workers?

ADRIAN HON: Amazon is a really interesting case. They don’t make people play these games, but they basically put these screens– as far as we know, because Amazon don’t let reporters inside their warehouses, really– but they put these screens by people’s stations. And if you turn them on, then they’ll show a game.

And the game, basically, it tracks how much work you’re doing, whether that’s picking boxes or packing boxes or that sort of thing. And it might let you collect monsters or it might let you fly your dragon faster. There’s many different games that you can do. And often you’re competing against other people in the warehouse or in other warehouses.

And so you might get bonuses if you return from break earlier. And of course, you do better in the game the faster you work or the harder you work. So it’s directly related to your performance.

Of course, you could say, well, isn’t that a good thing? Why not make the game more interesting? And I think that’s an interesting question, because there probably are some people who are motivated by these games. At the same time, in interviews with Amazon workers, some people say it just makes the tedium even worse, because you just realize how pointless the work is.

There was a TikTok video that went around a month or two ago, and it basically showed someone saying, I feel really guilty about leaving my Amazon warehouse job because of all the monsters I collected. And you see their collection of monsters that they earned by working.

And obviously, the funny thing with that is that they go and say in the comments, I realize that this is just– they’re just manipulating me. You have to work harder, and you get attached to these monsters, and yet I still did it. So people can be aware of the effects of these games and still be manipulated.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So we talked a little bit about how, in exercise apps, the gamification aspect can really push people past their physical abilities or push them past what they should be doing. Does, say, what Amazon is doing have physical repercussions?

ADRIAN HON: I mean, it’s hard to know because only really Amazon has that data. We do know about rates of injuries at Amazon warehouses, and I believe they’re quite high compared to the industry. But there are other examples where people have talked more openly about this. So for example, at Uber, they have a whole gamified system of compensation, where, basically, I think each week or every two weeks, drivers can choose a Quest to sign up to. And if they complete the Quest, which might be driving 50 trips or 60 trips, then they earn a bonus.

And it’s funny. When I mentioned that I was writing this book to an Uber driver, they actually told me all about this. And I said, well, don’t you like getting the bonus? He was like, oh, you know, I just feel like I have no control over how this really works. Because they’re giving you this mission, but it’s not really entirely within the driver’s control to fulfill that mission.

And what’s interesting, of course, is they also call it a Quest. And so they’re using the language of video games to essentially obfuscate compensation. And I think that has, obviously, a big problem for people just trying to understand how much they’re being paid.

But also I think people associate ideas of video games with fun and with choice. And so when you see those words at work, it’s hard not to think, oh, yeah, I should go and complete this Quest, because quests are good things and I enjoy them when I play quests in a video game.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking to Adrian Hon, author of You’ve Been Played– How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All.

I was surprised to learn as I was reading your book how gamification has been integrated into schools. I mean, you talk about an app that’s used to monitor classroom behavior. Can you tell us more about that?

ADRIAN HON: Yeah. This is one of the most surprising things I learned researching the book. There’s an app, called ClassDojo, which is used in apparently 95% of US schools, and schools throughout the world.


ADRIAN HON: And it really does two things. The first thing is pretty unobjectionable. It’s basically a private social network for teachers, parents, and students to share homework and that sort of thing. But the second part of it is a behavior management app.

And the way it works is that teachers will go and set up their class and they’ll set up a grid of their students, and then they can go and reward or deduct points to students based on their behavior. So you can set up any list of rewards or punishments. So maybe it might be that if a student has been working hard and been quiet, then you give them 20 points. If they have been disruptive, minus 10 points. If they go to the toilet too much, minus 50 points– which has actually happened.

It’s not as if we haven’t had gold stars or marbles or whatever in schools before. That’s not a new thing. But when you digitize these things, when you add them to apps, and when you give them an unlimited memory, it changes the way in which people respond to rewards and punishments. And if you look at interviews with the students and the parents– you know, actually some parents like this. They think that it helps control the kids more. And there’s one kid who said, oh, I really like it because it’s like when you give a dog a treat for good behavior.

And so I think what it comes down to is, is this how we want to motivate children, through points? I understand why teachers use it– because they just have a classroom of a lot of kids and they’ll use any tool they can get. At the same time, you do see students saying, I just feel incredibly anxious because I’m just trying to go and keep my points.

There was one blog post on the ClassDojo website– which they deleted– but it said, teachers should consider adding a fake student in the app that they can deduct points from.


ADRIAN HON: Because when you deduct points, it makes this sort of negative sad noise. And when students hear the sad noise, they all get quiet because they don’t get punished. So that’s what’s happening.

IRA FLATOW: So, finally, after listening to all of this, I’m wondering, who is winning when we gamify so many aspects of our lives? I mean, who’s benefiting when we share this personal data? Is it the company?

ADRIAN HON: It depends on the gamification. I think that, generally speaking, it’s the company that’s doing the gamifying.

IRA FLATOW: And what are they gaining?

ADRIAN HON: Well, usually they’re gaining a way to control their workers and to save costs. And that sounds incredibly dystopian. One of the things that is a problem in a lot of gig economy jobs is it’s very difficult to talk to a manager, or talk to human, full stop, at the company. And instead, the interface that you have with the company is essentially through the app or through the game.

And so by presenting feedback and objectives as a game, the company is able to basically deflect criticism and save money by having fewer managers. And it’s also able to save money, potentially, by obfuscating compensation.

So it’s not always the case that this is how it happens, but it does seem to be the case in a lot of companies.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Adrian, we have run out of time. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. It’s a wonderful book.

ADRIAN HON: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve Been Played– How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. Adrian Hon, CEO and founder of the game developer Six to Start.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: If you want to read an excerpt from the book, go to sciencefriday.com/gamification.

Copyright © 2022 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/.


Meet the Producers and Host

About Shoshannah Buxbaum

Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More

How You’re Getting Played By Gamification

A video game designer takes a hard look at how gamification has spread from video games to many aspects of our daily lives.

Read More