How the “gamification” of Everything Is Manipulating You (and How to Recognize It)

“Gamification” is the practice of adding game elements to a non-game context. This is not new and not always negative , but more and more often it is aimed at consumers and employees, whether it is so that you have an addiction to the application, motivation at work, or an inclination to spend money on something.

If you are forced to play different games (even if they don’t look like games) – which they are right now – you should at least understand how you are played and try to learn the rules. Because knowing the rules is the first step to changing them to your advantage.

When does gamification become manipulation?

There is nothing wrong with gamifying our lives. We do this all the time, like when we promise ourselves a reward for cleaning out the garage or working hard to climb a little higher on the Strava leaderboards. But marketers, vendors, and employers can get us into games we don’t even know we’re playing: games where the rules aren’t clear, the playing field is uneven, and we often can’t get out of the game.

Nir Eyal is an investor and writer who has dedicated his career to video games and advertising. In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, he lays out the simple reason companies use gamification tactics: They want you to get hooked on their products. It’s not “addiction” in the clinical sense, but close. This is conscious manipulation to get you to associate the rush of endorphins with the use of the product.

There’s nothing wrong with making consuming a product or doing a job “fun,” but when marketers and employers hack into our pleasure centers in ways we don’t fully understand, it’s manipulation, not play. Below are some gamification tricks so you can spot them before it happens to you.

Variable rewards and suspense

Behavioral studies of rats and humans prove that both species are more motivated by intermittent, unpredictable rewards than expected ones. Rats will pull the lever more often if they occasionally get a food pill than if they always get a food pellet, and players will never play a slot machine that returns 89 cents every time they put in a dollar, even if it happens. in future. time.

We love anticipation and the unknown. We also like the pause between our action and the possible reward or lack of reward. This underlies both the spinning of the slot machine wheels and Twitter load times.

I used to think that Twitter was just loading a little slow because it takes so long, but it turned out to be a feature and not a bug. Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking sites are reported to artificially lengthen the time between when you click on an app and when the content appears in it to increase anticipation and keep you coming back for more.

How to fight manipulation with variable rewards

The desire for periodic rewards is so ingrained in your lizard brain that I’m not sure you’ll be able to overcome your reaction to it, but you may be asking yourself if rewards really matter to you. If companies are going to pause their endorphin delivery service, why not use that time to ask yourself, “Do I really care?”

Manipulating our desire for progress

Whether it’s nature or nurture, we want to achieve something. We like to strive for achievable, understandable goals. In a video game, you might have a progress bar showing how much XP you need to reach level 12. The consumer rewards program works the same way. If we get a card from Starbucks that gives us free coffee if we buy 12 other drinks, we are more likely to buy coffee there than at the establishment across the street. We are also more likely to fly with an airline if we earn frequent flyer miles. even if the ticket is more expensive.

Employers often use this same tactic to motivate employees. The path to a promotion or promotion can be laid out in easy-to-understand steps that keeps employees on track, aiming for something more than a paycheck. Most people prefer this over a more opaque promotion system – as long as the rules are clear and followed by both parties.

How to deal with the progress bar effect

If you’re collecting card checks or frequent flyer miles, ask yourself why you care. Decide if getting the free 12th sandwich is worth the effort and if the stamp collecting game on your loyalty card is fun enough for you to keep playing.

At work, it’s a little more difficult. If you are asked to meet certain criteria for career advancement, remember that if you do not have any kind of contract, your employer is not necessarily required to honor their end of the bargain. So do some research on the company. Check their reputation on Ask colleagues how they are doing. If your company is notorious for making promises it doesn’t deliver, don’t rely on your chances of promotion. Spend your free time looking for another job instead of exhausting yourself with a reward that you might not get.

Engagement and “stripes”

A cup of coffee or a new position are tangible rewards, but often intangible or almost worthless rewards are used to gamify employment or consumption, sometimes in series. The strip offers nothing but the strip itself. The longer the streak lasts, the more motivated you will be to keep it going, mainly because breaking it will cause you a bit of frustration. This is a variation of the sunk cost fallacy , where we keep paying for something that isn’t worth the money because we’ve already invested so much money in it.

Snapchat is notorious for this. If you constantly share pictures with someone, a number appears next to their name in the app. Each day you chat adds a point, encouraging both parties to interact with your app until the magical day when “100 emoji” appears. Congratulations! I hope it was worth it.

How to deal with manipulation with streaks

Unless you have a personal reason to keep the streak going, like filling up the rings on your Apple Watch every day because you want to work out more, just don’t start. Don’t add one more obligation to your already overloaded life. Saying “I don’t care about this manipulative bullshit” when deleting an app is surprisingly inspiring.


Competing with others is the basis of most games. This can be great, although often it is an external incentive: we want to defeat other people or teams for the sake of our own victory, and not because it is beneficial to us. Many/most jobs are competitive in terms of employees vying for recognition or promotion, but companies often systematize the competition with sales contests, leaderboards, and more.

When it comes to manipulating consumers, companies use leaderboards and rankings to pit us against each other and encourage interaction, just like video games do. While a healthy competitive spirit at work can lead to productivity and innovation, it can also lead to failure, as when Wells Fargo employees created millions of fraudulent bank accounts due to pressure from management, ultimately costing the company billions, forever tarnishing her reputation and leading to the overthrow of her CEO.

How to deal with manipulation through competition

When I had just graduated from college, I had a job that I hated, in a competitive workplace. I never got into any toxic office politics; I didn’t feel the need to “pick sides” because I treated everyone with equal disdain. I just kept my head down and maintained a noncommittal attitude while I planned my escape. Surprisingly, this earned me a reputation as a reliable and even-tempered guy who got along with everyone, and I was offered a promotion compared to my slandering colleagues, although I did not seek it and did not want to. I will never forget this lesson and pass it on to you: sometimes non-competition is the best strategy .


As much as we enjoy competing with others, we also crave a sense of community, an aspiration that corporations seek to exploit. As with other gamification tactics, it’s not that companies just find that people like to feel like they’re part of a group of like-minded people, but the artificiality of trying to create a “community”.

Applications or services can offer multi-level group membership to users who perform certain tasks. Or manipulate the information you see to feel closer to the ideological “team” you belong to, reinforcing social media’s echo chambers rather than challenging beliefs.

Companies can emphasize their corporate culture to keep the players — I mean “employees” motivated. That’s where your manager says, “We’re all in this together,” and that’s why you sometimes have to participate in team building exercises.

How to deal with manipulation through the community

If you think your co-workers are tough guys and you are all working together towards a laudable goal, by all means, become part of the community. However, if you realize how fake it is, it’s best to play along. After all, no one knows what you’re thinking at the obligatory team building pizza party and you need a paycheck. Plus, you get free pizza.

Keep in mind what the real commands are. I am a devout capitalist, but at least the Marxists are right about the division between the property class and the working class. You can love and respect the people who own your specific means of production, but don’t forget that you and your manager have completely different, often diametrically opposed, motives, which is probably why they constantly tell you that you are together and why they are so hate unions .

Money: game by game

Companies can use all sorts of gamification tactics to keep employees motivated and keep consumers coming back, but they rarely, if ever, acknowledge the true points system: money. They are playing a game where the goal is to score as many cash points from you as possible, and if they can get a few more hundred through manipulation, they will.

Gamification is basically trading the little endorphin rush you get from a “like” on Facebook for your time paying attention to ads and exposing your personal information. There is nothing wrong with this as such, but you should at least know the game if you are going to play the game.


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