How companies 'game' us into logging in and paying up : The Indicator from Planet Money "Gamification" as we know it has become increasingly common since the late 2000s. And proponents say adding game-like features to non-game activities — especially boring ones — can make us healthier, happier, and more productive. But Adrian Hon, who has made a career out of 'gamifying' mundane activities like jogging, says the trend has gone awry. Today on the show, Adrian argues that companies are using gamification to confuse, manipulate, or coerce people into doing things they wouldn't have done otherwise.

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Are you being tricked into working harder?

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

So the other day, I went for a run.

OK. Here (burping) we go.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

(Laughter).

MA: Yeah, as you could probably hear, I am not in the best shape, and I hate running.

It is - hurts my feet, hurts my chest. It's somehow painful, but also boring at the same time.

WONG: Painful and boring? Yeah, that's what I'm looking for in a hobby (laughter).

MA: Why do people put themselves through this, you know? But then, I came upon this app which promised to make running a little more fun or at least less miserable by turning it into a sort of game. It's basically an audio adventure you listen to while jogging, and your mission is to outrun the undead.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME, "ZOMBIES, RUN!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You've come down in a horde of zombies. They've heard the noise. They're coming. Run. Run.

WONG: Wow. So did it work?

MA: Well, running still sucks, but it is slightly less boring when you are trying not to, like, get your brain eaten.

WONG: (Laughter).

MA: This app is called Zombies, Run! And it was created by Adrian Hon.

WONG: Hey, another Adrian.

MA: You can never have enough Adrians. And he runs a company called Six to Start.

WONG: Zombies, Run! is often cited as a prime example of gamification, which basically means combining gamelike features with nongame activities.

MA: Nowadays, though, Adrian says he kind of cringes when he hears this, and that's because of what he says gamification has become.

ADRIAN HON: Gamification is being used to confuse or manipulate or coerce people into doing things they wouldn't have done otherwise.

MA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.

WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. Today on the show, we talk with Adrian Hon. He wrote a new book called "You've Been Played." After the break, we talk about how companies use gamification to keep users logging in, working hard and paying up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: Games grab our attention. They tickle our desire for novelty and achievement and reward. And Adrian Hon says that makes them powerful.

WONG: But games and gamification are two different things.

HON: So gamification, as a lot of people understand it, really started, you know, around the late 2000s, you know, when people started using apps like Foursquare. And you started seeing points and badges on apps and websites an awful lot.

WONG: I remember Foursquare. You would earn these digital badges by, like, checking into local places in your neighborhood. And then, if you checked in enough times, you would become the mayor. It was, like, a whole thing.

MA: The only achievement I would have gotten would be, like, the mayor of my couch.

WONG: (Laughter).

MA: Yeah. And since Foursquare, tons of other companies have taken this gamification approach. And with smartphones and the internet and wearable devices, these have all made it so just about any activity can be gamified. So, like, think about social media where people get likes for posting content or all kinds of apps that urge you to, you know, keep up your streak by using them every day.

WONG: Now, Adrian is careful to point out, gamification is not inherently a bad thing. He says a lot of educational games, for example, are fairly harmless.

HON: There's one, you know, application, which I think a lot of people have used or been familiar with, which is Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

WONG: Oh, my gosh. Mavis Beacon, she taught me how to type. I was obsessed...

MA: Yeah?

WONG: ...With this game when I was little. Yes.

MA: I don't think I've ever played it.

WONG: Yeah, there were all these typing games. Like, there's one where you are trying to advance, like, a horse across the screen by typing really fast. Oh, it was the best. It was the best.

MA: After this, typing race, you and me.

WONG: (Laughter).

MA: OK. But this idea that you could game your way to a better self is also used by companies selling products with some questionable benefits. Like, Adrian points to brain training apps, for example. These are apps like Lumosity and Elevate.

WONG: Right. These are apps made up of little games. And if you play them, the companies claim they can improve your memory or your mental processing speed.

HON: I think a lot of these applications are claiming things that they can't really back up. And people - because people like games, you know, they want to believe that it works.

MA: But do they work? One study on brain training games showed that playing them actually gave people less of a mental boost than just going for a walk or getting some sleep or talking to a friend. And Lumosity specifically has gotten in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for claiming their app could help stave off Alzheimer's or dementia. So if a company is saying you can game your way to better health, Adrian says you should be very skeptical.

WONG: There is another kind of gamification he's even more concerned about, though, and that is the gamification of work. You often see this on gig platforms.

HON: If you drive for Uber, then, often, you'll be offered quests that might involve picking up five passengers in a row or driving in this particular area or that sort of thing. And if you win the quest, you get a bonus on the money you're getting.

WONG: So what's wrong with a little extra incentive? Well, Adrian says he has two concerns.

HON: One is that these sort of gamified bonuses obfuscates your actual compensation, right? It's really hard to know how much money you're going to get paid at the end of the day if it's really all about whether you get offered this mission or that mission or whether you complete this mission or that mission. The other problem is often these games look like they're encouraging people to do things they maybe wouldn't have done otherwise.

MA: Now, we should acknowledge here that the goal of these incentives is to make the service better for customers, right? So companies like Uber and DoorDash and Lyft, they'll use these type of things to help the supply of drivers meet demand. But researchers have expressed ethical concerns about the addictive potential of gamification. And there's also been reports about gig workers who do feel addicted to work.

WONG: Gamification at work isn't only a thing in the gig economy, though.

HON: So imagine you are packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, right? You're not really allowed to just watch stuff on your phone or listen to podcasts. But there is a blank screen in front of you, and you can't tune that to the TV or, you know, play any old game.

WONG: What you can do is play one of several Amazon-approved games, which are based on how quickly you pack.

HON: They might be racing a virtual dragon against their colleague, you know, on the adjacent station. Or they might have, like, a virtual monster on the screen. And the more they pack boxes, they level up the monster, and they can collect more monsters like in Pokemon.

WONG: It's like Pokemon Go-pack-some-more-boxes.

MA: (Laughter).

WONG: Am I right?

MA: Oh. And I know people are listening to this, and some of you are thinking, like, this sounds kind of dystopian, like something out of "Black Mirror." But, you know, I think there is another way to think about this. And I put that to Adrian.

You know, packing boxes sounds pretty boring. And if this game can make a boring task a little less boring, what's the harm?

HON: Amazon, I'm sure, is sort of patting itself on its back for saying, hey, we're making these jobs really fun. But it's like, yeah, you're making them fun by encouraging people to work harder and longer, you know? So it's kind of, like, good for you, too.

WONG: Adrian says Amazon could choose to give these workers more breaks or let them listen to music and podcasts. But for the company, that might mean workers are slightly less productive.

HON: I think most companies and most schools and most workplaces, you know - I don't think they're trying to be evil, right? You know? I think they're trying to make money. And they would like to think that these games are making people's lives more fun. The problem is they're being incredibly lazy about it. We're just going to put some, like, surface-level gamification on it. These are powerful mechanisms, I think, and we need to be careful what we with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: Do you think we would be more productive if we earned monsters...

WONG: (Laughter).

MA: ...For every episode we did?

WONG: Or if we were just chased by zombies?

MA: (Laughter) I think I would probably work faster.

WONG: You're like, don't eat my brains. I need them to make more episodes of THE INDICATOR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MA: OK. Oh, by the way, Amazon is one of NPR's financial supporters. This episode was produced by senior producer Viet Le with...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME, "ZOMBIES, RUN!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Warning. Zombies, 50 meters.

MA: Oh. Oh. Oh, jeez.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOMBIES GROANING)

MA: Oh, jeez.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME, "ZOMBIES, RUN!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Warning.

MA: Oh, jeez.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME, "ZOMBIES, RUN!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Zombies, 20 meters.

MA: It was engineered by Maggie Luthar. Noah Glick checked the facts. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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