August 20, 2021

The Evolution of Gamification with Psychology Expert & Author, Jamie Madigan

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #53

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Jamie Madigan, author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them and The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Should Look More Like a Video Game. Jamie holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has talked at conferences about how game developers can incorporate psychology principles into game design and how players can understand how it affects their play.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Jamie and Sam discussed the evolution of gamification, the psychology behind video games, and how businesses can incorporate games and win at work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Jamie shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “There’s never been more time, there’s never more games, there’s never been a better time to play games.”
  • “ I don’t think it’s like we’ve adopted a new paradigm and this is what games are now. What games are now is varied, and what gamers are is varied.” 
  • “Managers have an outsized effect on establishing organizational culture.”


Sam: So in kicking it off, how’d you get started in this work? An expert in the psychology of video games is something I don’t think a lot of people realized was an achievement that could be acquired.

Jamie: I didn’t either until I did it. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now and the origin story is that, around that time, I think it was like 2009, late 2009, I was doing what I do; reading a bunch of books about psychology and particularly like psychology around decision-making, which these days is called behavioral economics and kept thinking like, wow, there’s a lot of ways that this explains why games are so often designed how they are, like why are these tropes in game design? And then why do communities of gamers behave as we do when we get together online and interact with each other while playing games? That sort of thing. And I thought somebody should start a blog or write about this. And then I decided I was somebody, so I could do that.

And I did, and it just kind of started off with a few articles and then sort of quickly found an audience that was a mix of both academics who were interested in studying this kind of stuff and who were actually already studying this stuff, the psychology of games and media studies and all that, but then also people who were making and playing games as well. They had noticed maybe some of the same things that I was talking about but didn’t know as much about the psychology angle. And didn’t know that this is the term for that or this is the model that can be used to explain why feedback and games is done the way it is or why people tend to behave this way towards teammates in a different way towards opponents and all that sort of stuff.

I have a background in psychology, a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology, which is psychology applied to the workplace, using psychology to make work suck less, is my favorite short definition. So that involved a lot of social psychology and psychology around decision-making and team behavior, group behavior, all that kind of stuff.

It just kinda took off and I got the first book out, Getting Gamers. And then shortly after I turned that manuscript in, I started doing the podcast and have been doing it for, like I said, well over 10 years at this point.

Sam: With the podcasts, what are some trends that you’ve seen that have evolved over time? Because if I go back 10 years, the topic of gamification is not new, but it’s still surprising. Folks hear the word for the first time and latch onto it like it was invented yesterday. So I’m interested to hear if you’ve seen any trends over the years that are relevant to the workforce or workplace. What is the biggest that you’ve seen? 

Jamie: Yeah, I think that things like gamification have definitely become more mainstream. Like you said, the stuff’s been around for decades, but more academic research around it, both in the context of education and the workplace and political engagement and activism and all that, all those different contexts where it has definitely grown a lot as technology has made it easier to do.

And there’s a lot of people studying it and finding out when it works and why it works and so forth. And my thesis and something that I talk a lot about in my second book, The Engagement Game is that for a lot of this stuff, we already have the models and the theories and the research in place to describe why gamification works, like why, when you put people’s names up on a leaderboard, why does that work? And it has to do, at least in part, with goal-setting and social comparisons and there’s decades of research around that sort of stuff. 

So it’s been this really interesting repackaging of existing psychology findings and theory and all of that to a new application and sort of a new spin on it. Some people are studying gamification and related topics from that angle. And some of them are trying to recreate everything from whole cloth. And I think probably the best approach is somewhere in the middle between those two.

Sam: In Getting Gamers, I think one of the biggest takeaways I had was the clarity with which you dove into the differences between a good game and a bad game. It emerges as you start to think about the mechanics and how you define them. 

Jamie: The phrase I would probably use as a well-designed game versus a less well-designed game, but yeah, totally.

Sam: How are we doing in the market as far as designing well-designed games versus less well-designed games? Everything is gamified today, it’s almost like a sprinkling effect that has occurred in the market where everybody just throws gamification on stuff and checks the box. What do you say to that? 

Jamie: If you’re talking about commercial games, they’re mostly for entertainment and socialization. All over the place because so many games are being created, right? So there’s never been more times, there’s never more games, there’s never been a better time to play games. There are games on your mobile devices. There are games on your computer, dedicated consoles, your streaming boxes come installed with games, there are webpages you can play games on. And even ancillary to that things tabletop board games and tabletop role-playing games are having a resurgence, sort of feeding back into all that.

So it’s a great time where lots of great games are being made and lots of not-so-great games are being made and lots of games that kind of have one trick are being made and some much more complex. So I don’t think it’s like we’ve adopted a new paradigm and this is what games are now. What games are now is varied, and what gamers are is varied. Like there are many different types of people that play these things

Sam: That opens up a question. Do you think that the application of game mechanics inside of any organization, it could be a school, it could be a sport, could be a community, a workplace. Do you think it can truly impact every worker? Or is there this, ‘Hey, I don’t play games, I’m not a gamer’ that comes up in your research that’s true?

Jamie: I think it’s got the potential at least to impact anyone. I think the stuff that I write about is not so much slapping a gamification system on or turning a job into a game, but it’s like, taking what we know about the psychology of good game design, and then applying that to designing work and workplaces and reward systems and selection systems and all of those other types of workplace systems that you encounter.

So making things a competition is good, but crafting the way that you give feedback about where people stand relative to others, there’s lots of research out there that shows better or worse ways to do that. Giving people good feedback, which is one of the things I always talk about. Video games are better than any other activity at giving people feedback about how well they’re doing. You know if you won the match, you know if you got the headshot, you know if you beat the boss, whether you died or not or traverse the level, like everything in the game is engineered to give you that very specific, very timely, very accurate, very motivating feedback.

And to the extent that we can borrow on those ideas and give people more accurate feedback as part of a, say, performance management system at work, then that’s going to be more motivating and they’re going to be more engaged with their work. So I’m not sure if I answered your question or not just kind of went off on a tangent.

Sam: You also mentioned coaching, which I think is interesting. Just to tie this evening to something that’s really relevant, 20 plus million Americans out of work, there’s going to be a large amount of workers that are going to be coming back into the workforce over the next year as vaccines become more readily available. I don’t think we’ll have ever seen the strain on management and leadership that we’re about to see on infrastructure for how you get a worker who maybe has been on the sidelines back and up to scale and up to speed and connected to your brand quickly.

What do you think the opportunities are from your seat again, even given your latest book on engagement, what are some recommendations you have to maybe a manager or a new leader out there that’s thinking about how to create a more engaged workforce knowing this type of surge that’s about to take place?

Jamie: It’s gonna be challenging. It’s going to be challenging to sort of scale that level of coaching and training and performance management down to lower parts of the organization and not just give people in the C-suites or director levels access to it. I think that technology holds a lot of promise there to the extent that you can use technology to manage feedback, for example, or set goals, or train people and coach people. My day job, I’m a product manager for a company called Leader Amp that does exactly that. We have apps and technology to help coaches and help people develop their leadership skills. And one of the things that I want to do there is apply a lot of the stuff that I’ve learned from the psychology of games of crafting feedback, using technology to track data and information opens up a lot of opportunities for doing that kind of thing. Going about it carefully and deliberately is a big part of it as well. 

Sam: How do our leaders look today? I’m sure you’re looking at all types of interests and trends. 

Jamie: I mean, they’re all over the place. I think that a lot of companies are doing away with, or at least thinking about doing away with, traditional systems like performance reviews and replacing them with something more comprehensive around performance management, where it’s like, instead of getting a six month or a 12-month review, you’re getting constant feedback through an app or through some sort of gamified system that is tracking your activities and performance.

And that’s not a replacement for a manager sitting down and giving you feedback, but it creates a new kind of structure for it and provides inputs in the form of data to it that haven’t been really common before. So I think a lot of companies are looking at doing that, taking that sort of approach, as opposed to some of the more traditional time-bound approaches and the fact that people are working as distributed much more now than they ever have been and honestly probably will, even if we move past COVID and people start to go back to work in the workplace. 

One thing this experience has shown us is that a lot of jobs can be done remotely and maybe they won’t be done a hundred percent, but maybe 50%. And that  brings up all of its own sorts of challenges, and some of those challenges I think can be met through the use of gamified systems.

Sam: What do you say to people that maybe push back at the topic of gamification by saying it trivializes the process or trivializes an element inside of their workplace by adding points or leaderboards or some of the mechanics you speak to?

Jamie: I think sometimes they may be right. It sort of depends on how the gamification has been implemented. If that’s all people have done is just gone in and said, you get five points for logging in and clearing your inbox in the morning and you get 10 points for making a cold call or whatever, then that may very well be true.

A lot of the stuff that I write about is being more thoughtful and deliberate about the psychology behind that kind of stuff. Like how do you implement a leaderboard that gets people to set goals for improving their performance and set goals to surpass so-and-so and like, how do you direct their attention so that they’ll compare their performance with people who are similar to them or who that they are familiar with, which they should find more motivating. There are better and worse ways to do it. 

I don’t have a whole lot of direct experience like implementing gamification systems in that way, but based on the research that I’ve read, and again, kind of going back to the idea of like there’s theories in psychology that describe how the stuff works better or worse, that seems to be the case that you can go about it a little bit more, little bit more thoughtfully, a little bit more evidence-based way than just sort of doing the quick patch of leaderboards trophies and that kind of stuff onto things and expecting it to work just the way it does. 

Sam: The concept that you had raised in the book that I never heard of was grinding, and it just stood out to me. It sounded to me that it connected so directly to what sometimes work is not in it’s the same in a grind, but it’s a positive spin on the concept of doing something over and over and over again. 

Jamie: Yeah. I think grinding opens up a great example and one of the better-received articles that I wrote was about basically, why do people like to play jobs? Cause you have like these video games out there that are like a farming simulator or auto mechanics simulator, like these simulation types of jobs where you maybe run a business or run a farm or drive a Euro truck simulator, where you literally just drive a truck at normal driving speeds across highways across the continent. And like what’s the appeal of these kinds of games? What’s the appeal in a larger sense of games? 

One of the answers to that question, I think, is just that these games, even though they replicate work activities and they ask you to grind and do the same things over and over again, or slowly, they still give you control and they give you very clear feedback and they make you feel important to other people, even if they’re only fictional people within the game. They scratch these psychological itches that we have for a need of mastery or getting better at something, a need to feel important to other people, and a need to make meaningful choices in the way that we do the work or play the game.

These are very basic psychological needs. Self-determination theory talks about those three needs a lot. And games, maybe even especially games that are designed to be like jobs, are very good at scratching those itches and letting players scratch the itches themselves and it’s in a world where they don’t get that same level of satisfaction or need satisfaction from their job or their school or their home life.

You can go months without getting a performance review, if you ever get one. Your work that you do may not be important to other people that you know of or that you know about. And you may have to follow very strict directions and you don’t have any choice about how you go about doing your job for a variety of reasons.

Games provide you with those opportunities, which is one of the reasons I think that people gravitate towards them and it’s one of the things that we could learn from games when we’re designing jobs and workplaces to be more engaging. 

Sam: Yeah. It’s okay to fail through the process.

Jamie: Sure. And that’s something else that games do a great job of teaching you, is learning through failure and creating a growth mindset and setting learning-oriented goals. You’re going to fail many times before you figure it out. And the name of the game almost literally is experimentation and coming up with new ideas, not just following a rote process to complete a task. 

Sam: I just got one more question, Jamie. The book, The Engagement Game, talks about culture, which again, it’s the right moment for this as, again, companies are starting to either ramp back up or rethink what the work is that makes up the jobs that they have. What advice do you have for leaders that are motivated and being thoughtful about how they think about design and culture for the workforce of tomorrow?

Jamie: In the book, I talk about research that defines culture as like the importance that people place on a shared understanding of how things are done around here. What gets rewarded, what gets punished. The shared understanding of that, and more to the point, the emphasis that people place on it. And managers have an out-sized effect on establishing organizational culture. Like they have an outsize effect on shaping people’s beliefs about how things are done around here, shaping people’s beliefs about how important that is and calling people’s attention to behaviors that will be rewarded and ones that will be punished.

So leading by example, designing systems in terms of compensation or employee relations or that kind of thing, selection that emphasize those cultural touchstones that they want and build the kind of culture that they want. It’s important and it really matters. And the newer your organization is the more of a chance you have to affect that culture before it gets cemented in place, especially in very large organizations, it’s more difficult to shape culture and climate around corporate legends of how we got started and great leaders that we’ve had in the past. Those things cement the culture in place and if you’re bringing new people in, and you’re maybe starting up a newer organization or operation, you have a sort of once in a lifetime opportunity then to really lead by example and build those formal systems of HR and management to create the kind of culture you need. 

Sam: So what’s book number three going to be?

Jamie: I don’t know. I’m thinking about it. If you’ve got any ideas, let me know.

Sam: I know we got more games. I have a four-year-old daughter and over the last year there are more puzzles and board games that we’ve accumulated, better than homeschooling in some ways we found. 

Jamie: Yeah, it’s amazing, the stuff that kids pick up and how quickly they pick up when they want to beat their mom or dad.

Sam: Yeah, they learn winning and losing really quick. It’s wild. Well, Jamie, thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it. 

Jamie: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

Topics Discussed: Gamification, Games, Video Games, Psychology, Workplace Culture, Leadership

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle