December 09, 2021

Kevin Werbach on Effective Motivators and Using Gamification for Good

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #67

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Kevin Werbach, Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Werbach also co-wrote the book For The Win, which looks at the power of gamification in business, education, and government. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Kevin sat down with Sam and discussed the importance of fun, effective motivators, and how to use gamification for good.

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


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

  • “The line that we draw between the “real world” and the “virtual world” is artificial.”
  • “Fun is not inconsistent with seriousness.”
  • “Studies have shown that cooperation is an even stronger motivator than competition.”


Sam: I guess out of the gate, Kevin, you’ve been doing a ton on gamification as a researcher and a professor. Can you tell me just a little bit about where your interest in gamification came from? 

Kevin: Well, so I was playing World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game for fun, and I was playing it with a group of friends who mostly happened to be academics, who were scholars of games, they were studying game design and elements of games. And I found it just incredibly fascinating, both what they were doing, but also the experience of playing in this virtual world, seeing how teams form, in Warcraft the raids need 40 people coordinated and interacting with different skill sets and so forth. It was fascinating, and I kept on wondering, well, is there any connection to what I do as a legal scholar and a business school professor? 

Then, around 2010, 2011, people started to talk about this concept of gamification, which really is the intersection of understanding games and how games work and how games are powerful, and business, and understanding how you can apply those techniques. And it became this kind of fad that people were talking about. But there really wasn’t a lot of systematic thought about how you do this effectively. So that was my invitation to really dive in and start to build some of those connections. 

Sam: I’ve talked to a lot of HR leaders who, it seems like a decade ago, gamification was a buzzword. I don’t know if there’s this feeling of gamification for some people who think it’s a fad, you know, oh, gamification, I’ve seen that before. What do you say to that?

Kevin: So the term was a fad and you can go and look at the Google search numbers and so forth. And so there was this boom around the early 2010s when everyone was talking about gamification, but back then not a lot of people were really doing it and certainly not doing it in any kind of fairly thoughtful, deep way. Nowadays it’s hard to find a lot of companies that aren’t doing it in some way. And that’s really horizontal. I mean, there have been studies done, if you look at your healthcare applications, fitness tracking apps, they’re all gamified. Education, Khan Academy, Duolingo, they’re all gamified.

And a lot of the talent platforms, a lot of the learning development platforms and so forth, this has become kind of a standard suite of techniques. But people don’t like to talk about it for various reasons. One reason, actually I sort of drifted away from it for a while, was I saw lots of organizations that said, oh great, we’ll just sorta throw on some points on this thing and you get a badge for something. People will go crazy and not understand really what it takes to do that effectively. And also not being cognizant of the risks that you can use this in a way that’s manipulative.

And so lots of examples of really exploitative gamification, which became a turnoff. So because of all those things, the term is not used as much, but if you go and look at how much gamification there is in the marketplace, it may not be coming from companies that say, oh, I’m a gamification consulting firm, but it’s pretty ubiquitous at this point. 

Sam: We’re not going to talk about Robin Hood. We’re not going to do that, I promise. 

Kevin: Yeah, no, we absolutely can. That’s a great example. And the problem is people critique Robin Hood and they say, well, the problem is they gamified finance and that’s bad, to which I say, no, the problem isn’t the gamification, the problem is the way they did gamification, that in ways that it’s misleading, in ways that it sort of doesn’t give people appropriate information. That’s the problem, not the fact that you create a game-like environment.

Sam: Has the power or your perspective on gamification changed since work from home and COVID over the last year, has your perspective gotten stronger in any area?

Kevin: That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I think what this experience has made a lot of people realize is that the line that we draw between the “real world” and the “virtual world” is artificial. And that’s been true for a long time. And I’m not saying that in some sort of grand philosophical sense. The experience that I was having a decade ago and it goes way back before that, but the experience I was having with people I was playing World of Warcraft with all around the world was a real social experience. To say, well that that’s not real, it’s different. It’s not the same thing as someone who’s sitting next to me at the office, but I have a connection with those people.

And so part of gamification is appreciating that we can construct environments and these virtual environments. And we need to take them seriously. We need to take the interactions seriously and the motivations they create seriously. And you see that more generally that people want to think, well, social media experiences aren’t real experiences. They’re real.

Now, they’re different, there’s all kinds of concerns about it, but what I think this experience has made a lot of people realize, is just how real you can have in an interaction virtually. I mean, I see that, I’ve been teaching my classes for the past year entirely via Zoom. It’s not the same, their limitations, there are all kinds of problems, but you can really teach. You can really interact with students through this virtual environment. And I knew that before, because of what I do, but I think lots of people just had this idea that if you’re not physically next to someone that it somehow just doesn’t count.

Sam: I talked to folks who, when they hear gamification or games, they think, like we talked about a second ago, that it’s not serious enough. And I listened to you on a podcast earlier, talking about… you made the comment, “Don’t forget the fun.” That’s a dangerous thing to say. Sometimes people think every day at work like this isn’t fun. This is business. What do you say to that?

Kevin: Oh, it’s a false dichotomy.  So you really think that a great way to get people to work at your company is “it’s not fun here. You want to come here because it’s really not fun to work here?” No! People want to love their job. Fun is not inconsistent with seriousness. Fun is about engagement and excitement and interest and feeling a sense of possibility. You can do that in a very serious context. And it’s part of the thing that’s striking when you look at gamification, where do you see gamification? 

There was an article actually in Foreign Policy Magazine about 10 years ago looking at all kinds of sites that were using gamification to engage and motivate people, to participate in these Jihadi websites. So that’s a use of it for evil, but it wasn’t like, “come and be part of this community that is going to attack the west because it’s a great, exciting, fun day.”

It was, it was the sense that people want to feel part of something. They want to feel excited and motivated about what they’re doing. So don’t forget the fun is part of the six steps in the book that I co-wrote called For The Win, we have this six step framework for gamification. And the point of don’t forget the fun is it’s easy to, even if you’re doing a gamification design to lose sight of that, to think about all of these particular mechanics and structures and so forth, and not create something that people want to do.

Fun does not mean frivolous. You look at what people are doing, even people who are engrossed in playing games, they are totally focused. They’re in that kind of flow zone. That’s what you want, and that’s what you want, you know, no matter how big or serious or high stakes the thing is that you’re doing.

Sam: I think about culture today, it’s so tough being remote. I mean, even teams and companies that thought they had a tight culture and we’ve all heard the phrase, employee engagement a ton to the point where I’m not even sometimes sure how to define it. But when I think about games, I came across a study a while ago, talking about the impact of playing games on two strangers and the empathy and the connection that was created between two people. I think in this study they played 15 minutes of Rock Band, and then it came back into the research experiment. And you probably know what I’m maybe quoting. I guess, where do you think this can take us in gamification if used correctly on the future of work as a theme? 

Kevin: That’s an important qualification you had there in terms of it being used correctly because games can be designed in what I think of as shallow and problematic ways. Again, that goes back to the Robin Hood example. People tend to assume that games are all about competition. It’s about winning and losing. And it turns out that in gamification design, that’s typically the worst technique to use because if you set something up, well, then the winner’s going to love it. What do you think the losers are going to think? They’re going to say screw this, I don’t want to be part of this! 

It turns out that, first of all, research has shown cooperation as an even stronger motivator. The effect on people’s engagement level of cooperating with the team is actually much stronger than the competitive effect. And you can have both, you can put people together in teams and say, you’re working on your team against this other team, or it’s this division against another division or something like that. Competition is a motivator, but if the game is designed in a way that strengthens people’s bonds, then that actually can be really powerful.

And again, because it’s virtual, because it doesn’t depend on being in the same office with someone, you have a shared task. So there’s a lot of gamification in practice that doesn’t unlock these techniques again. And that’s one of the reasons that I wrote the book and I teach a movie on this on Coursera that I feel like a lot of people miss those nuances. So they think, oh, games, it’s just you get something if you win, or we’ll just rank people on a leaderboard.  If you think about it in terms of what my goal is, I want to create a sense of community, there are ways you can do that using these game elements.

Sam: That’s great. Kevin, I got one more question for you. Any cool software? I’m sure you see all types of tech, startups, and softwares that come along. They’re trying to implement gamification in some way, shape or form. If you were to give a software company out there listening one piece of advice in order to do it right, what would it be other than to read your book?

Kevin: Oh, gosh. Yeah. Well, go through those steps, which means you want to, first of all, as a software company, you want to think about allowing for more than just the points and the badges and leaderboards. That’s the table stakes. But give people the opportunity to think about deeper and more sophisticated forms of interaction.

And for that simple thing I just mentioned, the fact that it’s not just competition, it’s competition with cooperation. There’s lots of mechanisms like that. For example, there are leaderboards where you rank people, then that’s the problem again, the people at the bottom.

So lots of effective implementers of gamification may have multiple leaderboards on different dimensions. So I can be at the top of this leaderboard today, but someone else can be at the top of that leaderboard. Simple kinds of things like that. So if you are starting from the thought that what I am providing as a software provider is not just a set of tools, it’s not like I’m giving you points. It’s, I’m giving you the ability to create experiences and to leverage psychological attributes, there’s a lot of psychological support for these techniques. Then you can sort of model out how to provide, not just your particular pieces, but really sort of full tools for customers to use in ways that are relevant to them.

So maybe that’s too long. That’s not just one thing. But it’s again, getting deeper than just the surface manifestations. 

Sam: Sure. I think people today are trying to find ways to keep people connected. And I think some of the points in your book For The Win are just on the money. Thanks for taking a few minutes with us today, Kevin. 

Kevin: Absolutely. Thanks a lot for having me.

Topics Discussed: Gamification, Games, Remote Work, Leadership, Business, Competition, Future of Work

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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