Gamification and Nudging: Two Sides of the Same Medal

by Rob Dorscheidt

Dutch Tax and Customs Administration uses it, No.10 Downing Street makes use of it too: nudging. And they are not the only ones….

Nudging is everywhere
Nudging is about changes in how choices are presented. It is everywhere. Consumers, taxpayers, companies, employees are persuaded to make the right decisions. That’s pretty exciting… and very successful.


A perfect example is the Piano Stairs. In trying to persuade people to take the stairs instead of the escalator, the stairs in a subway in Stockholm were transformed into a giant functioning piano keyboard. And 70 percent more of these people chose the musical stairs over the escalator. That’s a nifty way of encouraging people to exercise more, change their behaviour… and of course it’s fun as well.

In their bestseller “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (2008), economics professor, Richard Thaler, and law professor, Cass Sunstein, argue that people often make bad decisions in areas of their lives – from personal finances and health to issues like how they treat the planet. nudgeThis argument challenged the idea that people act in a purely rational way, which is often used as the basis for economic models.

Nudge is about behavioural science and economics. The book offers new perspectives on preventing the countless mistakes we make – e.g. bad personal investments or consumption of unhealthy foods -. It shows how sensible “choice architecture” (the way options are framed) can successfully help “nudge” people to make better choices for themselves and society, without actually restricting their personal freedom. That sounds cool to me!

No.10 Downing Street
The UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team – aka the No.10 Downing Street Nudge Unit – has produced impressive results with this nudging. The team seeks to understand how individuals take decisions in practice and how they are likely to respond to options. They found that it is about informing (or may be better: confronting) people. Just by e.g. changing the wording, people get activated. The Nudge Unit is convinced their interventions are usually simple, highly cost-effective, and have often yielded surprising results.

Some examples:

  • By changing the wording used to encourage organ donation, more than 100,000 extra people will sign up. Annually. What they did was use reciprocity messages: ‘if you needed an organ, would you take one?’
  • Enrolling automatically individuals onto pension schemes increased saving rates for those employed by large firms in the UK from 61% to 83%.
  • Informing people who failed to pay their taxes that most other people have already paid increased payment rates by over 5 percentage points.

And also Dutch Tax and Customs Administration is using nudges. Dutch newspaper NRC (€, Dutch) wrote about it and concluded that there more and more persuasion techniques in the tax-return forms. They want to inspire and mobilize the 20 percent ‘chronically procrastinators”.

What’s new?
Manipulating behaviour is old. Advertisers and companies have been nudging consumers for decades. Just think of strategically placed candy bars at the checkout of your supermarket. Nudging is a bit more subtle and sophisticated, like putting apples, not candy bars, at eye level in school cafeterias.

Nudging is a way of helping you to behave the way you probably would if you were better-disciplined and better-informed. But it does not force you to do so. That’s quite a new way of thinking and makes it more acceptable.

Gaming and gamification
Gamification is from later days than nudging, although the concept of gaming itself is old… the old Greek played games. Gamification has the same powerful effect on human behaviour as nudging. And it can definitely improve efficiency and create value, when done right.

Advisory firm Gartner defines gamification as the use of game mechanics and game design techniques in non-gaming context. It’s a powerful tool to engage employees, customers and the public to change behaviours, develop skills and drive innovation.

Gamification is about using game mechanics such as competition, a sense of accomplishment and rewarding players with appropriate and timely feedback. It promotes desired behaviours among e.g. customers and employees. Gamification actives people, it creates engagement and helps people making better decisions and achieve better outcomes.
Simply by adding well known game elements to serious matters – e.g. a low interest issue like personal finance where people do not have an intrinsic motivation – makes them more accessible for consumers or employees.

3 Billion
The average young person (in the US) racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21. That is 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance, says Game Designer Jane McGonigal from the Institute for the Future, San Francisco. She also notes that we spend 3 billion hours a week as a planet playing videogames.

Why? We play games without any force to do so (the same as in the case of ideal nudging). Games – including videogames, gamified apps and gamified on boarding for financial products – activate us to discover, to recognize patterns, stimulates us to develop strategies and making the right decisions. The essential feedback loop leads to self-reflection and learning.

The way we play games – focused, dedicated, perhaps obsessed, even addicted sometimes – proves that game techniques engage us in many unique ways. Games and gamification are very strong tools to change behaviour. And of course, it is fun as well.

Nudging, gaming … and changing behaviour
Gamification thus helps people to make better choices in real life across many fields, including health, education, finance and recruitment. Users really adjust their behaviour, because they have tried it already in a gamified and safe, virtual situation. That works!
Some examples to illustrate this:

  • An interesting example is in the field of health. Research showed that game skills are highly correlated with surgical skills. Surgeons who played more than 3 hours per week made 37% less errors, were 27% faster than their non-playing colleagues. There was a statistically significant correlation between performance in the game and the real life scenario. Sounds like an ultimate excuse…. The numbers even improved, the more hours surgeons spent playing games…. for training purposes.

Holle_bolle_gijs_1129x311 Source Efteling

  • Another example combines nudging and gamification: Holle Bolle Gijs (since 1959) in De Efteling, a fairytale-theme park in The Netherlands. This Holle Bolle Gijs figure is a talking waste-paper bin. When kids put their waste in his mouth, he shouts out loud ‘Thank you’. Kids are excited and drop as much waste as they can find. In the wide area of Holle Bolle Gijs there is no paper left on the ground. He eats about 460.000 kilogram a year.
  • Another example is in the field of education. The Fontys Hogescholen Management Team Challenge motivates students with a game to start directly with their study. recyclebankWithin 8 weeks 20 percent more students passed the exams.
  • And what about a sustainability campaign of Recyclebank? They believe in the carrot, not the stick…. So their website uses gamification techniques (e.g. point, challenges, rewards, leader boards) to encourage sustainable behaviour like recycling, choosing greener products, pledging to take shorter showers, etc. The result of this campaign was a 16% increase of recycling in Philadelphia.
  • A final example. Blood donors in Sweden get a text message whenever their blood saves someone’s life. That is a feedback that makes sense….

OK. We know we have to act better sometimes, change our lifestyle, eat healthier, save money and budget and be more careful with our environment. But it is difficult sometimes. Are we aware? Are we motivated intrinsically? Do we have the skills?

Using nudging and gamification to nudge towards a better behaviour is quite a new way of thinking. So, be alert on opportunities to use – in a right way – techniques as nudging and gamification. Be open minded and try to find out-of-the-box solutions to problems you struggle with. Both nudging and gamification have many unexpected and still unexploited opportunities. Nudging and gamification can change the real world. Give it a try!

Do you know perfect examples of nudging and gamification in your business? Please feel free to mail them to me.

Rob Dorscheidt (@RobDorscheidt) is Business Development Executive at AdviceGames. AdviceGames brings machine learning driven gamification to offer personalised scenario plays. We revolutionise consumer activation and engagement by solving behavioural financial questions with predictive intelligence. Find out more.