Gamification Success: Wordle
It’s not all that common for a game to become a household word, yet in less than a year, Wordle has become a full-blown craze with 300,000 daily players, including celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, who talks about it on his show. Others like Jennifer Beals and Richard Osman regularly broadcast their obsession on social media. The implication is clear: if you don’t Wordle, you are missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures.
It’s also one of the simplest, which is interesting, since it’s presented by The New York Times, which is famous for having a crossword puzzle so challenging that you basically have to be a member of Mensa to do it. By contrast, Wordle is based on one’s abilities to come up with five-letter words, most of them part of our everyday vernacular (recent wordles include “twice,” “cling,” and “poker.”)
Sounds easy, right? Well, some days yes, others not so much, and some days it’s enough to make you pull your hair our with delicious frustration.
Leveraging Tried and True Game Elements
How does it work?
There is a box, similar to a crossword puzzle, with five rows across and six words down. You start by typing in a five-letter word of your choice, and when you hit enter the letters flip over (think slot machine). If they light up green, it means they’re in the word and in the correct place; if they’re yellow, they in the word but belong in another spot. Those that stay black are eliminated altogether. Keep in mind too that there may be double letters (i.e. “happy”), but it won’t tell you that. You then have five more tries to figure out the word, with each try hopefully providing more clues.
When you win within a few tries, Wordle pays you compliments like “splendid!”; when, you get it on the sixth an empathetic “Phew!” pops up on the screen. You can minimize the screen or even close it if you need a break; however, if you try to input any old letters, hoping to trick it into offering clues, the letters shake and a message saying your guess “isn’t on the word list.” Also, many players have found, to their dismay, that proper nouns are not allowed.
Leveraging Tried and True Game Elements
You don’t have to create a NY Times account, which is free, unless you want the site to keep track of your stats – and how can you not? Once you’ve figured out the word, or exhausted your six attempts without success, a little graph pops up the screen showing you how many times you’ve played, the percentage of wins and the number of wins in your “current streak,” and even the number of streaks you’ve had. It also provides you with the “Guess Distribution,” or the number of attempts it has taken you to solve it each time, be it two, three, four, and so on. Of course, it will never be one unless you are a really lucky guesser, which wouldn’t be any fun at all. There’s an option to share your stats with others, and even a link to click on if your stats “don’t look right” – this leads to a site explaining that for the time being stats are not always uniform across devices (it may depend on the browser), which is maddening and no doubt ensures that players will choose their phone, computer or tablet and stick with that moving forward.
At the bottom of the graph is a clock, counting down in hours, minutes and seconds, to the moment the next word will be available. And this may ultimately be the secret to the Wordle craze: there is only one word every twenty-four hours. You soon find yourself thinking about it in the interim, wondering what the wordle will be – and the best five-letter word to set you on course to beat your guess distribution. Learning the letters to eliminate are often just as, if not more important, than knowing what goes in the word. It might take minutes to solve or hours, but you know it will have been worth the wait.
Wordle’s Recipe for Success
If you haven’t played, it may be hard to understand how incredibly addictive this game is. There are no fancy graphics – just white lines and a black background – and no sound effects at all. There are no cute owls or human avatars alternately smiling or looking concerned depending on your performance. They don’t even ask players for pictures or any personal information about themselves – there’s just a button so you can proudly share your stats, as well as a link to play Spelling Bee, another New York Times game that is much harder and, while fun, has not drawn the droves of devotees as Wordle has.
To those debating building a gaming platform, Wordle is proof of how effective it can be, regardless of its complexity and whether or not it has all the bells and whistles. The real power lies in its ability to stimulate the mind, give us a break from our routine, and delay gratification by making a new installment available only once a day.
It doesn’t hurt that Wordle has a sweet backstory (Josh Wardle created it as a gift for his partner, who is a huge fan of word games) – or that it’s free, though sentimentality is merely anecdotal and people would certainly pay, if need be, to feed their craving. Wordle has also spawned a craze in the form of several spin-off games, but it’s hard to believe anything could take the place of the original.
Gamification: Wall Street
If any real-world activity seems like a game, it is stock trading. To “win,” one must possess both knowledge and intuition, as well as some luck. For those not familiar with the world of Wall Street, it can seem like a separate universe, with its own lingo and customs, its own laws and code of ethics.
Over the past few years, several platforms have seized on the gamification craze to make it easier for investors to get in on the action; now they are being held up as evidence of both the power gamification has over users, and the fine line developers must sometimes tread when employing it.
Robinhood: Gamified Investing
Gamification in investing works much like it does everywhere else – with visually appealing graphics and “digital nudges” that invite users to have an experience that goes beyond merely conducting business.
One of the best-known examples of this is Robinhood’s feature that flooded the screen with confetti every time someone made a trade or upgraded their account. Indeed, it was one of the things that made it so popular with the platform’s target audience – young investors.
Over the past year or so, however, Robinhood has become something of a cautionary tale. After realizing great success at the height of Covid-19, subsequent changes in the market – and arguably the inexperience of its investors – led to a $423-million-dollar loss toward the end of 2021.
But that is just one of the challenges Robinhood is currently facing. William Galvin, Secretary of the Massachusetts Commonwealth charged the company with “aggressive tactics” that targeted trading newbies. The confetti feature, which both lures and rewards users, has often been cited as evidence of this and was eventually removed from the platform.
Hiccups in Robinhood
Another issue was Robinhood’s “frictionless UI” – or the ease of use of the site. Sound counterintuitive? Well, it is. We’ve all been on websites that are full of bugs, don’t work well on mobile devices, and seem to crawl, making even simple transactions an agony. Regulators, however, point to this as another inducement to keep investors coming back to the site and perhaps make riskier trades than they would have made if they had more time to think about it.
It should be noted, though, that Robinhood did not get into hot water just because of the gamification features, or because the site is well-designed, but because they did not adequately warn investors of the risks. According to this NY Times article, the combination created a “nothing to lose, everything to gain” mentality that tends to line the pockets of the broker at the expense of the investor.
Robinhood’s predicament is part of a larger picture – one that depicts the uncertain future of the so-called “gamification of investing” as a whole. In fact, part of that 2021 loss may stem from the fact that the potential consequences to investors are on the radar of the SEC.
For the better part of a year, the agency has been hinting at the possibility of regulations that more fully cover “digital engagement practices,” or DEPs. SEC Enforcement Director Gurbir Grewal put purveyors of gamified trading platforms on notice at a recent hearing of House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship and Capital Markets.
Calling it “a huge concern,” he spoke of possible violations of Regulation Best Interest (Reg B1), which prohibits investment firms from encouraging trades that are against the best interests of “retail customers” (individual investors or their representatives). Basically, the fear is that investors will be unduly influenced by the gaming aspects – i.e., it’s exciting and when they don’t trade they may be subtly induced to think they are missing out on something.
Trades & Investigations
Though Reg B1 falls under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, it was adopted in 2020 to offer greater protections to customers; yet, noting the feedback during the official comments period, the SEC has determined it may not fully shield them with regard to DEPs. SEC Investor Advocate Rick Flemming explained this by stating that, though recent, the regulation is a product of the “pre-gamification era.”
He also noted that “DEPs are being used in a way that makes the distinction between solicited and unsolicited trades almost meaningless,” and that even if the client technically initiates the trade it may be because they have already been led to do so.
Grewal did not mention any specific ongoing investigations, while Flemming acknowledged that due to the ever-evolving nature of gamification it would be difficult to litigate such cases. That said, it’s safe to say that new, more stringent regulations around DEPs are around the corner.
Find a Balance
The moral of the story: well, there are a few. The first, as the saying goes, is, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” The other is that if companies can strike a balance that both entices and protects investors, they can reap the benefits of gamification while educating investors and making trade more profitable, and fun.
TikTok: Gamified Branding Effect
Two years ago this month, Tik Tok launched its Gamified Branding Effect, which allows content creators to add aspects of gamification to their videos in order to build their brands and differentiate themselves from others. Developed for Tik Tok for Business, the addition came as no surprise, given the increase in gamification over the past several years and the uptick, of more than 200%, in interest in gaming, by Tik Tok users specifically, during the first several months of 2020. Any skeptics with regard to sustainability were soon proven wrong, as it has become one of the most effective tools for online sales campaigns. In fact, if you trace the meteoric rise of the Tik Tok it is clear that its success – and its marriage with gamification – was destined from the start.
As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic crushed countless companies and catapulted others to household name status – particularly those that eased the feelings of isolation during quarantine. The most well-known example is probably Zoom, which made “face-to-face” interaction, both personal and professional, possible and experienced a 370% increase in business in just the last three months of 2020. Moreover, it was no flash in the pan; Zoom has continued to grow – at a slower but still impressive rate – as we’ve settled into a new normal of remote and hybrid work arrangements. Perhaps more surprising is Tik Tok, the social media disruptor that used to be on the periphery but is now threatening to overtake Facebook and Instagram as the most powerful influencer.
Does it Spark Joy?
Tik Tok has actually been around since 2016 but catapulted to household name status over the past two years and half years, reaching 100 million users during the lockdown and one billion as of September 2021. Whether its videos, which range from just thirty to sixty seconds in length, appealed to people because of our collectively decreasing attention span or reduced mental bandwidth due to the screen fatigue and general stress brough on by the pandemic, is an ongoing study; what is not up for debate is that they touched a chord across all segments of the population.
It probably didn’t hurt that the intention, according to this Variety article, was to be “a less caustic environment than Facebook and Twitter.” Rather, as stated by Blake Chandlee, TikTok’s VP of global business solutions and head of ad sales, it was designed to “inspire creativity and spark joy.” Whatever the individual factors, they resulted in a balm for minds already weary from years of negative chatter and exacerbated by terrifying covid statistics, not to mention global political and social unrest.
New Kid On The Block
To the newbie, the platform can seem like an almost chaotic series of rants about every conceivable topic, from astrological trends to relationship pitfalls. Many take the form of a stream of consciousness as the creator shares what they are experiencing at a particular moment.
Others rely solely on the cuteness factor, such as this Tik Tok of a baby laughing, that to date has 392.4 million views, a call-to-action (i.e. social media challenge), or imparting valuable information such as a quick makeup hack. Though they range from the inspiring to the absolutely ridiculous, they do seem to focus on enjoyment and even inspiration. One thing’s for sure, they “inspired” YouTube to launch YouTube shorts in 2020, hoping to capture this emerging market.
Another hallmark of Tik Toks is they appear completely impromptu (cars are such a popular spot for filming that it has become “a thing”) and the creators are often less coiffed (i.e. with little to no makeup and sometimes wet hair!). In other words, they come across like they are video-chatting with a good friend with whom they can just be (and look) themselves – a welcome comfort after the stress of having to get dolled up for Zoom meetings.
Positive Effects of Gamification
What does all this have to do with gamification? Well, at least a few things. For one, it breaks content down into chunks, much the way a gaming platform does, so it is easier to both understand and retain. It also speaks to that shortened attention span mentioned earlier. Who wouldn’t rather watch a sixty-second video about the best way to work your abs or apply mascara, rather than a longer one with a lengthy intro and too much talking throughout, especially if you watch it repeatedly to perfect the technique. In fact, as of May 2022, YouTube has a “Most Replayed” feature, or time stamps based on the most valuable parts of the video, so we know how far to “fast forward.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the connection to joy shared by Tik Tok and gaming. Both acknowledge, and are rooted in, the idea that enjoyment is an essential ingredient, not only in learning practical skills, but in life itself. This is not just an assumption, but backed by science: a recent study found that 52% of users thought Tik Tok ads were “fun and engaging,” and 66% had a positive perception of them, and when you’re talking about a billion people and growing, that equals limitless potential for expansion well into the future.
Playing for Time: How Gaming Can Help Treat (and Prevent) Dementia
Cognitive decline has become a worldwide epidemic, with an estimated 50 million cases reported as of 2021 – a number that is expected to triple in thirty years. As of 2022, 6.5 million in the U.S. alone have dementia, or one in nine people over the age of sixty-five. Some say these growing numbers are due to environmental factors such as exposure to aluminum, power lines, and air and noise pollution, while others point to the fact that we are simply living longer and therefore susceptible to diseases younger people typically don’t experience. Whatever the case, it is taking a huge emotional and financial toll on sufferers and their families – not to mention the global annual price tag of $605 billion.
Mental Activity to Prevent Brain Decline
Mental Activity to Prevent Brain Decline
Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, though there are medications that treat the symptoms. A growing body of research suggests that the most powerful tool we have to prevent or slow the decline of brain function is through mental activity, much like physical exercise keeps the body strong and limber. While any kind of activity is better than nothing, play has been particularly effective. For example, a 2021 study found that playing cards and other games can delay dementia by up to five years, while another, which spanned several years, found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities can protect brain health well into one’s nineties.
A much shorter study, just eight weeks, yielded even more exciting results: play, especially when it encompasses both physical and mental training, can actually diminish existing symptoms. The participants were forty-five residents of two Belgian nursing homes, with an average age of eighty-five and severe dementia symptoms. One group trained with Exergame – a machine that combines cognitive and physical exercises, while the other listened to music and watched videos of their own choosing.
Incredibly, after using Exergame for just fifteen minutes three times a week the first group experienced improved cognitive function; the second group, however, got worse. This built upon an earlier, similar study, in 2015, that also had positive results but only tested healthy individuals. The researchers also noted that the typical reluctance of this demographic – elderly and suffering from dementia – to engage in physical exercise was conspicuously absent here. The reason: they had made the “workout” fun… like a game.
While these results certainly seem like something of a miracle, they may not be all that surprising to neuroscientists – or those, for that matter, who employ gamification in their businesses or classrooms. The former will explain to you how gaming (specifically hitting certain milestones and/or beating other players to reap a reward) releases dopamine, a chemical that stimulates the hippocampus, which is part of the brain’s pleasure centers.
This not only aids in the learning and retention of new information, the recognition of achievement makes it more likely that the user will return to the game and strive to reach the next level. The employer will likely forgo fancy lingo and simply point out that their sales teams are meeting their quotas, mundane tasks that are usually pushed to the side are now being completed, and the culture has become more collegial. Or they may speak to the fact that they use a gaming platform to recruit candidates most aligned with the organization’s mission and as part of their onboarding and ongoing training processes.
Similarly, teachers will have noticed that their students are enjoying the material more and are performing better, even when it comes to subjects they avoided in the past – this, because the fun in playing the game reduces stress, a major barrier to comprehension and retention. Just as importantly, they are learning how to collaborate and compete with each other in healthy ways, a social skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.
On a related note, gamification is also an excellent tool to restore healthy socialization to those with any kind of cognitive impairment. Undoubtedly one of the biggest sorrows for their friends and family is feeling like they have lost their loved one, even though they are physically present. This study discusses the benefits of digital play in terms of changing the public perception of people with dementia by showing that they can participate in activities and, hopefully, will lead to their being included more frequently. Positive feedback provided throughout the game is key here, as it helps to keep the user, whether they are impaired or not, remain engaged.
Allow More Play
Finally, if you’re worried that you haven’t “played” enough throughout your adulthood to prevent dementia, don’t be. Researchers have also found that your behaviors as you get older are actually more determinative in the prevention or reduction of dementia symptoms. The ability of the human brain to rewire and regenerate itself is nothing short of astounding, and we have barely scratched the surface. In the meantime, we have our wake-up call to introduce more play into our lives, starting today.
Is Your Gamification Platform Not Working as Planned? Here are Some Things to Consider
As of this 2019 report, 83% of employees felt motivated when their training was gamified, as opposed to 28% when it was not; just 10% felt bored, compared with 49%, respectively. The vast majority, 88% reportedly felt happier. There is also extensive research, and similarly impressive data, on the effectiveness of such training used by such as entities as the U.S. Army and Deloitte. If you’ve read these studies and the flurry of articles out there over the past ten-plus years, you may have concluded that having a gamification platform brings guaranteed success. Well, not necessarily. Like most things in life, gamification is only as good as the people who design and implement it. If you are seeing less-than-stellar results after integrating it into your recruitment, onboarding, or ongoing training, it is time to take an honest look at your platform and the intention behind it to determine whether the two are aligned. If not, here are a few fixes – some simple, some involving an overhaul – that can help you enter the winners’ circle.
Create an Enjoyable Journey
Create an Enjoyable Journey (Not Just a Destination). While you want the rewards of gamification to be enticing (whatever that means for your employees), they should not overshadow the real purpose: to increase performance. Whether your goal is to improve their technical skills or how they interact with clients and each other, that should always be its own reward, with any bonus or prize serving as reinforcement and a means of celebration and appreciation. To this end, make sure the content, be it around factual knowledge or practical skills, is well-structured, interesting, and appropriately challenging, getting more difficult as people advance to keep them engaged. In other words, you want them to enjoy the process, not just reach to the bottom of the cereal box and grab the prize.
Keep the Game in Gamification
Keep the Game in Gamification. The last thing you want to hear is that your employees consider your platform to be punitive. Back in 2008, the Disneyland Resort Hotel in California learned this lesson the hard way when it installed a system of red, yellow, and green lights indicating whether or not the laundry staff’s performance was up to snuff. Employees reportedly felt this was like an “electronic whip,” distracting them and chastising those who were not working quickly enough to meet quotas. It also created a breakdown in relationships among coworkers; people didn’t even go to the restroom so they wouldn’t lose time, and some were even injured. This has become the textbook and oft-cited example of what gamification should not be, so if you’re getting similar feedback from your staff it’s time to re-evaluate. Remember, this is all about carrots, not sticks.
Apply the Right Amount of Pressure
Apply the Right Amount of Pressure. On a related note, you do want to be sure that your platform creates enough “good pressure” to keep users engaged and not feeling like they are being condescended to. For example, there should be consequences (i.e., taking away points) for choices that take them further from their goals. This way, whether they are motivated by the desire or achieve or fear of loss they will want to do their best.
Level the Playing Field
Level the Playing Field. One of the most touted things about gamification is that it fosters a feeling of inclusiveness, so if your platform only focuses on a certain segment of the population you are defeating the purpose. Let’s say, for example, that it centers around the same contest (i.e. the highest sales in a month), you will likely see the same winners over and over again, leaving the others feeling marginalized and probably less motivated. What you might do instead is to create rotating benchmarks for success so that everyone experiences a renewed sense of purpose and the possibility that they will be recognized for what they bring to the table.
As mentioned earlier, some of these fixes, such as switching up contests, are easy to implement, while others can involve issues of form or substance that require serious revamping. The best way, of course, is to avoid such things altogether by gathering as much intel as possible from employees at the design stage. With some carefully chosen questions and prompts, you will learn their current level of satisfaction with the company, what they would like to see more of, and what struggles they are experiencing when it comes to their job performance, relating to others, and so on. You’ll likely find that your platform should be one with a balance of difficulty and ease, rewards and consequences, collaboration and competition. That said, you may also find that those needs change with time and circumstances, so be open to spending the money and effort to tweak as needed. The takeaway is that your platform must have a strong foundation tied to immediate goals and the organizational vision while being flexible and fun enough to empower your diverse team of employees.