How Gamification Is Taking The Gig Economy To The Next Level

Sherlock Holmes is an early example of an independent contractor who loved ”the game” in the “gig economy”. The first time we see this famous phrase, The Game Is Afoot from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” when Holmes tells Watson:

“Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! In to your clothes and come!” The word “game” has two meanings. One is “quarry” or “spoils,” and it would be the main meaning in Shakespeare’s and Holmes’ words. However, the other meaning of “game” is, “a diversion, pastime, or amusement; or a form of mental or physical competitive play, governed by specific rules and testing the skill, endurance, or luck of the participants.

This second definition is significant, as Sherlockiana is a “game,” like chess or Monopoly for me. “Sherlock Holmes is alive” and, “Dr. Watson wrote the Canon” are rules of the game, and I for one, do not want to change these rules. It would be absurd to play chess if you oppose the rules of movement of the chess pieces. We can delight in playing games when we hold faithfully to the rules.

In this post, we will discuss what’s going on psychologically when digital games reward independent contractors in the gig economy. We will explain reward schedules, the overjustification effect, and what both psychological experiences mean for business game designers. We will also take on an enduring question, are variable ratio reward schedules inherently immoral design? The answer is without a doubt NO.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve had the privilege of working at Standard of Trust alongside Dr. Tom Muscarello, who has a Ph.D. at DePaul University’s School of Digital Media and is our head of Chief Technology Officer at the firm. In addition to the amazing insights, Dr. Muscarello has participated in a project to develop a p2p credibility platform.

We’ve learned amazing things about gamification or human-focused design which has driven a series of discussions on psychology and formed many theories about how it influences game playing, I have committed a great deal of thinking in the past few weeks to one of game design’s most hotly debated psychological topics, reward schedules, and how they are associated to what psychologists call the “overjustification effect.” Please do not get anxious if you’ve never heard of either of these concepts. We will explain them both before discussing what they mean for our relationship capital credibility platform and for game designers as a whole.

These principles, while most clearly relevant to digital games and tabletop roleplaying games, are crucial for all kinds of game designers to understand, particularly in an age where the time-honored board and card games are becoming more digital.

Reward Schedules

In the 1930s, Burrhus Frederic “B. F.” Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard, developed an Operant Conditioning Chamber (better known as a Skinner Box). The concept was straightforward: put a rat in the box. Let the rat pull the lever in the box. Occasionally, reward the rat with a food pellet for pulling the lever. Assess what conditions triggered the rat to pull the lever more or less frequently.

The applicability to game design becomes clear when you look at what Skinner and other psychologists discovered. While experimenting with pigeons, researchers revealed that the pigeons were more likely to push the lever more often when there was only a chance that they would receive a reward, even more often than when they always received one. Specifically, they were most active when the chance of receiving a reward was 50%. This is an intermittent reward schedule: it gives a chance at payoff for any given action. Specifically, they found that the most effective reward schedule was a variable ratio reward schedule — inserting randomness into the equation such that there could be many pulls of the lever with no payoff, but the average payoff is set.

If this behavior can be extended to humans, and it can, we can be influenced to accomplish an action more often simply by giving people a chance at a reward instead of promising people a guaranteed reward. We are inclined to comprehend this instinctively; it is why people gamble. And many games already use these tenets.

Slot Machines

Slot machines, for example, are essentially Skinner Boxes for humans. Farmville is famous for utilizing variable ratio reward schedules in their social games like Zynga. Even the incredibly successful game World of Warcraft utilizes them by making “killed mobs” only drop the loot you need for quests sometimes, but not always…again, the reward is not guaranteed.

Skinner Box for People

The utilization of variable ratio reward schedules in game design is often panned, however, for being “immoral”. Critics’ argue that if the game designers had selected to apply straightforward fixed reward schedules for which with each action there is a promised reward, the contestants or players would play a definite amount of time.

With variable ratio reward schedules, the players are more energetic. Consequently, the game architects are “deceiving” the contestants into playing more than they truly desire to. Before I go into the ethics of applying variable ratio reward schedules in games, I want to discuss another important experience that is typically disregarded in conversations about morality and reward schedules. I am talking about the overjustification effect.


In 1973, psychologists Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett performed a compelling experiment with kindergarten students. They discerned that the kids were intrinsically motivated to draw. Lepp and Nisbett noticed that the kids took pleasure in the pursuit of drawing pictures for its own sake without any need for any external payoff.

They divided the children into three groups. The children in the first group were promised ribbons as a reward for drawing pictures. The second group of children were given ribbons but were not pledged any in advance. The children in the third group were left on their own to draw pictures without any intervention. While the researchers gave out ribbons, all three children’s groups drew similar amounts of drawings. Then the researchers stopped handing out ribbons. The third children’s group, as assumed, continued to draw the same amount; not surprising because nothing had changed. The first children’s group, notwithstanding, had a meaningful fall off in the quantity of drawing they did. Psychologists speculate (and they’re pretty sure today) that what occurred is as the first group received ribbons, they revised their motivations from:

“I’m drawing because I like drawing” (intrinsic) to “I’m drawing because I want a ribbon” (extrinsic).

The children were still motivated to draw so long as they were receiving their rewards, but once the rewards were withdrawn, the motivation did not spring back to being intrinsic. This is an often a disregarded occurrence that happens in many types of games. I only have personal stories to share, but if you play many video games I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to times when the overjustification effect happened to you.

Gaming and Giving Rewards in the Gig Economy

Giving rewards in business games is desirable. As the gig economy get transformed by gamification, users must understand the challenge of overjustification. Architects want to give the players rewards for various reasons, including reinforcing (player) behavior, increasing users feelings of mastery, elevating difficulty over the course of gameplay, and building mechanics and abilities.

So how can architects give rewards with the perils of triggering overjustification looming overhead and threatening to make the users (players) lose enthusiasm in the game? The second group of kindergarteners from Lepper and Nisbett’s research (the group I had not yet disclosed the results) gives us a clue at the answer. This was the children’s group was that were given ribbons after drawing but were not promised them in advance. Once the rewards were take away, this group continued to draw at the same level as group number one.


This gives business game architects the answer to providing rewards while avoiding altering players motivations to exclusively desiring rewards! Do not let the player know for certain that she’s going to get a reward; A.K.A. as variable reward schedules. It’s pretty simple when a player knows what she’s going to receive by means of a reward, she can play only for that reward. It’s much harder to make that motivational shift when the reward is not guaranteed.

My idea here is that not only are variable ratio reward schedules not inherently unethical, but they are also good game design practice. Variable ratio reward schedules do not manipulate players into playing more than they really want to, they influence the player's cognition to keep them from altering their justification for playing to external factors (extrinsic rewards). This means that these reward schedules keep the players playing because they find the experience engaging and not just to receive the next reward. And this specifically what game design is.

The future of gamification will be talking more and more about the Peer SaaS Web App. As many of you know, I have been evangelizing open standards for capturing, measuring, and utilizing Relationship Capital in business. Relationship Capital (RC) is a game! Reward RC through fulfilled commitments and positive perceptions. Psychology plays an important role in the relationship capital interaction process and we want to make this interaction process as engaging and fun as possible.

Can game architects and designers misuse the psychology of reward schedules? Absolutely! Most of human psychology can be misused and many times is. However, even when using psychology, “tricking” players into greater levels of engagement and fun with a specific business process still signifies as enabling more engagement and fun. Leveraging gamification in the gig economy is accelerating today. The business benefits of greater engagement and performance are just too compelling to be ignored. Gamification and the Gig economy are natural partners. As Sherlock Holmes states, THE GAME IS AFOOT.