For Tech Startups, the Future of Growth Is All Fun and Games

As the race to grab users’ attention and market share accelerates, more and more tech companies are embracing gamification.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on Feb. 24, 2022
For Tech Startups, the Future of Growth Is All Fun and Games

These days, undivided attention seems to be in short supply. Between all the streaming services, video games and the bottomless pits that are our social media feeds, it’s almost impossible to keep someone’s focus for very long. And it’s a problem that threatens the life of young tech startups the world over.

The key to survival here is engagement. After all, an engaged user base will spread the word, which leads to an even bigger user base and (ideally) accelerated revenue growth. Lately, entrepreneurs have found that an easy way to get engagement is through gamification — incorporating the things that make games addictive and fun into their decidedly not game-related products.  

This is a trend Tim Loew, the executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDigi) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is all too familiar with. In fact, he has a name for it: the “attention economy.” How do you capture and maintain people’s attention in this day and age? Games figured out how to do it a long time ago. The global video game industry was worth more than $138 billion last year, so it’s no wonder the tech industry is taking a page from its book.

“Games are big business and big culture. And I think everybody — particularly over the last couple of years — has really grown a new appreciation for the power of games…It’s getting to be a real mainstream conversation these days,”  Loew told Built In. “Everybody looks at games and says, ‘Wow, if only my product could engage with users the same way a game does.’”

That’s why MassDigi recently teamed up with Boston-based Innovation Studio to create a new Gamification for Enterprise program in order to help early-stage, non-gaming founders apply game concepts to their businesses. Loew says there are lots of techniques that companies can derive from game design and game development that may be useful in building an app. And once those techniques are implemented, the hope is that a given app’s users will return to it again and again, cultivating what is commonly referred to as “habit-forming behavior.” 

Also on Built InWhat Is Gamification? Why Is It So Popular?


The Gaming-to-Good Habits Pipeline

It’s not just about creating super users of a given app, however. Many of the apps that are gamifying these days are doing so with the intent of reinforcing positive behavior that will benefit users as well.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than Stack, a gamified crypto platform for teens. Stack recently raised a $500,000 pre-seed round after being accepted into a fintech incubator in its hometown of Seattle. Now, it is gearing up to officially launch an app that will allow folks under the age of 18 to co-own crypto wallets and other digital asset accounts with their parents through a custodial account. 

“Really what we’re all about is financial education,” Stack’s co-founder and CEO Will Rush told Built In. “It’s a lot about making very compelling educational content through gamification.”

To do this, Rush says Stack sticks to the five “pillars” of good investing habits — long-term holding, diversification, periodic savings, hands-on learning and overall engagement. The app rewards this behavior, allowing users to “level up” each time they meet certain criteria. It has short daily challenges, too, for which users can earn free crypto. These challenges are also paired with quick 30- to 60-second videos that can help users answer questions successfully and earn the crypto prizes. In the end, Rush says that if a user successfully completes the daily challenge every day, then the free crypto they earn essentially recoups the app’s monthly subscription cost. 

“We want to make it more approachable and I think gamification is obviously an inherent piece of making this whole new world more approachable.”

Rush has spent a large part of his career in the securities and banking world, working with familiar faces like Charles Schwab, E-Trade and Robinhood. Robinhood is often credited as being among the first to gamify the investment space by rewarding users who day-trade and then taking a commission from that. But Stack is designed to be a departure from these more traditional approaches.

“We don’t care if you trade once a year, or trade once a day — in fact we’re trying to teach you to not trade every day because you’re saving. The gamification piece of that naturally comes from being a new platform that doesn’t feel like a Charles Schwab app, or one of those big securities players. Being more approachable,” Rush said. “Over 50 percent of users that we’ve tested don’t get involved in investing simply because they think it’s too complicated. They don’t know how to start. We want to make it more approachable and I think gamification is obviously an inherent piece of making this whole new world more approachable.”

Stack is the latest of many startups attempting to carve out a spot in the incredibly crowded fintech sector. The entire industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with behemoths like Stripe and Plaid at its forefront. But there’s a groundswell of younger players using gamification to make the space more approachable. Wingocard, another gamified banking app for teens, launched last spring. And Charlie, a personal finance app that marries gamification and psychology to help users get out of debt faster, launched last winter, only to be scooped up by fintech heavyweight Chime six months later.

The fact that Charlie was so rapidly embraced by a major company like Chime is a good indicator that gamification will become a more mainstream part of fintech going forward, as co-founder Ilian Georgiev said he anticipated at the time of the company’s launch.

“The reason why mobile games make so much money is not because, for some reason, that is the only thing that works for mobile devices. It’s because we’ve figured out all these dark arts of nudging people and creating habits,” he told Built In early last year, predicting that the “next stage in the evolution” of online banking will focus more on harnessing those “dark arts” to form good habits. “Your bank is not just holding your money, it is actually helping you achieve your own goals, whatever those might be.”


NYC-based BoldVoice education gamification
Image: BoldVoice

Making a ‘Sticky’ App

The banking sector isn’t the only one being rapidly gamified. It seems like every direct-to-consumer industry is moving in this direction as a way to keep users engaged — both to cut through the noise and increase user bases and profits. One of the most obvious examples of this is education, which was essentially built to maintain good habits and keep folks engaged.

BoldVoice, for example, is doing it to teach language and help users refine their accents. Built In last featured the young startup in its Q3 2021 Future 5 of NYC Tech roundup, and it has since added aspects of gamification in an effort to make the app more “sticky” as co-founder Anada Lakra puts it — creating a “loop” where the user is incentivized to come back day after day.

To do this, BoldVoice has implemented points and levels into its daily activities. So every time a user completes an assignment they collect stars. The more stars you get, the more you advance and unlock new content, which is designed to “create a sense of achievement” as you progress through the app, Lakra explained. Similarly, the app has adopted streaks — another popular gaming technique.

“It gives them a little bit of this hit of dopamine that makes them want to come back.”

“Once you get on a good streak it kind of adds a layer of accountability. You don’t want to break the streak. So it helps you build the habit even more,” Lakra told Built In, adding that this is then buoyed by the rewards system. “There’s this intrinsic value that you get out of doing each piece of content. But, on top of that, being recognized by getting the star and getting some bonus content, makes the experience extra worthwhile for the user. It gives them a little bit of this hit of dopamine that makes them want to come back.”

BoldVoice is also working on a new feature now that involves karaoke. So users can sing a song into the app, which then provides feedback on their pronunciation of the lyrics. They can then share how they did with friends and compete amongst each other for the best score.

“It really hits on a lot of topics of entertainment, social sharing, and moving away from not learning in a silo but learning as part of a community,” Lakra said. 

BoldVoice is following in the footsteps of apps like Duolingo, whose gamified approach has helped more than 300 million users acquire and practice new languages. In fact, recent research found that Duolingo’s outcomes are comparable to university language classes. The company also filed to go public in June of 2021, following in the footsteps of other online education companies like Coursera, Chegg and Kahoot — further validating that online language learning is among the fastest-growing segments in the edtech space.

Brainly education gamification
Image: Brainly 

Of course, rewards and other incentives aren’t new to education, language learning or otherwise. Teachers have been passing out gold stars and promising pizza parties to encourage positive behavior among their students for a long time. Michal Borkowski, the CEO of edtech startup Brainly, says the sector has simply done a good job of bringing that age-old practice into the digital world.

Brainly, which touts itself as the largest online learning platform of its kind, implements aspects of gamification as a way to enhance students’ learning experience and reward them for their successes. When users learn new things and help others on Brainly’s communal “knowledge base,” they receive achievement points and badges with cute names like “Gratitude Attitude” and “Numbers Nerd.” This allows them to not only track their personal progress, but also compete with other users. 

And this method appears to be working. Brainly found in a recent internal survey that it contributed to a “significant lift of engagement,” claiming the majority of students who use its app report feeling more motivated as a result of gamification.

“It works in classrooms and works just as well on digital platforms like Brainly. What we have now is the technology to personalize that experience for students and implement gamification virtually,” Borkowski told Built In via email. “What this really means is that [students are] having fun while learning and helping others learn. I love that idea.”

NYC-based Ergatta fitness gamification
Photo: Ergatta

An emphasis on community and (friendly) competition is an important part of gamifying any industry, especially fitness. 

Ergatta, for instance, offers connected, gamified workouts on its techie rowing machine. This includes a virtual race, where users go head to head with eight other users of similar ability. There are also single-player games in which the user does various interval workouts that are tracked and measured on a screen with personalized targets, depending on what the person is capable of doing and how much they want to progress. When a user meets their goals, they collect digital tokens.

In short, these workouts are designed to be like a normal fitness class or sport, where competition is encouraged. Instead of just following along with a video, Ergatta’s users can compete between friends and peers, unlocking content and hitting milestones along the way — classic gamification tactics that keep users coming back. 

This is important because, like fintech, home fitness is another cramped industry. Giants like Peloton, rising stars like Hydrow and countless up-and-comers are all vying for the same customers. It’s just a matter of who keeps people engaged the best — and gamification is a pretty obvious solution. Peloton certainly knows this, which is why it recently rolled out a new feature that adds another layer of gamification to its connected home workouts.

Meanwhile, Ergatta’s gamified platform earned it a $30 million investment last April, which it is using to keep up with its recent “exponential growth.”

“Gamification resonates with our members by entertaining and motivating them during their workouts, and by giving them a reason to come back each day,” Ergatta’s co-founder and CEO Tom Aulet told Built In via email. “We’ve proven that combining cardio equipment with gaming software creates a fitness routine that’s motivating, habit-forming and fun — especially for those that never really got there with fitness classes.”

Related ReadingGamification Is Over. Long Live Game Thinking.


It’s Got to Be Good

If you’re beginning to notice a pattern among all these startups, you’re on to something. Community, competition and rewards are the core elements of what makes anything gamified, and its success in getting people to come and stay hinges on how well the platform implements these elements. 

Although it may seem obvious, there’s quite a bit of science behind what makes a game good, and the same can be said for normal apps that incorporate game concepts.

First and foremost, MassDigi’s Tim Loew points out that games have to be genuinely fun to get users to return time and again. “You don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort building a game that’s not very fun,” he said. “We call those simulations.” And once you accomplish that, Loew says people will spend inordinate amounts of time and money on a given game just to get a little enjoyment out of it from day to day. 

“Games have been around a long time in some shape or form. There’s something in our species that likes games.”

“It’s really a very powerful way to engage with people,” he said. “Games have been around a long time in some shape or form. There’s something in our species that likes games. They sure have evolved over the hundreds and thousands of years that they’ve been around. But for the most part it’s something that we enjoy, and there’s a body of science that understands how to drive that kind of engagement and get benefits from that.”

If done right, implementing this science stands to do more than just drive engagement on a specific app. It also has the potential to revolutionize the industry that app exists in. 

Liteboxer, another digital fitness startup, is already beginning to do just that. Its tech-enabled punching bag, kitted out with lights and music, scored a $20 million Series A last June. Soon after, it announced the upcoming release of its new VR product (available March 3), joining a growing number of companies also bringing fitness into the metaverse — including Meta itself

“The current players in the metaverse fitness space are gaming companies trying to do fitness — we’re a fitness company that is leveraging our proprietary technology to revolutionize the gaming space,” Liteboxer’s co-founder and CEO Jeff Morin told Built In via email last month. “As the future of fitness becomes increasingly hybrid, fitness experiences can’t just be a copy and paste of what’s seen in the gym.”

Brainly is also benefitting from the newly hybrid nature of its industry: education. However, Borkowski clarified that, although it may seem like Brainly and other apps like it have become an overnight success, the industry has actually been gamifying for years through edtech. The pandemic simply served as a catalyst that brought it into the mainstream, and now students are continuing to use it as reinforcement.

“When we consider how traditional and unchanged the education system has been for hundreds of years, it’s impressive to see how quickly students, parents, and teachers have embraced gamification and online education recently,” Borkowski said. “In essence, what the general public is seeing now is the success and recognition of edtech’s role throughout a very challenging couple of years for students — and that’s worth celebrating. Gamification is of course part of that.”


The Limit Doesnt Exist

Meanwhile, Stack, the teen-focused crypto investment app, is coming on the scene at a time when more young people than ever are dipping their toes in the investment space. There are tons of apps that make it easier and more affordable to invest in the stock market or crypto, and Reddit has become a major resource for trading stock tips — as seen by the white-hot meme-stock craze and the now-legendary short squeeze on GameStop stock a year ago. 

But, at the same time, Rush says the industry has “over-indexed on access instead of education,” leaving us with a generation of folks who are either making poor investment decisions or are too scared to invest at all. This has created fertile ground for Stack.

“There’s this huge opportunity in the private sector to sort of do the education that curriculum never can. I mean, the world changes so quickly, and curriculum has remained largely unchanged for over the last hundred years. And the world changes every day,” Rush said, adding that these days there seem to be “micro-generations” amid the larger millennial and Gen-Z cohorts that can be differentiated by the way they use certain apps and technologies. Stack is “leaning into that” in order to get teenagers to engage in their own education. “That’s what’s going to empower them to be successful. That’s what’s going to empower them not to go invest in Kim Kardashian’s meme coin and then go get burned,” he said.

“Gamifying it and making it fun, that’s just table stakes, right? You have to do that to increase engagement.”

To be clear, Rush doesn’t think apps like Stack are going to completely replace the education system. He says teachers and schools will always be the foundation of learning. Instead, the private sector has an opportunity to add an “extra layer of value” to prepare teenagers for the realities of investing today. 

“You form a lot of your habits when you’re in high school…So why shouldn’t we build in those same years these very foundational-level financial habits that also make you realize that it is much more approachable,” Rush said. “Gamifying it and making it fun, that’s just table stakes, right? You have to do that to increase engagement.”

Indeed, besides things like habit-forming behaviors and dopamine hits, BoldVoice’s Anada Lakra says standard gamification techniques are becoming more popular across various industries because it allows these companies to better compete with everything else that’s out there. Beyond just direct competitors, startups are up against TikTok, Netflix and the countless other things vying for our attention every moment of the day. Not to mention our seemingly ever-shortening attention spans. 

“You have to engage and entertain while you teach,” Lakra said, adding that TikTok has really cracked the code when it comes to this with its “short, snappy” educational content. “I think just looking at how TikTok has been doing that is a hint for what education will keep becoming. Not just entertainment and gamification, but also this bite-size, efficient absorption of content.” 

Indeed, the need for this kind of bite-size content (and a fun way to distribute it) doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon for the education industry — or any industry for that matter. So, as far as Loew is concerned, the possibilities are endless.

“There’s no more active community online than the gaming community, globally,” he said. “Can you bring that into your fintech product? Can you bring that into your edtech product? I think that’s what a lot of startups and growth companies are looking at to try to get a better understanding of how they can build these sort of highly engaged communities around their products.”

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