Why CUs Should Think Like Game Designers

Games are fun, while personal finances are often boring or overwhelming.

August 14, 2012
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Worldwide, people spend three billion hours each week playing video games.

Matt Davis
Matt Davis

The five million “extreme” gamers in the U.S. play an average of 45 hours per week—more than the average worker spends earning a living.


Not surprisingly, businesses have taken notice. “Gamification,” defined by subject expert Gabe Zichermann as the application of “game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems,” has become a bona fide business buzzword.

It has also become big business. Corporations are expected to spend as much as $2.8 billion a year on gamification by 2016.

The early results have been impressive. Gamification has helped Ford Motor Co. improve fuel economy, Weight Watchers inspire better eating habits, and Nike create a thriving community for physical fitness.

So what does this mean for credit unions?

As much time is spent on gaming, online and off, consumers spend precious little attention on their finances. On average, Americans spend only 2.6 hours per month on financial planning and budgeting.

Why the big difference? Games are fun, while personal finances are boring or overwhelming.

Games are engaging; personal finances are simply unwelcome chores. Games help people escape reality; personal finances force an outright confrontation with it.

As credit unions struggle to improve member financial behavior, skills, and capacity; engage audiences; and optimize organizational performance, we should ask a key question: Should we think more like game designers?

A recent Filene Research Institute innovation brief, “Get in the Game: How Credit Unions Can Engage Members, Solve Problems, and Improve Skills with Game Thinking,” explores how credit unions can leverage the allure of games:

Keep score and design effective leaderboards. Game players expect feedback for nearly every action they take. They want to know how they have done, how they stack up against their peers, and how much they have improved over time.

Credit unions must shorten the feedback loop associated with positive (and negative) member financial behaviors, employee performance, and board participation.

“Ideal” self versus “real” self. Game players are more likely to enjoy and become intrinsically motivated to play a game when it allows them to act like their “ideal” selves, assuming characteristics of personas they would ideally like to be, according to Psych Central.

Outcome certainty is boring. The prize-linked savings program, Save to Win, proves the power of uncertain outcomes. A chance to achieve something new, win a valuable prize, or gain a new experience adds excitement to ordinary tasks.

Focus on the benefit to members, not to the credit union. Consumers can smell exploitation a mile away.

Shorten the time between action and feedback.

Break large missions into smaller quests.

Game players want structure and autonomy. Make sure you provide both.

Action, reward; action, action, reward. Align challenges with skills, make challenges progressively harder, and reward accomplishments.

Badges, points, and virtual currencies only have value if they are actually accomplishments.

Have fun. If you aren’t having fun, your audience isn’t either.

The goal for credit unions isn’t to create a video game. That’s much too literal.

Instead, the goal of gamification is to use the dynamics and mechanics associated with games and apply them to real-world experiences.

If misaligned incentives, boring experiences, and unmotivated audiences are the enemy of traditional financial services, gamification could be our hero.

MATT DAVIS is director of innovation for the Filene Research Institute.

Game on

rk Borden
August 14, 2012 9:25 pm
This is a concept I have been trying to articulate at my CU. Would love to explore how to do this in a practical and affordable way.

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Affordable Game Thinking

Matt Davis
August 15, 2012 12:00 pm
RK, Thanks for your comment! The tendency is to think about technology answers. While desirable, that's not the only way. Really, the key is thinking about what makes games fun and finding ways to apply that to your work, your credit union's offerings, and how people interact with your brand. To me, the idea of feedback loops is the most promising starting point. Consumers have been conditioned to expect feedback after every action. What can you do to speed up the feedback loop for your members, co-workers, and people in the community? Mt. Lehman Credit Union, for example, sends out real-time text alerts when you exceed your budget or your balance dips below a certain level. They realize that any delay in that notification lessens the effect. Another place to look is score keeping. Do your employees know what their top score is? What's their quickest teller transaction? What's the largest number of transactions they've done in a day? How are they doing today compared to their personal best, and how does that compare to the organization's high score? Can raises and promotions be granted based on RPG-style experience points? It really comes down to how you develop leaderboards, how keep track of "scores," and how you can build a gamification loop that keeps your audience engaged. Technology can help, but it's not the only way. I developed a system for Members Credit Union in 2004 that awarded "Thumbs Up" points for various efforts. Supervisors could award them, and so could individual anyone. Employees could also earn points for individual performance related to their job function: # days balancing, number of new member signups, % of collections queue that made catch-up payments, etc. Each month, employees would receive tokens (poker chips) for the points they earned. At the annual appreciation dinner, those tokens were used to bid on really cool prizes (big screen tv, days off work, amusement park tickets, etc.) It was low (no?) tech gamification, that leveraged the power of game thinking to inspire positive change in employee performance.

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