In a previous article I wrote about the hacks that the gaming industry uses to keep users locked in their virtual world. Is it possible to use these same techniques to help people in their real lives?

Gamification applies gaming elements such as intermittent variable rewards, experience points, and leveling up, to real-life tasks. Its advocates say it is a great way to motivate people to accomplish difficult things that they may not otherwise be able to do. Its detractors say that it can be exploitive and manipulative, particularly when businesses use these techniques to nudge employee behavior. The more philosophically-minded claim that gamification can provide purpose, or an overarching narrative, to an otherwise “meaningless” life.

Is gamification helpful?

One often-cited example of how gamification can help solve difficult problems is Foldit. This game was designed by the University of Washington to entice participants to help solve a protein-folding problem that had been confounding scientists for 15 years. Over 40,000 people played the game and solved the protein problem in ten days. Now, users can join the Foldit community and “solve problems for science.”

Adam Alter, author of Irresistible and an advocate gamification, points to DDB Stockholm, a PR company that gamified certain public goods. When DDB saw that more people used the escalator than the stairs at the metro station, they painted the stairs to look like piano keys and rigged the keys to play music in response to pressure. The next day 66 percent more people used the stairs than normal because it was fun.

Personally, I tried gamifying my own “to do” list using Habatica. It was not very helpful for long-term or complicated projects, but it did help motivate me to complete Sisyphean tasks, like laundry or vacuuming, that needed to be done every week, did not require learning new skills, and did not progress to any larger goal. Whenever I completed a chore, my character gained experience, leveled up, and acquired prizes. Gamifying added a sense of progress, albeit a fictional one, to these repetitive chores.

Is gamification harmful?

Many detractors point out that the term “gamification” is just a buzz word for an old idea—incentivizing performance. Others say that while incentives have been around for a long time, gamification is different. When a company’s business model depends upon using the same psychological techniques that game designers use to keep users hooked, then one has to wonder if this crosses an ethical line.

The New York Times had an extensive article about Uber’s use of these psychological hacks to get their drivers to take more jobs in certain locations. According to the article, Uber is engaged in “an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate [their drivers] in the service of its corporate growth.”

Uber does this by using graphical and non-cash rewards when employees complete certain goals, goals that are advantageous to the company, but often translate into less pay and more on-the-clock hours for drivers. According to one driver, the whole thing is like a video game with achievements for going “Above and Beyond” or “Excellent Service.” He said that he had to resist urge to continue “playing” for more stats and achievements. Additionally, Uber keeps drivers on the road longer by using earnings goals and sending drivers their next fare opportunity before they drop off their current passenger, similar to Netflix’s post-play feature.

A 2016 journal article (by subscription) on the ethics of gamification asks four questions when evaluating whether gamification is ethical: Does their use of the game 1) take unfair advantage of employees, 2) manipulate employees by infringing upon their autonomy, 3) cause harm, or 4) cause someone to act immorally?

Based on these questions, companies like Uber seem to cross a line.

Furthermore, games typically involve voluntary participation. But if you can’t opt out of a game because your livelihood depends upon playing it, the system becomes less like World of Warcraft and more like the Hunger Games.

Gamification and a higher-purpose

Finally, while gamification is helpful for mundane tasks, gamification can become an inappropriate means to an end. For example, studies have shown that students who are offered extrinsic rewards via gamified learning may perform better in the short term, but do not fare better in the long term. There is some debate about this, especially because the idea behind GPA and class rank is a competition with clear winners and losers. However, educators push back that by gamifying everything, children do not learn how to be self-motivated. They do not become life-long learners, just highly skilled gamers.

Relationships seem like an obvious area where gamification is not appropriate, yet how many of us know the number of “friends” we have on Facebook and followers on Twitter? None of us would like to be used as a means to an end, particularly when that end is scoring points and leveling up. There’s something disingenuous about a spouse giving himself a point in a relationship app every time he tells his wife “I love you.” Or including “give your kids a hug” on your Habitica to do list and leveling up your avatar once you’ve hugged them a dozen times.

However, gamifying a relationship may not be that different from the old marriage advice that says if you have “fallen out of love” with your spouse, to start acting like you love her and then the feelings will follow. This isn’t where you want to stay, always acting, but for some relationships, one or both parties are no longer motivated to pursue the relationship, so they must employ techniques to help their stunted motivation.

Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, makes the astonishing claim that games can provide us with something that the world cannot. Games provide a meta-narrative that turns the arbitrariness of reality into something meaningful. According to McGonigal,

“The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.”

Ultimately, gamification is about motivation. Camus, a French philosopher who wrote about coping with the meaninglessness of life, used the story of Sisyphus as an analogy of man’s plight. Sisyphus was destined by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, for all of eternity. For people like McGonigal, gamification provides the meta-narrative that gives a meaningless world meaning. Sisyphus’s plight is a little more bearable, it seems, if he can pretend that he is in an endless game where he gains experience points, rewards, and levels up with every push up the hill. (There are actual games that are similar to this.)

But what if the situation is the other way around? Perhaps games tap into a deep human need for purpose and an over-arching narrative that religion once provided. Perhaps it is the game that is the substitute for the true narrative that says life is not meaningless.

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer with advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics. She writes on the intersection of science, culture, and technology.