The financial crisis has no doubt impacted us all. The direct results such as unemployment are often uncomfortably close, but the root causes remain distant and removed from our day-to-day lives. People blame Wall Street – innovation outpaced regulation, and financial institutions engaged in overly risky and even predatory behavior – but this also ignores the part each of us had to play in the crash. U.S. household debt peaked in 2007 at $13.7 trillion (with a t). While major banks were making bad bets, many of us in the 99% were simply ignoring the red and signing up for the next credit card.
The crash has been hard, but hard times spawns innovation. Gamification has stepped up to the plate to make personal finance not only fun and easy, but fully engaging to the many of us who dread to even look at our bank statements.
Gamification of spending money has been happening for decades, but the last few years has seen the rise of gamification in financial responsibility. American Express first introduced the Platinum Card in 1984, defining different “levels” in the credit card hierarchy. Levels were soon joined by points after being pioneered in the airline industry. The goals for these programs were to engage consumers with the brand and lure them away from competitors by using status and stuff rather than competing on price. Consumers gobbled it up, and now you can’t buy anything from anywhere without being offered membership in a loyalty program. In many situations, these loyalty programs can distract consumers from financial responsibility, as the rewards never cost the company more than they get from your loyalty.
Where loyalty programs largely depend upon disengaged consumers, gamification of personal finance creates players. I define a player, well, from playing games. As opposed to the one-way relationship from producer to consumer, player interactions go both ways. The actions of a player change the conditions and outcomes of the game. A series of new companies have sprouted up that support this two-way interaction and allows us to play with and better understand our money.
The oldest and most well known of these companies is Mint.com. Recently purchased by Intuit, Mint.com has tried a few more “gamey” experiments in the past, but their long term success has come from encouraging users to engage with their own personal finances and overcome “apathy, inertia, and financial illiteracy” through game mechanics. In a presentation at our last GSummit, Mint.com VP Aaron Forth went over how achievement, progression, and competition can influence user behavior. A great example was 2010’s “Drop Your Debt Challenge” that rewarded players who had the greatest declines in personal debt.
Other companies have followed in Mint.com’s footsteps. Bobber Interactive, SaveUp, and PayOff.com are three recent arrivals that share the mission of motivating users around financial goals. Badges, rewards, and achievements drive players to successful financial decisions, and an emphasis on social networking provides support from real friends and family. We previously covered Bobber, and how it focuses on education and action to help students save. The sales point of SaveUp is similar in that, “SaveUp gives you the opportunity to win these rewards simply for doing what’s best for you.”
These companies aren’t banks, but rather intermediaries between banks and players. One criticism that came through in a recent Reuters article is that these rewards systems are just a new form of loyalty marketing. The idea is that with banks becoming commoditized, they must compete on features. At a glance, these are marketing campaigns, but the truth is that the largest competitor to savings isn’t other banks. Debt and credit cards jockey with products like Mint.com that engages customers with easily accessible information on finances and encourage an open market for changing banks.
On the surface, these are fun ways to play with your money, but Mint.com, Bobber, and SaveUp also represent a fundamental shift in our national economy. The financial crisis demonstrated that we can no longer be an economy of passive consumers, and so gamification is leading the charge to create personal agency in the fundamental forces that shape our lives. We can no longer only be a consumer economy. Now we must become a player economy.