The onset of digital banking came with an opportunity to change the way we bank. One way financial services have integrated digital features is through something called gamification, which uses game-like elements to incentivize healthy financial behavior.

As an example, consider the finance app Fortune City. Users of the app build a simulated city based on their spending. They log all of their daily expenses and income, and each expense is translated into an element of the city’s design, so that the user can see their budget visualized in the app and practice mindful spending.

Fortune City and apps similar to it create a game out of managing finances. As a result, consumers can see their spending or savings visualized in a more interactive format.

What is gamification?

Gamification is a way of adding game-like elements (scoring, winning, competing with others) to some sort of non-gamenongame product or process. Businesses often use gamification in their marketing strategies and loyalty programs, and dozens of mobile apps have emerged to support these efforts. A number of banks and credit unions have tried using games to increase engagement or educate consumers about personal finance, too.

Most gamified products provide the user with some sort of objective — a final goal post they need to reach to win the game. Ultimately though, the power of gamification is in the reward. Whether it’s bragging rights that you beat a competitor, money or some sort of prize, dangling that carrot can help motivate consumers to “level-up,” or progress to next level, keep achieving and, in the end, complete their goal (or, in many cases, the business’s goal).

Gamifying an objective can also help consumers better track their progress and stay on the path toward success by boosting consumers’ motivation. Studies have proven that “gamification can be a powerful solution to address motivational problems within learning or working contexts,” according to an article in the scholarly journal “Computers in Human Behavior.”

America’s savings crisis

If met with a sudden loss of income, over half of U.S. adults wouldn’t have enough saved to cover three months of expenses, based on findings from a 2021 Bankrate survey.

For consumers in this no- or low-savings category, gamification may be able to help, motivating them to save and have fun while they’re at it. Unlike traditional budgeting — which takes time to yield results even as savings rates rise — a gamified experience instantly grants rewards for consumers

“The main action that happens in a gamified system is that they tend to be very focused on providing people with immediate positive reinforcement that repeats with every action the user makes,” says Gabe Zichermann, an author and gamification expert.

It’s all mental

When we experience something pleasurable, like winning a prize, our brains produce a chemical called dopamine. We’re hard-wired to prefer pleasure over pain, says Syble Solomon, a specialist in financial psychology and creator of Money Habitudes, an online game that gives insight into different money personalities. So naturally, we’re motivated to do what we find satisfying.

Those who are continually rewarded by a game they enjoy will want to keep playing it. Therefore, a fun game with savings habits built into it can motivate players to keep saving.

Generally, for gamification to motivate someone to change their behavior, there needs to be both tangible rewards, like money, and rewards internal to the game, like points or badges. Rewards don’t have to be consistent, gamification expert Zichermann says. And if you receive them too often, you could get bored.

“You want a combination of predictable and unpredictable to really drive the right kind of behavior and feel like there’s a chance for the reward to be even better,” he says.

But does it help you save?

Gamification can make saving money fun, but can it help consumers meet their goals? There is some evidence suggesting that it works.

Commonwealth, an organization helping people become financially secure, has conducted studies and developed games like SavingsQuest, an online and mobile tool designed to mimic fitness trackers, like Fitbit, but for tracking savings.

In a pilot targeting prepaid card holders, SavingsQuest users could earn badges by saving money and completing challenges. These users saved on average, 25 percent more often than cardholders who didn’t use SavingsQuest.

In another study by Commonwealth, Walmart MoneyCard users who were offered the chance to win cash for saving money ended up saving 35 percent more, on average, a year after the initiative launched.

There’s no guarantee that gamification can help every consumer build or grow an emergency fund, but it could provide the motivation needed to spend less and save more.

Gamifying your finances

If you’re having trouble saving money, consider opening a prize-linked savings account or share certificate, i.e., certificate of deposit. Some credit unions offer them through programs like Save to Win, which enters members into a cash prize drawing every time they deposit $25 into their savings account. Some banks provide similar rewards-driven accounts, like Yotta Savings, which enters customers who save into a weekly prize drawing.

Download an app like Mint or Qapital, a money saving app that lets users set up their own rules for saving. Another app, Long Game, lets users play games and win prizes up to $1 million.

“It’s a much more engaged interaction with the user than you’ll see from any other financial institution out there,” says Long Game CEO Lindsay Holden. “That’s really how we’re trying to drive consistent behavior, help people get excited about where they’re going with their finances and give them a path that they can go down to achieve those goals.”

Consumers who are more self-motivated can create their own games out of saving.

One strategy is to transfer money into a savings account every time you get paid, author Zichermann says. When you’ve done that 10 times, reward yourself. Or set a goal and compete against a friend to see who can save the most money.

“The funny thing is, it’s impossible to lose that bet,” says Ric Edelman, co-founder and executive chairman of Edelman Financial Services. “Even if your friend ends up saving more than you, you have still saved and that’s the goal.”

Bottom line

If you’re behind on saving or don’t have enough to cover an emergency, it might be time to give gamified saving a whirl. Check with your bank or credit union to see if it provides any game-like apps or tools. If not, connect a financial gamification app or consider one of the solutions mentioned. Saving even just a little bit more each month could offer financial protection in the face of unexpected expenses.

–Writer Amanda Dixon contributed to a previous version of this article.