Defined contribution plan executives, providers, tech firms and academics are all giving "gamification" techniques a closer look in hopes of driving participant engagement and financial literacy.
"Over the past few years there has been an increase in elements of gamification within the digital retirement space," said Olivia Jack, New York-based retirement industry analyst at market research firm Corporate Insight Inc.
Gamification elements, which include online games and challenges, peer comparisons and interactive education tools are all "cropping up" on record keepers' participant websites and mobile apps, she said.
Much of this stems from the industry's focus on finding ways to get more employees thinking about and preparing for their financial futures, Ms. Jack said.
Driving engagement among defined contribution plan participants "is definitely one of the most prevalent conversations across the industry for sponsors and record keepers," she observed.
While "a lot of (the) rhetoric in the retirement industry has been around 'setting it and forgetting it,'" gamification techniques "can encourage participants to go on their retirement websites and check if they are on track to meet their goals," Ms. Jack said.
Plan executives and record keepers also are turning to gamification to make their educational content more engaging.
A 2016 Corporate Insight survey of participants in employer-sponsored DC plans suggests there is much work to be done.
Of the approximately 1,500 respondents, only 12% said they had accessed educational content on their participant website within the past year.
Retirement plan service providers "are all kind of realizing that people don't have time to read booklets," said Lisa Blasdale, a former benefits manager at Staples Inc. They are asking themselves, "how can we deliver information that people need in a way that it is going to grab their attention and they will learn something even if they can only spend 10 to 15 minutes on it?" Ms. Blasdale said.
Ms. Blasdale was part of the team at Staples Inc. that partnered with Commonwealth in 2011 to bring the organization's financial education games to Staples' workforce, which included hourly retail and salaried employees. Commonwealth, formerly the Doorways to Dreams Fund, focuses on creating games and other tools to drive financial security.
"Bite Club" — one of the games used by Staples — taught players how to balance running a business (a vampire night club), pay off debt and save for retirement.
The game, which took employees about 20 to 25 minutes to play, was customized for Staples employees to include information about Staples' 401(k) plan and information from its record keeper at the time, New York Life Retirement Plan Services. (New York Life won an Eddy award from Pensions & Investments' for the Staples-sponsored version of "Bite Club" in 2012.)
Ms. Blasdale said Staples saw an increase in 401(k) enrollments and employee contribution rates after "Bite Club" was introduced in 2011. A spokesman for Staples declined to comment.
Nick Maynard, Boston-based senior vice president at Commonwealth, believes Staples' success with "Bite Club" showed employees are "interested in engaging with video games as a tool to take that next step related to their retirement plan."
That being said, there is still a challenge today in terms of how "game-y" plan sponsors and providers want to go, he said.