Robinhood app makes Wall Street feel like a game to win – instead of a place where you can lose your life savings in a New York minute

Wall Street has long been likened to a casino. Robinhood, an investment app that just filed plans for an initial public offering, makes the comparison apt than ever.

That’s because the power of the casino is the way it makes people feel like gambling their money away is a game. Casinos are full of mood lighting, fun noises and other sensory details that reward gamblers when they place coins in slots.

Similarly, Robinhood’s slick and easy-to-use app resembles a thrill-inducing video game rather than a sober investment tool. The color palette of red and green is associated with mood, with green having a calming effect and red increasing arousal, anger and negative emotions. Picking stocks can seem like a fun lottery of scratching off the winning ticket; celebratory confetti drops from the top of the screen for the new users’ first three investments.

But just as people can lose a lot of money gambling at the casino, the same thing can happen when you trade stocks and bonds – sometimes with disastrous consequences, such as last year when a Robinhood user died by suicide after mistakenly believing that he’d lost US$750,000.

I study how people behave inside game worlds and design classroom games. Using gamelike features to influence real-life actions can be beneficial, such as when a health app uses rewards and rankings to encourage people to move more or eat healthier food. But there’s a dark side too, and so-called gamification can lead people to forget the real-world consequences of their decisions.

Even the investing pros have bad days. AP Photo/Richard Drew

Games explained

Generally speaking, games – whether played on a board, among children or with a computer – are voluntary activities that are structured by rules and involve players competing to overcome challenges that carry no risk outside of their virtual world.

The reason games are so captivating is that they challenge the mind to learn new things and are generally safe spaces to face and overcome failure.

Games also mimic rites of passage similar to religious rituals and draw players into highly focused “flow states” that dramatically alter self-awareness. This sensory blend of flow and mastery are what make games fun and sometimes addicting: “Just one more turn” thinking can last for hours, and players forget to eat and sleep. Players who barely remember yesterday’s breakfast recall visceral details from games played decades ago.

Unlike static board games, video games specifically provide visual and auditory feedback, rewarding players with color, movement and sound to maintain engagement.

The video game Sonic the Hedgehog uses color, movement, sound and the gathering of rings to engage users.

The power of angrier birds

The psychological impact of game play can also be harnessed for profit.

For example, many free-to-play video games such as Angry Birds 2 and Fortnite give players the option to spend real money on in-game items such as new and even angrier birds or character skins. While most people avoid spending much money, this results in a small share of heavy users spending thousands of dollars in an otherwise free game.

This “free-to-play” model is so profitable that it’s grown increasingly popular with video game designers and publishers.

Similarly, subscription-based “massively multiplayer online roleplaying games” such as Final Fantasy XIV use core game play loops. These are the primary set of actions a player will carry out during a game – such as jumping in Super Mario Brothers or continuously upgrading weapons in the Borderlands series – that encourage constant play to keep users playing and paying. They’re so effective that, for a small number of people, playing the game can even become an addiction that interferes with their mental well-being.

Gamification, however, goes one step further and uses gaming elements to influence real-world behavior.

Frequent jumping is a key element of the Super Mario Brothers experience.


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