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Gamification for the Win: How to Cash in on the Most Irresistible Form of Marketing There Is

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Have you seen these Toon Blast commercials with Ryan Reynolds? The ones where he is unashamedly addicted to the game, at the expense of all else?

There’s nothing really special about Toon Blast — the same magnetic pull is experienced with Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or any other game you can find in your friendly App Store. But there is something about games that hooks us. I surely remember the hours upon hours playing Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda growing up. HOURS.


Ahhh, Zelda…

At some point in time, some brilliant marketers said, “Hey! Why don’t we try to apply the same principles that make games so enticing to business marketing?”

And gamification was born.*

*Not historically accurate. (This infographic and this research paper do better jobs.) But you get the drift.

Gamification in Marketing

Gamification describes the process of taking elements of gameplay and applying them to non-game situations. For years, gamification has been used in education, recruitment, sales, and yes of course – marketing.

Gamification in marketing has continued to thrive for one reason — it works. Typically it will involve some action required on the part of the user, with the user receiving a reward afterward. The exact nature of the action and reward will vary greatly depending on situation and application, but this is the basic formula for gamification.

The core reason businesses use gamification is to increase user engagement. After all, who can resist the lure of a prize? Who doesn’t want to win?


Businesses count on humanity’s natural affinity toward game playing to make otherwise boring or ordinary things more exciting and memorable. In an era where attention is currency and we are bombarded with thousands of advertising messages daily, businesses who properly use gamification tend to cut through the noise with more success.

Benefits of gamification

As gamification increases engagement, it naturally opens the door to other benefits:

  • Increased brand awareness and positive feelings toward the brand
  • Increased customer loyalty
  • Increased dollars spent (or whatever action you intend for your users to take)
  • Increased knowledge or learning
  • Enhanced recall
  • Fostering of a community around your brand

Need I go on?

The Happy Brain Chemicals That Make Gamification Work

Gamification is powerful because it affects the chemicals in our brains, influencing mood and behavior on a measurable, neurological level. (More: Tom Chatfield on 7 Ways Games Reward the Brain)

So, when businesses want to increase engagement, what’s the answer? Hit ‘em with a dose of dopamine. You know dopamine — the neurotransmitter known as the “feel-good hormone”, triggered in our brains when we anticipate something pleasurable. It’s tied to motivation, reward, and alertness. Other neurochemicals (notably: serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) play equally important roles in our brains during gamified experiences.

The result of these Big 4 Happy Chemicals? The feeling of happiness they bring compels us to continue what we’re doing, or to seek out more of what we’re doing. And ultimately, this is what makes gamification work.

The Right Way to Think About Gamification in Your Marketing

When I say gamification, do you automatically think it’s all about video games? Shake your head really hard and try to knock that notion loose. Gamification for your business is not about turning your website into a digital arcade or creating a random game app just for the heck of it.

Some implementations of gamification are very obvious and literal, but most are more subtle.

Indeed, the heart of gamification in marketing is not about creating games. It’s about taking the same motivational concepts and psychological cues that make games so engaging, and integrating those into your marketing to guide the behavior of your customers.

According to gamification agency, there are certain human desires that gamification offers the perfect tools to satisfy.

Game Dynamics (human desires)Game Mechanics (tools)
Self-expressionVirtual Goods

So, don’t be overwhelmed by the idea of gamification, thinking that you have to create the next Candy Crush. Instead, consider gamification a framework to meet basic human desires — that just so happens to use common gaming concepts to do so.

Gamification in Action

Spoiler alert: it’s everywhere.

Once you start looking for examples of gamification, you’ll realize you’re surrounded.

  • Loyalty programs (e.g. earn points for your purchases; future discounts for current action)
  • Social media contests
  • Airline rewards programs
  • Website popups (enter your email address for a chance to win X)

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, your Cold Stone Creamery punch cardFitbit badges — all of these are examples of gamification in action.

In fact, here are examples of gamification that I’ve run into over just the past few days:

  • …when making a payment on my credit card…
    The payment page features an interactive slider. On the left end is zero; on the right is the total balance. There is a marker somewhere in between indicating the minimum payment. If you enter in varying amounts to pay, the marker on the slider zooms accordingly to the right or the left, and gleefully displays “$xx left to pay!” The “goal” or “prize” is achieved once you reach the end of the slider, which is equivalent to paying off your balance in full. That’s how you “win”. (A mini-win is achieved simply by paying more than the minimum payment.)
  • …while shopping for … well, anything… online.
    E-commerce is a prime playing field for gamification strategies. Whether I was on a website for children’s clothing, household toiletries, or meal delivery service, they all offered some “prize” in the form of points for purchase, free shipping after a certain amount, or rewards for referring others.
  • …while looking for answers on an online forum
    On the support forum, members who frequently contribute helpful answers are awarded badges that display next to their names as they advance to higher levels of “guru” status.
  • …when reading my email
    Somehow over the past few months, I became a Google Local Guide. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know how this happened. I think I answered a question or left a review of a local business at some point. In any case, I recently received an email from Google congratulating me on reaching “Level 2” … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ … complete with a rocketship graphic straight out of an arcade game.

Any of this sound familiar? You probably run into countless examples every day yourself. Some are so prevalent and flow so seamlessly into the user experience that you don’t even think about them as gamification. But indeed they are. The above examples were especially notable to me due to the intentional emphasis on particular game elements. They used interactive visualsmotivating languageprogress markers, and the promise of a reward – all to try and get my happiness hormones flowing. And for the most part… it worked.

The Best Type of Gamification for Your Business

Before you incorporate any gamification into your marketing, you need to be clear on one thing: who will be interacting with it? Just like anything else in marketing, you need to understand your target audience, as this will inform the best way to proceed.

Consider the following games:

  • Grand Theft Auto
  • Chess
  • Tetris
  • Poker
  • Monopoly
  • SimCity
  • World of Warcraft
  • Pictionary
  • Casino slot machines
  • Farmville

If you had to pick just one, which game do you think would resonate most with your target audience?

The answer will likely align with your brand archetype and that of your users.

We have to be careful — you don’t want to fall into the trap of stereotyping. There’s no reason why someone who enjoys Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t also enjoy playing chess. However, you will likely find there is a strong correlation between games and personality types, which can help you make data-informed decisions.

In addition to your brand archetype, you can look to any one of the many frameworks created by gamification experts to help guide you. A couple of popular ones:

Marczewski’s Player and User Types

Andrzej Marczewski’s framework defines 12 types of players.

  • Achiever
  • Free Spirit
  • Socialiser
  • Philanthropist
  • Destroyer
  • Innovator
  • Influencer
  • Greifer
  • Self Seeker
  • Consumer
  • Exploiter
  • Networker

The Octalysis Framework

Yu-kai Chou’s framework is based on the eight core drives (motivations) that attract us to games.

  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment
  • Empowerment
  • Ownership
  • Social Influence
  • Scarcity
  • Unpredictability
  • Avoidance

As you can see, there is more to gamification than initially meets the eye. To do it right takes an intentional approach, understanding the types of users you have, defining the motivations you should tap into, and factoring in your brand archetype.

How to Use Gamification in Your Marketing

Let’s say you have identified your audience primarily as the Creator archetype. As a brief refresher, the Creator archetype is motivated by control, values freedom of expression, and desires to create something meaningful using their skills or gifts.

If we layer that on top of the above gamification frameworks and personality type study, we find that the Creator archetype:

With this expanded picture, we have a better idea of what to do. Community-driven or rewards-based gamification strategies might not be the best to integrate for your crew of Creators. However, you would want to focus on customizable options, a high visual appeal, and anything that acts as an avenue for expression, like virtual goods.

Consider again the game from the above list that you think your target audience would enjoy. What attributes, success strategies, motivations, or other qualities define the game? What psychological or neurological activity does it stimulate? For example, chess requires a high degree of strategy and concentration, and activates the quest for mastery or achievement. On the other hand, casino slots require little skill or focus, potentially promises a big payoff, and requires openness to risk. The adrenaline rush it activates may be stronger than that caused by some other games.

These qualities and psychological components are what you want to use as the basis of your gamification efforts.

Once you have defined what these are, simply look with fresh eyes at your current marketing for opportunities where you can incorporate them.

“…it is possible to see many traditional marketing techniques as the equivalent of game design patterns. From this perspective, the task of planning a marketing strategy for a traditional product or service could be approached as a task of creating a game design: a structure of choices, restrictions and incentives that engage the playerconsumer in an interactive relationship with the product or service. ” (Source)

Gamification is here to stay.

The gamification industry has experienced explosive growth partly because there are so many applications for it. There are companies for which gamification is the core of their offering, like MIRA, a medical device that turns physical therapy into games. Or SidekickHealth, a company that incentivizes people to adapt to healthier lifestyles.

In 2016, the gamification industry was valued at 4.91 billion. That number is predicted to rise to almost 12 billion in 2021. (22 billion in 2022, depending on which model you believe). In any case, gamification is not going anywhere except up and out. If you’ve not yet begun to intentionally incorporate gamification into your marketing, what are you waiting on? A special invitation from Super Mario himself?

(Speaking of gamification… have you taken our brand personality quiz Ten minutes. You can do it here.)

Picture of Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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