As the case studies accumulate, gamification continues
to gain traction and garner attention. Yet despite its
newfound credibility, most still watch from the sidelines.
While it may not be right for every business, the stats
are hard to ignore. In 2010, corporations spent $100 million
on gamification, and that number is expected to rise
to $2.8 billion by 2016. The fact is, when done properly,
gamification can work. Brand innovators like Coke and
Nike know this, and it turns out, so do scientists.
According to the research of gamification pioneer Jane Mc-
Gonigal, the reason humans collectively spend 3 billion
hours a week playing games is tied to the psychological effects
delivered by game mechanics. The neurological flow
of dopamine, triggered by these underlying mechanics,
plays a powerful role in creating positive emotion. And
when game mechanics are applied to marketing problems,
the response is the same. No wonder gamification can elicit
such extraordinary behaviors. Turns out, regardless of the
context, we’re hardwired to play.
While there are countless game mechanics to consider
for any given digital marketing campaign, here are three with
significant neurological influences.
Social connection is a powerful game mechanic that leverages
our natural desire to come together for a common
purpose. It differs from social media in that it is goal oriented,
rather than just for the sake of socializing, and it incites
a stronger emotional investment.
Long before Facebook or Foursquare, gamers were connecting
on “epic quests” in collaborative games like World
of Warcraft and even in real-world team sports. They worked
together to achieve objectives otherwise unobtainable on
their own, and in doing so, experienced feelings of strong social
bonding with other players. To describe it another way,
if social media is a polite mixer party where people chat and
share photos, social connection is what’s experienced by the
guests who organize a diversion to spike the punch.
Of course, this is not to diminish social media. Channels
like Facebook and Twitter are great tools for leveraging
Let’s say, for example, you’re preparing to launch a new
campaign targeting Facebook fans. The obvious move
would be to reward them for liking, commenting and sharing
your content. Why not foster more investment by introducing
a problem that no person can solve alone? As fans
work together to crack the code, they begin to share an elite
sense of community. In turn, tying them closer to your brand
and increasing potential for additional consumer behaviors.
Another powerful game mechanic is risk tolerance. It tends
to be much higher for individuals in the virtual world. Not
surprisingly, it also tends to be more fun there.
To get a better sense of how risk tolerance works, it
helps to understand what’s happening in our heads. Research
at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute found that
within each of us there is a consistent neurological conflict
between the dread of potential failure and the bait of reward.
We actually have two opposing areas in our prefrontal
cortex, constantly jockeying for dominance. What does that
mean for gamification? Essentially, we’re preprogrammed
to thrill and obsess over risk/reward scenarios. In a game
context, it tickles our brainy bone, and as the stakes go up,
so does our engagement.
An example of risk tolerance in action could be a fresh
take on the typical hotel loyalty program. When customers
reach a certain number of points, they get a choice: keep
them and receive a $100 credit, or risk it all for a chance to
win a free week. More points could equal better odds, but
also puts more at stake. It’s a simple, yet exciting example of
how to motivate customers to buy more (build up those
points and chances to win), and to assign more tangible
value to what the customer has earned, which fosters greater
As a game mechanic, ownership is as compelling as it is
straightforward. Here, the player is made to feel as though
something is theirs — a virtual pet, a virtual farm, a badge
— and as such, they feel tied to the object and its source.
We view our belongings as extensions of our identities, so it’s
no mystery as to how this tool works, or why it is so commonly
The ownership dynamic can be activated in various ways
— one of the most effective is through personalization. Marketers
can tap into it by simply allowing prospects to customize
profiles or dashboards. They might also go deeper
and allow them to develop an avatar that completes tasks
and interacts with fellow users.
Another way to leverage ownership is by introducing the
risk of loss. Remember risk tolerance? You might play it
against ownership by having a tiered prize structure that
forces users to risk losing what they have in order to acquire
something better. It’s a surefire way to up the ante and the engagement
Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to
gamification than sponsoring a video game. It’s not just
badges or leaderboards, and it is much more than a marketing
gimmick. Based on time-tested scientific principles
of engagement, gamification connects with audiences at the
deepest psychological and neurological levels. Like all great
marketing, it finds what we care about and leverages it for
a savvy redirect of desired behaviors. And as we are now
witnessing, when appropriately employed, the results can
About the Author: Darren Steele is the strategic director of Mindspace, www.mindspace.
net, and co-author of the gamification book, “I’ll Eat this
Cricket for a Cricket Badge.” Darren can be reached at darren@