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Game Play: Where Science & Branding Merge

Posted on 9.30.2012

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

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 social connection.

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.

Risk Tolerance

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 brand loyalty.


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 employed.

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 level.

Final Stats

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 be impressive.

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@

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