Gamification: is it still a thing?

Last updated
May 17, 2024
Remember when "gamification" was the hot buzzword of the 2010's? Well the principles still work, even if we're calling it something else now. We look into how gamification principles can be applied to your customer engagement strategy.

Gamification is exactly what it sounds like

Gamification basically just means making customer engagement feel like a game – that is, tapping into the psychology of game dynamics to create elements on your website and product experience that make people want to use it more and more.

Gamification rewards users for going deeper into your website, online community, business products, brand, and services; influencing your customers' behavior. It's not just about user participation; this strategy employs game mechanics to inspire users, interpret data, and refine your marketing campaigns.

Using the principles means taking the time to understand the essentials of game mechanics and their interplay with customer psychology.

Game mechanics drive participants to take actions that tap into their need to win, progress, and accumulate rewards. It leverages the emotions triggered by competition, scarcity, and social influence or peer pressure.

Great programs use a combination of things, like competitive elements seen in leaderboards, cooperative engagement through team missions, a sense of community on news feeds, the drive to collect unique badges, the power of surprise on customers and the excitement of unlocking new challenges.

The research reflects the importance of the application

"Gamification" is a generic, general term, that has no doubt been stretched and misunderstood over the years. Although the science doesn't support a broad claim like "gamification works", it does support that individual tactics and elements can have specific psychological impacts.

This April 2017 study called "How gamification motivates: An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction" by Michael Sailer, et al, mentions six specific tactics and what they influence:

"Our results show that badges, leaderboards, and performance graphs positively affect competence need satisfaction, as well as perceived task meaningfulness, while avatars, meaningful stories, and teammates affect experiences of social relatedness. Perceived decision freedom, however, could not be affected as intended. We interpret these findings as general support for our main hypothesis that gamification is not effective per se, but that specific game design elements have specific psychological effects."

What are those psychological principles?

Yu-kai Chou, considered one of the pioneers of gamification frameworks, says there are at least eight ways that gamification impacts psychology, called core drives. Majestically, he calls this the "Octalysis Framework" and there are a ton of examples wrapped around each on his website, also viewable in the image on this page.

Chou argues that gamification goes wrong when we design for function, rather than for humans. He says, "Human-Focused Design remembers that people in a system have feelings, insecurities, and reasons why they want or do not want to do certain things, and therefore optimizes their feelings, motivations, and engagement."

It can be powerful if done well, and damaging if done poorly.

To sum up, he describes these eight core drives as: 

  1. Epic meaning & calling: Invokes a feeling that they are part of something greater than themselves.
  2. Development & accomplishment: The internal drive of making progress, developing skills, and eventually overcoming challenges.
  3. Empowerment of creativity & feedback: Users engage in creative processes and see the results of their creativity, giving meaning to their interaction with the task.
  4. Ownership & possession: Accumulation of owning something encourages users to improve, protect, and acquire more of it.
  5. Social influence & relatedness: Includes all social elements that drive people, such as mentorship, acceptance, social responses, companionship, competition, and envy.
  6. Scarcity & impatience: The want for something because it's scarce or requires waiting.
  7. Unpredictability & curiosity: A drive stirred by the desire to find out what happens next, often seen in the enjoyment people get from stories or games. As Peter Griffin famously said once after declining the guaranteed boat for the mystery box, "the Mystery box could be anything – it could even be a boat!"
  8. Loss & avoidance: Avoiding negative outcomes taps into our most primal need to protect ourselves, which can motivate users to engage in behaviors to avoid losing progress or missing out on rewards.
Yu-kai Chou's 8 core drives of gamification and examples.
Source: Yu-kai Choi

Why consider weaving it in?

  • Increase engagement with rewards.
  • Enhance customer loyalty and encourage repeat interactions with reward systems and achievement badges.
  • Make learning about products more enjoyable and effective, improving customer satisfaction.
  • Enable detailed data collection on customer behaviors for tailored experiences and offers.
  • Differentiate from competitors with unique experiences that attract more customers.

15 ways to gamify your customer experience

  1. Badges
  2. Leaderboards
  3. Progress bars and performance graphs
  4. Avatars
  5. Meaningful stories
  6. Teammates
  7. Levels and tiering
  8. Challenges and quests, scavenger hunts
  9. Interactive tutorials
  10. Weekly missions
  11. Personalized goals
  12. Flash contests
  13. Survey rewards
  14. Spin to win
  15. Increase sweepstakes entries

Gamification examples we love

Starbucks gamification program

The best way to get inspired for your business is to look at examples of others.

  1. Lacoste’s virtual store
    • Mechanism: A virtual store in the metaverse featuring scavenger hunt elements.
    • Reward: Vouchers and discounts for participation.
    • Outcome: Fostered community and shopper loyalty through a unique, metaverse-driven retail experience.
  2. Build-A-Bear’s bonus club
    • Mechanism: Points accrual for every dollar spent and a birthday discount scheme.
    • Reward: Points redeemable on products; pay your age for a birthday bear.
    • Outcome: Boosted customer engagement and a sense of exclusivity, encouraging repeat visits and purchases.
  3. Elaine Gisele collection
    • Mechanism: 'Spin-to-win' pop-up for discounts and prizes on the website.
    • Reward: Discounts and prizes for entering contact information.
    • Outcome: Increased customer engagement and data collection for future marketing.
  4. Strava
    • Mechanism: Weekly activity tracker, mileage counter and activity counter.
    • Reward: Badges, leaderboards, texts.
    • Outcome: Increased usage and engagement with the tracker.
  5. Charlotte Tilbury’s Virtual Beauty Wonderland
    • Mechanism: A virtual world with avatar customization and gameplay.
    • Reward: Products from the Disney 100 x Charlotte Tilbury range.
    • Outcome: Increased brand engagement through a unique, interactive virtual experience.
  6. Nike+
    • Mechanism: Activity tracking with a mobile app.
    • Reward: Achievements, trophies, and social sharing capabilities.
    • Outcome: Increased user engagement and brand loyalty through fitness challenges and social features.
  7. Track Brewing Co.
    • Mechanism: A loyalty token system accessible via their website.
    • Reward: Rewards and coupons for referrals and purchases.
    • Outcome: Increased customer loyalty and repeat purchases through direct rewards.
  8. Starbucks
    • Mechanism: Starbucks Rewards mobile app.
    • Reward: Stars (points) earned for purchases that can be exchanged for free drinks and exclusive offers.
    • Outcome: Increased customer retention and increased frequency of store visits.
  9. Casper
    • Mechanism: An interactive mattress selection quiz.
    • Reward: Personalized product recommendations.
    • Outcome: Improved customer satisfaction and higher conversion rates through personalized engagement.
  10. Gucci Town
    • Mechanism: Mini-games within a branded virtual world.
    • Reward: Virtual currency for in-game achievements.
    • Outcome: Deepened brand engagement and created a community of brand enthusiasts.
  11.   Duolingo
    • Mechanism: Language learning through a mobile app with daily lessons.
    • Reward: Experience points, badges, and a streak count for daily use.
    • Outcome: Sustained user engagement and daily interaction with the app.
Duolingo's gamification program

When applied thoughtfully, gamification can tap into a users' motivation to continue using the app and building habits around it.

Whether it’s incentivizing purchases, enhancing product selection processes, or fostering community connections, gamification taps into fundamental human desires for achievement and recognition, making it a formidable tool for businesses aiming to stand out in today's competitive market.

You can implement these gamification strategies through platforms like Paylode, which offers customized rewards programs that incentivize users for engaging.

About the author
Adrienne Kmetz
Adrienne is a marketing expert with a career history of working in startups of all sizes, from early stage to series A. She has 17+ years of experience writing about business, finance, and entrepreneurship. She went to Colorado College where she majored in skiing.
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