Game On: The Power of Gamification in Modern Marketing

Game On: The Power of Gamification in Modern Marketing

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

In today’s fast-paced digital world, capturing and maintaining the attention of consumers is no easy feat. Traditional marketing strategies are evolving to fit this modern landscape, and businesses are seeking innovative ways to engage their audience. Enter gamification – a powerful tool that leverages the principles of game design to enhance marketing efforts and create memorable experiences for customers.

Defining Gamification

Gamification involves integrating game elements and mechanics into non-game contexts to drive user engagement, behavior, and loyalty. By tapping into the inherent human desire for competition, achievement, and rewards, businesses may be able to create interactive and enjoyable experiences that resonate with their target audience.

The Psychology Behind Gamification

Psychological studies have shown that gamification taps into several fundamental human motivators. One such motivator is intrinsic motivation, as highlighted by Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory. This theory posits that individuals have an innate psychological need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Gamification addresses these needs by providing a sense of autonomy through making individual choices, a feeling of competence through completing challenges, and fostering relatedness through social interactions and/or comparing one’s performance to others. Satisfying these intrinsic motivations through gamification leaves consumers feeling entertained, empowered, and with a positive impression of their overall brand experience.

Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner) is another powerful example of the forces behind gamification. This is rooted in Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, where any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, while any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped. Thus, rewards, badges, and cumulating points act as positive reinforcement for consumer behavior, ultimately encouraging users to continue or increase their engagement with a system, product, or brand.

Goal Setting Theory shows us that setting specific and challenging goals tends to lead to higher performance (via achievement motivation). Whether implicitly, or explicitly, gamification often involves setting and achieving goals such as completing levels, earning badges, or reaching specific milestones. All of which tend to contribute to a sense of individual accomplishment and well-being within the consumer. While in turn, the positive emotion of achievement is often associated with the entity (i.e., your brand) that facilitated those experiences.

Finally, gamification can help build a “tribal” alliance between your customers and the brand itself. Social Identity Theory suggests that incorporating social elements via gamification, allows users to form a sense of identity and belonging within a specific community (an ingroup). Thus, creating a innately motivating tribal identity for consumers who regularly engage with the brand’s exclusive “game,” by differentiating them from the outgroup members who do not. 

Gamification in Marketing: Past and Present

The concept of gamification in marketing is not new, but its application has evolved significantly. Early examples include loyalty programs and frequent flyer miles, which employed basic game-like elements to encourage repeat business. However, with the advent of digital technology, the possibilities for gamification have expanded exponentially.

In fact, one recent study found that when participants were exposed to a social media “game” involving healthy food items, they were significantly more likely to choose healthier food options later on as a snack. While the control group who were exposed to the same healthy food items on social media, minus the element of gamification, were more likely to choose the less healthy snack food options when they were offered them later on in the study.

All of this helps confirm the powerful role gamification might be able to play in marketing today, perhaps even translating into improved brand awareness, customer retention, and conversion rates. Research by Koivisto & Hamari (2019) shows that rewards, such as badges, points, and leaderboards can have a tangible impact on consumer behavior and may foster a sense of achievement and status. Incorporating these findings, marketers may be able to design gamified campaigns that resonate with their audience on a deeper emotional level.

Gamification in Real-Life

  1. Nike+: Nike transformed running into a game with its Nike+ app, allowing users to set goals, compete with friends, and earn badges for achievements. This not only encouraged physical activity but also strengthened the emotional connection between the brand and its customers.
  2. Starbucks Rewards: Starbucks employs gamification through its rewards program, where customers earn stars for each purchase. As users accumulate stars, they unlock different tiers, earning exclusive benefits and personalized offers. This strategy not only encourages loyalty but also drives repeat purchases.
  3. KFC Japan:KFC Shrimp Attack” was created as an online game that consumers could play on the KFC Japan website. With similar mechanics to Fruit Ninja, players would slash and hack at flying shrimp in order to protect the KFC “castle.” In exchange for their bravery, players would earn points towards vouchers which they could later use when purchasing the shrimp food items in the KFC restaurants. The promotion was such a success that the campaign had to be cut short as the high demand for the new menu items quickly outpaced the available supply.

The Future of Gamification in Marketing

Moving forward, the integration of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies with smartphones presents exciting possibilities for gamification in marketing. These types of immersive experiences can deepen customer engagement by providing interactive and memorable encounters with brands and products wherever they might find themselves.


In conclusion, gamification in marketing is a dynamic strategy that continues to evolve with advancements in technology and a deeper understanding of human psychology. While it may not be for everyone, tapping into these fundamental motivators and leveraging game elements can create immersive experiences that captivate audiences and drive desired behaviors. As we move into the future, the integration of emerging technologies and a focus on virtual rewards is another way marketers can offer new and exciting ways to connect with their customers.

Happy Marketing!

-Dr. James