The Psychology of Play

UPDATED: June 11, 2012
PUBLISHED: June 11, 2012

Remember all those hours you spent mastering Donkey Kong? Well, it turns out you don’t have to work at Nintendo to put them to good use. Companies like Microsoft, Starbucks and Target have embraced game strategy, too. In fact, it’s a key selling point in the business plans of most new startups, says Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit and co-author of Game-Based Marketing: Inspire Customer Loyalty Through Rewards, Challenges, and Contests, which showcases some of the movement’s most creative thinkers.

In today’s world, subtle gameplay can be used to encourage all sorts of behavior in people: extra spending, healthier eating, more recycling, self-taught training, undying loyalty to your brand. The military has been employing medals, stars and levels of achievement with great success for centuries. “Gamification is a way of thinking about customer engagement,” explains Zichermann. “Even a small-business owner can deliver a seemingly personalized reward, something that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”

Make Game-Based Marketing Work for You

You don’t need a giant jackpot. An estimated 120 million Americans collect frequent flyer miles; very few expect first-class tickets to Tahiti. “Most frequent flyers will tell you they don’t care about that,” says Zichermann. “What they really care about are things like status, access and power. In this model, status trumps stuff. That’s a core tenet of gamification.”  

Points are good. Badges, too. And ribbons. And gold stars. All are subtle ways of motivating people. (Ever notice that little completion bar on your LinkedIn page?) When you’re trying to promote behavior change—especially in health and fitness—things like points really matter to people, says Zichermann. They show them how they’re doing and help them keep score.

Lance Armstrong is not a bad prize, either. The Nike+ is an iPod app that helps you track and monitor your workouts. Each time you record a personal best, you’re rewarded with a greeting from Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Joan Benoit Samuelson or Paula Radcliffe. “The reward is Lance Armstrong speaking in your ear, saying, ‘That was a job well done,’” says Zichermann. “You know he’s not actually talking to you—it was prerecorded—but people love it. They love it. They love it! Because it’s unexpected delight. It has value and meaning because they believe in his brand.”

Don’t insist on making it a competition. You might be better off borrowing a few good ideas from games and leaving the rest behind. “Entrepreneurs are competitive; they often assume their customers are like them,” says Zichermann. “Customers are not always interested in competing. Sometimes they want to socialize and sometimes they just want to understand your brand better.”

You don’t need a big budget. Companies like BigDoor, Badgeville, Gamify, and Gigya can assist you with strategy and software—often free of charge. To promote a new running shoe, the luxury brand Jimmy Choo created a simple scavenger hunt. It hid six pairs of running shoes in London and challenged people to check in on Foursquare all over town. Those closest to the shoes won. More than 20,000 people joined in the fun.

Target the takeaway. Games are very effective teaching tools. They help you learn through experience—and that can be very meaningful. A few years ago, Chase Bank found a clever way to encourage people to use their ATM cards for retail purchases. If you were the 500th customer to place a transaction in the designated time period (and you spent less than $500), the company contacted you by text or email and offered to pick up the tab. “The whole reason it worked is because the action of swiping your debit card is automatic,” says Zichermann. “You don’t even think about it. It turns out you can call people’s attention to things that are routine and boring, and in doing so, raise brand alignment, raise revenues, raise customer engagement. A little bit of surprise and delight goes a long way.”

Don’t forget the fun part. “The world’s a pretty boring place,” adds Zichermann. “So anything companies can do to liven up peoples’ lives a bit, bring a little fun—that goes a long way.”


Read more about the business of video games from Atari to Zynga and learn several surprising places you'll find gamification in your life

Chris Raymond is a contributing editor for SUCCESS magazine.