Can Understanding Gamification Help Get You More Business?

With the growth of the Internet has also come a rise in online gaming and the usage of game design principles and theories in digital environments. This general trend has culminated in gamification, a business and marketing strategy that for decades has led to more engaged customers and employees by exploiting simple logic—What is it that drives people to stay interested during games, and how can these principles of reward be applied to keep employees interested in their jobs and consumers interested in engaging with a product?

This approach to customer retention has become popular among large businesses, and gamification is a billion dollar market for applications and services. We have already collected and discussed specific popular applications used for gamification in office settings, but there’s a lot more to gamification than just creating a structure in which users receive points for activities. Like any good game, such a system has to have a reasonably robust reward cycle and must encourage continued investment.

Designing a solid game is a difficult art. Many think that they can create them, but few have mastered the skill of creating memorable, lasting impressions on the psyches of users. Coming up with an efficient, strong game requires thinking about more than just leaderboard structure. A good game is targeted at the right people, at the right time, and a game designed to increase brand awareness or to improve sales team performance still has to meet these basic criteria.

Gamification for Customers

While it’s one thing to create a game for a captive audience such as one’s employees, it’s another thing entirely to create a game that has appeal to customers without eclipsing the product itself. A game that succeeds on this front has to do two things:

•  Excite customers;
•  Keep the brand at the top of their minds.

Ideally, the game should serve as both an enjoyable experience in itself and as something to keep customers filtering back in to make purchases.

Dissecting the Greatest: the McDonald’s Monopoly Game

Indisputably one of the best-known and most successful gaming initiatives of all time, the McDonald’s Monopoly event comes once a year and lasts for approximately thirty days. Unlike most gamification attempts, which have only joined the fray in the last few years, McDonald’s Monopoly has been a yearly fixture of the fast food chain since the 1980s, and it consistently brings in strong profits.

The event gets the company’s already ubiquitous name back at the top of some customers’ minds, and even encourages those who might otherwise not visit a place like McDonald’s to stop by and pick up an order of fries or a milkshake just to participate in the potential earnings of the event.

What is it about McDonald’s Monopoly that makes it such a tremendous success? Why does it have such a stamp in the popular lexicon? Some of it is branding—this game feeds off the good feelings and awareness associated with both brands, becoming an attention-commanding chimera. The reason the promotion endures, however, has a lot more to do with elements of the underlying design of the game.

•  It keeps people coming into the store. The most common prize pulled from a McDonald’s Monopoly sticker is more food or drink from McDonald’s, and redeeming these rewards means coming back. Sure—one could just take a free drink and run, but why not pick up something to go with it during the redemption? Winners feel good and buy more, and get more chances to win in doing so, creating a positive cycle.

•  Winning at all is relatively common. While the odds of winning the grand prize are extremely low (around one in 3.5 billion), the odds of winning anything at all have sat neatly at about one in four thanks to instant win stickers. (A combo meal, incidentally, typically contains at least four stickers, and can include as many as eight). The rush of winning tends to keep customers coming back, as the reward sensation occurs frequently enough to merit more visits. Even attempts that don’t lead to a win can provide the thrill that comes with winning if the circumstances are right, because…

•  Park Place, a component of the grand prize, is very common. The grand prize requires only two pieces representing Monopoly’s top-level properties: Boardwalk and Park Place. This strategic masterstroke places many customers halfway to the grand prize in short order, encouraging more purchases. More than just pushing customers to buy, though, such easy access to half of the top prize means …

•  The game encourages fantasizing. A customer who gets two pieces out of a set of three, or Park Place, ends up thinking more about the brand because “wouldn’t it be nice if I won?” Even if the fantasy is totally self-motivated, it’s a fantasy about McDonald’s Monopoly, one whose fulfillment requires the customer to head back to the store to purchase more fast food.

•  Participation is incredibly easy. For many customers, participating in McDonald’s Monopoly is built into something they’d already do in the first place: eat at McDonald’s. For those who don’t—well, they’ve still got to eat, and Monopoly might just be the push they need to drive the extra mile and a half to McDonald’s instead of Jack in the Box or some other chain, or to leave the house instead of cooking for themselves.

By creating a game that is fun in itself and that has a core mechanic which, for the most part, expects customers to keep purchasing the product, McDonald’s has created a promotion that stands the test of time. Not every gamification program needs to start and stop at a designated time, however—some can provide long-term boosts rather than just operating in short spikes.

Level Up: Gamification and Loyalty

Many loyalty programs are simple, but gamification can take a loyalty program to the next plateau by taking advantage of the level-up. A game mechanic stripped primarily from pen-and-paper roleplaying games, leveling up describes an increase in purchasing power or some other capacity earned by gaining an in-game resource, usually referred to as experience points but sometimes called things more esoteric. A loyalty program with multiple tiers, or a range of benefits to choose from, can step its game up by taking a page from this mechanic.

Rather than a simple 10-for-1 program, for instance, consider a system in which a customer receives a reward for buying five widgets in a single month, allowing them to pick from a list of additional rewards for every five per month thereafter, going from a “silver” customer to a “gold” customer. Someone who buys nine widgets a month under normal circumstances might be content with that under a 10-for-1 program, where the system doesn’t reward intensity, but might choose instead to buy the additional widget necessary to reach “level two” in the new model. Without stepping up, those other four purchases are in a sense wasted in the context of the overall game mechanic, offering no additional benefit.

Gamification for HR: Expression and Demonstration

While gamification can help teams increase productivity and sell more, it can also be used to bring out the best in prospective hires as well as current employees when used effectively by a human resources (HR) team. When used as part of the hiring process, a good game can make it clearer how prospective hires perform under a little less pressure than the standard stress of a generic interview. Similarly, such a process can make onboarding much smoother, especially in a group setting.

Gamify Hiring: A Taste of What’s to Come

When used as part of the hiring process, gamification can give a much clearer image of what a candidate is capable of than a portfolio or even a resume. Some potential hires may be coming from a different industry, or a somewhat obscure area of a certain field. By giving them a simple game that simulates the demands of the job in an abstracted sense can make it easier to identify and describe how candidates approach tasks as well as what they value and prioritize.

This sort of gamification strategy has already been implemented by brands like L’Oreal as part of the hiring process, including the simulated development of a product line and the solving of a real-time HR case.

Onboarding and Games: Easy Tracking

Gamifying the onboarding and training process is a natural fit, and can help identify trouble areas much more quickly than a conventional onboarding process. Requiring new hires to progress through new levels of responsibility can make it clearer where one individual is having a rough time, or identify trouble spots for new employees as a function of an entire group rather than an individual. Having distinct progress points relevant to a new employee’s specific career path, rather than a universal training course, can call attention to amending and working on specific problems rather than generalizations.

New hires can also stay engaged longer and more effectively if a “quest” model is used for training instead of a single course. One of the most successful games in the world, Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, typically keeps users coming back time and time again through its model of sending players to perform a simple task, such as collecting bear pelts, and then returning them to the person who sent them on the task.

In a similar vein, new employees will be more engaged—and will learn at the pace they’re most comfortable with—if they have to go out and study the basics on their own, then report back on their learnings and questions and syntheses.

Types of Games: One Size Fits Few

The promise of gamification—of drawing people in time and time again to hear what a brand wants, to quickly and easily get up to speed with a company, to sell more effectively—is seductive, but these promises come with a question: just how does your target audience game?

In gaming there are dozens of genres, and some gamers choose to only play an exclusive handful. The base urge (that is, the urge to progress and succeed) is held in common, but different people choose to satiate this desire for mobility differently. Gaming engages basic motivational drives in a very primal way, and different player types will respond differently to the four basic drives that Harvard Business Review writers Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg, and Linda-Eling Lee identified in 2008. These drives—to comprehend, acquire, defend, and bond—give people motivation, and games can provide opportunities for all of these points.

One leader in gaming, the successful table and board game company Wizards, has identified three basic psychological profiles of gamers: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Applying these psychographic profiles has allowed the company to create content that appeals to each, building tremendous brand loyalty and an enthusiasm that’s given way to tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize pools every year.

Spend time thinking about the following profiles (as well as their underlying drivers) when starting a gamification initiative and you’ll be on much stronger footing.

Timmy: Seeking Adventure

“Timmies” play because playing is exciting, and having an experience is fun. For these players, a gamification system represents a chance to add variety and fun into mundane activities. Of the three psychographic profiles, Timmies are the most likely to play socially—extroverts who fall into this category often want to share the experience with other people, spreading it around. (This makes them, in turn, also the most likely to share a marketing initiative that uses gamification forward, and can drastically increase your social media reach and success as a result). Above all else, they respond to gamification when the game itself is enjoyable, especially for other people. They can be said to be driven primarily by the desire to bond and to acquire.

These players are often viewed as comparatively straightforward in their desires, since they game solely for gaming’s sake. Some of them started gamifying activities naturally before it become popular as a means of breaking up tedium. Of the three, Timmies are also the most likely to enjoy random elements, because randomness often means interesting things happen at unexpected times. If your target market or team is full of people you suspect are Timmies, err on the side of fun with a little bit of controlled chaos. If the “game” of your gamification core isn’t fun, Timmy will probably wander off to something else before too long.

Timmes are often:

•  Self-motivated
•  Highly social
•  Adrenaline junkies
•  Seekers of new experience


As the second psychographic profile, Johnny plays because playing provides a chance to express something, most often the player’s own feelings or values. Johnnies like to customize things and show them to others. Where Timmy likes to socialize and have fun, Johnny wants to express something deeper and needs an audience to fulfill this desire. The “win” for Johnny isn’t necessarily racking up the most points. A Johnny is more likely to decide there’s a specific title or rank that’s desirable and aim for it. These players likewise want to connect the seemingly disparate elements of a game with multiple tracks as well, seeing the way they play off one another. Johnny wants to bond, like Timmy, but is more interested in comprehending and pushing that comprehension as a means for bonding.

Rather than functions within the game itself, what Jonnies need out of gamification activity is the ability to show their progress and success within the game off to others in a way that is uniquely theirs. Consumers who have Johnny leanings will be swayed by the ability to choose how, exactly, they participate in the gamification, and will sometimes be more interested in social media integration than the actual game itself. Team members with Johnny leanings will do well when game standings are called out at meetings or other events, and when game achievement leads to other, visible forms of acknowledgement.

Johnnies are often:

•  Creative, expressive individuals
•  Driven to make connections between concepts, however abstract
•  Stubborn
•  Interested in innovation for innovation’s sake


Spike is playing to win—or at least playing to play successfully. The others seek winning as a means to have a good time or to show that their form of expression is in some sense superior; for Spikes, expression consists of solid play and winning is, itself, the good time. Spikes respond well to things like leaderboards and direct competition in a way the others do not—for these players, games (and gamification) let them prove themselves. Spike wants to comprehend, like Johnny, and wants to acquire, like Timmy, but both of these are ultimately in service of defending. Spikes are not very interested in bonding.

Like Timmies, Spikes are easy to please, but they’re only happy if they’re meeting with clear, consistent success. Not all of them need to win every time; sometimes, a spike is concerned more with the quality of his or her own play rather than with the actual outcome, especially when the system contains random elements and perfect play can still lead to a loss. In general, though, what a Spike needs from a gamification initiative is a clear goal and obvious ways to pursue that goal with skill.

Spikes are often:

•  Fiercely competitive
•  Keen, analytical thinkers
•  Focused on problem solving for its own sake
•  Somewhat prideful

By the Psychographics: Sample Games and Who They Target

Since we’ve spent time going over a few gamification strategies, let’s look at those again through the lenses of Timmy, Johnny, and Spike—as well as through the four-drive theory—to see just why they work so well.

McDonald’s Monopoly is a game that appeals first and foremost to Timmy. Something fun and random happens every time, and exciting moments are frequent. When people game casually they often wear the Timmy hat, and McDonald’s Monopoly is a very casual sort of game. Johnnies probably won’t like or dislike the game, since it adds something to experience, but unless they’re McDonald’s brand loyalists already it doesn’t do much. Spike either won’t care, or will have run the numbers on winning “the big prize” and concluded that it’s not really worth it. McDonald’s Monopoly, of course, runs almost exclusively on the drive to acquire.

The sorts of gamification initiative that make sense in hiring, meanwhile, play to the strengths of a Johnny. The new hires get the opportunities to express something distinctive about how they’d approach the job, and the process—if it’s designed well—has plenty of options and openings for individualistic creativity. Fun-loving and easygoing Timmies are likely to enjoy this model if it feeds into their enthusiasm for the position. Spikes want to pass the interview, and will push themselves to perform. Hiring gamification primarily feeds into the urge to express and to acquire, but those with the drive to defend or comprehend will get the chance to show off those urges as part of the process.

Common gamification systems designed around teams, with leaderboards and scorekeeping, are primarily Spike’s purview, but not exclusively. Johnnies might enjoy them if they highlight more than just raw sales data. Did they break into a new market, or manage a disproportionate amount of cross-selling and up-selling compared to their peers? Things that highlight Johnny’s distinctive approach will keep them interested. Timmies like to win, too, but are most interested if the competition creates a friendly atmosphere of camaraderie within the team. Too much competition for competition’s sake and Timmies might start to feel discouraged or check out.

Is Gamification Working?

All of these strategies have something in common: they use people’s core motivations and reward-based behaviors while gaming to make them happier and more engaged. If a game is implemented solely for the sake of having a gamification strategy, it probably won’t have the compelling core that keeps users coming back time after time.

Have you put gamification to use in your work? Do you have a fond memory of a gamified application or promotion that sticks out in your mind? Do you know how you game, and have you been able to put that knowledge to work staying enthused and engaged at work? Let us know about your relationship with gamification in the comments.

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