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Gamification Strategy: Traps, Trials, and Pitfalls

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on October 27, 2022

Gamification is one of the hottest topics in customer strategy circles today. Seeking to connect with customers in authentic and relevant ways, brands are closely examining promising techniques that facilitate strong connections with customers. Applying game theory to marketing is a winning approach that is attracting lots of attention.

But is there a downside to gamification? Every blade has two edges. What do you need to know to ensure that your application of game theory into your customer loyalty strategies will cut smoothy with the grain and not leave a negative result in its wake?

Why would we ask such a question? Look no further than the building awareness of social media and anything that touts itself as an influencer of human behavior and you should be concerned with how to optimize your gamification strategy.

The documentary film The Social Dilemma launched on Netflix in 2020. The film builds on the premise that “the technology that connects us also controls, manipulates and divides us.” Awareness of the negative outcomes of social media use is growing exponentially. NY Times reporter and bestselling author Max Fisher just published The Chaos Machine, a chilling work that will increase your anxiety over the relationship between humans and technology.

The best way to address these concerns is to talk to the architects of gamification technology, not the marketers who adopt it. No offense intended to our fellow marketers, but we should admit that we are configuring and implementing aspects of gamification as a derivative work. It is the visionary people who created game theory and successfully created “games” that need to guide marketers on the optimal ways to apply gamification to our strategies.

Wise Marketer spoke with Steve Bocska, CEO PUG Interactive Inc. to gain clarity on this complex topic. Steve began his career as a game designer and is the creator of many successful triple-A video games. He founded PUG Interactive to bridge his knowledge into the realm of customer loyalty. Steve is a member of the faculty at The Loyalty Academy and his introductory course on gamification is one our the most popular electives in the curriculum.

Wise Marketer (WM): Let’s get right to the core question, are there any downsides to gamification?

Steve Bocska (SB): Yes, there can be enormous potential downsides and even a dark element to using gamification techniques in business. The good news is, each of the risk areas are addressable and once you control for these risks, an incredible world of possibilities opens up that can dramatically enhance the customer-brand relationship and drive exceptional outcomes.

WM: Before we talk about those risks, can you share background on game theory and describe the core elements that are fundamental to gamification?

SB: Game designers are born manipulators, but in the gaming world, that’s ok. The original mandate in creating a successful game is to manufacture memorable, unique, or extraordinary experiences aimed to draw deeply personal reactions from total strangers. And usually, the more visceral the reaction we get, the stronger the player engagement becomes with that game.

Some of the most renowned games, like my own CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Simpsons: Hit & Run titles, can sometimes even rise above simple entertainment and become an art form delivering a transcendent experience that emotionally connects players to some fictional universe, real-world fantasy, or intellectual property. When this experience is combined with enjoyable engagement loops and compelling gameplay, commercial success is almost certain to follow.

Meanwhile, beneath the surface of the game system is a balancing act where we carefully present techniques and tricks to nudge—or even outwardly manipulate—the user towards a desired goal or result. While a player’s range of options may be limited and the endings or outcomes largely predetermined, skillful application of gameplay design principles and game mechanics creates the illusion that the player has true freedom of choice with infinite possible outcomes. Although essentially a false perception, this belief allows players to more readily “buy into” calls-to-action, dilemmas, and imperatives as if they affected their own real, personal, and dynamic lives.

WM: What qualifies as ethical game design?

SB: Ethical game or engagement designers use the control and power I just mentioned responsibly, generally for the purpose of entertainment (which results in units sold). But make no mistake, the designer is in complete control of the “universe” here. From the player’s standpoint, a tradeoff for the entertainment is accepted—usually in the form of spending money, time, mindshare, and some loss control or autonomy.

There is also an additional ongoing push-pull battle as well, with designers employing psychological techniques designed to capture and maintain attention in direct competition with the player’s real-world pressures pulling them back to reality. But with careful gameplay management and tuning, it is possible to keep the relationship balanced and the players feeling satisfied to the point of (hopefully) coming back for more later and spending more money.

WM: How does this ethical construct transfer to customer loyalty?

SB: A game designer applying gameplay mechanics to achieve a business outcome (e.g., loyalty, increased visits and sales, engagement, marketing response, referrals, etc.) is practicing what is known as “gamification.” The creator and maintainer of ANY “game-like system” possesses potentially unfettered power/influence over the destiny of the community. This is even true in gamification, where the “player” is generally a willing customer who voluntarily opts-in to a program, contest, or engagement experience offered by the brand.

There are even some scenarios where the power balance is very uneven and participation is not strictly voluntary. Employees, for example, may be required by their superiors to participate. This can introduce some initial friction or unwillingness that needs to be overcome before they have an open enough mind to participate fully.

Recognition of the power balance between the “gamifier” and the “user” is crucial to designing a suitable experience and selecting appropriate gamification mechanics that keep the users at an elevated level of voluntary participation and engagement. If the power equation in the system is poorly balanced or even just poorly presented, it creates unhealthy tension between the user and the company or brand. A simple example of this is a loyalty points program that devalues the points currency overnight by doubling the price of everything in the redemption marketplace. In the face of such sudden inequity, players might respond by becoming actively disengaged and even abandoning the program.

WM: Do we really have that much power using Gamification to influence behavior?

SB: The power held by the designer of a gamified customer experience is remarkably similar to that held by a video game designer. The gamifier not only grants the customer their agency (ie. user profile), but they also define the governing rules, constraints, boundaries, and any punishment for violation. Even more crucially, designers define the economy within which decisions, consequences, and frankly all metrics in the universe are given their very meaning.

For the power-hungry, it’s an enviable position to find yourself in. The creator is effectively empowered with the means and authority to compel virtually any behavior on a whim with a simple promise of an advantage, progress, credits, or a bonus within the imaginary economy. In the hands of an unscrupulous manipulator (i.e., designer), these engagement pathways and otherwise meaningless numbers can wield tremendous power over the player’s motivation or behavior and even influence outcomes.

Once someone is “bought in” to an economy, it becomes real to them. And once a large community of people buy-in to the economy, it acts as a powerful motivational force driving all kinds of rational and irrational decision making. Money is just an imaginary societal proxy for wealth, after all.

WM: Where are the boundaries that need to be watched to manage risk of dissatisfaction?

SB: Communities—be they consumers, fans, or employees—are extremely sensitive to perceiving imbalances, system flaws, and unfairness or injustices to themselves or to each other. And they are remarkably efficient at communicating these perceptions amongst themselves and reacting with sometimes coordinated and spectacular loyalty backlash.

In large scale gamification projects that we’ve brought to life for Kotex, Miniso, CityExpress Hotels, and Sisal Lottery in Italy, communities organically find each other through discussion channels (both official and unofficial) where they exchange tips and tricks for progressing though the activities, contests, and games.

But these forums are also a breeding ground for frustrations and complaints, both justified and otherwise. Close monitoring of these discussions to gauge sentiment is the only way to stay ahead of potential disasters. And furthermore, frustration isn’t necessarily a negative outcome in engagement design. As designers, we often purposely craft moments of frustration strictly for the purpose of giving the user a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment for later overcoming it. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

WM: What’s the bottom-line message that marketers need to understand as they work on their Gamification strategies?

SB: When marketers adopt gamification techniques, they become the puppet masters pulling the strings and turning the dials of rules, constraints, and economies. There is a duty of care that needs to be taken with gamification. The power to influence comes with a strong temptation to abuse the power by manipulating users with temptations, rewards, and vanity-triggers that result in blind, addictive loyalty, and coerced decision-making. It’s a temptation that must be resisted.