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What is Marketing Gamification exactly?

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 10 minutes

What is Marketing Gamification exactly?

With the release of our book Press Start: Using Gamification to Power-up Your Marketing, we felt that it might be useful for people to know what the book is about, who it’s focused towards and what we essentially explore within the first few pages. This piece, therefore, is to give people a primer to what marketing gamification is.

Gamification has been on the rise for a while now, but there was a belief that it had ‘died’. The truth is that it never really went away and that various aspects of it simply gained greater popularity in other fields. One of these fields is marketing, where gamification can be seen within the implementations of User Experience (UX) and Customer Experience (CX). These applications are driven by the marketing philosophy of being more customer-focused; “The difference is that rather than blindly applying tools with no strategy, they (marketers) started with strategy first, and then tested a wide range of tools to see what worked and what didn’t.” (Griffin, D., van der Meer, A., 2019)

In the book we look at the theory behind gamification, the mechanics used, the motivational lever’s that each person has and finally we work through an applicable framework that can be used to develop marketing gamification solutions. The book is generally aimed at marketers in businesses who want to explore a new or alternate way of engaging their customers and who may not yet be fully familiar with what gamification has to offer. The book is not aimed at those that are simply looking for a quick fix or a speedy money-making gimmick.

The aim of this piece then is to give you an introduction on what marketing gamification is, a definition as it were, and a small insight into what the book is about and what we deliver in it.

Expert Definitions

Defining gamification is probably one the most favoured posts you will see on the majority of gamification-based websites of consultants and gurus. And it is never easy to truly pin down a single catch-all definition for gamification that will cover everything. Maybe someday someone will come up with a “Unified Field Theory” for gamification, or its already here but we’re just simply too stubborn to accept it. For now though, and for our purposes, we explored some of the more popular definitions and used them to underpin our fit-for-purpose definition for marketing gamification that we could use in the book.

The reason we needed to have some sort of definition is so that you, the reader, would have something to fall back on as you go through the book. To build our definition, we choose three experts that give some of the easier to grasp definitions, since we wanted you to be able to quickly understand the basic concepts of gamification and be able to apply them quickly. There are of course many more experts with many different views, but our intention wasn’t to create an academic reference book for what gamification is or isn’t.

Expert 1: The Consultant

The first expert we selected was Yu-Kai Chou, author of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and Leaderboards. Yu-Kai is the creator of the Octalysis framework and the mind behind Octalysis Prime, where individuals can learn about his framework and gamification theories.

One of the reasons we selected Yu-Kai is due to his focus on the human end-user and his thoughts around the psychology of motivational drivers in gamification. This type of thinking fits very well with how we feel marketing gamification should be approached. And his main definition for gamification that resonated with us is:

Gamification is the craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities.” (Chou, Y. K., 2015)

Expert 2: The Analyst

Our second selection for an expert was Brian Burke, Research VP at Gartner and the author of Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things. Burke’s focus is primarily on specific aspects of gamification, such as the use of game mechanics and how to develop experience design that can aid in influencing people’s motivations towards a specific goal.

Rather than our view that gamification can be analogue, digital or whatever the next experiential medium might be, Burke’s focus is primarily on digital gamification and digital experiences:

The use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.” (Burke, B., 2014)

Expert 3: The Professor

The third and final expert that we selected was Kevin Werbach, associate professor of legal studies at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. You may have come across his name before from the gamification MOOC on Coursera.

Thanks to the popularity of his online course, the definition that Werbach uses for gamification is also one of the most common ones out there:

Gamification is the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts.” (Werbach, K., 2012)

Building a definition

After looking at the various definitions from experts that already exist for gamification, we decided that our approach to constructing our own fit-for-purpose definition should start from the basis of what constitutes a game. To determine that, we felt that the rules that Bernard Suits provides in his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (2005) are likely to be the easiest and quickest to get across to you, in order to get you onboard quickly and start moving into what gamification is and how it can be used.

A quick summary of the rules that will help you understand ‘what a game is’ are:

  • Rule 1: All games must have a pre-defined end goal for the players
    • This is likely the main differentiator between what a game is what it isn’t; a game is a game when players have something to aim for.
  • Rule 2: All games must have a set of limitations that determine how the players can act
    • Limitations and rules are the distinctions between what a (structured) game is and what (freeform) play is. The rules of a game are inextricably entwined with the end goal.
  • Rule 3: All players must adopt a ‘lusory’ attitude
    • From a marketing point of view this can be seen as the “buy-in”, or a suspension of disbelief in accepting that was is taking place is game-like and not real-life per se.
  • Rule 4: All players must voluntarily play the game
    • This rule is not actually included as rule on its own, but it is discussed in conjunction with the first three rules. We found it important to be included as an additional rule because it is worth highlighting that if you are forced to play something then it quickly becomes un-fun and isn’t really a game anymore.

The reasoning behind stating these rules within a definition construction exercise is to make clear that there is a distinction between Play and a Game. The best way to understand and look at the distinction between these two is by imagining a scale with Play on one end of the line and Game on the other end. And depending on how much or how little structure an experience has, it will slide to one end of the scale or to the other. The more structure an experience has the more it moves to the Game end of the spectrum, and the less structure it has the more it moves to the Play end of the spectrum.

Breaking down the Definition

For ease of comprehension, we opted to use the definition that Kevin Werbach uses and unpack it and develop our own definition from the building blocks that it provides. In part, the decision for this was because it used all the terminology that we wanted to explore in order to construct our own specific definition. The terms we wanted to explore are ‘game elements’, ‘game design/technique’, and ‘non-game contexts’.

Game elements are a must, as they are the necessary aspects of any gamification experience, as they are the nuts and bolts of a gamified experience. Game elements are the pieces you place in order to give the experience that game-like feel for the end-user. They are what the player will interact with and will determine whether they believe it to be a ‘game’ or not.

The game design then is the reverse of the coin or the other side of the mirror. It’s the strategy that you as the creator use to develop something that is engaging, it could be anything, but game design places you into the mindset of developing something to that purpose.

Within the game design strategy, certain questions do need to be posed and answered, such as:

  1. Why are you creating this?
  2. Why should someone play it?
  3. Who is it for?
  4. Will the above change over time?
  5. How will it look?

And lastly, Non-game contexts are one of the most important aspects to consider as this is what you will need to determine whether what you created is gamification or a game. In our book, we focus on marketing, and therefore the question is; does the gamification solution further the goals of a marketing campaign? If it’s simply fun and engaging and doesn’t achieve any business goals, then we’ve moved from the non-game context into just having a game.

What doesn’t fit

When building your own definition and breaking it down, you naturally need to also look at what doesn’t fit within the concept that you are trying to get across to people.

What we didn’t want is that people come away from this believing that a piecemeal approach to gamification is something that works. This happens especially when people are in a rush, and this relates back to the initial point that the book is not aimed at people looking for a quick fix. What happens in those cases is that, for example, people start adding game elements, like a points system, to something without a sound reason for it. What you get then is essentially the same as pinning the tail to the donkey, it’s fun for a moment because you did something, but it’s fleeting as there’s no substance or continuation beyond that the picture of a donkey now has a tail…

Additionally, the definition needs to be clear enough that people can keep it in mind and know that that is what the goal is. As often when gamification solutions are created, individuals get so caught up in the making of the ‘game’ that they lose sight of the actual reason for making it in the first place: furthering your business goals & increasing customer engagement.

And with that, the final point that the definition needs to cover is that it should be customer-focused, and therefore well thought out. If you go at it without a strong strategy and/or a solid design, then you will likely end up with a something – not a product, service or game, but ‘something’ – that probably won’t be fun, doesn’t engage and is of no use.

Final Thoughts

In order for us to create a bespoke definition specifically for marketing gamification, we found that we needed to include these various relevant aspects:

  • The gamification solution needs to be well thought out and applied properly.
  • It must have relevant game elements to what it is trying to solve.
  • It needs to address real-life customer problems that have a positive impact on customers when solved.
  • And it has to be connected to your organisation – reflect, embody and promote the ethos, brand and image of the organisation.

In the end, there are a lot of definitions, and despite the fact that people want it to be simple and come in an easy to use a container with a catch-all term, human nature, unfortunately, isn’t always simple. And sometimes, tailor-made definitions for tailor-made experiences are needed. Which is why our marketing gamification definition is tailor-made for what we explore with you in our book:

Marketing Gamification is the thoughtful application of relevant game elements to solve real-life customer problems that are connected to your organisation.” (Griffin, D., van der Meer, A., 2019).

A few extras from the book

Now that you’ve read this piece, and you’re hopefully a little more interested in our book, we wanted to leave you with some things you can try that we ask our readers to try in our book:

  • Write down our definition and try to keep it in your mind as you do some of the following exercises:
    • Think about your favourite game(s), be it video, board or sport – list what you feel are the game elements and consider how they motivate you, which are effective and which aren’t.
    • Can you name three examples of where you might have experience gamification? Were they successful or not? And did you notice it immediately, only afterwards, or not until now?

If you would like to explore these questions in greater detail and want to learn more about using gamification to power-up your marketing, then our book is available at these places:

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well. And if you are feeling generous then you can support us through PayPal or on our Ko-fi page.


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