The Player / The Payer / The Played

Game-like reinforcement mechanisms garner very loyal and active customers. “Gamification”, unsurprisingly, is a thriving model for marketers to penetrate the minds and wallets of the market.


“Gamification” may seem like a fleeting buzzword these days, but it was once a concept that drew a lot of attention from marketing folks. This was for good reason: games are unique marketing apparatus because they have very loyal and active customers, in some cases willing to pay not just for the game itself, but for transactions that occur within it.

A few Decembers ago I was in Newark Airport, waiting in security checkpoint in one of those pre-holiday lines that snake around the terminal. I needed to kill time so I downloaded the popular mobile game Clash of Clans. If you haven’t played it before, it’s not too difficult—you build an army of wizards and barbarians and send them off into battle with a flick of your index finger. It was fun, easy to learn, and the speed of progression felt just challenging enough to keep me striving, but without ever becoming a time-burden. Fast forward a year later and you could say I formed a bit of an unhealthy habit, having accrued a few too many $1-$5 in-game purchases, investing well over $50 all said and done. I’d become a case study of how to boil a frog—rope me into an engaging experience with little to no investment, and slowly and incrementally give me the opportunity to invest over time, rewarding me for doing so along the way.

This kind of psychological phenomenon is no coincidence. It is an intentional and scientifically validated method to lure us (otherwise innocent users) into investing increasing amounts of time and money into objects of pure fantasy (see George Yao). Some of the biggest (AAA) game studios pay top dollar to employ psychology PhDs to conduct the research and experimentation to find out what exactly makes players tick. The following is an amateur assessment of what makes games truly habit-forming and pay worthy—features that may have been largely overlooked by marketers years back in the rush to throw badges and points on everything.

In other words, how does gamification work and why?

1. Unlockables, Achievements, and Expansions
You’ll know you’re talking to someone who hasn’t played a console or mobile game in the past 10 years if they ask you, “Did you beat it yet?” Finishing has become an antiquated concept in modern games; you’re never “done,” and games don’t get “beaten.” You may complete a campaign or a main storyline, but they aren’t over in the classical sense. These days, players are on an endless quest to explore an expanding landscape; unlock the untapped potential of skills, abilities, and items; experience new challenges across a growing game environment; and get more/better rewards. Games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft are great examples of how feature expansions and downloadable content (DLCs) can effectively introduce new maps and levels, a greater variety of characters and items, and higher level stuff and bad guys, ad infinitum. The ever-expanding framework of modern games encourages players to invest in a character and inventory that persist throughout versions, sequels, and time. The sense of fulfillment that comes from small arcs and accomplishments creates an ever-deepening investment can be leveraged to generate incremental revenue opportunities.

2. Collection-ism
In many games, the purpose of your progress and achievements is to get some kind of treasure or “loot”. In fact, there’s an entire subgenre of games that is designated as looter-games, or Looters, that appeals to the kind of players who find fulfillment in gathering a great breadth of important, useful, or unique objects. Loot-centric games emphasize obtaining, organizing, customizing, and optimizing a vast inventory of desirable stuff, your progress is defined by the amount and rarity of the stuff you’ve amassed, and your achievement and status is defined by those very possessions. Sometimes this means finding and procuring individual items (e.g., shirts, pants, shoes), and sometimes it means collecting a full or matching set of items (e.g., an outfit). Loot creates an insatiable need to get stuff, and a reason to keep coming back to play.

3. RNG
Some of that loot mentioned above is not guaranteed when you complete a mission, open a treasure chest, or otherwise. In some cases, games use a version of a random number generator (RNG) to determine a percent chance at a specific item or reward. RNG creates an intentional level of uncertainty for players, which in turn either A) pays off in an exciting moment of attainment (which can lead to a small dopamine release), or B) does not pay off, many times increasing both the desire and the will to get the object, the amount of time invested to get it, and the motivation to replay a level, a stage, a checkpoint, or an activity for another chance at it. Back in the days of table-top gaming, RNG was often handled with a simple roll of the dice. In fact, in playing games like Craps, it is the thrill of uncertainty itself that encourages the player, not the end-goal of “winning”.

RNG Before Advanced Digital Algorithms


4. Time-Gating
As if RNG weren’t bad enough, not all unlockables and achievements are rewarded instantaneously. Time-gating is the concept of extending an in-game experience by not allowing players to have access to a feature or reward until a certain amount of time has elapsed. For example, you may complete a quest or increase a level, but that elusive loot you were hoping for may require you to check back in a week before you can actually attain it and add it to your inventory. Time-gating is a method to artificially create a sense of anticipation, be it positive (excitement) or negative (anxiety). That anticipation is like negative space: while you are waiting for the necessary time to elapse, your mind fills in the emptiness with fantasies of the accomplishment and fulfillment to come.

5. Reinforcement Schedules
While humans aren’t exactly Skinnerian pigeons, over the course of millennia natural selection has hardwired us to be prone to the same psychological tactic: when we get rewarded for a specific activity or after a period of time, we search for patterns to help us anticipate the next instance in which a reward might come. We might even start changing our behaviors to make that reward more likely.

Building on the prior mechanisms—loot and RNG—intermittent reinforcement schedules refer to the coupling of activities and time vs. rewards, a variation of which you will find in just about any gambling or card game at your nearest casino. Every time players pull the lever on a slot machine, they are participating in a variable-ratio reward mechanism. And every time that slot machine lines up a winning combination, a shot of dopamine is released in the users’ brains, making them more likely to do it again. This is the science of addiction, and it is employed as intentionally by casinos as it is by game producers across the globe. In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a method of encouraging a desired response to a given stimulus, in order to strengthen behaviors as a habitual reaction to environmental variables.

While I’m not going to get into the depths of this topic from a scientific standpoint, I’ll do my best to distill decades worth of psychological research down to a paltry table…

Types of Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules


6. Multiple Currency Economy
If you’ve ever pounded your head trying to figure out how many dollars your miles are worth on your cash-rewards credit card and found yourself stumped, then you are a victim of familiar with the concept of a multiple currency economy. It’s the idea that, in a given situation, there is more than one way to purchase goods, and each method is earned differently and exchanges at a different rate than the other. This introduces obfuscation–it’s hard to tell exactly what the worth of a given currency is at a glance, and most of us can’t be bothered to whip out a calculator. The purpose of employing multiple, disproportionate currencies in games is two-fold:

  1. To make items seem more easily attainable than they actually are
  2. To make certain currencies obtainable strictly through gaming activities but others only purchasable via real-world dollars

In this sense, players are being “played”, or manipulated, by the blurring of lines between varying types of wealth; both in terms of in-game currency and real money. This draws them deeper into the fantasy and obscures purchase decisions with the complexities of currency exchange. You want to buy the helmet for 50 “gold pieces”? You’ll have to save up for days! Alternatively, you can purchase that same helmet for just 1 “ruby”, but rubies can only be bought through the app store for a measly $0.99. Temptation calls! Which leads us to…

7. Micro-Transactions
Probably the most well-known and often-used tactic in mobile games, micro-transactions involve the ability to purchase in-game items, boosts, cosmetic materials, etc., for relatively small amounts of real-world money. The logic is simple: if you have so much as one dollar’s worth of disposable income, game makers will make a case for spending it. This revenue model is typically employed in free-to-play apps, which allow you to download and invest time into a game before being prompted to purchase virtual goods—a Trojan Horse strategy of sorts. Remember my Clash of Clans anecdote? Voila.

Micro-Transactions Before the Days of Digital Currency


And the list goes on. But the number 1 reason games are so engaging is because they entertain us, interact with us, and make us happy. At the end of the day, the 7 points above are useless if a game isn’t built around solid mechanics and an engaging story and doesn’t feel freakin’ awesome when you first jump into it. These are just a handful of techniques that make great games more of a hobby than a game, which, in part, paves the way for payment. The important question is: what can marketers in other industries learn from this, and how can we apply that knowledge ethically? For that is true gamification.


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