Gamification Works: Why I Couldn’t Resist a Gamified Marketing Strategy

There’s a problem that strikes in the summer that makes it absolutely necessary for me to spend money to fix it. It happens every summer, and each year it gets more and more expensive. No, it’s not rising healthcare costs or out of control gas prices. It’s not air conditioning bills either.

It’s a summer sale for computer games.

I know, call me a nerd, a weirdo, whatever you want. I’m a PC gamer and I’m proud of it. I get a lot of games from Valve’s online distribution system called Steam. I look at game purchases as an entertainment investment. I know, the title implies that this is supposed to be about gamification, and you are probably wondering where I could be going with this, but bear with me. You’ll understand how gamification plays into this soon enough.

Once a gamer, always a gamer

I think I first need to tell you a little bit about myself. I’ve been a gamer since the first time I played pong on an Atari and went to my first arcade in the mall. I once read that if you still play video games past the age of 16, that you will play them the rest of your life. Whether that’s true for everyone or not, it has turned out to be true for me. It’s also true that instead of spending my parents’ money on video games, I now have to spend my own hard-earned cash on my entertainment.

Two years in the U.S. Peace Corps turned my already frugal self into a person that can talk themselves out of buying anything, even if I think I really want it. That’s not to say I’m cheap, but I really think through whether something is truly worth spending my money or not. You (or a product) really have to prove yourself to get me to open up my wallet, even if it’s for my cherished form of entertainment, games.

The challenge: Getting people to buy your product

I’m probably a marketer’s worst nightmare. I hate buying new things and I often feel guilt even when I buy things I want. If you ever watched TV with me, you’d be shocked at my compulsive criticism of every commercial that comes on the screen. I’m outspoken about not buying what you don’t need. I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in two years or a t-shirt in four years. You get the picture, right? But one marketing strategy really gets to me.


There’s this tactic in marketing that is becoming hugely popular on the web and off. It’s called gamification. According to the Gamification Wiki, Gamification is “the use of game design techniques and game mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences.” This idea of implementing gaming theory into all sorts of areas where it has never been implemented before has been around for a few years. Psychologists and other scientists have long known about the attraction a person has to instant reward and recognition for an activity. Gamification plays (pun intended) on that attraction to encourage certain behaviors.

Gamification’s popularity rising

Increasingly, gamification has been gaining grounds in marketing and business. Basic principles of gaming are used to encourage customer interaction and even conversions. Jason Keath at socialfresh has an excellent explanation of how gamification is being used today in business. There are 10 basic game mechanics he points out: “Achievement, Levels, Appointments, Progress, Countdown, Tools, Free Lunch, Loyalty, Leader Boards, Loss Aversion.” Creative marketers are introducing these gaming mechanics into their marketing strategies to grow business and consumer interaction even more.

A basic example of gamification that has been around for some time is frequent flyer programs. These programs are ultimately based on accruing points. Classic games (think Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tetris) follow this same principle of points and progress and they are very popular for people of all ages. In frequent flyer programs, you are rewarded for loyalty, you make progress, and you can spend those points you earned on things you enjoy as a concrete example of your achievements. It’s a great way for an airline to keep customer loyalty. They provide a few perks to ensure your patronage.

Even serious social platforms like LinkedIn incorporate some ideas of gamification in their services. As Jason Keath writes, “when you first signup for LinkedIn, their goal is to get you to give them as much information as possible.” Instead of simply saying “Give more information,” LinkedIn utilizes a progress meter. They put the activity in your hands and make you want to hit that 100% profile completion. Why? Because it feels good. 100% looks better than any number lower than it! More importantly, you got it to 100%.

There are even examples of gamification in education. One teacher implemented an entire system to encourage his sixth-grade students to participate and complete assignments—without being told to do them. Believe it or not it worked for him. Said teacher “could hardly get” students to complete any free writing in a normal way. Insert gamification and “twenty [unassigned essays] were turned in during the first week” all because they earned an achievement for it.

Gamification allows business to compete with the Big Boys

One company in the competitive potato chip market, Popchips, has had astonishing success using gamification. Mike Snider has a great piece on their efforts in USA Today. Since implementing a coupon system in hundreds of mobile games, Popchips “has seen its sales rise 40% this year … and its 2012 sales could top $100 million.” On an even more impressive note, according to analysts, “70% of the top 2,000 global organizations will use “gamified” applications for marketing, employee performance and training, and health care by 2014.” Gamification is a serious and effective strategy for businesses large and small. Why? Because it improves sales, encourages customer interaction, builds brands, and motivates employees and consumers.

How Valve’s use of Gamification got me

Now to get back to the beginning of this article. Valve, a billion dollar gaming company knows what it’s doing. It is run by one man, Gabe Newell who has become somewhat of a celebrity among gamers. They also do things very differently: no managers, no employee tasks, no from-the-top direction.

How does a company that is organized seemingly by anarchy do so well? First of all, they make excellent games. They also pioneered digital distribution for PC games and held on to their lead in the industry. It doesn’t hurt that they also do gamification right.

The miracle of the summer sale

Every summer, Valve implements a Summer Sale on its distribution platform called Steam. Every summer the event gets bigger. 2012’s summer sale came late and gamers were nervous (probably just impatient) one might not occur. They scoured the internet for news or hints of the sale. Then all of the sudden one day, Steam had a whole new set of badges to acquire and tasks to complete. Yes, these were achievements for a distribution platform.

The current achievements/badges page I can view to make myself feel good.

As you can see, I managed to complete everything. I wanted to complete everything. I remember one task for earning your Steam Summer Sale badge was to buy a discounted game. Yep, as simple as that. You’re darn right I bought something right after I read that. I wanted my achievement for the summer sale!

You see, in the gaming world, the Summer Sale has become somewhat legendary. Ok, it is a legend. Why? Because Steam provides ridiculous discounts and does so well encouraging their customers to buy games they actually enjoy spending their money! The day before the sale began, this video went viral in the gaming community:

It features Valve owner Gabe Newell as a religious figure rising (apologies if anyone finds this offensive; it’s all done for humor!) with examples of the discounts common on Steam sales falling around him and “Are you ready for a miracle” playing in the background.. Someone took the time to make a video celebrating the fact that millions of gamers were about to spend their money! If you’re a business owner, think about that for a second. That’s free, unsolicited marketing from your own customers.

Gamification means consumer participation

In addition to the badge system, Steam implemented daily deals. These were high-demand games that would go on sale for 24 hours. To spice things up they added consumer interaction. Users were able to vote on the game they wanted to go on sale next, and guess what, they gamified that. There were multiple badges and achievements related to voting every day, voting 5 times, voting 10 times, and so on. So not only do they get their consumers to tell them what they want to buy, they encourage continued interaction by making sure consumers don’t miss a vote! If you don’t miss a vote, you spend more time browsing Steam.

The results of effective gamification (the damage done to my wallet)

Here is where all my frugal and wise consumer ideals fly right out the window. I can’t resist participating in this masterfully crafted shopping experience. Here’s a visual of my Steam store transactions page, so you can see for yourself:

So I bought a lot of games I wouldn’t even have time to play. Granted, they were discounted, but in normal circumstances I would talk myself out of spending money on something I would likely not play much of. Not during the summer sale. I almost felt compelled to buy things for how well Valve had pulled this thing off. Did I mention I wanted that Summer Sale Badge for no logical reason except to have it?

If you’re curious how much I actually played the games I purchased, here’s an interesting image.

As you can see there are a few games I have yet to play, and one I uninstalled after 22 minutes. Were it not for the Summer Sale I can honestly guarantee that I would have only purchased one, maybe two, of those games. I normally research all of my purchases, including games, and get hours upon hours of entertainment out of them. The only one with a significant playtime on it was because the original game came out months before and I purchased add-ons during the summer sale.

Now I just have to save money for the Holiday Sale. Oh, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? There’s also a huge Holiday Sale every year on Steam. I’m sure Valve is going to come up with an even more ingenious gamification scheme in the next four months. I’ll splurge on purchases when that sale comes around and my normal frugal self won’t be able to stop the gamify-charged me.

This sort of mindless purchasing is exactly the kind of consumer behavior I loathe. Yet, Steam and its intricate marketing and gamification tactics encouraged me to embrace it.

And I enjoyed it.

How do you use gamification in your business? If you aren’t, how do you see gamification playing a role in your business?

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Patrick currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is studying for a Master's Degree in Intercultural Relations. Upon graduation from Penn State in 2008, he spent two years overseas in Kyrgyzstan with the U.S. Peace Corps. While writing is currently his chosen way to put food on the table, he loves fitness and exercise, which he believes makes up for his avid computer gaming habit.

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  1. Thanks Andrew! Summer sale is the best.
    Patrick Himes was just talking about…Gamification Works: Why I Couldn’t Resist a Gamified Marketing StrategyMy Profile

  2. Your Summer Sale haul looks about like mine, give or take a few more expensive titles. 🙂 Excellent post!!


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