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Gamification: The Holy Grail of Customer Engagement?

Do you like learning languages? If so, you are probably familiar with Duolingo, a compelling example of the power of gamification. Duolingo, one of the world’s most popular language-learning platforms, sets itself apart by pouring gamification into every lesson. At Duolingo each lesson forms a bite-size skill that makes you feel like you are playing a mini-game. You score points when you give the right answer, while you lose hearts when you make a mistake. You are challenged to race against the clock, while you are stimulated to maintain your streak count. Like in many games, you can earn rewards, such as “lingots”, Duolingo’s own virtual currency, with which you are able to unlock even more content on the platform. The result: An engaged community of 300 million users who learn on average in 34 hours the equivalent of one full semester of college (Vesselinov & Grego, 2012).

An example of how Duolingo applies game elements in their lessons.

The gamification hype       

Gamification is defined as a design approach that is concerned with applying typical game elements, such as competitions, points and rewards, to non-game contexts (Murray, Exton, Buckley, Exton, & DeWille, 2018). Duolingo along with other exemplars, such as Nike+ Fuel, My Starbucks Rewards and SAP Community Network, boosted the global gamification hype that took off in 2010 (Yu-Kai Chou, 2018). But, like most other innovations, gamification followed the curve of Gartner’s Hype Cycle (Simões, 2015). In 2013, during the peak period of inflated expectations, companies were massively trying to adopt game elements, such as points, badges and leaderboards, into their services (Scicluna, 2017). However, in their endeavor to avoid falling behind, many companies rushed their solutions without carefully considering a logical underlying game design to create an engaging experience (Scicluna, 2017). As a consequence of this “bandwagon effect”, 2014 marked a period of disappointment, in which many gamified solutions failed (Broer, 2014). Ever since 2014 gamification has not been on Gartner’s Hype Cycle (Downer, 2018).

Is this a sign that we should forget about gamification or are we already at a plateau of productivity?

Gartner’s Gamification Hype Cycle

The Science Behind Gamification

To understand the value of gamification we first have to understand the science behind it. In consumer behavior theory, products and brand attitudes are generally conceptualized along two dimensions: hedonic and utilitarian (Voss, Spangenberg, & Grohmann, 2003). The term hedonic stems from the Greek word hēdonē (ἡδονή), which translates to “pleasure” (, 2019). In ancient Greek mythology Hedone was also the goddess and the personification of sensual pleasure and enjoyment (George, 2018). Accordingly, in consumer behavior theory hedonic goods are defined as goods that are consumed for pleasure and enjoyment (Voss et al., 2003). Hedonic goods are bought for the sake of the goods themselves (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019). On the other hand, utilitarian goods are used for their instrumental-value (Liu, Santhanam, & Webster, 2017). They are used to reach a particular goal that is external to the good itself (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019). Consequently, utilitarian goods derive their usefulness from their practicality and productivity. From a motivational viewpoint the use of a hedonic good is characterized as an intrinsically motivated action, while the use of a utilitarian good is considered as an extrinsically motivated action (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019).

Just like goods, information systems can be classified as hedonic and utilitarian (van der Heijden, 2017). While information systems have historically been considered one-dimensionally as either hedonic or utilitarian, recent literature has recognized that information systems are often a mix of the two (Voss et al., 2003). Nowadays, information systems are increasingly designed from scratch to serve both hedonic and utilitarian needs to increase customer engagement (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019). The idea of such mixed systems is to cater a diverse set of motivational needs into one single motivational information system (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019). The goal of a motivational information system is “to achieve productivity through fun” (Hamari & Keronen, 2017) . However, as the undermining effect of external rewards shows, combining different motivational needs in an effective way can be a very challenging task (Burtch, Hong, Bapna, & Griskevicius, 2016).

This is where gamification comes into play. The theory of self-determination states that intrinsic motivation mainly derives from three motivational needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness (Liu, Santhanam, & Webster, 2017). Throughout the literature, games are widely recognized as a means to satisfy these three motivational needs (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019). Through gamification motivational information systems are able to satisfy these needs as well. Duolingo, for example, offers competence by creating a challenging environment that provides users with a feeling of mastery. Duolingo also offers a sense of autonomy through their divers set of lessons that provide users with a feeling of choice. Furthermore, Duolingo offers relatedness through the social components that allow users to both compete and cooperate with each other.

Not a silver bullet

The fact that so many gamification projects fail teaches us that gamification by itself is not a silver bullet for customer engagement (Post, 2014). As Gartner’s research vice present, Brian Burke (2014), put it:

“Poor game design is one of the key failings of many gamified applications today. The focus is on the obvious game mechanics, such as points, badges and leader boards, rather than the more subtle and more important game design elements, such as balancing competition and collaboration, or defining a meaningful game economy. As a result, in many cases, organizations are simply counting points, slapping meaningless badges on activities and creating gamified applications that are simply not engaging for the target audience.”

Besides the common pitfall of “pointification”, the merits of gamification also need to be legal and ethical (Werbach & Hunter, 2012). A grocery store owner in Iowa learned this lesson the hard way. He thought it was a good idea to motivate his workers by organizing a “fire-contest” (Fastenberg, 2011). While he promised a cash price to every worker that rightly guessed who would be fired next, he ended up paying for their voluntarily resignation (Miller, 2011).

Negligent gamification could also lead to manipulation and exploitation (Werbach & Hunter, 2012). Laundry workers of the Disneyland hotel in California, for example, renamed their leaderboard system “the electronic whip” (Allen, 2011). After the system was implemented, the progress of the workers was continually tracked and prominently shown on huge flat screen TVs in laundry rooms (Allen, 2011). The system had a large impact on the competitiveness of the working environment (Werbach & Hunter, 2012). Employee relationships started to intensify, lower-ranked employees began to worry about their jobs, and some workers even stopped using their bathroom breaks to increase their rankings (Werbach & Hunter, 2012).

Disneyland’s Electronic Wip Persiflage


So, should gamification be used as a means to increase customer engagement? As with many business issues, the answer is: “it depends”. We have learned that gamification is not a silver bullet and that implementing it may lead to unforeseen consequences. Yet, if prudently designed, gamification is able to significantly increase customer engagement.

Companies willing to adopt gamification should first learn how to think like game designers. Before embracing game elements, companies should have a thorough understanding of the rules of motivation. To obtain these capabilities companies could consider hiring talented game designers and consider applying one of the many gamification design frameworks out there.

We can conclude that gamification might not be the holy grail of customer engagement, but it is definitely not going away soon either. While the hype maybe over, we probably just started to tap the plateau of productivity.

I hope that this article has given you a different perspective on motivation. Do you know great success stories of gamification? Please let them know in the comment section below!


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