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  • Writer's pictureMarie Brand

To Gamify or Not to Gamify – The Ultimate Quest for Balance in a World of Gamified Experiences

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Written by Marie Brand, PhD Candidate at WU Vienna

What do Starbucks, Duolingo, Sephora and FitBit have in common? They all offer gamified experiences to their customers or users. For example, in their loyalty program, Starbuck customers earn stars for every purchase, and as they accumulate stars, they progress through different membership levels. Duolingo uses a point-based reward system to make language learning feel like a game: users earn points for completing lessons, maintaining streaks, and competing with friends. Gamification refers to the practice of incorporating game elements and principles into non-game contexts such as business, education, or everyday tasks. While not a new phenomenon, gamification has gained significant traction in recent years and consumers are increasingly encountering it in various contexts. Many companies have adopted these gamified features to tap into our natural inclination for play and competition in the hopes of achieving positive outcomes such as increased motivation, improving learning and retention and a higher level of engagement and enjoyment. Even market research apps have embraced gamification as a means to motivate their audience when performing monotonous tasks, such as responding to market research questionnaires.

While games are fun and increase engagement, it is not clear how gamification affects other outcomes that might be relevant to companies. Is gamification a blanket solution that all companies should use or is it more nuanced than that? Is gamification always positive or might there be some unintended, negative side effects? How should you design gamified offerings effectively to reap their benefits while avoiding their potential pitfalls? This is where Franziska Völckner and her co-authors come in. In their article titled “All that glitters is not gold: An investigation into the undesired effects of gamification and how to mitigate them through gamification design” published in IJRM (2022, vol 39 (4), pp.1059-1081), they shed light on these questions. Franziska is a professor of Marketing at the University of Cologne and this project is joint work together with Magdalena Bekk and René Eppmann, also from the University of Cologne and Kristina Klein, from the University of Bremen.

Gamification is a tenuous balance between fun and focus

In part, this project came about after talking to practitioners and companies utilizing gamification. The team noticed that they lacked clear guidance on when gamification works and why it sometimes doesn’t. While prior studies on gamification focused on individual design elements, such as the impact of avatars and leaderboards, they explored the gaming experience as a whole and specifically its effect on affective and cognitive outcomes.

“That is an important aspect in all my projects: talking to companies and practitioners, exchanging ideas to try to understand what moves them. I want to bring something relevant to the world and it starts with the research question. I ask myself: Is there something that has not yet been solved? What can marketing research say to that and what can practice draw from my research? This also played a big role in the current gamification project” – Franziska Völckner

Playing a game, Franziska explains, leads to two opposing mechanisms that align with common intuition - one leading to positive affective outcomes and the other exerting negative effects on cognitive outcomes. On an affective level, gamification has positive effects (gaming is fun after all) on brand engagement, connection, and affinity. However, on a cognitive level, gamification leads to distraction. We encounter this when we play games too. We get into a flow state, diving into the gaming world, and forget everything around us, including possibly relevant information that the company wants to convey. The paper demonstrated those negative effects on recognition (do consumers recognize product information? Which product information belongs to which brand?). In short, cognitive outcomes suffer under gamification.

The secret to effective gamified designs is meaningful information

Because of the opposing positive and negative processes, nuanced design recommendations are needed. How can gamification be designed to reduce those negative processes? The researchers suggest two ways. First, by warning consumers about the potentially distracting effects of game elements. For example, by adding a pop-up window to a website, telling consumers that game elements might distract them from important information and urging them to not get distracted. Participants who browse a gamified website with information on the potentially distracting effects of gamified elements recall product information significantly better compared to browsing a gamified website without disclosure (and not significantly worse than those who browsed a non-gamified website).

Although this works, Franziska suggests a second approach, which the research team found to be more impactful and intriguing: Linking game elements with meaningful information. If, for example, users encounter a memory game, which contains meaningful information as part of the game (e.g., by having them match the picture of a house decoration product in the right room in the house) their product recognition will increase. Designing the games in a smart way to transmit meaningful information, they can hit the proverbial two birds with one stone, counteracting the negative effects of gamification on cognitive outcomes.

Franziska acknowledges that both of these interventions only attenuate the negative effects of gamification on cognitive outcomes. To significantly boost relevant outcomes, firms need to focus on the positive effects of gamification on affective outcomes by providing enjoyment to their customers through their gamified elements, which brings its own challenges in this field of gamification.

“Bringing game elements into a non-game environment is always tied to a certain level of risk. The risk of coming across silly, when seriousness is expected or required. There needs to be balance between playfulness and still being appropriate for the context” – Franziska Völckner

The challenge: clean yet realistic experimental design

Designing experiments on gamification is challenging. Researchers need to keep the experimental design clean, but at the same time, make the experiments realistic. In this context, it is vital that participants actually play games, and not just imagine themselves playing. Therefore, an actual gamified application that the research team had full control over was necessary. In the experiments, participants could browse two fully developed websites, one for a fictitious water brand and the other for a fictitious hotel website. The hotel-website was added as an additional context during the review process, which did the paper a lot of good, according to Franziska. This way, they could demonstrate the effects of gamification on cognitive and affective outcomes in two separate contexts and two product categories.

The Future of Gamification

Franziska sees significant potential in gamification for fostering intrinsic motivation for a wide range of tasks. While this paper was focused on the learning of product information, adding a leaderboard, point systems, and competitive elements are valuable features for enhancing engagement. She highlights that this approach can be particularly useful in encouraging consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviors, as well as addressing other emerging challenges that will be relevant in the future. Moreover, it extends beyond consumer behavior and encompasses serious games designed for learning or health applications that require behavior change.

“There is a lot we don’t know about gamification, what its limits are, the variety in which game elements can be combined. In practice, there is a huge toolbox available. The questions and the challenge become: what is the optimal setup for which context and what outcome?” – Franziska Völckner

Read the paper

Interested in reading all the details about the unintended consequences of gamification? Read the full paper here.

Want to cite the paper?

Bekk, Magdalena, René Eppmann, Kristina Klein, and Franziska Völckner (2022). "All that glitters is not gold: An investigation into the undesired effects of gamification and how to mitigate them through gamification design." International Journal of Research in Marketing 39(4), 1059-1081.


Meet Franziska Völckner

© Lisa Beller

What would you do if you were not in academia?

This is a challenging question. Honestly, I cannot envision myself doing anything else. Academia fulfills me in every aspect of life. The joy of teaching and sharing knowledge, collaborating with colleagues, and the integration of teaching, research, and practical application make this profession truly fulfilling.

Additionally, in our field, we have the opportunity to advocate for positive change and contribute to making the world a better place, even if it is in small ways. Perhaps I would have found myself in a research institution outside of the university environment or working in marketing on the practitioner side. I have always been captivated by understanding what motivates individuals, consumers, and human behavior in general. I think I would have ended up in a related field for sure.

If you could have lunch with any researcher from any area, who would it be?

I would have loved to have lunch with Albert Einstein, and I might also invite Stephen Hawking to join us. In general, I am fascinated by the field of physics, understanding the world from a different perspective like that. Atoms and molecules and all that we do not yet know about our universe. Talking to a physicist about this would be exciting.

Looking back at your career, which question would you like to have answered by the end of it?

I do not think I have one specific question. Every research process that aims to find some answer to a question reveals more questions and I think that is the beauty about it. In the end, I want to feel like I added a little understanding to the areas I worked on and to have been able to share some of that understanding with others. There are so many big questions out there; I think it is worthwhile to understand the little cosmos we are in a little better.


This article was written by

Marie Brand

Ph.D. candidate at the WU, Vienna



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