Prashant Saxena
Nov 15, 2012

The mechanics of gamification: How to harness perceived distance to benefit your brand

Marketers desperate to send consumers on a brand journey would do well to understand how to take advantage of the mechanics of gamification and their relation to the hierarchy of needs. Prashant Saxena, associate director, Agility Research & Strategy, explains.


How do you make mundane tasks exciting? Throw in some carrots in the old-school style. Employees aren’t motivated? Hang in the ‘performance pay’. There is a moving cheese for every mouse and a Pavlov for every conditioned dog. So, how does a reward system work in the case of consumers and make the ‘mundane’ experience of a brand journey so exciting? For many of us, the answer is carried by the buzzword 'gamification'.

Classically defined as the “use of game design elements, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts”, gamification—just like any novel concept—invited flak from the traditional marketers who accused the neologists of repackaging something that existed as frequent flier miles from the days of United Airlines. For traditional marketers, it was about offering freebies as rewards. However, the neologists quickly responded, citing examples ranging from Farmville to Jimmy Choo’s Four Square competition, with the status rationale.

Prashant Saxena

Gamification is all about motivations, problem solving, empowerment, and, most importantly, the enjoyment of the gaming journey. In the context of brands, it’s about a system wherein consumers interact closely with the brand to achieve mutual goals. For brands, the obvious goals are loyalty, engagement and ultimately sales. But for consumers these goals are rather needs that they wish to fulfil in this commercially laden world.

Take a second, reflect on the word ‘needs’, and enjoy how Maslow pops out as that invisible nerve of your mind. In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow articulated a journey that we all traverse to fulfil the basic needs, from the physiological (food, water, shelter) to safety (security, freedom from fear), and work on the higher ones, belonging (need for love), self-esteem (recognition and respect) and self-actualisation (inner talent, creativity and fulfilment). 

Blame it on rising income levels or immunity, but most of us are way beyond the first two and lie somewhere in achieving the latter ones. Give it a commercial spin and you might find a credit-card-heavy consumer shopping extensively in order to gain membership into the Apple community or a would-be artist designing T-shirts to win respect and achieve fulfilment (self-actualisation) in the Threadless community.  While some brands like Apple and Threadless do it effortlessly, others may bank on gamification to encourage the consumer to fulfil her needs during her brand journey.

If we take a helicopter’s view (not too near or too far), we will see a closed system where consumers engage with the brand. In this system, the needs are milestones, and gamification is the environment that enhances the consumer's movement toward being the ultimate fan of the brand. If you go a few levels higher, you might visualise a multidimensional system where one consumer interacts with multiple brand systems and is at different stages in these systems. The brand that wins is the one that facilitates this journey effortlessly.

According to this visualisation, gamification is a brand-induced dynamic system, and there are various factors (metaphorically mechanical!) that drive consumers' movements towards these goals. Therefore, it might be interesting to see the consumer mechanics in this system. Turn on the geek button to cross-pollinate principles of classical mechanics with marketing in order to parse out the important aspects of gamification.

The distance to here

Here, we will work with the basic of mechanics: the difference between distance and (perceived) displacement that manifests itself in concepts like velocity, mass, momentum, force and power to derive learning for achieving critical mass of consumers, consumer empowerment and the benefits of the process of co-creation.

In the classical sense, distance is defined as the actual length of the path covered. For consumers, distance is the path covered toward their goals in the brand system. In the process of gamification, these are the status points that consumers collect while playing the game. As multitasking and ever-so-busy humans, we aim to maximise our efficiency by covering the minimum distance to reach the goals. Therefore, the less distance the better.

Displacement, on the other hand, is a tricky concept. In theory, it is about the length of an ‘imaginary straight path’, typically distinct from the path actually travelled. Consumers, as efficiency maximizers, desire to achieve maximum output with minimal input. If efficiency equals displacement divided by distance, then displacement—an imaginary straight path toward the goal—is all we care about at the end of the play. For us displacement (as output) should be maximised while real distance covered (as input) should be minimised. Hence, for more than 100 per cent efficiency, displacement has to be larger than distance.

The power of perceived displacement

If I said this to a fifth grader, he would laugh, as distance is always greater than or equal to displacement. But, I am not smarter than a fifth grader. Instead I am a desperate marketer who thinks that his product should maximise efficiency for his consumer. Therefore, I will bank on my psychological ‘wisdom’ and introduce the term ‘perceived displacement’.

Perceived displacement is the complexity-free ‘straight path’ imagined/perceived by the consumer before entering a brand system embedded with his personal goal. As marketers, gamification should promise a much larger perceived displacement than the real distance consumers have to travel to reach their goal.

Click to enlarge

If your game’s communication to any smart consumer promises that his perceived displacement will be greater than the real distance he will cover, then you are assured of some raised eyebrows. The obvious question will be: How does your game help me achieve my personal goals in a better way than I usually would do? The answer to this lies in the core reason behind the game’s design, and this is where the creative team chips in. The mantra is simple: Try to understand how consumers would usually achieve the goal if they were outside your brand system, and then design a sharper and more effective way to reach the same goal with minimum real distance and maximum perceived displacement.

If done right, one can see far-reaching consequences while discovering the power of perceived displacement and how it unfolds from the magic of mechanics. Perceived velocity and perceived acceleration are increased. This means, the gamer (consumer) is totally sucked into the game in no time. The increase in perceived velocity is sure to evoke positive word of mouth as the awestruck gamers rave about the game they like. This impacts the rate of diffusion of your game and brings in the critical mass faster. With increased critical mass and high velocity (both dependent on perceived displacement), the overall momentum of the game reaches new heights (game’s momentum = critical mass * perceived velocity) and so does the force of your brand system (rate of change of game’s momentum per unit of time. This can be equated to a well-balanced system of consumer empowerment. Ultimately, with engagement levels like never before, the brand becomes a power (proportional to force of the brand system and consumer’s perceived velocity) to reckon with.  Therefore, the game becomes a big differentiator against the competition.

The game's the thing

Cutthroat and saturated, today’s consumption-laden world is nothing short of madness. Yet, the glimmer of hope comes from within. Somewhere, we all are chasing internal goals. For brand managers, the goal lies in grooming the brand towards immortality—an ultimate position of power. While for consumers it’s about chasing the top three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. In everyday context, this pursuit becomes mundane. But it’s the game that excites the child in us to follow the symphony in this chaos, leading us to smoothly sail toward the goal. Understanding the right mechanics behind this will only steer success for your brand.

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