Gamification in ecommerce: Fad or Future?

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Intro

Consumption is more than just a necessity, it’s often a leisure activity. That said, many of us try make our shopping experiences as brief and convenient as possible; find what you want, add to basket and then checkout all in as little time as possible, therein lies the success of Amazon. However, in China eCommerce is being designed to hold consumers online for as long as possible both during and post-purchase. Shopping is turned into a game with much more stimuli introduced than the traditional ecommerce experience someone from the west would be used to. This is done using a process called Gamification. Gamification is the incorporation of game mechanisms and elements into non-game contexts in order to generate behavioral changes in the people interacting with it. We’ve seen some of its applications in the west surrounding education and sometimes healthcare. However, it’s rare we see it’s application in commerce beyond loyalty or reward programs, programs like those focus exclusively on the reward aspect of a gamified system and don’t truly have a gameplay loop or any more detailed mechanisms at work. Within a gamified system, the most important factors are often the rewards and the challenges involved, it relies on our dopamine response to solving problems in order generate repetition.

Why does it work?

In order to understand if Gamification is here to stay as an ecommerce trend or if it’s experiencing Galápagos syndrome; an isolated development which won’t see true success outside of its point of origin, locking it to places like China, it’s important to understand how (and if) it works.
There are multiple theories as to how a gamified system captures someone’s attention and generates repetition. Before we look at the psychological theories, some real-world examples would help to demonstrate the mechanisms involved. Currently, there’s a very heavy emphasis on the reward system involved over any of the potential challenges. The most popular example of ecommerce gamification is the Alibaba Group’s ‘Ant Forest’ a tree-planting game attached to their Alipay payment platform app.

Within it, its users generate Green Energy through various acts such as using Alipay for payments, buying e-tickets instead of paper ones and other actions which can reduce emissions. You can steadily grow a virtual tree which when completed will then be matched by the Alibaba Group, they plant one for you in real life within certain Arid areas of China. As of 2020 this app has 550 million users. With the trees planted as a result of this app covering 112,000 hectares of northwest China

Perhaps the most important element of this gamified system is the real-life reward granted through the completion of a tree, it provides a challenge to complete which rewards the user in kind while benefiting the host immensely. Providing not just use of the payment platform but also an incredible degree of user retention and stickiness, after all, why use a different payment platform when this one helps you get closer to solving a challenge (albeit one provided for you). All while providing a socially responsible brand image for Alibaba.

You don’t have to cover 112,000 hectares of land with tress to operate a gamified system. That’s just the way Alibaba chose to do it, and it worked! The core of the system is the mechanisms that operate within it and those are up to you.

Another pertinent example is the Taobao Pet Cat Raising Game every consumer started with their own pet cat and fed their cats with “Meow Coins”. In order to get more coins, consumers are required to do tasks such as viewing store pages, searching for certain products and inviting friends. The game was a huge hit and has already reached more than 100 million active users.

The success of Gamified systems is often explained using self-determination Theory. This essentially states that gamification is pushed forward by either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation (depends on who you ask). Intrinsic motivation “describes the natural inclination toward assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration which are so essential to cognitive and social development. It represents a principal source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life”. Extrinsic motivation “refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain some separable outcome”. Essentially the rewards of a gamified system can be viewed as an extrinsic motivation, with people being moved to obtain the desired outcome. Other theories include Flow Theory and the tech acceptance model (TAM)

As stated, there are many theories regarding the psychology surrounding a gamified system however it’s uncertain which one holds distinct precedence as that is also most likely reliant on the personality of the individual involved to a degree.

Another pertinent example is the Taobao Pet Cat Raising Game every consumer started with their own pet cat and fed their cats with “Meow Coins”. In order to get more coins, consumers are required to do tasks such as viewing store pages, searching for certain products and inviting friends. The game was a huge hit and has already reached more than 100 million active users.
The success of Gamified systems is often explained using self-determination Theory. This essentially states that gamification is pushed forward by either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation (depends on who you ask). Intrinsic motivation “describes the natural inclination toward assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration which are so essential to cognitive and social development. It represents a principal source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life”. Extrinsic motivation “refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain some separable outcome”. Essentially the rewards of a gamified system can be viewed as an extrinsic motivation, with people being moved to obtain the desired outcome. Other theories include Flow Theory and the tech acceptance model (TAM)

As stated, there are many theories regarding the psychology surrounding a gamified system however it’s uncertain which one holds distinct precedence as that is also most likely reliant on the personality of the individual involved to a degree.

However, examining them and examining current gamified systems, the important mechanisms that can be credited with gamification’s influence on consumer decisions are most likely rewards, challenge, meaningfulness, social influence, assessment, and interactivity. These are applied within a type of gameplay loop; the cycle of gameplay elements which keeps a consumer interested, in Alipay that loop is the growing of a tree for example. The potential of applying these factors within an entertaining loop is large as there simply aren’t many ecommerce gameplay loops out there currently. Gamification taps into our psychology using the factors above to motivate us into repeated engagement and preferential treatment of an application. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine it being locked to China, many brands in the West have simply ignored gamification as a tool for increased digital engagement, sticking to a traditional model. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Perhaps culturally you would have to find the right angel, but the underlying psychology of a gamified system still applies. They’ve proven their value in education, but their true potential remains untapped within a western ecommerce market.

Does Gamification Truly Effect Consumer Decisions?

An analysis of the empirical literature was done in 2019 to determine if gamification influences consumer decisions. Using a bibliometric analysis to narrow down the results and then after a manual review, 36 papers were found to contain empirical evidence regarding this and 29 of those 36 found that “inclusion of game elements in non-game activities has a significant influence on consumer engagement and online consumer decisions in digital contexts.”
This overview of the literature at present suggests that gamification does have a positive impact on consumer decision making, drawing people to certain platforms over others. the actual theoretical grounding of what drives people to participate in gamified systems still requires more development especially as it’s apparent that it does cause some degree of behavioural shift.
Gamification's influence on online consumer decisions can potentially be explained, primarily, by the reward mechanism. In other words, consumers are willing to participate in the game if, and only if, they earn a reward in return, whether it is symbolic or real, meaning they can cash it in for money or products. This doesn't necessarily have to always be a cash reward. Ant Forest rewards people with the idea of a real tree somewhere, even if it’s something they don’t necessarily acquire personally and that seems enough to motivate 500+ million people.

Does Gamification affect Consumer engagement?

Engagement can be a difficult metric to judge as its definition varies from context to context. However, there is a large body of social science research examining it, particularly within education, organizational behaviour, e-commerce, and video games.
Various researchers have studied engagement in the context of consumers and customers, these studies normally include the concepts of satisfaction, trust, commitment, emotional link or attachment and loyalty. Of these concepts, commitment, empowerment and loyalty were prominent in online community contexts, however focused attention and perceived usability are the main elements that determine user engagement, so companies should focus on these elements. The user experience should ensure that individuals fully focus on and perceive the web as easy to use and exciting.

Conclusion

While gamified commerce sees some quite serious success in Eastern markets it also has real potential in Western markets for those brave enough to try it; good games are addictive, and you can harness that to make your platforms addictive. That said gamification is also very culturally and contextually dependent, just throwing a game or game elements into the mix with on your platform to see how it pans out isn’t going to work. It requires real consideration of the core ideas around game design and repetitional motivation to understand how to get customers to stick to a game or gamified system that’s very obviously based around commerce and enticing them to spend.
Overall gamification attempts to establish a connection between functionality and engagement, an approach supported by Flow Theory, similarly, gamification aims to enhance usability and satisfaction, create more enjoyable experiences to produce a positive business impact
Gamified commerce represents an alternate approach in which retailers are competing for a customers leisure time, not just their wallets. However, if done well it can give a brand easy access to both.

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