If you hear the word “play” used to describe something, what comes to mind? School recess? Board games? Video games? Whatever the case, I’d wager that it’s a recreational activity or a time waster that appears in your mind’s eye. But as the business world has been discovering for several years now, “play,” or more specifically, game mechanics applied to activities to re-create play, can drive real consumer behavior to achieve tangible business results, from improving activity levels and engagement to actually converting customers.

Unfortunately, society has relegated the idea of play to the sidelines. But why is that? Why do we assume that, just because something is enjoyable or fun for a consumer, it automatically can’t be related to businesses and branded campaigns?

Luckily, as the need for advertiser/consumer engagement has skyrocketed, thanks in part to our collective indifference towards ads, the list of major brands who believe in the power of play seems to grow more impressive each day. Chevy, PUMA and AT&T turned to Dailybreak recently to “gameify” content and activate their audiences; Century 21, MasterCard, and Expedia entered the social gaming space hardcore; and Starbucks, taking a more internal approach, launched competitive games between retail stores to foster employee action.

More and more, it’s clear that brands are starting to take play seriously.

So Why Is Play So Effective for Brands?

Rather simply, games focus on enjoyment and achievement. If the branded experience is authentic and thoughtfully built instead of slapped together with a prize (a great way to guarantee it feels like a chore, by the way), then play-based interactions can actually lead consumers to convert willingly and happily. No more interruptive, spammy feel to the campaign – and isn’t that the dream for both sides?

Play addresses two psychological barriers that prevent most people from taking action in their lives, which is why these campaigns can be so darn powerful. Those barriers are:

  1. Lack of volition: People first need the will to do something. Behaviors, whether that’s deciding to work out or deciding to upload a photo for a brand’s campaign, must be 100% optional and authentic. Getting the person to decide on their own that they want to engage a brand makes game mechanics so intriguing in marketing.
  2. Lack of faculty: Next, people need the necessary skills and tools to handle the challenge at hand. If they’re overwhelmed or stressed, they’ll abandon an experience or avoid it altogether. If something is too easy, such that their skill level or tools available guarantee a boring experience, then negative brand sentiment can also start to creep up in a consumer’s mind. Well-executed campaigns that deploy game mechanics will instead strike the right balance (“flow”) to challenge people ever so slightly and then trigger a sense of achievement.

(Awesome resource: Game Frame. If you’re new to game mechanics and behavioral games, I highly recommend this book as your introduction. It’s both entry-level and rooted in real-world examples, so it feels less buzzwordy – a buzzword I just made up – than lots of game mechanics literature.)

Important to reiterate: Because we’re dealing with human psychology here, overcoming these two barriers MUST feel natural, authentic, and voluntary. They cannot be bribed, because dangling prizes without focusing on the experience or process itself inevitably turns into a chore that feels uncomfortable. The last thing a brand wants is its consumer base to hate the brand.

Important to remember: Also paramount to a brand’s success is being able to call a user to act. Your goal is to fill the “emotional well” of a consumer enough that they adore you because of how they feel towards your brand. Then, and only then, you’ve attained trust and loyalty through a play-like experience. Otherwise, your campaign is just another a markety, spammy interaction that gets even worse when a huge button appears screaming, “BUY!”

Games and Play Break Through Barriers to Drive Action


For those unwilling to believe that games can motivate an audience to act, consider this: the sense of achievement felt during moments of play causes similar chemical reactions in the brain to the addiction brought on by drug abuse. And while we are most definitely NOT endorsing drug use or addictions of any kind (quite the opposite in fact), we are very interested in the idea that humans are WIRED to return to activities wherein they feel achievement. We as a species crave that sense of accomplishment on a fundamental, biological level. This makes sense, too: take off your marketers’ hat and think like a person, and you’ll know this to be true. People just want to feel good about themselves, self express once in awhile, and know that whatever actions they take will make them feel great, empowered or improved each day. Imagine if all brands created that wonderful (and behavior-inducing) reaction from their audiences?

In short, people return to these experiences in life again and again. In marketing, that’s called brand loyalty.

Play affects us all in profoundly deep ways – too profoundly to merely write off as recreational or a tech-nerd’s idea of marketing. It’s not only a very real strategy for brands, it has a powerful and lasting effect on consumers. Games take an idea (for instance, the well-crafted messages behind any brand) and apply rules around them to help players maximize enjoyment and interaction with those ideas. They provide people with voluntary, enjoyable objectives that require concentration and action, and they offer players the tools or knowledge to feel that all-important sense of achievement in their day.

As marketers, we have a responsibility to present products and brands that resonate with consumers. So the next time you want to drive home a message that’s lasting and, dare I say, addicting, consider creating campaigns based on play.

After all, when our campaigns succeed, that’s when the fun really starts for us all.

Moment of truth: do you buy into game mechanics and play as viable options for marketing? Why or why not? Leave a comment or debate with me on Twitter. Would love your take!