Have you ever wondered how games like Pokémon GO, Subway Surfers and Candy Crush gain massive followings? How games with little complexity attract so many users and how this affects user experience? The answer is gamification, a UX design technique meant to both engage and keep customers coming back again and again.

Game mechanics are employed—points, badges, other rewards, leaderboards—which incentivize customers to enjoy product experiences repeatedly. Games like Candy Crush were designed to create mini-addictions: As play begins, getting past each level is easy. Those small victories release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes users feel happy and satisfied.

In writing for “The Guardian,” psychologist and drug addiction researcher Dana Smith, PhD, said “dopamine also plays a crucial role in learning.” By controlling dopamine release via a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement, consumer-facing games are designed to ensure people win just enough so that they learn to come back for more.

Gaming does a lot to keep players engaged … and the UX community wields those components actively. Imagine a favorite loyalty app. (Mine is Starbucks Rewards.) Now think about why you use it. Do points received build to a reward? Do mini-challenges lead to bonuses earned? Does the app seem oddly tailored to your needs and desires?

These are three ways brands have tricked human brains into being loyal—for better or for worse.

Points & Levels

One key to gamification is an ability to earn points. In loyalty apps, most every dollar spent is translated into points. On Oct. 9, Ben Brown for BitCatcha.com wrote that a points system is effective because “it gives the user control.” While no one enjoys feeling pushed to do things, turning dollars into points has driven consumers to pursue higher scores.

To score higher they have had to spend more, which leads to increased brand loyalty and revenue. Accumulated points are never just for show, either. They fulfill a psychological need for demonstrated competence. In 2016, four German researchers studied how gamification motivates people and determined that points meet this need via granular-level feedback.

Going a step past points, consider levels: By earning enough points a consumer will advance and unlock more desirable perks. Take the Sephora app. If a customer earned 350 pts. by spending $350 in a given year, their account status would be upgraded to Very Important Beauty-Insider—an achievement that unlocks hidden features (i.e., coupons, early access) the VIB uses next year.

Sense of prestige was also found enticing. Just as when points were involved, it upped customer loyalty (and spend) even further.

Rewards, Bonuses & Badges

Points earned and levels mastered must lead somewhere. Enter loyalty-app rewards which are generally tangible: discounts, exclusive coupons, gift cards. Many loyalty apps have also begun offering bonus pathways to earning points or discounts. Apps not tied to products have offered badges instead. These real life rewards have remained incentivizing for many reasons.

Who turns down a free cup of coffee from their favorite café? People feel a sense of achievement once a reward is earned and are gratified by anticipation. A visit to Starbucks.com on Oct. 11 was met by: “Join Starbucks Rewards to enter a magical, starry world. Play Starbucks Rewards Starland for your chance to win dreamy prizes” (i.e., Bonus Stars, “free handcrafted drinks”).

In writing for Denmark-based “Huuray!” Emilie Kristensen explored why consumers are attracted to rewards only to find that “the pleasure reward circuit in the brain is an area that can be triggered by … sales and, of course, digital devices. (This) pleasure circuit, called the nucleus accumbens, activates not when the reward is received but in anticipation of the reward.”

The brain is tricked into seeking out rewards—and brands know this. Badges are used similarly but have focused on satisfying a desire to achieve. Humans, by nature, love reaching goals. Providing badges at various intervals is thought to satisfy this craving.


There is also a reason people are drawn to sports and cutthroat competition: Humans are competitive. Leaderboards allow people to compare their status with that of strangers, friends and family members—a need to do better than the rest shown to motivate them to use apps more frequently even if they had to spend more to achieve higher rankings.

Competitiveness alone does not make leaderboards appealing. Sophie Doust for Digits Industries in the U.K. analyzed how and why leaderboards work. She said “the right (mix) of motivation” gave users a sense of community and fulfilled a need for belonging. Regardless of how high or low a user ranked, a sense of “purpose and place” contributed hugely to platform stickiness.

Apps or brands which have expertly utilized gamification to reach and create loyalty among the masses include:

  • Duolingo
  • Nike+ Run Club
  • Chipotle Rewards
  • Starbucks Rewards
  • Sephora Beauty-Insider

For such a simple premise, gamification has led to big shifts in the marketplace and holds big promise for UX designers. The best apps, though, have engaged brand consumers by providing them with intuitive, pleasurable and memorable experiences. Still, being aware that they have used gamification to coax and cajole subconscious minds matters.

Claiming discounts and rewards is one thing; making sound, independent decisions is another. Learning how gamification techniques have been effective is a simple step anyone can take to manage their engagement with apps, websites, promotions, etc. The only question that remains is: If we’re already hooked, what else have we fallen for?

[Editor’s Note: Our newest contributor, Bria Rose McKouen recently wrote a guest essay which you can find in the Q4 2020 print edition of Digital Unicorn Magazine.]


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Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Doust, Sophie. “The Psychology of Leaderboards: Why They Do in Fact Work” (Aug. 1, 2018). Digits.co.UK.

Kristensen, Emelie. “Why Do Consumers Love Rewards?” (Feb. 10, 2018). Huuray.com. https://huuray.com/why-do-consumers-love-rewards/ 

Sailer, M., J.U. Hense, S.K. Mayr & H. Mandl. “How Gamification Motivates: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Specific Game Design Elements on Psychological Need Satisfaction” (as published in “Computers in Human Behavior,” Vol. 69, April 2017). ScienceDirect.com. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756321630855X

Smith, Dana. “This Is What Candy Crush Saga Does to Your Brain: The Candy Crush Game App Exploits Some Well-Known Weaknesses in the Human Brain to Keep Us Playing” (April 1, 2014). TheGuardian.com. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/apr/01/candy-crush-saga-app-brain