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Demystifying Gamification: Increasing Enagement With Genuine Fun

Collaboration | Gamification | Heineken | 25 November 2015

Interested in learning about Gamification? The Marketing Institute is holding a workshop on Gamification, led by Sean Ahern, on December 2nd, 2015. Find out more information here.

Marketers use gamification to achieve astonishing reach and engagement on comparatively meagre budgets.

The cause is obvious; if a campaign is genuinely fun to take part in, people talk, brag, compare and recommend participation to friends. It does not need to cost an arm and a leg, it just requires the ‘fun’ part to be right. The video games industry can teach us a lot here; some of the most popular games boast lifetime engagement averages of up to 7,500 hours per player.

In order to be able to create genuinely fun interactions one must have a solid grasp on what makes something fun. Getting it right requires a slight shift from the regular marketing mindset. Key to success is to fully appreciate your audience’s needs and wants and, as Google did with their search engine, the primary objective must be to satisfy these first and achieve business objectives in what should appear to be secondary way. This is key to a person engaging; it must feel like it’s designed primarily for them.

This week we look at the psychology and mechanics of fun. Specifically we are interested in why people react so positively to games and why a campaign might feel like it was intended for me to enjoy. Next week I’ll focus on practical implementation.

So to understand how game designers successfully create fun, and to be able to get it right ourselves, we must first consider this: What is fun?

Intuition suggests that fun is entirely subjective, and that people enjoy themselves in many different, unrelated ways. What happens inside our brains when we have fun, however, is consistent regardless of what we are doing, and our goal is to achieve this.

Gamification specifically targets two neurological responses, labelled ‘flow’ and ‘fiero’. When we play we enter ‘flow’ and when something works we experience ‘fiero’.


When was the last time you had a really satisfying day at work? Where you put your head down, got stuck into loads of stuff, aced everything, looked up, and suddenly it was late evening. How great does that feel?

How close is that feeling to spending time immersed in a hobby? One is likely stronger than the other, but, your brain reacts to both situations in a very similar way; it enters a particular and familiar state.

By issuing you with a tailored challenge, some work to do, every game attempts to bring you to this same neurological state. The areas of the brain that handle cognition, attention, planning, perception and spatial awareness all step up a gear, attention becomes entirely focussed on the task at hand, and dopamine is released throughout. Your brain is active, you are engrossed in busy-work. It may not sound like fun, but you and your brain are completely “in the zone”, consistently operating at peak intellectual capacity.

We call this the state of ‘flow’, and it is that heightened state that we experience in play.



It’s important to note that the majority of smiling, laughing and feelings of reward generally come later. When you are in a state of flow you are too busy and focussed to smile. You are only focussed on achieving your goal.

Inevitably, efforts lead to success, and each small success is celebrated. This is the true goal, the reason our minds accept meaningless challenges to enter its state of flow. This is where smiles tend to break out. We all know that feeling of inner victory, and we call it ‘fiero’. Not to be confused with ‘winning’, fiero happens to some degree every time you do something right, winning included.

The term was coined by Italian psychologist Isabella Poggi. ‘Fiero’ is an Italian word without a direct translation to English, and can mean either pride, boldness or ferocity. In gamification it’s the label for that feeling of personal triumph over adversity.  And when it happens, our brains just light up. The activity patterns are described as exactly opposite those seen in depression. This is fun.

In a team game, all players enter flow together and all share in the fieros together. Even spectators enter flow and share in fieros to a certain extent; when in flow, the mind does surprisingly little to differentiate between empathising with others and actually taking part yourself.

Also interesting to note; the closer the balance between chance and skill, the more intense the feeling of fiero on success. But make no mistake, fieros are the goal.

When you enter flow and experience fiero, you are performing busy work to the best of your abilities and to obvious success. You are having fun and you will stay in flow for as long as possible.

As a marketer, if you have successfully engaged a person with interesting opportunities for fiero to the point that they enter flow, they are now your genuine advocates. Whatever the base marketing activity, reach and engagement will climb.

If flow is achieved and fieros are plenty, what you are doing doesn’t matter, you are having fun.



Of course not all games are the same, and people have fun doing many different things. Scoring a goal in a game of football may mean nothing to you, but that doesn’t mean you hate games. We all enjoy entering flow, and by varying the nature of fieros on offer, the video games industry can create games with enough broad appeal that 75% of Americans now play video games.

What we consider to be most enticing for us depends on a couple of things, and although these are subjective, there is always a distinct and predictable pattern.

First and foremost, any challenge you opt to accept needs to be something that you can pick up with ease and without fear of judgement. If there is a steep learning curve or if you start off at a distinct disadvantage, thoughts of inadequacy will quickly override any thoughts of targets or success. Feeling inadequate is definitely not fun.

Second, each of us are attuned differently to our basic intellectual needs, with some needs favoured over others. In order to be interesting, fieros must be tailored to appeal directly to these needs. Thankfully, the video gaming industry has identified the core needs that relate to fun:


Express: The need to use our knowledge, skill and our own special expertise.

Explore: The need to learn, collect, increase capability and prepare for the future.

Compete: The need to compare ourselves to others, to validate our place in the world.

Collaborate: The need to work with others, to talk and share, to belong to something.

Take a moment to consider your favourite pastime and what intellectual needs to you like to satisfy to have fun. Recognise any parallels? Do you enter flow? Many hobbies evoke the exact same neurological reactions as ‘single player’ games, but are not thought of as games.

This is how the video games industry appeals to all. The vast majority of games on the market are single player games with fieros tailored to everyone’s taste, each targeting a neurological response similar to what would be experienced while engaged in many hobbies. Gamification doesn’t target competing and winning, it targets interesting opportunities for flow.

Although there is no hard and fast rule, there are very slight gender tendencies noted by games makers.

Males tend to more frequently favour expressive activities like building and designing, or to a slightly lesser extent, competitive activities like bragging or challenging.

Females tend to more frequently favour collaborative activities, like commenting and helping, or to a slightly lesser extent, explorative activities like rating or collecting.

With all the above in mind, we can see that in order to make something fun enough for someone that they enter flow, the act of gamification primarily needs to:

1) Reduce the learning curve, and

2) Offer fieros to satisfy our ‘fun’ needs.


There are many tricks and templates within the gaming industry to satisfy needs and achieve flow; we have only touched on the basic concepts here. But in order to realise the benefits that gamification can bring, marketers must fully understand the core objective; to engage by targeting flow. If the fieros on offer are tailored correctly for your audience, your campaign will be genuinely fun to interact with.

In next week’s blog, we will look at ways that flow can be achieved and leveraged in a marketing capacity using gamification.

For now, let’s finish with another quick look at the 2 examples we saw last week, and see how the above was applied.

Case Study 1: Heineken Star Player

By: Heineken and AKQA, 2011

Est. Budget: $1m+

Untitled design gamif 4 final 2

In order to boost engagement during matches, Heineken and AKQA created the “Star Player” app, a simple app that allowed users to predict what was going to happen next, score points for guessing right, and compare results with friends.

Heineken’s target market are predominantly male, and their choice of sponsorship partner reflects that. Let’s look at how ACQU approached flow and fiero and how they sought to satisfy needs.

Flow and fiero: We mentioned that spectator sports can cause observers to enter a flow state. ACQA leveraged this and even increased the likelihood of achieving flow state by allowing players to create their own fiero moments on reading the game correctly. There is a nice balance of skill and chance resulting in players engaged in a state of flow almost entirely throughout each game.

Needs: Working with a male dominated target market, ACQA targeted the slightly male-favoured ‘express’ and ‘compete’ needs. The core challenge was to use your expertise to predict outcomes, and the secondary challenge was to compete with your friends for bragging rights. This messaging was heavily used in marketing content and was super successful at accessing their target profiles, with several 3rd party media sites even publishing content on predictions and strategy.

Case Study 2: #Glastonburied

By: Glastonbury Music Festival & EE, 2015

Est. Budget: <£10k


Rather than give away tickets for Glastonbury 2015 in the usual way, EE created a treasure hunt. Players had to follow the twitter feed to receive clues and hints on where to look. After a day, the campaign had received 3,000 tweets and 500 retweets, reaching over 300,000 people.

EE were targeting young festival goers, so gender targeting was not as relevant and needs had to be addressed in a balanced way.

Flow and fiero: Creating a consistent flow was a little more difficult here. EE presented the challenge in pieces, dripping information on the whereabouts of clues over the course of the day. Each clue held the potential for a moment of fiero. Engaged players took to checking twitter regularly over the course of the day and each time they applied themselves to searching, whether online or in person, entered a perfect flow state, thus remaining fully engaged for the whole campaign.

Needs: The primary needs being met here were ‘explore’; the key challenge was searching for clues, ‘collaborate’; as players were encouraged to work together to win tickets for their group, and ‘express’; where deduction of ticket location from clues was aided by knowledge and experience of  the Glastonbury locale. These are quite gender neutral and there was little or no elements offering ‘compete’.

This article was written by Sean Ahern, an avid gamer who made his first text based computer game at the age of 13. In 1999-2000, when competitive online gaming was in it’s infancy, he was a semi-professional Counter -Strike Gamer, playing in front of online audiences of up to 30,000. Real Life ™ has torn him away from hardcore gaming but he still spends his spare time sifting through strategy and indie games. He also worked for Accenture and Microsoft and is currently founder of, a social help game that gets relevant marketing content in front of qualified advocates and influencers, recently nominated by Silicon Republic as “One to Watch” in 2015.

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