Guest article by Waffa Hammedi, Thomas Leclercq, and Allard van Riel. The article is based on a paper that received the Elsevier Prize for the Most Innovative Paper Award.

Reality is Broken! Over the next generation or two, ever larger numbers of people, hundreds of millions, will become immersed in virtual worlds and online games! (McGonigal, 2011: p.1)

Pokémon has taken the world by storm since it was launched in July this year. Since its release, more than 50 million users have downloaded the app! In just a week, Pokémon Go increased Nintendo’s market value by $7.5 billion. In the US –(on iPhones alone ) the app is making $1.6 million per day (Fortune, 2016). We used to call games ”pastimes”; regarded them as trifling fillers of the interstices of our lives. However, games are rapidly playing a much more important role in our world! 

The computer game industry is booming, with an expected growth of $71.3 billion in 2015 to $90.1 billion in 2020 (PWC, 2016),. Its success has stimulated practitioners and researchers to invest significantly in studies to better understand the engaging aspects of these computer games, to apply the findings to other domains. This research has the power to transform patient, customer and employee routines into fun and enjoyable experiences. This process commonly referred to as gamification, has shown to be a highly successful and popular practice for firms. In that regard, the market for gamification is expected to reach the $5,500 billion mark by 2018 (eLearning, 2015). Gamification is everywhere. Fitbit, Nike Plus, and MyStarbucksIdea are only a few illustrations! Industries all over the world,  such as finance, healthcare, retailing, education, hospitality, etc., are now gamifying activities for various purposes.

Gamification was initially defined by Nick Pelling, in 2003, as using game mechanics in non-game contexts to help users achieve challenging tasks in an enjoyable way. For a long time the introduction of gamification strategies has been part of digital designers’ jobs. However, recent academic contributions highlight howservice literature may add to our understanding of the gamification phenomenon and how to properly use these mechanics to reach managerial objectives. Huotari (2012) emphasized that key challenges do not only reside in the mechanics used by designers, but also how they integrate these mechanics into their lives to enhance value creation through fun experiences. Infusing fun and excitement into the consumer experience is a fruitful strategy to generate customer engagement. This metric is widely used by managers eager to go beyond transactional relationships and develop partnerships with their customers (Werbach and Hunter, 2012).  Whereas ‘generating fun’ is easy to understand, it is actually hard to realize because of the subjectivity of the experience. Activities considered fun by some people may actually be boring to others. The theory of fun underlines that fun in games arises out of achieving mastery and comprehension (Koster, 2013). It is generated in the act of solving puzzles and achieving challenging goals. Gamification leads to fun by challenging customer behaviors and gradually teaching them how to master certain activities. Gamification is therefore a promising strategy for transforming customer- interactions from working with to playing with companies.

Despite its wide adoption in the business world, research on gamification remains in its infancy. The field is missing strong theoretical foundations, empirical research and best practices to properly develop and manage gamification tools. Building bridges between game studies, service design and service marketing is expected to contribute to a better understanding of this trendy concept, its mechanisms, benefits and challenges (Hamari, Koivisto and Sarsa, 2014). For service researchers, it is crucial to understand how to leverage gamification practices to advance service experience, delivery and build strong relationships with customers. Therefore, comprehending if and how gamified services create value for users, employees and networks is essential.

pastedgraphic-1Gamification and enhancing user/employee engagement & experience!

Game designers seem to have found the ‘holy grail’ of engagement, which service researchers and marketers have spent a long time searching for. (Zichermann and Linder, 2011). Great games captivate and engage players for long periods of time. Who hasn’t played games like Farmville, Angry Birds, Temple Run or Candy Crush once and found them hard to put away? “One more level”, or “5 more minutes until these crops are ready”.

Gamification aims at using game elements to leverage a participant’s sense of challenge, competition, and reward. In order for something to be perceived as rewarding, it typically has to evoke positive emotions. Gamification taps into human emotions and the needs to compete, achieve, gain recognition, and connect socially. This explains why it is gaining momentum as a viable approach for several managerial objectives, such as increasing user engagement, enhancing loyalty, driving sales, and fostering innovation, etc.

To get people to play a game or enter a gamified system once is one thing, but it is harder to  keep them interested over a long period of time. To achieve this, a gamified system should contain both engagement and progression loops. The engagement loop occurs at the micro, i.e., the individual user level, and has three main stages; motivation, action and feedback. The progression loop takes a macro, i.e., a broader perspective, and considers the whole user experience from onboarding (first time use) until achievement of the desired objectives. The progression loop sees creating customer engagement as a process. Instead of getting users to move in one big leap, which is overwhelming, it aims to break the process into multiple smaller, progressive, steps.

Gaming theory could be insightful for service researchers because it it expands literature on customer engagement from what it is about (e.g., cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dimensions) to how it is developed and enhanced (e.g., the engagement loop). This framework helps to understand how to create long-term user engagement (e.g., through the progression loop). Exploring the role of fun in the customer experience could also be a promising research area. Gamifying service interactions might solve several problems in terms of customer engagement and create a more positive customer experience (Harwood and Garry, 2015).

In addition, having fun at work is infectious! Gamification could be seen as an effective way to spread a «happy virus» among service employees, encourage desired behaviors (e.g., empathy), communicate recognition and strengthen employee engagement toward their jobs and co-workers. All of this results in a more positive work experiences and improved  service outcomes. A recent study (Gallup, 2014), shows another reason why companies are increasing their interest in gamification. This research states only 31% of employees are engaged at work. Surprisingly it found Millennials are the least engaged generation, with only 28.9% engagement compared to Gen X and Baby Boomer’s 32.9%. These young employees appear frustrated they have little opportunity to show their best work, nor a vehicle to contribute their ideas and suggestions to. After all, Millennials will reportedly make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025! Using gamification to address this HR problem not only impacts engagement levels, but also helps a company become a magnet for talent. Gamification hasmigrated from isolated pilots to a recognizable form of engagement and distinguishes high performing employees. Through game – attributes such as fun, play, transparency, design, competition and, yes, addiction, gamification is used by human resource departments of 500 fortune companies to solve employee engagement crisis as well as other processes like recruiting to learning and development (Forbes, 2015).

how-to-make-customer-service-more-funGamification, Behavioral Change, and Transformative Service Research!

Promoting or creating changes and improvements in the well-being of individuals (consumers/employees), collectives, communities, or ecosystems, requires not only substantial changes in behaviors and attitudes of these individuals, but also  education regarding what should be the desired behaviors.

Changing a bad habit or developing a good one is always a challenge. Our lives are ruled by unconscious habits, good and bad, that often prove difficult to change. The more a habit is anchored in automatic behaviors, the more difficult it is to change or replace. As a result, much-desired goals such as healthy living, finding a job, practicing sports, or to stop smoking, do not come easy. To achieve them consumers have to work very hard to change their habits and this may actually be demotivating. This of course, represents a huge opportunity for service providers who are willing to change their processes and technologies. Gamification is seen as a powerful tool to facilitate behavioral change and to educate consumers. Providing gamified and playful services, in which old behaviors are unlearned, and new desirable behaviors are explained, rewarded and reinforced, is a great way to stimulate engagement, motivation and learning (Werbach and Hunter, 2012; Thegardian, 2014).


The picture sketched above highlights gamification as a promising practice, but one that is still in an early stage of its evolution. Managers seem to use these practices as a convenient way to provide fun and enjoyable experiences and generate customers, employees or even patients’ engagement. Gamification appears to be an inspiring tool to initiate behavioral change and drive transformative service practices. However, the use of gamification in services lacks theoretical foundations and empirical findings on how it works. Further exploration of the use of gamification may also help anticipate potential drawbacks related to these practices, such as addiction, over-participation or demotivation. Such contributions would be insightful for practitioners when assessing the risks and opportunities of implementing gamification. It seems necessary to go beyond managerial practice to find new ways through which we may conceptualize and imagine the role of game elements in non-game contexts.


Wafa Hammedi, Associate Professor of Service Innovation and Marketing – University of Namur, Belgium


Thomas Leclercq, Ph.D student – Catholic University of Louvain – University of Namur, Belgium


Allard van Riel, PhD, Professor of Service Innovation – Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University. Netherlands.



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