Is Business a Game? Customer Experience Lessons from Gaming


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Over the years, as a customer experience consultant, I’ve increasingly become a student of “game theory” and of the “gaming industry.” I sense I am not the only one. For example, Thomas J. Watson the founder of IBM is quoted as once saying that “business is a game.”

As you likely know “game theory” is a branch of mathematics that postulates how people interact with one another to get their respective needs met (either in competitive or non-competitive ways).

Even if you haven’t formally studied game theory you’re probably aware of many of its concepts such as those articulated by Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli and others – concepts like the law of diminishing returns. That law suggests the benefits of effort or expenditure often decrease with time to a point where the gains don’t justify that expenditure.

Game theory obviously plays a role in “gamification” of mobile apps, online contests, or even the creation of buying incentives. In fact, according to an incentive is often, “given to overcome a moral hazard problem which arises due to imperfect information.” In other words, an incentive is a nudge to help people overcome fear or uncertainty when faced with a buying decision.

Clearly, game theory has its greatest application within the “gaming industry”. According to an article by Mark de Bruijn titled Level-up your customer experience: Lessons from the gaming industrygaming has become a 100 billion dollar industry serving 1.5 billion customers. In his article Mark identifies three key ways that designers in the video and mobile gaming industry create “gamer engagement”, loyalty, and spend. Those 3 areas are:

  • Promotion
  • First Impressions
  • Immersion

It should also be noted that all three of these design elements are applicable beyond the gaming industry.

Let’s take “immersion” as an example.  In gaming, immersion involves enveloping customers in:

  • Gameplay
  • Graphics/Sound
  • Story

Mark highlights the role of gameplay broadly in business by noting, “At Starbucks you can earn stars with purchases. The Spanish bank BBVA lets customers perform tasks to promote the use of internet banking. And the running app Nike+ Run Club challenges sports enthusiasts to measure themselves against others.”

From the perspective of “graphics/sound,” companies not involved in the gaming industry address these issues through visual and sensory elements that drive pleasure and positive emotional connections. The efforts are reflected in the design of sights, sounds, smells, and possibly tastes during brick and mortar interactions or through the visual layout of an online company.

The story, from the perspective of gaming, typically involves character development, dialogue, and ways for gamers to personalize their experience. In other business settings, “story” often involves providing an emotionally engaging context for a branded customer experience and finding ways to have customers meld their personal story with your brand story. It also involves giving your customers a positive story to tell about the experience they had purchasing from you.

While I might not agree with John Watson’s ultimate conclusion that “business is a game”,  I am certain that the more we apply mathematical principles about the economics of decision-making the more effectively we’ll design and deliver experiences that connect with our customers. Additionally, I am certain that the more we connect with our customers through promotion, graphics/sound, and immersion – the more they will purchase and demonstrate loyalty with us!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. Great article! Being a casual gamer myself I think that every industry should learn about customer experience from the gaming industry and the main reason is the way the gaming industry responds to customer feedback. They are eager to improve the overall gaming experience of the user and to do so they have to be very attentive towards what gamers have to say about there product. Depending on the industry you might receive tons and tons of customer reviews or feedback and it is nearly impossible to go through every customer feedback but to increase the overall user experience you have to do that. That is the most important part to know what the user has to say about your product and that is where the gaming industry is leading.

  2. Tremendous perspective on the ability of gamers to leverage feedback. Thanks for elevating the post, Alex! Joseph


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