The consumer-player: when business turns into a game

Pedro Jesús González

28 May 2021

wp 6 2

When I was in elementary school, my teacher used to tell us off because, according to her, we always did “the bare minimum”. And every time she said that, I remember thinking to myself “of course we do”.

This is a universal (or rather, evolutionary) insight: when faced with two different ways of achieving the same objective, more often than not we will choose the one that requires less effort. The same is true for digital transformation. Digitalisation has consolidated a context in which the effort needed to achieve results is becoming increasingly smaller. 

Whether it’s companies seeking efficiency or users being lazy, this minimisation of efforts has huge implications (both positive and negative) at a political and social level. However, in this article we will deep dive into those that affect the business world. 

A frictionless world

In the 20th century, product development was all about building a value proposition powerful enough to stand out from the rest, as consumers faced anxiety (friction) when it came to make a choice among so many available options.

The anxiety derived from decision-making, however, is now fading away. Making choices is increasingly easier these days, and the consequences of making the wrong choice are minor. In the past, we used to read reviews and do some research before deciding; now, an algorithm chooses on our behalf. This is not new, but superdigitalisation has definitely accelerated this phenomenon, and we have now reached a turning point: in a post-pandemic world, it’s impossible to not be connected, and everything is commoditised. 

In the power struggle between companies seeking to sell their products and services and consumers, the latter (often including B2B consumers, too) are the big winners. Platform and long tail economy have a lot to do with it. Even price is sometimes no longer a relevant factor: many products and services are now cheaper than they were 20 years ago, one doesn’t even need to adjust inflation. 

Infinite catalogues, infinite brands and infinite offerings. Everything is immediately available, whether it’s at our fingertips with just one click, at our doorstep in less than 2 hours, or in our living room by saying ‘Ok, Google’. 

The ‘Mario Bros’ effect: from consumer-decision makers to consumer-players. 

In a TED Talk he gave back in 2019, youtuber and ex-NASA engineer Mark Rober coined the term “Mario Bros effect” and showed data that proved gamification —which has been around for over a decade now— is an effective way of tricking our brain into changing certain behaviours. 

In the current frictionless scenario, consumers are no longer scared of making the wrong choice. In the past, it was about bringing game dynamics to consumer marketing (gamification), but in this decade consumer marketing has become a game in itself.  Not because it is easy, but because the dynamics governing the relationship between brands and consumers have changed: in the past, when making a purchase decision, consumers considered the value each option would bring them in relation to the effort (friction), whether understood in monetary or time terms,  it would take them to obtain it. Without friction, there is no need to choose, and thus consumers seek to turn decision making into a game. 

As such, consumers have become consumer-players, whereas in the past decades they were “prosumers” (consumer-producers). Their driver, their main motivation, is to have fun.


The game has begun

No matter where we look, this trend is gaining momentum in all sectors, from entertainment to finance. 

  • Investing is a game. Platforms such as RobinHood, which in 5 years has multiplied its users by 26, simplify and gamify the trading of financial assets, bringing them closer to the public, who see it as a game. This has led to episodes such as Game Stop, which, more than a coincidence, is a symptom of the potential consequences of this trend. Its impact is such that conversations about stock purchases —which until not so long ago were complex and often incomprehensible to a large part of the population— are now even present in lifestyle media outlets.
  • Making games is a game.  67% of US youth under the age of 16 are users of Roblox, the meta-video game where you can build video games, and play on a daily basis. The company went public on March 2021, and its initial growth was 4 times that of Mattel (which brings us to point 1). It has its own currency, the Robux, which last year moved $1.24 billion.
  • Watching films and shows is a game. An interesting study by C Space explains how during the hard lockdown of 2020, Netflix lost relative share to Disney+, because users could no longer talk about  the show they had watched last night with their friends and colleagues in person. At the same time, Twitch is  —slowly but surely— moving away from being a game streaming platform to become a game in itself thanks to features such as bits to cheer and creator crowdfunding.
  • Grocery shopping is a game. Data allows us to check if prices are going up or down, and also to compare and share them with our friends, in a sort of game .But the trend goes even further : the lack of obligation to decide has led us to buying things without even knowing what they are. Therefore, it is not surprise that interest in mystery boxes has recently reached a new all-time high. 
  • Fitness and wellbeing are a game. The wellness category has been implementing this approach for a long time: from training apps to Nintendo Switch’s Ring Fit, to result-tracking systems that allow users to improve, compare or compete against others (in every possible field), the wellness market is experiencing a digital boom that will only accelerate this trend even more. 

The list is long, and examples can be found in all sectors. Once again, there are enormous social implications to the rise of this trend, but our task at Good Rebels is to understand how, in the current context of superdigitalisation, brands should reconsider their relationship with consumers, understanding that most of them have given up on making choices: what they actually want is to have fun.