Behavioral Design: The Surprising Link Between Ecommerce & Video Game Design


Behavioral Design: The Surprising Link Between Ecommerce & Video Game Design

What if I told you that video game designers were purposefully manipulating your behavior and brain chemistry to get you more and more invested in their virtual worlds?

So what, right?

Video games are for kids, and you’re a fancy ecommerce executive who has better things to do than read about behavioral design video games.

But think about it for a second. Both video games and online shopping both take place on a screen, require direct input from the user, and those interactions have an impact on the user and the world around them.

What’s the basic flow of most video games?

  • Player needs to overcome challenge
  • Player collects resources
  • Player gets slight advantage
  • Difficulty rises to challenge player
  • Repeat

Doesn’t that also sound a little bit like what’s going on in a typical buyer’s journey?

Now what if I told you that game designer’s mastery of behavioral psychology has been a big part of what has turned video games a $21 billion dollar industry?

Still think games are for kids?

The Parallels in Gaming/Ecommerce Demographics

This notion that video games are for isolated adolescent boys simply is not true. According to studies by Nielsen, Pew and ESA:

  • 59% of Americans play video games
  • 81% of adults between the ages of 18-29 are gamers
  • 48% of gamers are female

In fact, if you’ve ever played a game on your smartphone while waiting in line, technically, you’re considered a “gamer.” Now, when we look at similar stats ecommerce shoppers, we see some very interesting parallels:

Clearly, with some overlap in the demographic, and with both shopping and gaming interactions taking place on a screen in a virtual space, it makes sense to consider the lessons we can learn from good video game design.

So, Why Do We Play Video Games?

The answer isn’t simply “because they’re fun” no more than the answer to the question, “why do we shop online?” is “because we need stuff.”

Gaming, as it turns out, fulfills some very basic psychological needs that are outlined in what’s known as “The Self Determination Theory.” This macro theory explores the driving forces behind human motivation and personality, and our innate need for personal growth and psychological needs.

While “fun” plays a role, you have to look beyond the content of the game, and instead ask why is it fun. As you’ll see throughout the rest of the piece, it’s more about the “challenge/reward” mechanics that video games offer, and less about the actual content itself.

The reason I saw this link between gaming and ecommerce was because this video introduced me to Scott Rigby’s and Richard M. Ryan’s book “Glued To Games” where they dive quite deep into the different ways video games satisfy our three intrinsic core motivational needs.

In case you didn’t watch the video, those three core needs are:

  • Competency
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness  

Part of being human means that even from an early age, we feel the innate need to know we're capable of mastering things, the need that we can make our own decisions, and the need to feel like we matter to other people.

Good video games and ecommerce sites will strike a balance of fulfilling all three of these core needs, and depending on the genre of game (or ecommerce site) will put a stronger emphasis on the need in which it is fulfilled.

Because there is so much unpack, we’re going to discuss fulfilling the first core need, Competency, in this article, and revisit Autonomy and Relatedness in future pieces.

Fulfilling Basic Competency Needs in Video Games and Ecommerce

Image via Super Mario Brothers for NES

In the NES classic, Super Mario Brothers, you’re introduced to the core premise of the entire game within the very first few moments.

Avoid being touched by enemies to stay alive, jump to hit blocks from beneath to get coins or power-ups, jump on enemies to eliminate the threat. By design, you become immediately familiar with how your behavior affects the virtual world around you. 

As you go through the entirety of the first two levels, you’re introduced to the core mechanics that make up the 99% of the game.

  • Jump on platforms and move to the right to advance.
  • Warp pipes bring you to secret places.
  • Kick turtle shells to wipe out multiple enemies.
  • Fire-flowers give you projectile weapons.
  • Some bricks contain hidden surprises.
  • Green mushrooms give you an extra life.
  • Falling into gaps can kill you
  • If you run out of time, you die.

As you become more familiar with the control scheme and core mechanics, the game increases the difficulty until you reach Bowser’s castle at the end of each zone and have all of the skills you’ve been mastering put to the test.

By laying out the basic mechanics early, and gradually encouraging the player’s mastery, this instills a level of competence that provides a sense of confidence, and has even been scientifically proven to improve mood, reduce stress, and decrease depression.

 Image via

Well, the same is true for well designed ecommerce sites isn’t it?

For instance, let’s look at Shopify customer, A Book Apart.

Right underneath the site’s title “Brief books for people who make websites” which introduces you to the core premise of the entire site.

Directly underneath, the site features, “CSSS3 For Web Designers”, which reinforces the overall premise, and a very distinct “Buy Now” button which makes the goal very clear.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll also see the book is available in paperback, ePub, PDF, and mobi formats, letting you know you can read it (and assumedly every other publication they have) on any device you choose.

It’s a combination of these things along with clearly labeled navigation and easily identifiable shopping cart icon that set up who this site is for, the basics of where you can go, and what you should do while you’re here.

Just like level 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers, it’s these first few moments of interacting with this site that set the stage for what the entire experience will be like.

Also, just like Super Mario Bros, as you navigate a little more, you’ll find hidden surprises.

For example, once you navigate to the “Shop” part of the website, you see that you can get the entire library for 30% off if you buy all 13 titles at once (hey look, a powerup!) , they have gift-cards available, and their library also has content on client relations, so it isn’t just all technical stuff that they sell.


Now, consider your last “frictionless” shopping experience.

By the time you got to the checkout, it made you feel pretty good, right? It should come as no surprise then that, according to a survey by Huffington Post, one third of Americans shop in order to deal with stress.

“...there is one trait many "stress-shoppers" have in common: They tend to seek distracting, temporary fixes to alleviate their stress.”

Even at their basic, “Level One” foundation, both games and online shopping are fulfilling the same basic needs, and providing the same psychological benefits, which, I don’t know about you, but I think is pretty cool.  

On a bio-chemical level, according to Medscape and Psychology Today respectively, both online shopping and video games have similar effects on how dopamine - the body’s natural “happy drug” - gets released into the brain, most likely because finding the perfect outfit, and saving the princess both feel like "winning".

Here's an explanation from PBS Game Show that shows why winning feelsso good. This is a must watch if you want to understand the next section fully.

If there’s anything we can learn from video games, it’s this - We need to make sure that first time “players” can intuitively understand what’s going on in the virtual world we’re building for them.

This means they’re able to easily understand the basic “controls” of the site, the “powerups” that are available (this could be the products themselves, or bonuses for bundling and upselling) and maybe a hint at how their experience can be deepened as they spend more time with the brand.

Fulfilling Competence Satisfactions in Video Games

So now the question is, “how do we keep people engaged?”

Fulfilling basic mechanics and increasing the difficulty isn’t what keeps people playing the same game for hours on end, nor is it what keeps people buying for months, if not years at a time.  

As it turns out, in order for a person to feel competent, they need constant feedback in order to evaluate and possibly correct their performance and achieve complete mastery of the skill.

Let’s dig deeper into how video games do this, and see how we can apply it to our ecommerce experience.


Image via Guitar Hero 

In “Guitar Hero” players use a controller that resembles a guitar with 5 colored buttons, and attempt to hit the corresponding notes on screen in rhythm in order to simulate playing guitar in a rock band.

While this is fun on it’s own, it’s not the content that ultimately keeps people engaged. It's because the game mechanics are tailored specifically to the 3 major “feedback loops” people need in order to understand their own competence and where they stand as it relates to mastering the game.

Immediate/Granular Feedback -  When the player strums the guitar in time with the descending notes, the note explodes in a colorful flash, the song plays the correct notes and is pleasing to listen to.

However, if the note is missed, the player hears a displeasing “Twang” sound. If you miss too many notes, the crowd will boo, the song will sound terrible, and you fail the song. As a result, you do your best to play even better next time.

This kind of one-to-one feedback keeps the player immediately aware of how their actions are affecting the outcome of the game.

Sustained Competence Feedback - As the player hits multiple notes in a row, like you see in the gif above, they’re rewarded with score multipliers, the roar of the crowd, and an increase in their ROCK meter.

If players correctly hit specific “star notes”, the player can release “Star Power” which gives them a period of time where the virtual crowd cheers loudly, their onscreen avatar performs a “rockstar” animation, all of the notes become electric blue, every correctly hit note gives you a 2-8x multiplier, and there as added reverb on the guitar to make it sound much cooler and make the player truly feel like a rockstar.

Cumulative Competence Feedback - As you progress through the game, you will gain access to progressively more difficult songs and your in-game character will play larger in larger venues - starting in a garage and working your way up to playing large stadiums.

Image Via Guitar Hero

As the authors of “Glued To Games” puts this (emphasis mine):

“When you get back from a business trip having not played for a week, you can pick up the guitar and know your past accomplishments are not lost or forgotten as you walk back onto the stage and look out across the sea of virtual fans. This is what we call cumulative competence feedback - recognizing the more permanent growth in the player’s abilities in ways that don’t disappear when you hit the “off” switch.”  

Fulfilling Competence Satisfactions in Ecommerce

As I see it, each of these feedback types can also be directly applied in the short, intermediate and long term relationships with potential ecommerce visitors and customers.

Immediate/ Granular Feedback in Ecommerce - Put simply, this means that all of pieces work the way the user expects them to.

Things that look clickable are clickable. Things that don’t look clickable, are not.

Image via


If a product has multiple color options, the product image reflects the change in color.

Image via

If they select a size, it’s immediately clear which size they selected. (ok, this is actually a good example)

Image via

And if they click on a link, it takes them to the page that immediately looks like the one they were expecting to arrive on.

Image via

The immediate feedback loop for a visitor on an ecommerce site should be well… immediate, and nearly flawless.

If something feels incongruent with their basic expectation of how a website should function, that “twang” sound indicating you missed a note in Guitar Hero goes off in their head, and they wonder what they did wrong. 

As the person who runs the site, that means you need to be looking at the “micro-interactions” that happen with the site, but also at the entire experience as you might move from page to page.

Of course, there’s also room for delighting visitors when it comes to meeting these immediate expectations too. For example, The Kickstand Theme gives the user a pleasing animation whenever they click the “Add to Cart” button. In a small way this can reinforce the user’s commitment to shopping, and further improve the conversions from “Add to Cart” -> “Checkout”

Image via

These kinds of granular micro-interactions, while small, are part of what keeps the ecommerce visitor feeling like they’re performing the appropriate steps to complete their desired action, and therefore keep them invested in completing the task on the site.

Sustained Competence Feedback in Ecommerce - This builds on the immediate feedback and creates a stronger “flow” throughout the various steps of the buying process.

One of Shopify’s best customers Pure Fix Cycles understands this quite well and it reflects in many areas of of how the site itself interacts with, and continuously re-engages the user along the path to purchase.

Image via

Their entire buying process feels like it rewards the visitor for taking the next step as it flows seamlessly throughout the buying process, asking the right questions at the exact right time.

A simpler version of this is how PacSun’s website tells the visitor how much more they have to spend before they reach the “free shipping” threshold.

Image via

Social Commerce Ninja’s app “Boost Sales” takes a slightly different approach, and creates a pop-up for recommended cross sells after the visitor has clicked the “Add to Cart” button.

These moments of sustained competence feedback demonstrate that the site is “aware” that the visitor is taking continuous action towards the desired goal. The trick is that these interactions must be executed in a way that is meaningful to the visitor.

Cumulative Competence Feedback in Ecommerce - Just like a video game might recognize all of your previous skills and achievements from previous game sessions, this type of feedback in ecommerce acknowledges that your collective purchases are more than just individual transactions.

The most straightforward way this can be executed is through a loyalty program, and more specifically, one that uses a “points” system.

Gilt Insider for example, works on tiered structure that unlocks different, more exclusive, reward tiers the more points you earn.

Image via

The nice thing about Gilt’s points is that they aren’t earned just by spending money, but also by visiting daily and referring friends to the site.

Jewelry company Jeweliq takes a more direct approach - one point per purchase, 5 points per friend who joins on your referral. 10 points = free gift.

Image via

If you’re already loving the product, why wouldn’t you be telling your friends about it? And if you’re already telling your friends, why shouldn’t you be rewarded?

The logic is pretty simple, but the impact of letting people know repeat purchases are actually working toward something bigger, is profound.

Another loyalty program I enjoy is Van Dal Shoes, who offer 1 point per £1 spent, and for every 25 points, you earn £1 to be taken off a future order.

Image via

Where the program gets really interesting though, is how they award bonus points for spending above the average order threshold or performing tasks - like leaving a review - that contribute to the growth of the site.

See, it’s not about having a loyalty program, it’s about working with a person’s innate need for cumulative competence, and designing a program where the rewards for repeat purchases and actions taken feel somehow balanced.

Best Buy’s rewards program, for example, gives you 1 point for every $1 you spend. However, in order to receive your first $5 gift certificate, you need to spend $250.

Image via

Where I’m only going to Best Buy to pick up the occasional wireless router, movie, or video game, it’s going to take way longer to see any benefit.

Even if I were buying high priced electronics, the benefit is still hard to get excited about. For instance, you have to spend $1,000 to get a $20 gift certificate. Woo!

It’s like playing through a game that repeatedly increases the difficulty without giving you any meaningful power-ups to compensate for the challenge.

Just like in game design, you need to work with the “player” to strike a balance of how their input affects the outcome, and design those outcomes keep the player invested, excited by achieving the next "level" and clamoring for more.


Hopefully, you’ve been able to see how working with your visitor’s sense of competence will improve their shopping experience, and with any luck, you’re leaving this article with a few more ideas on how you can do that.  

There’s still a lot more to unpack with how video games parallel the online shopping experience, and how both fulfill our very basic needs as outlined in the Self Determination Theory.

In future articles in this series, we’ll dive deeper into the core needs “Autonomy” and “Relatedness” and see what video games can teach us about enhancing the shopping experience for our visitors.

About The Author

Tommy Walker is the Editor-in-Chief of the Shopify Plus blog. It is his goal to provide high-volume ecommerce stores with deeply researched, honest advice for growing their customer base, revenues and profits. Get more from Tommy on Twitter.

About the author

Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker is the Long Form Content Editor at Oberlo. It is his goal to provide high-volume ecommerce stores with deeply researched, honest advice for growing their customer base, revenues and profits.

Follow Tommy Walker on Twitter