Designing for Dopamine: What Can Ecommerce Merchants Learn From Video Games?

By
Steve Desjarlais
January 14, 2021

Before starting Heyday in 2017, I worked in the gaming industry for over a decade. 

During my time at Ubisoft, I learned a lot. I learned how to manage global teams, launch a successful product, deal with high pressure and customers with sky-high expectations, to name a few. 

When David, Etienne, Hugues and myself set out to build a conversational AI platform that would fundamentally change the way retailers interact with their consumers online, I knew that experiences in my previous life would have a big influence on the decisions we made about our product, our user interface, and the shopping experiences we design. 

But the overlap between gaming and ecommerce continues to surprise me to this very day. After all, what could retail possibly have in common with gaming?

Whether you’re in the gaming industry or in retail, the importance of using different channels and activation formats to engage with consumers and foster product discovery is universal. You don’t need to go full Balenciaga and literally create your own video game, though. 

In this post, I’ll cover game design techniques that I learned while leading the development of games like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry that you can use to “gamify” your online shopping experience and make customers feel good about shopping with your brand. 

It all starts with engagement

Building games is complex, but your ultimate objective is simple: you want to get as much of a user’s “game time” as possible. 

Gamers have a fixed number of hours they can invest into playing a game, and every video game company wants their intellectual property (IP) to be where consumers choose to invest their time. And the competition for gamers’ attention is fierce. 

That’s what happens when an industry’s value is projected to be north of $200 billion by 2023

In retail speak, this is just like the competition between brands to acquire customers and foster long-term brand loyalty. 

Consumers have a fixed budget to spend — whether it’s on a new piece of furniture, a winter coat, or a new pair of shoes — and brands are competing against one another, finding unique ways to position themselves and convince shoppers to spend their hard-earned dollars with them. 

But it all starts by engaging with customers and sustaining it over time, and in an increasingly noisy world with countless options to choose from, that’s getting harder and harder for brands to do.

After spending time in both industries, I’ve outlined four things that merchants can take from the gaming industry and apply to their own reality to earn shoppers’ attention, engagement, money, time, and loyalty. 

Building a frictionless customer journey

Here’s an area where gaming has it a touch easier than retailers. 

If a user is playing a game and the controller doesn’t work, they’re going to put the time in to see if they can solve the problem before they abandon the game. 

Why? 

They’ve already invested their time and money, so they’re more open to troubleshooting on their own. 

Retail brands don’t have that same advantage. 

Over 88% of shopping carts are abandoned. One lagging website, one unresolved support issue, or one negative experience can make a customer lose confidence in your brand. And that’s not easy to win back.

Think about the last “frictionless” shopping experience you had online.

By the time you proceeded to checkout and completed your order, I bet you felt pretty good, right? There’s a science behind why shopping feels so good. 

One third of Americans shop as a way of dealing with stress. This is referred to as “stress-shopping,” and stress shoppers share something in common with gamers: They’re both looking for a way to temporarily lower their stress levels. 

Stress shoppers share something in common with gamers: They’re both looking for a way to temporarily lower their stress levels. 

On a physiological level, both online shopping and video games have surprisingly similar effects on our dopamine levels. When we shop (or play), dopamine, our body’s “happy drug,” is released. That’s why finding the perfect pair of shoes, or defeating a really tough boss, feels so good. 

Here’s a video from PBS that explains this psychological phenomenon really well: 

But while video game designers make each “goal” in the video game progressively challenging to keep players engaged (more on that later), merchants need to minimize friction between their customers and the outcomes they want. 

The less friction there is between a shopper and getting what they want, the more likely they are to get a rush of dopamine, feel good, and associate that positive feeling with your brand. 

The more effort you put into making your customers happy and reducing friction, the more successful you will be at attracting — and keeping — them long-term. 

Using progressive feedback to satisfy customers 

Both merchants and video game designers ask themselves this question “how do we engage with customers and keep them engaged?” 

While you might think it’s a question of making a game progressively harder, that alone isn’t what keeps someone engaged over time. 

People need constant feedback to give them a sense of progress and make them feel like they’re mastering a game. Let’s dive deeper into this and how it relates back to ecommerce using the popular game Starcraft II as an example.

Starcraft II uses in-game missions and achievements to keep players motivated


In Starcraft, a real-time strategy (RTS) game that’s notoriously difficult to master, players choose to play as one of three unique races — Terran, Protoss, and Zerg —  and need to mine resources, build and control an army to defeat eventually their enemies. 

Players can either play campaign mode, which has a compelling storyline that feels like an interactive movie, or player-vs-player (PvP) mode, where players can test their skill against other humans and battle it out for rank, status, and in some cases, millions of dollars in tournament prize money

When you play campaign mode, as most players starting out do, Starcraft uses feedback loops to help players understand their skill level and whether or not they are progressing. The feedback falls into three categories: 

  1. Immediate feedback
  2. Sustained feedback
  3. Cumulative feedback

1. Immediate feedback 

When a player unlocks an achievement in campaign mode, they see a badge pop up on their screen to let them know, followed by an unmistakable sound to let them know about their accomplishment. 

Starcraft II has in-game notifications to let players know when they unlock an achievement


This type of in-game, real-time feedback lets players know how well they’re doing as they play, which gives them a progressive sense that they’re getting better. 

But this type of feedback alone won’t keep them engaged. 

Immediate feedback in ecommerce

The way I see it, immediate feedback in ecommerce is when everything on your website works the way a customer expects it to. Your search bar helps them find items, your FAQ page helps them answer questions, and your live chat actually enables them to connect with a store associate and get real-time assistance.

Every action that a shopper takes on your website should give them immediate feedback. If something feels disconnected or doesn’t live up to their expectations and assumptions for how it should work, they’ll wonder what they did wrong.

Every action that a shopper takes on your website should give them immediate feedback. If something feels disconnected or doesn’t live up to their expectations and assumptions for how it should work, they’ll wonder what they did wrong.

Ecommerce merchants need to assure that their customers’ shopping experience feels cohesive as they move from page to page, channel to channel, or online to in-store. 

2. Sustained feedback

As players progress through missions, the in-game characters will react and let them know how they’re doing. For instance, if a player is on the verge of winning a certain objective or defeating the enemy, they’ll likely hear one of the main characters tell them “the enemy is on the run. Let’s keep up the pressure!”

This lets players know how well they’re doing and that they’re on the verge of victory — and that feels great.

Sustained feedback in ecommerce

Sustained feedback in ecommerce is when there is a constant and clear progression towards them achieving their goal, engaging with the shopper in a meaningful way throughout the buying process. 

Menswear brand Buck Mason does a great job of this throughout the online shopping experience. As you shop and add products to your cart, they tell the shopper how much more they need to spend to get free shipping. 

Buck Mason uses free shipping threshold notifications to give shoppers a sense of progress and increase cart value.


Buck Mason’s shopping experience shows that they’re aware where the customer is in the buying process and how they’re progressing towards an eventual goal. The feedback “you’re $5.00 away from free shipping” is both relevant and meaningful to the customer. 

3. Cumulative feedback 

As a player advances in the game, missions get progressively harder and the rewards will be more and more valuable. They can use the credits they earn to purchase increasingly powerful permanent upgrades. 

Unlocking achievements earns players' in-game currency to buy upgrades.


These upgrades that don’t disappear once they stop playing. They’re a constant reminder of the achievements they’ve unlocked as a result of the time they invested into getting better at the game. 

Cumulative feedback in ecommerce

Think of cumulative feedback in ecommerce as when the merchant lets shoppers know their purchases are more than just disparate transactions. The most obvious form of  this is tier-based loyalty programs, where shoppers get “points” for their purchases and unlock progressively more valuable rewards. 

The logic behind this is simple, and making customers feel like repeat purchases help them progress towards something bigger (like a free gift), can have a huge impact on overall customer satisfaction, engagement and long-term loyalty. 

Making customers feel like repeat purchases help them progress towards something bigger (like a free gift), can have a huge impact on overall customer satisfaction, engagement and long-term loyalty. 

It’s the same as playing a game and getting progressively stronger, more valuable upgrades or rewards. 

Fostering engagement across multiple channels 

Retailers can learn a lot from the gaming industry’s knack for engaging with customers across many different touch points and channels.

Here’s what I mean by that. 

When I was a Product Director at Ubisoft, I had the opportunity to work on one of their most beloved IPs: Assassins Creed. 

In 2016, that game became a major motion picture and grossed over $240 million at the box office. Fans of the game were excited to watch the movie, and movie fans were excited as well. 

We attracted different people based on different passions. 

Whether you were a cinema buff or a gamer, you could immerse yourself in Assassin’s Creed’s rich storyline. Heck, moviegoers might have even liked it so much that they buy the game to experience the Granada War first-hand. 

To me, this is similar to how retailers engage with shoppers both online and offline. Not only does having a strong in-store and online presence help them reach more customers, it also ensures business continuity.

When the pandemic hit, retailers who concentrated the majority of their efforts on brick-and-mortar sales were scrambling to find ways to engage with customers online. 

Their digital infrastructure wasn’t ready to be their main sales channel, but the merchants who already had their digital foundation in place were able to adapt faster and connect with their customers online.

Take, for instance, DAVIDsTEA, one of Heyday’s customers since 2018. When we first partnered with them, their Vice President of eCommerce & Customer Experience, Damon Sloane, wanted to make shopping for tea online feel as interactive as shopping in their stores.

With that, we launched DAVI, their AI chatbot. 

Using features like our product catalog integration and AI-powered product recommendations, they built an interactive quiz to engage, capture, and convert more online traffic into sales. 

By proactively investing in an omnichannel customer experience, DAVIDsTEA set themselves up to weather the same challenges that caused other retailers to close their doors for good.

And in hindsight, creating an immersive — dare I say gamified — online shopping experience was one of the best decisions they could have made to future-proof their business. 

Like many retailers, when COVID-19 hit, DAVIDsTEA pivoted to a digital-first strategy, closing 82 store locations across Canada and 42 US locations.

But they were confident that online sales would make up for the lost in-store sales. 

Chat now plays an integral role in their digital customer experience and helped fuel over 120% growth in ecommerce and wholesale sales in Q1, 2020, totaling $9.3 million.

By proactively investing in an omnichannel customer experience, DAVIDsTEA set themselves up to weather the same challenges that caused other retailers to close their doors for good.

You never know what might happen in the future. Building engagement across multiple platforms is necessary for assuring business continuity and that you stay relevant with consumers long-term. 

The great differentiator: interactive experiences 

The fundamental difference between a game and a brand experience is that, with video games, players inherently become completely immersed. 

Their mind is 100% dedicated to the game while they play. They’re free of most distractions and completely invested in an interactive, stimulating experience. Merchants should strive to achieve that level of immersion and interactivity for both their in-store and online shopping experience. 

Right now, it’s a differentiator, but in a few years, it will likely be table stakes. Brands will either captivate consumers completely or not at all. 

But capturing attention (and keeping it) is no easy feat. Since transforming physical stores into experiential touch points can be prohibitively expensive, many are opting for the online equivalent: personalized digital brand experiences that are anchored on real-time, convenient service.  

In my last post outlining my predictions for Black Friday Cyber Monday 2021, I mentioned that, for brands to compete with powerhouses like Amazon, they shouldn’t compete on price or speed, but on differentiated, one-on-one service that treats customers like the unique individuals they are. 

At Heyday, we help brands extend their unique customer experience online — whether a shopper is browsing, ready to buy, looking for support, or wanting to speak to one of your store associates in real-time. 

By blending their in-store and online experiences with a careful blend of AI-powered automation, live chat, and virtual shopping, merchants can showcase their unique products and service, while letting customers choose how they want to be served. 

I like to think of it similarly to video games that let the player choose their own destiny, or groundbreaking “choose your own adventure” shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a masterclass in behavioral design that our CMO, Étienne Mérineau covers in a post you can read here.

Gamification isn’t unique to video games anymore, and savvy retailers will start building personalized experiences now to captivate consumers and earn their loyalty long-term.