Content marketing // Marketing // Public Relations
Oct 30, 2020

How to Use Gamification to Make Virtual Events More Engaging

More companies are coming to grips with the reality that their annual slate of in-person events is likely to be virtual or hybrid for years to come because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of dreading many more years of “Zoom fatigue,” why not use a proven tool to get attendees excited, keep them engaged and benefit from what scientists, video-game makers, and educators have refined over the last decades?

Cards and dice

Image by 5598375 from Pixabay

That tool is gamification.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is the use of game elements, mechanics, and principles, such as scoring and competition,  in a non-game setting. Game elements include delivering short bursts of content, instant gratification, rewards and recognition, and continuous rapid feedback. 

In the last several decades, there has been increasing recognition of gamification as an effective method to encourage innovation, productivity, or engagement. Gamification is now regularly used in training in the educational and training space, healthcare, and HR, among others. Now that the pandemic has all but guaranteed that virtual events are here to stay, it’s time to incorporate the principles of gamification to keep virtual attendees engaged. bctt tweet=”Now that the pandemic has all but guaranteed that virtual events are here to stay, it’s time to incorporate the principles of gamification to keep virtual attendees engaged. Game on!” username=”MartellComm”]

How Gamification Works

Scientists know that dopamine, the feel-good hormone, is released whenever we are rewarded for a specific action. Gamification focuses on giving participants instantaneous feedback in the form of virtual rewards (points, stickers, scoreboards, etc.), which generates positive emotion and keeps participants engaged.

According to the biologist, author, and university professor Mary Poffenroth, when we “build in the behavioral habit of quick and consistent wins, event attendees will feel empowered by taking action, which increases the reward neurotransmitter dopamine.” It’s the same feeling you get when you master the latest Fortnite game or get high fives from your fitness tracker when you hit your desired number of daily steps. 

Another key hormone triggered by game elements like badges and rewards is serotonin, Poffenroth says. Serotonin is a hormone that governs our overall mood. Lots of serotonin makes for a sunny disposition, while a decrease in serotonin might leave you feeling out-of-sorts. Serotonin release is also triggered by remembering past successes, so even just looking at your rewards — like checking your place on the leaderboard — might make you feel better. 

Why Gamification Eases Cognitive Load 

New ideas, new skills, and new contacts are the hallmarks of any good business event. But how do your attendees hold onto these benefits—especially now, when that event is likely to be virtual?

Your brain can handle only a certain amount of information at any one time, a phenomenon scientists call  “cognitive load.” One way that gamification can help participants deal with cognitive load is to present the learning in a more game-like, challenge-based format, which helps chunk the learning into smaller pieces that are easier to retain.

Level UP: How to Gamify Your Event

You can incorporate gamification thinking into your event in many ways. Take a step back and assess how your event could be structured to include the following critical components: 

  • Build in Small Boosts – Keep the dopamine flowing by rewarding people for the desired forms of engagement. For example, if you’d like participants to “visit” all your vendors, you could create a digital passport or interactive bingo card, and encourage them to complete it to be entered into a sweepstakes. Or, you could keep participants interested with a virtual trivia game. 
  • Create Team Spirit – Assign participants and speakers to “teams.” Like a Hogwarts quidditch game, team members could cheer on “their” speaker, give themselves a team name, and strive to achieve a team goal or solve a problem together.
  • Invite Interaction – Rather than have speakers talk AT your participants, ask audience members to be “hands-on” and “cameras-on.” Give participants a short amount of time to write their responses to questions (short time frames are essential because they encourage people not to “edit” themselves) and then call on a few respondents to share their answers. Add interactive activities such as polls or breakout rooms for discussions. Or, ask participants to type their views in a chat box or play a simple group game on a virtual whiteboard.
  • Reward Winners – Think about ways that your event can celebrate the game “winners.” Can you give them special access to the speakers? Showcase them online? Share their winning moments on social media? Could you highlight participants on a leaderboard that updates throughout the event? Prizes might include a digital “goodie bag” with product offers and discount codes that can all be executed online. 
  • Toggle between Digital and Physical –  Maintain audience engagement by activating both the left and right sides of the brain. Prior to some of her events, for example, Poffenroth sends small packets of LEGOs to audience members so she can later engage them in a simple LEGO creative challenge.  You could also tee up “pencil to paper” activities that guide participants through easy prompts, such as filling a page with circles and lines to create doodle designs. Don’t forget to consider shipping conference swag ahead of the meeting date so attendees can share an “unboxing” break. 
  • Go for Game Shows – Emulate classic TV game show techniques to build “play patterns” tied to your event goals. Challenge your audience, in Let’s Make A Deal fashion, to find unique items in their space — items which might be themed to your event or designed as ice-breakers. Encourage folks to wear creative attire in the spirit of Project Runway, whether that is a favorite team’s hat, company colors, or band t-shirt. Have a timed competition a la Top Chef in which volunteers compete to complete a task with surprise elements, and everyone votes on the winner.
  • Encourage Self-Expression – Allow your participants to customize their experience. Enable them to build their own avatar or assign themselves a nickname. Deliver a sense of autonomy by permitting them to choose which content track to follow, or introduce a sense of random adventure by distributing codes that take people into mystery breakout sessions.
  • Solicit Social Screens – Incentivize behaviors by gamifying social-media activities. You might raise money for a charitable cause by donating a certain amount of money when social posts from participants reach a designated target. Alternatively, reward the posting attendees by awarding points leading to exclusive content or celebrity-speaker access. 
  • Get Sporty – Ever tuned into a pro wrestling event and seen the myriad of colorful posters held by ringside fans? Take a cue from the way live sporting events build fan engagement. You, too, can ask attendees to create posters that showcase their interests or their favorite industry expert and share them in a big group Zoom photo. Or, like an NBA team that invites fans down to the court to take their best shots, think of ways you can spotlight “amateurs” doing their best to compete against  “The Pro’s.” 

Incentivize Yourself

Imagine the beautiful dopamine feedback loop you could create for attendees at your next gamified event. Envision the champagne popping, the confetti raining down, and the standing ovations you and your organization will get when you use essential gamification principles to give your attendees a powerful and impactful experience.

 Ready, player? Now ride that dopamine surge to glory. 


 Michele Martell, an entertainment attorney, producer and brand marketing strategist at Martell Communications, has worked with The Jim Henson Company, the WWE, Crayola, Hasbro, Mattel, and many others. Currently, she is vice chair of the Austin Entertainment and Sports Law Bar, and a board member of the global association Women in Toys, Entertainment and Licensing. 

Note: This post was originally published in Successful Meetings and has been slightly edited.