The Power of Virtual Gifts in a Gamified World

23 09 2010

Question:  If you had the choice between a real rose and a virtual rose, which would you choose?

Before answering, let’s take that virtual rose, and present it in some context.  Perhaps the virtual gift is an invitation, hinting at fun and social entertainment with friends.  Now make that virtual rose persistent, so the flower is available at every visit to your site.  Display the rose in a public environment, where others see the gift from a friend.  And lastly, add functionality to the rose, perhaps the rose completes a collection, unlocks new content, or provides new status within the community.

Virtual Gifts are experiences that can be used as positive and powerful social exchanges.  They make a message stand out.  Gift-giving involves an expectation of reciprocity, and the more valued the experience, the more resources in time, effort, or money people are willing to invest.

Rarity (scarcity) increases a virtual gift’s value, and time-limited offers create urgency.

A virtual gift can also represent status in level, price, or value.

Gifts can refer to anything that makes the receiver happier, and may be creatively interpreted to  include invitations, thank you’s, compliments, thoughtfulness, and kindness.  It is an effective and encouraging way to get the user to involve their social graph, and should be one of the first game mechanics a designer considers for their gamified site.

Examples from Facebook:

Entire products can be completely based on the gifting mechanic, as in the case of Facebook’s successful iHeart app.  This simple game quickly amassed over 29 Million Monthly Active Users just by giving and receiving hearts.  With over 170 different hearts to choose from, users gauge their status through an animated “beats per minute” heart rate.

Google implemented a gifting strategy for Gmail, inviting 1,000 industry thought leaders, and allowing them to invite their friends and family members as beta testers.  At regular intervals, Google offered more invitations for these Gmail users to distribute.  They also created a scarcity that caused the aftermarket price of Gmail invitations to skyrocket, some selling on eBay for as much as US$150.

(Source: Wikipedia History of Gmail)

Gifts, as we have seen in most game mechanics, can be presented from the perspective of personality types and motivaions:


Because virtual gifts are experiences, the actual implementation and design of the user experience for both giving and receiving are very important.  Small details such as wrapping paper and personalization transforms the virtual good from advertising to gift.  Design the UX for convenience, offering a fast, easy way to select friends.

Some interesting options for gift-giving features:

–  Keep track of who the user has sent gifts to, and remind users to send gifts often, especially to those who may have been overlooked.

– Offer a special group of items that may only be received as gifts.

– Personalizing gifts and wrapping paper as an added experience or upgrade.

– Depending on the cultural background, public gifts may be more valued. For example, how many Valentines or birthday wishes have you received?

– Be aware that any social interaction within your community is a potential for gifting, and should be studied.

Many cultures put strong emphasis in gift-giving.  When building virtual gifts, it may be useful to note some cultural differences.  The following list is compiled from various online sources:

International Gift – Giving


– Symbolism is important, with colors and numbers having special meaning. For instance, at Chinese New Year, Money may be given in a red envelope; it must be an even amount, using an even number of “new” bills.

– Red is a lucky color; pink and yellow represent happiness; and the number 8 is the luckiest number.

– The colors black, white and blue and the #4, or four of anything, are negatively associated with death or funerals. Also included in this category are clocks, handkerchiefs, and straw sandals.

– Another example of the importance of color is if a man wears a green hat it indicates his wife has been unfaithful to him.

– Sharp objects like knives or scissors represent a ‘severing of a friendship or relationship

– Always wrap the gifts you give. The paper should be appropriate to the occasion. Never use a combination of white and black paper.

– Avoid clocks.  In many Chinese dialects, the phrase “give clock” sounds the same as “see off into death”

– Handkerchiefs are associated with crying and funerals.

– Avoid packaging Items in sets of 4 unless it is a set of two pairs.

– Avoid using white chrysanthemum because it is a funeral flower in Korea and in China.


– Avoid giving towels as gifts because they symbolize bad luck and might bring the receiver hardships in the future. 


– The act of giving itself is as important as the gift.  If gifting with avatars, both hands are utilized for giving and this should be accompanied by a bow.

– Gift giving is an art form, representing friendship, respect, and gratitude. The ceremony is important; the gift is always in a gift box, or beautifully wrapped in quality paper, and given with great respect. The symbolism is what’s important.

– In Japan symbolism is important. A gift with a pair of items is considered lucky, but sets of four or nine are unlucky.

– The number 4 also means death;

– The color red is associated with funerals, so don’t give a pen with red ink, and don’t write out a card using red.

– Books aren’t appropriate

– Sharp objects like knives, scissors, and letter openers symbolize ‘severing a relationship’.

Latin Culture:

– Personalized gifts are highly valued in Latin culture.

– Symbolism in this culture will also influence the choices you make for gifts and wrapping paper.  Black or purple paper isn’t used because it’s used during Holy Week.

– Items associated with death or funerals that wouldn’t be used include handkerchiefs, and yellow, red or white flowers.

– As in other cultures, sharp objects such as knives or scissors should never be given, since they represent a ‘severing of a relationship’.

Brazilian Culture:

– People in Brazil don’t give purple flowers as gifts because it is unlucky.

Mexican Culture:

– People in Mexico don’t give a handkerchief as a present because it might turn friends into enemies.

Muslim Culture:

– The Koran forbids alcohol.

– Also forbidden are products that come from scavengers. For example, both pork and pigskin items are not allowed.

– Do not give personal clothing items.

– Dogs are considered unclean, so any dog item, even something with a picture of a dog would not be given

– An ideal gift is a compass so he can find the direction in which Mecca lies.

– Always give gifts with the right hand, or both hands. The left hand is never used alone to hand someone a gift, as it’s considered unclean.

– Knives because they have a sharp edge – severing relationships- are not appropriate.

– Artwork that consisted of sculptures, drawings or photos showing the human body, especially a nude or partially nude female body, is not acceptable as a gift.

Jewish Culture:

– Orthodox Jews are not allowed to eat pork and shellfish.

Hindu Culture:

– The cow is sacred in the Hindu culture. It is safer not to give anything related to animals at all.

– Most Hindus also do not drink alcohol.

– Once again, use your right hand or both hand to offer the gift.

– Fish and all animal products except milk or butter are shunned. Therefore, you would never select any leather or food product from these categories.


–  Do not give frangipani flowers, which are for funerals

–  Wrap Gifts in colors that are considered auspicious such as green, red, or yellow.

Avoid gifts that appear to be leather or made from other animals

– Avoid gifts wrapped in black or white paper, colors that are considered inauspicious

– Avoid Images or figures of dogs to Muslims. These are considered unclean.


– People in Ukraine avoid giving a clock or a watch as a gift to young couples because it might cause the breakup of their relationships in the future.

Source for Cultural Gift giving:




6 responses

25 09 2010

Please change Ukrane to Ukraine. And thanks for the article!

25 09 2010
Strategic Synergy

Thank you for catching that Kamila – I’ve changed it, sorry must have missed the typo.

1 11 2010

Man, talk about a fantastic post! I?ve stumbled across your blog a few times within the past, but I usually forgot to bookmark it. But not again! Thanks for posting the way you do, I genuinely appreciate seeing someone who actually has a viewpoint and isn?t really just bringing back up crap like nearly all other writers today. Keep it up!

1 11 2010
Strategic Synergy

Thanks so much for the kind words, and looking forward to helping everyone build successful game-based strategies and applications! 🙂

9 11 2010
potenzmittel fuer die frau

There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.
Keep working ,great job!

14 08 2011
设计师应根据不同文化差异设置虚拟礼物 | 游戏邦

[…] a gift to young couples because it might cause the breakup of their relationships in the future.(source:stratsynergy) 分享到: QQ空间 新浪微博 开心网 […]

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