Are games just part of our self-gratification?

I came across this article in this week’s Businessweek:

The article talks about how more and more companies are using “games” on their websites to keep customers coming back.  Though it is not directly related to videogaming, it hits on (though indirectly) a couple of Gee’s princples.  In particular, the Achievement principle.  Just to remind everyone, this key principle is defined as “For learners of all levels of skill there are intrinsic rewards from the beginning, customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signaling the learner’s ongoing achievements.”

So to bring it back to the article, customers (learners) earn badges, titles, and/or recognition on public leaderboards for things ranging from purchses to comments to feedback.  As quoted from the article:

“The business of engendering online loyalty through gaming techniques is fast becoming as significant as the real-world loyalty industry, which builds rewards programs for airlines, hotels, and credit cards. The difference is that real rewards, like free hotel rooms and airfare, cost businesses real money. Badges and leader boards, excluding fees to consultants like Paharia, cost next to nothing.”

Just another thought that is unrelated to Gee’s 36 principles, is that people are very caught-up in the social image they portray to others, i.e. when facebook alerts all of your friends how many points you scored in farmville, etc.  So maybe social status is perhaps the real motivator here. I guess it is sort of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” debate, but nonetheless here is an excellent quote from the article which sums it up really well:

“We have this tendency to care about what image we portray,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. In real life, there are mansions and handbags. “In the gaming world,” says Ariely, “there are badges.”

So what do you guys think? Is it the “gaming principles” or “social image portrayal” that lure the customers back to the website?