Gaming elements became an integral component of many social sites, adding interaction layer and incentifying users to participate – from Foursquare to Farmville on Facebook – social games seems to rule the web these days. The question is what happens when you combine social gaming and e-commerce– isn’t this experience becoming more similar to… gambling?

Gaming experiences integrated into e-commerce sites and platforms is a fairly new phenomenon – from private sale sites like Gilt, ideeli and Rue La La to group auctions like Groupon – those less-than-2-year-old multi-million dollar online brands have found the way to incorporate gaming into e-commerce by introducing strictly timed constantly refreshing group shopping formats and they are now changing the game for the entire retail industry.

On top of that, our gaming experiences online also become more social and competitive. When Facebook turns almost every online activity into a social one, and sites like Groupon base their models on group purchases, it’s easy to imagine people soon engaging in “competitive shopping” just like they do in competitive sports or if we add the money layer on top – gambling.

Even today, the new generation of shoppers compete for the best deals on Gilt.com and later brag about them on Twitter and Facebook. It could be only a matter of time for the platforms to merge, and turn every online shopping experience to a competitive game among friends.

This issue didn’t exist in the offline retail world, although the reward systems and shopping clubs for loyal customers have existed long ago. The difference is that they weren’t social. You never “competed” with your friends or other people for AMEX points or Victoria’s Secrets catalog rewards.

Analyzing these experiences shows that there are few elements in these innovative shopping models that make them dangerously similar to gambling, and could even encourage addiction, or over spending:

* Fun rather than functional experience – people love gaming elements in the shopping experience from the same reason they prefer fancy casinos on lottery tickets – they pay for the experience. The rush of counting minutes till noon to snap a pair of Louboutin heels for $300 instead of $900 on Outnet.com can be easily compared to the moments at the Roulette table, waiting for the dice to hit its spot (both observations are based on the first hand experiences). Luckily, the $300 Louboutins could be returned and refunded, while the roulette money was lost forever, but I still remember both experiences and the rush associated with them.

* Easiness of virtual currencies – This problem doesn’t exist only at the flash sales sites, but definitely happens there as well. Credit cards were the first to create the problem of overspending – when paper dollar bills are replaced by a plastic card it’s hard to perceive it as a monetary transaction. Again, just like casino chips don’t look like real money, virtual payments create an illusion. The problem gets even worse when your credit card numbers are virtually stored on the websites you shopped before, so you don’t even have to use the plastic card, or remember its number. A thousand dollar purchase suddenly becomes just 2 clicks away, and doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore.

* Group pressure – sites like Groupon base their entire business model on the peer pressure. While there are definitely advantages to collective buying power, sometimes this power can turn back on the buyer. Just like the pressure of your neighbor at the roulette table bidding all his chips and the crowds cheering up make you raise your stakes, these sites make you shop for things you didn’t necessarily need or could afford, just because you see others cleaning out the merchandise in seconds.

* Impulsive purchase reasons – have you ever wondered why gaming elements are never used to sell people groceries or other necessities online? They are mostly applied to purchases that are aspirational – designer fashion, luxurious travel, gourmet restaurants, pampering spas, etc. It’s hard to ever call these purchases rational, but the way these new technologies create purchase pressure, even worsens the chances of ever buying something you otherwise would. When the clock is ticking and you see “only 2 items left” flashing on your screen – is your brain capable of making the best decision?

* Addictive daily routine – most private and flash sale sites send daily email alerts, which prove to be the most effective way to get people to their sites but also create a daily routine. The 12pm start time for most sales encourages people to go online “just to check out” the sales as a daily habit, mostly as part of their lunch time “treat”. The question is once they see a good bargain, are they “strong” enough to click away?

Gambling is definitely part of our culture and is a huge industry on its own, but it also creates one of the strongest addictions and in some cases ruins people’s lives. The real problem is when some of its dangerous and addictive elements become part of our routine online experiences, since in that case they become hard to identify and watch out for.

While competitive shopping might have many advantages for our suffering economy, we should be careful not to become victims (or more precisely addicts) of our own innovative technologies.

As always, would love to hear about your opinions via comments or tweets @yuliz.