How to Do Gamification Right? - The Industry That Needs It the Most

Dec 14, 2023

In the flow - Do Gamification Right cover photo
In the flow - Do Gamification Right cover photo

The Power of Gamification

In the ever-evolving world of gamification, the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation becomes crucial. While rewards and badges might draw us in initially, it's the deeper, more personal elements of enjoyment and satisfaction that keep us hooked. This journey from external rewards to internal fulfillment is fundamental to understanding the true power of gamification. 

How does this transition happen? What makes an activity go from being just another task to an engaging, absorbing experience? These are questions that not only intrigue but also challenge the conventional approach to gamification. With insights from various studies and theories, we journey through ideas on how to transform mere participation into a rich, immersive experience.

Understanding Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Gamification often motivates users with rewards such as points and badges, a concept known as extrinsic motivation. A notable example is Foursquare, the location-based social networking service. In Foursquare, badges were not just awarded for any check-in; they were creatively linked to a variety of activities, places, or events. Users earned these badges by checking into different types of venues or meeting specific conditions within the app.

One particularly interesting feature of Foursquare was the "Mayor" status. This status was awarded not just for a single check-in but for becoming the most frequent visitor to a particular location over a period. This feature encouraged users to return repeatedly, fostering a sense of competition.

However, the thrill of such rewards can fade, especially if earning them becomes repetitive or less enjoyable. That's where intrinsic motivation comes in – finding joy and satisfaction in the activity itself. In gaming, for instance, rewards are part of the appeal and can significantly amplify motivation, but they're not the main reason we play. We play because we enjoy the experience. For effective gamification, the focus should be on making the activities inherently enjoyable, ensuring lasting engagement beyond just chasing rewards.

Supporting Intrinsic Motivation through Three Basic Psychological Needs

Exploring gamification reveals three key psychological needs that are vital for really enjoying an activity. These needs, as explained by self-determination theory, are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Understanding and meeting these needs is crucial for creating games or activities that people find genuinely motivating and enjoyable.

Starting with autonomy, it's all about making choices based on genuine interest, not for rewards or avoiding punishments. In games, users' sense of autonomy is boosted when they are provided with meaningful choices. This empowers players, making them feel in control of their actions in the game environment.

Next is competence, which involves being appropriately challenged. It's important for games to strike a balance in difficulty – challenges should align with the player's skill level, avoiding extremes of being too easy or too hard. This balance ensures that players remain engaged and feel a sense of achievement as they progress.

Finally, there's relatedness, focusing on our connections and interactions with others. Games that encourage a community spirit and collaboration can greatly enhance this feeling of relatedness. When players feel they are part of a community and can collaborate, their gaming experience becomes more enriching and socially fulfilling.

Linking these concepts to broader research, self-determination theory suggests that games satisfying these three needs can be extremely enjoyable and motivating. It proposes that intrinsic motivation, the most powerful form of motivation, is derived when these needs are met.

Supporting this theory, several studies have explored its application in different gaming contexts. For example, research on Battle Royale (BR) games highlighted the importance of relatedness. Players' enjoyment and well-being in these games were closely linked to their sense of belonging and connection with other players.

In a different context, studies on choice-based interactive storytelling games revealed how autonomy and competence are key motivational factors. These games, which allow players to make narrative decisions, particularly satisfy the needs for autonomy and competence, making these experiences highly enjoyable.

Lastly, research on mental health apps, specifically those targeting depression, shed light on the practical application of these needs. While most apps addressed at least one of the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, or relatedness, only a few successfully targeted all three. According to the research results, those apps that did cater to all three needs are likely to make greater positive changes for individuals with depression, indicating a potential area for improvement in app design.

Overall, these studies underscore the importance of understanding and catering to these psychological needs in gamification to create engaging and fulfilling experiences.

Getting Lost in the Game - Being in the Zone

Do you know that feeling when you're so deeply involved in something that the rest of the world just disappears? This fascinating experience where you're absorbed in what you're doing is called the 'flow state'. It's like being in the zone, where your concentration is so intense that you lose track of time. In this state, you feel a perfect match between your skills and the challenge you're facing. You're fully engaged, and everything else just fades away.

Flow is often described as the best kind of experience you can have in an activity. It's personal and depends on your own abilities. When you're in this state, you might feel like time is flying or slowing down, and you become less self-conscious. It's like your inner critic takes a break, letting you be more free and creative. Eight key things mark this flow state: 

  1. You're focused on what you're doing.

  2. You know what you want to achieve, and you get immediate feedback on how you're doing.

  3. Time feels different – either speeding up or slowing down.

  4. What you're doing feels rewarding in itself.

  5. It all seems effortless and easy.

  6. The challenge matches your skills perfectly.

  7. You're so into what you're doing that you stop overthinking.

  8. You feel in control of the situation.

The Applicability of Gamification

Before I delve into how gamification can be used effectively, it's important to mention that there's a lot of information out there about what defines a game and more secrets to creating a great one. I plan to cover this topic in a separate article.

While gamification is a versatile tool with applications across various fields, it's not a silver bullet. Success depends on considering theories like self-determination and concepts like the flow state. If gamification focuses only on extrinsic motivation, it can become superficial and unrewarding. Whether the goal is to encourage people to exercise more or to engage in a marketing campaign, the activity itself requires careful design. It should consider specific goals and the target audience; otherwise, the impact of extrinsic elements will be short-lived. However, when executed correctly, gamification can transform experiences and drive long-lasting, meaningful engagement.

One field that requires serious attention is education. Here, the aim should be to create an environment where students can experience the 'flow state'. When thoughtfully applied, gamification can powerfully enhance education, especially in subjects like mathematics. Aligning with self-determination theory principles, it can lead students into a state of deep focus and enjoyment.

Integrating mathematical problems into interactive stories gives students scenarios where they can make choices, take responsibility for their actions, and think critically. The challenges can be designed to be just right – challenging enough to be engaging, but not so difficult as to be discouraging. Additionally, elements of collaboration can make math more relatable and enjoyable.

As games continue to grow in popularity, the future of gamification in education looks promising. We can expect to see more serious games that go beyond simple rewards and competition. Mastory is a pioneer in this field.

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