Gamification / Motivation

Seems we have picked up A LOT of new readers recently, which is probably testament to the overall increase of awareness and interest in Gamification in the market. We owe regular readers an apology, due to the success of our consultancy businesses the website has been sadly neglected over the past couple of months – for this we are sorry!

There will be new material posted soon as well as an announcement on the future direction of Gametuned, in the meantime for our new readers enjoy a classic from our archive…

The following post was originally published on this website on May 20th 2011.

Within a previous post on this website “Is Sales Force Gamification Possible?” I quoted Daniel Pink, author of Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. For that post I asked Daniel about his thoughts on gamification to which he replied

“Gamification could go either way — towards 2.0 if the rewards are the point of the exercise, towards 3.0 if the rewards are a form of feedback, information, and a way to make progress and achieve flow.”

As a major advocate of gamification and a fan of Daniel’s work I have been pondering this challenge and have attempted to lay my thoughts out in this follow-up post.

For those who are not familiar with Daniel Pink’s work the 3.0 referred to above is the system he describes as Motivation 3.0 which basically states that if people have autonomy, gain mastery and have purpose then they become fully engaged and motivated within their environments. In relation to gamification if there is no purpose to a campaign or system then really, don’t bother trying to gamify it. So this post is really about autonomy and mastery.

The science of Behavioral Economics suggests that people are not homo economicus, rational deciders who make decisions based purely on evaluation and rational decision making. There are many studies that support this field, one of the most interesting was studying the work habits of New York City taxi drivers. The study observed that taxi drivers pay a fixed fee to rent their cabs for 12 hour shifts and then keep all their revenues, and they decide how much of the 12 hours they work each day. A purely rational, economic person would work longer hours on good days (such as rainy days or when a big convention was in town) and then work shorter hours on bad days thus maximising revenue and minimising unproductive time. However the study found that the vast majority of cabbies do exactly the opposite, they fix a daily earnings target and keep working until they hit their target, thereby working less ‘productive’ hours on good days and more ‘unproductive’ hours on bad days.

Another commonly used example is The Ultimatum Game which is a simple game used in economic experiments. In this game two players are offered an amount of money, they have to decide how to split it between them. If I was playing the game with you and the amount we were being given was $100, if I offered to split it 50:50, $50 each you would most likely say yes. However if I offered you only $5 and kept $95 for myself would you accept?
The majority of people say no. Clearly this is not a rational economic decision, rationally it is in ones’ interest to accept any offer made. By saying yes you get some money, saying no just because “it is not fair” gets you no money and is therefore not economically rational.

Behavioral Economists show us that we are not rational deciders, in fact they suggest that we make predictably irrational decisions. Behavioral economics is therefore the study of how to predict our irrationality. Experts in the field say we often make economically poor decisions due to the influence of a whole range of cognitive biases. These biases include theories such as loss aversion, hyperbolic discounting (the principle that the further away in time an outcome is the more we discount it’s value) and the bandwagon effect. Understanding these biases means that through the application of gamification mechanics we can “nudge” people towards making better decisions.

The danger is that these “nudges” are usually applied through the use of extrinsic rewards. A common theme of gamification detractors is that, by applying extrinsic rewards to everything – points, badges, achievements etc we risk devaluing intrinsically rewarding tasks and having effects contrary to desired outcomes. This kind of carrot/stick approach (or Motivation 2.0 thinking in Daniel Pink’s terms) when applied to creative and intrinsically rewarding tasks is not effective as it reduces one’s sense of autonomy and therefore it’s poor application is hugely de-motivational.

In order to understand when and how to use extrinsic rewards, or in other words where gamification best fits, it is worth gaining an understanding of the brain’s intrinsic reward mechanisms.

Neurologists tell us that our brains are hard-wired to reward us for making successful predictions, choices or behavioral responses through the Dopamine Reward system. After making what we perceive to be a correct prediction, choice or action our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that  helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Games designers use this powerful pleasure response to get us engaged with their products.

The effect this has on our decision making processes is that once the brain rewards us for making a choice we will be inclined to make that same choice again. By then attaching an extrinsic reward to the preferred choice we can use this hard-wired intrinsic reward system to affect behavior and reinforce a sense of autonomy for our decisions.

Gradually our brains then learn to intrinsically reward us and extrinsic rewards become of less value (and risk decreasing our sense of autonomy). In order to keep people engaged it then becomes necessary to consider the intrinsic/extrinsic reward balance.

To get people initially engaged with gamified systems the extrinsic rewards need to have a high value (in economic currency – real, virtual or purely social) and the path to mastery needs to be well defined. However, over time giving the same level of reward leads to dis-engagement and we risk getting stuck in a Motivation 2.0 rut. In order to move the system towards Motivation 3.0, (autonomy, mastery and purpose) it is important to reduce the value of extrinsic rewards given for a specific task, and increase the choices on the path to mastery, thereby keeping users engaged, motivated and achieving flow.


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