Towards a new motivational framework

We begin with a hard truth about gamification: success is highly dependent on design. Gartner reported that 80% of gamified apps will fail by the end of 2014. In fact, recent research showed that over US$50 billion was invested in Gamification programs in 2012, and most were unsuccessful due to the lack of use of intrinsic customer motivators. That’s an alarmingly large waste of valued resources. This has led to quick retorts and criticisms of the concept, and a few words such as “over-hyped” and “exploitationware” thrown around in heated discussions about gamification. If you think that just implementing a system where employees simply earn points can improve your workplace, think again.

When does gamification fail, and how can we avoid it?

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about gamification from clients is that they believe its sole purpose is to reward users with points to keep them addicted to the product. However, this may be counter-intuitive – research has shown that the provision of extrinsic rewards can decrease a person’s intrinsic motivation to do a task (also known as the over justification effect). For instance, Nisbett and colleagues (1973) showed that interest in playing a puzzle was higher when paired with a monetary reward, but when it was removed the following day participants spent significantly less time playing it.

Let me draw upon a local example: McDonalds Singapore. If you haven’t already heard of the app, it involves an alarm clock function where users are given the opportunity to win rewards, vouchers and free food.

McDonald's Surprise Alarm

In the short run, customers are incentivised to use the app (which may or may not increase consumption of McD’s products; this is highly debatable). However, customers’ perspectives experience a shift, perhaps from “I like McD’s fries” to “I am using this app because I get free food”. Eventually, when the app is discontinued, the same customers will feel that there is no incentive or motivation to continue eating at McDs (because there is no more free food from using the app), and associate this lack of reward as perceived dislike.

To ensure sustained growth and returns on investment, gamification designers have to consider factors other than rewards or complementary goods, and the best motivators are intrinsic ones. As humans, our actions are driven by several factors, such as mastery of skill, competition, and social belonging, but the importance of these factors relative to each other has been debated by psychologists over the past 50 years, leading to the conceptualisation of classical theories such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Devi and colleagues’ Self-determination Theory, and more recent ones such as Drive Theory by Dan Pink.

(See: What’s the best motivational theory?)

In this post, we will focus on the most popular motivational framework to date: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow first conceptualised the Hierarchy of Needs in 1943, and today remains a popular framework in sociology, management training and higher psychology instruction. It is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher-level needs coming into consideration only after lower-level needs are met. Interestingly, this theory was not developed specifically for the business context (although HR managers and management consultants frequently refer to it), but rather was developed as a behavioural explanation for why people do the things they do. Additionally, Maslow never used a pyramid to describe the levels of the framework – but the shape serves as a tool to visualise the importance of lower-level factors.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Find out more about Maslow’s Hierarchy and its constituent factors here.

Maslow’s framework was important in establishing the first steps towards the study of ‘positive qualities’ in people, during a time where psychologists were focused on treating disorders and socially perceived ‘faults’ in the mentally disabled. In fact, he basically laid the groundwork for the field of positive psychology today. However, criticisms have been raised about the framework’s hierarchal structure, as well as several lower-level factors that have been observed to be unnecessary for attainment of higher-level factors. For instance, countless individuals who have chosen to abstain from sex are still able to achieve higher-level factors, to the extent of even achieving self-actualisation.

To an extent, the hierarchy was beneficial in understanding why people chose to behave the way they do, but fails in the workplace setting due to several reasons. Firstly, not everyone is interested in career progression, and may be more comfortable with staying in the same stable environment. Secondly, some of the needs he raised are not relevant to the workplace, such as a lack of prejudice or problem solving (in certain professions). Finally, as mentioned above, there is little evidence for a hierarchal structure in management. Even in educational contexts, society has witnessed self-actualisers who have had poor security of resources or property, or people who come from extreme poverty, suggesting that some safety factors may not be as crucial as Maslow believed.

As a result, we conceptualised a holistic framework called the Intrinsic Motivational Network that attempts to capture the important aspects of motivation in the gamification context, lending key principles from contemporary theories such as Daniel Pink’s Drive, and the Self-Determination Theory by Deci and colleagues. It strips away the traditional notion of the carrot-and-stick argument and emphasises the need for focus on intrinsic factors, which will improve motivation in the long run.

Intrinsic Motivational Network
The Intrinsic Motivational Network.

Essentially, for a successful gamification system, the lower tier factors contribute more towards individual motivation. For instance, introduction of leaderboards (Tier 3: Competition) is purposeless when there is a poor environment (Need: Healthy Environment) where users can exploit bugs or cheat to reach the top, or when there is a lack of social community and belonging (Tier 1: Social Belonging). Similarly, the user should be aware of mastery content and existing badges (Tier 2: Mastery, Recognition) before they can set meaningful goals for personal growth (Tier 3: Growth). The beauty of this framework is that it is easily applied to most contexts, and that it draws parallels from the already familiar Hierarchy of Needs, taking its strengths and addressing its limitations, such as recognising the distinction between need and motivator. It also does not assume that lower levels are necessary for motivation, but acknowledges that lower levels have higher contributions to end-motivational levels.

However, like Maslow’s hierarchy, it is limited in the sense that the framework should be adjusted according to demographics. For instance, young children value social belonging, adolescents self-esteem, and young adults self-actualisation, making them of higher importance in the framework. However, this can be easily addressed by having intended participants complete a questionnaire, which will then be used to restructure the network into tiers that relate better to the target audience as a whole. Ultimately, we designed it to be dynamic in nature, where gates should be switched around and motivational factors adjusted, such that it is able to predict the best outcomes given the demographics provided.

Finally, it should be noted that this framework is a perpetual work in progress; we are constantly pitting data with and against our framework.

How does your gamification design score under our framework? Fill in the form below (takes less than 1 minute) to find out!

Form: Intrinsic Motivational Network


This post was contributed by Jonathan Goh, Business Development Intern @ Gametize
Jonathan Goh is a final year Psychology undergraduate at University College London in United Kingdom, London. His research interests lie in mindfulness, decision-making, and applied psychology.

3 Simple steps to drive motivation

Motivation is a fundamental factor of engagement and in turn, successful gamification. Previously we have briefly discussed and compared the various motivational theories out there. For this article, we will be zooming in on Daniel Pink’s theory on motivation. According to Pink, there are three intrinsically motivating factors: purpose, mastery and autonomy. Let’s take a look at how we can enhance player engagement by applying these 3 elements to game design.

Step 1: Establish Purpose

Say Cheese!
Our Selfiely mascot, Penfie the penguin, helps you perfect the art of the selfie!

Why am I playing? Having a purpose is an essential human need – and if your players don’t understand the purpose behind completing a challenge, they may start to think of it as a chore and eventually lose interest. Tips:

Step 2: Encourage Mastery

Tutorials – keep it short and simple.

What can I do to get better? If players can’t see themselves getting better over time, they may adopt a defeatist attitude and quit altogether. You want to eliminate any sources of frustration for new players, while offering a challenge for expert players.

  • Clarify the rules of the game through a simple tutorial. Most importantly, don’t confuse your players from the start. A well-designed tutorial doesn’t even feel like one – Super Mario is a testament to that!
  • Provide quick, frequent feedback and rewards. How else do players know what they’re doing right – or wrong? Rewards can range from virtual badges and ranks to real vouchers, or simply bragging rights! However, beware of overjustification – don’t be overly dependent on rewards to motivate.
  • Adjust the difficulty of your game. Get players with different levels of mastery to test your game. If necessary, introduce uncertainty to gameplay or rewards to up the difficulty, or opt to offer unlockable levels for advanced players.

Step 3: Enable Autonomy

With Gametize, you can create various types of challenges.

How many ways can I play? Games encourage players to take charge and even test the limits of the game itself. Self-directed play gives players unique gameplay experiences and involves them at a deeper level.

  • Let players choose the task – when and what they do. Although more straightforward stages can help ease players into the game at first, change things up and let players do something different with more open-ended play once in a while. Also, a ROWE (results-only work environment) will give players more flexibility over when they complete challenges.
  • Let players choose the technique – how they do it. Players come in many forms (take the Bartle Test) and gain a greater sense of accomplishment by figuring out their own method of doing things. Even in Angry Birds, there are multiple ways to clear each level with three stars.
  • Let players choose their team – who they play with. Enable players to connect with each other and express themselves, whether it’s through profile pictures, unique avatars or friend interactions.

Of course, this article is by no means exhaustive. What other ways have you found effective for motivating your players? Let us know in the comments below.


This post was contributed by Sarah Ong, Business Development Mentee @ Gametize
Sarah was offered a mentorship summer 2014 at Gametize under the IDA ELITe Programme. While her special talent is her fluency in the Japanese language, she also dabbles in a bit of design and of course, video games. Recent projects she has contributed to include the Amazing Food Race and Selfiely.

What’s the best motivational theory

motivateThere is an ongoing discussion about which of the motivational theories is more (or less) valid, applicable or descriptive. But to start with, let’s have a brief overview of some of the known motivational theories around.

Conceptually speaking, motivational theories fall into two broad categories: content and process. Content theories of motivation analyse the “what“ behind motivation, and process theories focus more on the “how“ of motivation.

The most famous of the content theories is the by-now classic Maslow’s theory.

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory tells us about what people need (from basic physiological ones such as hunger to belonging to a group to self-actualization), and these innate needs are what motivate/drive people to action. Maslow’s need theory is the carrot and the stick theory of motivation.

Since recently, most popularized of the process theories is Csikszentmihaly’s Flow.

  • Csikszentmihaly’s Flow postulates that people enter state of flow (bliss, happiness) when they are fully immersed in an activity during which they lose their sense of time and have feelings of great satisfaction.

We will elaborate more on the theories of content/process motivation in the upcoming posts.

Most theories agree on few basic premises: humans have basic and other needs/wants/aspirations. Understanding and catering to those will motivate humans to act. Some of the motivational theories are blatant about needs and carrots-n-sticks type of motivators. Others, such as Dan Pink’s intrinsic motivators theory, repackage the higher-level human needs into more romantic-sounding autonomy, mastery, purpose, which still are needs, just higher-level ones. Yet others, such as Fogg’s model, also require external, environmental factors, triggers, in addition to basic and social but personal needs such as ability.

controlNow that we had a quick overview of some of the motivational theories, let’s dig a bit deeper and see what other aspects of human psychology and behavioural science have to say about motivation. Research shows that people love to be in the control (overlearning) state, because it gives them a sense of security and safety. However, as we acquire new/develop skills over time, we inadvertently move into the relaxation/boredom/comfort state if we don’t pick a more challenging task. We are however motivated by challenges, surprises, and varieties, to avoid boredom.

In real life, this often pushes us into the arousal state, because it is usually very hard to find tasks with the right level of challenge that match people’s skills exactly. They are either far too easy (boring) or too hard (frustrating). So the apparent paradox of human motivation is really our attempt to find that fine line between certainty and uncertainty.

thinkingSo, which of the motivational theories is a better one? Some have a more universal application (SDT, Fogg’s Model, Flow); some have a narrower context but not least significant impact (Achievement Goal Theory in sports or Goal Theory in education); and some focus on specific environments (Hawthorne’s experiments, Herzberg’s Theory or Equity Theory for workspace). Thus it’s hard to put all theories on a yardstick and measure their efficiency, impact and implications.

One suggestion is to look at and evaluate what has been used/applied/tried out in a specific industry, achieving a goal or solving a problem. If results/impact are satisfactory, that theory can be given a chance. If not, approach the problem from the point of view of a specific theory and check which domains/contexts the specific theory has so far been applied and which are the results. Based on that, make a decision.

Lastly, if no obvious or known precedent has taken place and you are not sure which way to go, here is another suggestion. Let’s call it a Candy-Crush approach, inspired by a short video of what makes Candy Crush so successful. The video elaborates on some unique points of how Candy Crush is the running success, including:

  1. On-boarding and pacing (from level to level) process, which is done in a balanced way, varying both types of actions, randomizing (but not too much to cause information overload and confusion) game elements and level shapes, which offers a bigger chance of entering Flow;
  2. Think of ways to constantly modulate interest of people and induce wonderment about what’s next, which allows to keep motivation and drive to discover what’s next;
  3. Create a PBL-type of system which encourages and facilitates transparency among people;
  4. Introduce a progress or mastery-bar, which would visualize where each individual is, how much he/she needs to go to the next level/stage.


This post was contributed by Hayk Hakobyan, guest writer
Hayk is a consulting partner at Gametize, based mostly in MENA region.
He is a consultant (marketing, innovation, gamification, social media, org dev), entrepreneur (@kartagapp, @engezni), TEDx speaker,advisor/coach (@thezimbabwean, @verdademz, @mtramadv), and volunteer (@takingitglobal).

Why Orcs Don’t Need Gamification

So you’re an orc foreman in the Mines of Moria. And one day a hip young marketing rep from a gamification startup shines her flashlight in your eyes and says:

“Our platform can increase employee motivation by using points and badges to reinforce more productive behavioral feedback loops.”

And you tell her:

“Lady, I’ve got dwarves in chains. That’s my feedback loop.”

The main criticism of gamification, from game designers, researchers and journalists is that it can be used to manipulate and exploit its subjects. A recent piece in the Economist echoes this concern.

They compare many of the games beloved by the gamifiers, such as “World of Warcraft”, to slot machines, with rewards carefully doled out in order to keep players hooked.

Gamification advocates acknowledge this hazard and offer strategies to avoid its misappropriation. But I don’t think they make our case forcefully enough. So I’ll state for the record that on the scale of dangerous things, gamification ranks somewhere around TV remote controls. I mean, you could probably bash someone to death with a remote control, but if you’re in the throes of a homicidal rage is that really the blunt instrument you’re going to reach for?

By the same token, rewards and leader boards are never going to be the first choice of repressive methods for enterprises out to oppress their workforce. Can you say Feudalism, Industrial Revolution, robber barons, blood diamonds, human trafficking…? Employers, whether a single scrooge or a state-run economy, whether a legitimate business or criminal gang, have pretty much perfected the stick part of carrot-and-stick.

What’s needed are ways for enlightened employers to motivate and engage their employees, to make their work more productive by making their tasks meaningful and even fun.

Gamification fills this need and may even be the best solution, especially as digital technology and social media continue to expand and transform our lives.

Our orc, on the other hand, hardly needs another hammer in his exploitation toolbox.


This post was contributed by Mark Schreiber, guest writer
Mark Schreiber is a full time novelist since graduating high school at the age of 15. He also engineered his sister’s bestselling writing career and started and run several businesses, including a solo medical practice. He’s currently interested in technological entrepreneurship in Singapore and Silicon Valley.