Motivation - July 29, 2021


“Gamification is dead!”

“The amount of actual successful gamification startegies is scant”

“Gamified processes are a failure!”

Random people

You might have heard these sentences quite a few times recently, from people who probably misunderstood poor application of game design elements with proper gamification. But that’s just what it’s usually called “pointsification”: simply adding points and badges and waiting for the gamification magic to ignite the user engagement.

Mmm it doesn’t really work that way! 

Sure, badges, points, leaderboards and similar, are all very important tools but they don’t guarantee that motivational flint that actually ignites deep and long term interest. 

meme leonardo di caprio

That’s why into this article we’ll dive into the motivational theories of psychology that support well-built gamification strategies. 

The theories of motivation

In one of our first articles we talked about one of the most used definitions of gamification. Deterding defined it as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. Then he goes on unpacking this definition into 4 elements, which thus become four elements of the gamification:

  1. Game 
  2. Elements
  3. Non ludic context
  4. Design

This definition though, gives a much more systemic perspective on the phenomenon. Later on Huotari and Hamari focus on the motivational leverage, rather than the MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics Game dynamics define the patterns of how the game and the players will evolve over some time.Some player might prefer competition, some other may seek social collaboration. The game dynamics tailor mechanics on the emotions that engage the player. and Aesthetics)

The motivational levers are all those inputs, mostly incentives, that push the user to behave in a certain way. In other words, the MDA alone trigger a short term change in behaviours, whereas motivational leverages, a long one.

Thus a well-planned gamification strategy will start by analyzing the motivational elements on which to leverage. After that, the game mechanics, dynamics Game dynamics define the patterns of how the game and the players will evolve over some time.Some player might prefer competition, some other may seek social collaboration. The game dynamics tailor mechanics on the emotions that engage the player. and aesthetics can be developed.

So, what sparks motivation according to scientists?

Well, many theories have been developed and in this article we’ll take a look at two in particular: the Self-determination theory and the theory of Flow.

Theory of Self-determination by Ryan and Deci

Professors Ryan and Deci described the Self-determination theory in the mid-80s. Self determination in psychology is the concept of feeling in power of our own choices. In other words, we feel like we have the ability to make decisions that have an impact on our life. This is also the very basis of motivation. 

If we know that making a specific action will lead to a positive outcome for our life, this will raise our willpower. High self determination generates “psychological growth” in particular when people feel: 

  • Autonomy:  In control of behaviours and goals. The real change starts from feeling the power of decision.
  • Competence:  when reaching mastery, people feel that they have the skills to reach the goal and will feel more motivated.
  • Relatedness: the sense of attachment to other people and belonging to a community.

About this last one in particular Ryan and Deci explain how important it is to have social support, as personal growth is not just a matter of individual willpower. 

Moreover, there are some external factors that can hinder or encourage self determination, such as rewards and prizes. But these would be just temporary coagents, not to base the whole strategy on. 

This is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, which we will further discuss. 

In conclusion, self-determination has an important role on people’s behaviour in many aspects of life: from work to sport, social settings and competition. A motivated user will feel more committed, passionate, interested and satisfied.

Theory of Flow by Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi during a speech
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi during a speech

A very interesting theory, not only for gamification applications but in general, is the theory of Flow of positive psychology. 

Doctor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (ahem, unless you’re hungarian and know how to pronounce it, say this ““Me high? Cheeks send me high!”) is one of the first researchers in Positive Psychology. After the trauma of being held captive during WWII, he tried to understand better, what stands behind happiness and contentment.

He found out that people are most creative, productive and content when they are in a state flow. 

What’s the flow?

According to him a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”

As you can see from the picture below, taken by Researchgate, the flow is a state of balance between boredom and anxiety. When the task we have to accomplish is too difficult (or so we perceive it), anxiety arises. We don’t believe we can do it and so we are not motivated, because we are sure we’ll fail. On the contrary, if the task is too easy, we’ll find it boring and we’ll shift to a more interesting task. The perfect balance is in between, when we feel enough motivated but not discouraged or bored.

the flow zone between anxiety and boredom

But, what does happiness have to do with gamification and motivation?

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the individual achieves happiness in a moment in which he is fully absorbed in an activity that does not bring anxiety on one hand or boredom on the other.

The balance of these two emotions in fact produces the so-called “Flow state” which, according to the theory, is the essential requirement for an optimal experience. 

Therefore, if you want to ensure that, at the moment of use, the user reaches a state of flow, it is necessary that Gamification is able to balance the challenges offered by the environment with the skills and competences of the individual-player.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).


Motivation is a complicated yet charming topic and it’s not easy to unfold it completely in one article. In the next one, we’ll delve into the theory of  intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, to better understand why some tools of gamification don’t work as hoped. 

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