For six weeks this fall, I engaged in a free e-course through online education service Coursera. Taught by Professor Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, “Gamification” examined what Gamification is, the social and psychological theories associated with game design and motivation, and the ethical implications of Gamification in both personal and business arenas. Untold has examined Gamification before but as a rising trend among marketers and businesses. This time, we’re examining the role that motivation plays in Gamification: what are the different types of motivations, what activity loops do players engage in, and how this leads to motivated workers.
Motivation essentially boils down to whether it’s intrinsically motivated (done for the pleasure of it) or extrinsically motivated (done because you gain something/are rewarded), but let’s take a step back to a broader view on motivation with the Self-Determinism Theory. Simply stated, the Self-Determinism Theory examines what motivates people to take action. The theory claims that individuals need to feel at least one of the following three things to be motivated: competence (that they understand how to act), autonomy (that they have freedom, either of choice or action) and relatedness (that the action is connected to them in some way). When used in a gamified system, these motivations move individuals into one of two types of activity loops: Engagement or Progression.
Engagement loops begin when an individual is motivated to take action and then receives feedback, which then serves as motivation to take action again and so on. Progression loops, however, function more like the literary “Hero’s Journey,” where an individual is brought in at the beginning and slowly taken from a beginner to a master through a series of activities, goals or quests.
Using a progression loop in their gamified system, the University of Hawai’i’s Kukui Cup competition is designed to teach incoming students about energy sustainability. Through the competition, students are taught how to evaluate how much energy they use and are provided the knowledge to reduce energy consumption or to use it more effectively. Paired into teams on their hall, student groups who complete educational workshops, score high on tests, and meet daily conservation goals are awarded prizes in the form T-shirts, pizza parties and certificates. Though it may approach students extrinsically through rewards, the Kukui Cup progresses students from a beginner-uninformed level and raises them to a higher master-of-application level. The University of Hawai’i’s utilization of these motivation techniques resulted in an increase in the knowledge and skills of their students. Sometimes, though, good intent isn’t enough to obtain motivational success.
As Disneyland learned in 2011, motivational techniques used in the workplace can prove to be tricky endeavors. Though the intent of their gamified system was to inspire employees to work harder as corporate citizens, it, instead, created dissent and disillusionment. The housekeeping leaderboard system was designed to help motivate Disney’s housekeeping staff by utilizing an engagement loop to create competition between coworkers. By tracking and advertising their speed publically, staff could monitor the time it took to clean a room. The leaderboard provided motivation to cause action by the employees, whose results were displayed on the leaderboard as feedback, creating motivation and so on. However, instead of inspiring friendly competition, the Disneyland housekeeping team viewed it as an electronic leash that called out employees that couldn’t move as fast as others. Some employees reported feeling afraid to take bathroom breaks, while others were concerned over the well-being of a pregnant team member whose speed couldn’t be improved in light of her condition.
Understanding the proper use of Gamification is incredibly tricky due to a number of factors. For one, it’s still widely considered a new business practice with not a lot of real research completed on it. For two, there is always the potential that users will undergo engagement decay or that the reward will not sustain user interest. What we do know, though, is that understanding user motivations is key. Creators of gamified systems need to understand not only the intent of the system (what actions/choices do we want users to make), but the users’ potential reaction to the system. Does it excite them? Inspire them toward corporate citizenship? Is the primary function to reward them for behavior and, if so, is the reward enough to keep them interested? Recognizing, at the onset, that motivation is an unstable factor that must be accounted for will increase the likelihood of user adoption and sustained motivation.