May 04 2012

Gamification: What Motivates Users to Play in Non-Game Contexts?

With more organizations adopting gamification both inside and outside the enterprise, it’s important to know what makes users play.

William Shakespeare famously wrote that the world is a stage and its people, merely actors. If the business world had a bard of its own, he might remark that business is a game, and all of us are merely badge-seeking, virtual-farming, location-checking players.

Gamification has become a big trend in recent years. You see it in mobile applications like foursquare, where the act of “checking in” to a location earns users points and titles like “Mayor of the Piggly Wiggly” on 24th avenue. And the gamification trend isn't fading any time soon. Gartner predicts it will continue its rapid growth, estimating that more than 50 percent of organizations will gamify their processes by 2015.

What's behind the trend? The answer is simple: People like to have fun. And what better way to get people to do things they might not ordinarily do than to turn it into a game?

Zac Fitz-Walter, a graduate student at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, highlights the self-determination theory as a possible answer to what motivates people to play games. The theory argues that autonomy, competence and relatedness are necessary components of creating intrinsic motivation - the kind of motivation that drives people to do things for internal satisfaction.

Autonomy refers to the choices people make and why they make them. When people choose to take on an activity for interest or personal value rather than for rewards or because they are made to do it, then perceived autonomy is high. If gamification is an optional element added to a non-game context that people can choose to engage with, then autonomy would be high. Within the gamification design, if players are given the freedom of choice over the sequence of actions they undertake and are not forced to one specific path, then autonomy would be high.

Competence refers to the ability to optimally challenge people. In games, if the controls are intuitive and the tasks within the game provide ongoing optimal challenges and opportunities for positive feedback, then competence would be high. Competence relates also to Flow theory, a particular theory of motivation proposed by Csíkszentmihályi that describes a mental state of operation where a person is fully and completely immersed in an activity. To promote flow, a challenge needs to be provided that is appropriate for the skill level of a person. Challenge too hard, and the person may feel anxious and overwhelmed, while a challenge too easy can bore a person.

Finally, relatedness refers to a person's connection with others. In a game this may be with computer-generated personalities or with other players. The need to interact, be connected to and experience caring for others can be a powerful motivator. If these three elements are considered when designing game elements for non-game contexts, rather than simply falling back to motivation by rewards, then the player might be more engaged with the non-game context.

For more information on gamification theories, read Fitz-Walter's full post. And for more great content from around the web, check out the 50 Must-Read IT Blogs from BizTech.