• Asaf Moshe

Gamification unraveled: The secret for long lasting users engagement.

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

Before I start let me ask you this question: Why have you decided to access this article and maybe even read it?

Well… There are different possible answers for this question or maybe even a combination of reasons, the motivation behind one’s decision to engage by making an action (from any kind) is subjective and can come from various directions, while some of you are probably trying to enrich their knowledge about a specific topic others might be interested in gaining more followers and broaden their network (we can also talk about my motivation for writing this article but that might take a while 😊). In both cases it was your motivation that drove you to make an action, whether its driven by intrinsic needs, extrinsic or both.

In this article I will explain the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation and how different psychological methodologies are being used in gamification in order to influence the user’s motivation .

First thing first...

What is gamification ?

Gamification is the process of using game-like elements and mechanics in a non-game environment (product, flow, system etc.) in order to motivate users and to increase engagement.

Intrinsic motivation vs Extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to a behavior that is driven by internal needs. This motivation is sourced from within the individual and triggers the reasoning to engage in a behavior and by that reason it is naturally satisfying to that individual. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external needs (“rewards”) such as money, fame, score, etc. This type of motivation sourced from outside the individual and therefore has less powerful influence.

How to influence intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation can refer to an action that has no obvious external rewards. The reason for doing that action is simply because it’s interesting and enjoyable, as opposed to an external incentive or pressure to do it, such as a reward or deadline.

One way to demonstrate intrinsic motivation would be taking a simple action as reading a book, individuals that operate under intrinsic motivation will do it because they find the reading enjoyable and enriching, while individuals that operate under extrinsic motivation might do it due to a paper they have to prepare.

In order to influence one's intrinsic motivation we need to understand the source of those needs, what drives them and why they excites. To understand the answer to those questions I like to reference a human motivation theory called self-determination theory or SDT.

The Self-determination theory

The Self-determination theory is a result of the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who first introduced their ideas in their 1985 book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior. Their theory suggested that people's motivation is driven by a need to grow gain personal fulfillment.

The theory refers to the motivation behind choices people make without an external influence and interference. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual's behavior is self-motivated and self-determined. The theory refers to the concept that intrinsic motivation comes out of a sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence, without these elements the success of an individual’s activity will have to rely on external motivational factors.

SDT key assumptions:

Behavior is driven by the need for growth- People are actively directed toward growth. Of course that can vary between different individuals but the main premise remains, we are all aiming to have some level of mastery over a challenge, gain fulfillment and much stronger sense of self.

Autonomous motivation is crucial- SDT focuses on internal sources of motivation (“internal rewards”) such as a need to gain knowledge or to be loved (i.e intrinsic motivation).

SDT building blocks:

According to self-determination theory, people need to feel the following in order to achieve growth and fulfillment:

  • Competence - The desire to feel mastery over a situation. People like to feel successful, growth and progression in their knowledge and accomplishments.

  • Autonomy - The desire to feel independent or have a certain amount of control over our actions.

  • Relatedness - The desire to have a connection to another person (for example), we like to feel like we matter and that our actions can affect others.

How to apply Self-determination theory

The Self-determination theory can be considered as the source for engagement and can be applied by focusing on the following:

  1. Empowering competence- Every action that an individual makes can be considered as a challenge (especially if it's done for the first time), competence is our accomplishment driver and directly linked to our sense of achievement. Understanding the friction points where people were able to overcome a challenge and provide feedback in the right manner, can empower their sense of competence and increase their accomplishment levels.

  2. Empowering autonomy- Autonomy plays an important role when it comes to SDT. When a flow, a process or a situation is overbearing, and pre-defined, our sense of autonomy is compromised. Understanding how people approach a challenge and provide them a sense of control on the process or the result will empower their autonomy and in turn their intrinsic motivation.

  3. Empowering Relatedness- Through our relationships and interactions with others, we can either foster or thwart well-being and personal growth. We feel comfortable knowing that we are “not alone”, that others have faced the same challenges as we are or share the same characteristics or social group.

How to influence extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is a motivation that is driven by reward. In this type of motivation, rewards and other incentives are being used as a tool to motivate people for a specific action.

A good example of extrinsic motivation can be participation in a survey in exchange for payment of some kind. Your time can be easily spent doing an action that you may enjoy, but you were motivated to answer questions because you need the extra money, in short, you are extrinsically motivated by the ability to gain extra money and in return, you complete a survey about a topic that may or may not concern you at all.

It’s important to remember that extrinsic motivation doesn’t necessarily have to be a tangible reward, it can also be an abstract one like praise and fame.

Extrinsic motivation can be used to motivate users to do various different things, in this article I will cover three psychological methodologies that can be used to influence extrinsic motivation:

Classical conditioning

This theory of skill learning explains how the mind learns to associate a stimulus and a response. Made famous by Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning involves learning a new behavior via the process of association, in simple terms, two stimuli are linked together to produce a newly learned response in a person or animal.

The theory is widely used in marketing strategies and branding, for example, if a marketing strategy aims to generate a positive feeling from a product, the conditioning process of the consumers needs to start with a stimulus that produces the positive feeling on the consumers.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning (AKA behavioral modification) is the process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. Perfected by the psychologist B.F. Skinner operant conditioning usage forms of punishment which is following an unwanted behavior and positive reinforcement to reward correct behavior.

An example taken from mobile gaming can be a deduction of your XP points every day you don't open the app while on the other hand receiving coins reward every time you notify other players about your recent achievement.

Observational learnings

Observational learning (AKA Vicarious Learning or modeling) suggests that a behavior can be taught by identification, imitation and reinforcement and in order to achieve that all that is needed is a role model demonstrating the behaviour. The modeling theory that is mostly associated with the psychologist Albert Bandura demonstrated that people have a natural tendency to engage in observational learning.

A commonly used example for the theory is social proof and the use of social elements to teach a behavior.


In this article I reviewed an important aspect of gamification and that is the motivation that drives users to action, different methodologies can affect intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation and can provide a variety of results. Only by understanding the challenges that the users are facing and the context they are in you would be able to build flows and products that have the best of both worlds, promoting intrinsic needs that are enhanced by extrinsic rewards and truly unravel the power of gamification and build long lasting users engagement.

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