Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
Welcome back! Apologies for taking a little bit longer to write this post. I have been a little busy recently – and I was in Troy, NY last week, giving a series of lectures about Social CRM at RPI. The psychology of motivation is a broad topic, and I will have to be fairly brutal in my summarization and triaging to cut it down to a reasonable length.
Last time I briefly introduced Fogg’s Behavior Model (FBM), and used it to analyze why and how game mechanics/dynamics are able to drive actions. FBM asserts that human behavior is a result of the precise temporal convergence of three factors:
Game mechanics and game dynamics are able to positively influence human behavior because they are designed to drive the players above the activation threshold (i.e. the upper right of the ability-motivation axis), and then trigger them into specific actions. In other words, successful gamification is all about making these three factors occur at the same time. As I mentioned last time, the temporal convergence is the key.
Today, I will talk about the first factor in FBM: the science of motivation. This topic is not new. In fact there has been a lot of interest and research in the field of psychology around motivation. Subsequently there are many models which describe what can motivate people and why. Since it would be impossible to cover all of them without turning this into a book, I will talk about three psychological models of motivation and behavior that I believe are useful in the gamification setting.
From Maslow’s Needs to Pink’s Drive
One of the earliest and best known theories of motivation comes from the renowned psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow. The now famous Hierarchy of Needs was published in 1943. I’m sure most of you have seen the pyramid depicting the five levels of needs, in one form or another.
Maslow believes these needs are what motivate people to do the things they do. In essence, human behaviors are driven by their desire to satisfy physical and psychological needs. It is easy to understand the lower four levels of needs, and Maslow refers to them as deficiency-needs. But what is self-actualization? If you read Maslow’s work carefully, he referred to this highest level as being-needs or meta-needs, and it is actually a combination of many meta-motivators, which I’ve summarize in a word cloud (figure 1).
If you think Maslow is a little old school, you might appreciate Daniel Pink’s more recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, published in 2009. Pink hypothesizes that in the modern society where the lower levels of the Maslow’s hierarchy are more or less satisfied, people become more and more motivated by other intrinsic motivators. These intrinsic motivators are precisely the meta-motivators that Maslow is referring to in the self-actualization level, and Pink specifically focuses on three of these:
If you hadn’t noticed, many of these needs and motivators are very similar to game mechanics and dynamics. Zynga, for example, realizes that majority of the population have the gaming personality of a socializer and need a sense of belonging. They created FarmVille to address the socializer’s need for social cohesion/acceptance. Status, achievements, ranks and reputation are some of the most commonly used game mechanics, but they are really nothing more than “esteem in disguise”. The progression dynamics and levels are simply Dan Pink’s mastery. See the parallel? If not, I hope figure 2 will make it more obvious.
Skinnerian Conditioning and Learning
B. F. Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism is a very different school of psychology. It is actually a full behavior model, like that of B. J. Fogg, and it claims that human behavior is a result of the cumulative effects of environmental reinforcements and learning.
However, much of Skinner’s research on reinforcement and operant conditioning (not classical conditioning) can be applied to understand motivation. Skinner’s theory disregards innate needs and uses only external conditions/reinforcement to manipulate and shape people’s behavior. In essence, the conditioned reinforcers (which are usually some kind of points in most gamification settings) are learned, and they become the motivator.
Many game dynamics have been developed using the principles from Skinner’s work, because a point system is often core to many game dynamics, including progression dynamics and levels. Points by themselves are not inherently rewarding – in fact, points can be a detraction if used inappropriately. Proper use of points depends on the reward schedule (or reinforcement schedule in psychology terminology), that is, when, how many, and at what rate the points are given (or taken away).
Skinner characterized the effects of many different types of reward schedules on the response rate of the subject (the player) and what actions each type of schedule helps invoke. For example, fixed-interval schedule is great for driving increase activity near deadlines. This is the basis of the countdown and appointment dynamic. Both fixed-interval and fixed-ratio schedules are great for learning new behaviors, but the variable-interval schedule is far more efficient for reinforcing established behaviors. The variable-ratio schedule is best for maintaining a behavior, so it is responsible for many forms of game addiction, including gambling. This schedule emphasizes the importance of surprise in gamification, and it is the foundation for the lottery mechanic and other anticipatory motivators.
Flow: The Fine Line between Certainty and Uncertainty
I wrote about flow in an earlier post. It is a mental state characterized by another renowned psychologist in 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where people become totally immersed in what they are doing. People experiencing flow often forget about physical feelings, passage of time, and their ego fades away.
Despite the fact that flow is an extremely desirable mental state, it is not easy to get into the state of flow. Part of the reason is because there is an inherent discordance in what people want. In a 2006 TED talk by Anthony Robbins, a popular motivation author, he talked about the six emotional needs of humans. The first is the need for certainty, but paradoxically the second is the need for uncertainty, which is in direct conflict with the first need. It may seem that people are not perfectly consistent, but there is actually a very fine line between certainty and uncertainty, and it is precisely Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow.
For the most part, people love to be in the control (overlearning) state, because it gives them a sense of security and safety. But people also hate boredom. However, as we acquire skills over time, we inadvertently move into the relaxation/boredom state if we don’t pick a more challenging task. So as humans, we are also motivated by some 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 certain and uncertainty.
So let me summarize what have we learned today:
Alright, we covered a lot of psychology today. Yet I barely scraped the surface of the psychological research available on motivation. There are many other psychological models of motivation, and what I’ve covered is by no means near complete. I just hope this has given you a quick introduction to the science of motivation. Next time, we’ll examine the second factor of the FBM: Ability. In the meantime, I welcome any comments, critiques, kudos and discussion.
Again, an interesting article. Thanks for that! I was wondering though. With scoring points don't people satify in some way basic needs, like self esteem ('look at me scoring these points!' or 'I can't be that loser, losing points!')? I am reading a book about the brain and I think it is a really interesting discussion about what is done conciously and unconciously; aren't all behaviours stimulated by basic needs even though we are not always aware? Well, maybe it goes too far to discuss this here, but it is interesting to think about that. Thanks again.
Awesome post! Thanks for summarizing this so succinctly! I work in the non-profit sector at United Way of Halifax Region. I am interested in getting people motivated through gameplay, narratives and a sense of purpose so that they can engage in their communities in a way that is fun and meaningful. The non-profit sector does so much wonderful and essential work, and I think we can get more people involved in that awesome work if we learn how to apply some of what you outlined in your article. I look forward more from you good sir! I also encourage people who are into this type of social gameplay to check out gameful on the interwebz! Anymore tips or tricks like this, pleaze send 'em my way!
United Way of Halifax Region: @UWHalifax
Thank you for commenting and asking the question.
According to B. F. Skinner's Radical Behaviorism, the reason that we feel rewarded by point is because we have been conditioned and learned that points are something very cool to have. We have conditioned and learned to associate point with esteem. And this conditioning probably happen very early since we reward children who get good grades (a kind of point system) in school, look up to people who make lot of money (another kind of point system).
Typically these type of Skinnerian learning occur when we continually paired the accumulation of points with other existing reinforcers that we learned earlier in life. And Skinner believes that we can go all the way back to our basic needs at birth. No doubt his theory is very provocative. That is why it is call the "Radical" Behaviorishm, which claims that behavior is the result of the cumulative effects of all historical reinforcement from the subject’s environment, whether they are natural or artificial. Regardless, there seem to be quite a few studies suggesting the validity of his theory.
Anyway, the point is that points themselves don’t really satisfy our esteem needs in any intrinsic way. Just that for most people, we are conditioned and learned to associate the two of them very early in our lives.
Concerning the discussion of conscious or unconscious, that is a big topic. I have been computational neuroscientist for 7 years, and I've been through some of those long debates with colleagues and researchers. It really is more of a phylosopical question, because there are many aspects of consciousness that we cannot manipulate, experiment, or prove. However, there are some neurobiological mechanisms that has been linked to motivation. Maybe I can write about that later.
Alright, I hope I’ve address your question. Very interesting question indeed. I’m sure lot of people probably are wondering about the same thing. So thank you for asking. I hope to see you again on lithosphere.
Thank you for the nice comment and thank you for stopping by.
Glad you find my post useful. As I've said earlier, gamification is very powerful, and it can really change people's action. I'm very glad to see that people like yourself are using it to change people's behavior for the greater good. There is nothing more rewarding for a scientist than that. 🙂
Rest assured that there will be more articles on this mini-series for the science of gamification. There are at least 3 more that I'm planning on writing. If you miss any earlier articles, they are here:
1. Gamification from a Company of Pro Gamers
2. The Magic Potion of Game Dynamics
I look forward to seeing you again later.
That was an absolutely awesome article!
I work with the Social Game Lab and our primary area of research is the relation between phychological states and physical movements as a result of playing games. This article kind of cleared a lot of questions on my mind for the social aspects of a game we are working on! Please keep me in the loop.
Thank you for the very nice and affirmative comment.
It seems that we have a lot in common and there are lot of potential synergies. I'm certainly interested to find out more about the Social Game Lab.
I will definitely keep you in the loop. In general, I try to publish new articles every couple of weeks or so depending on how busy I am with other engineering and system architecture work that I'm doing. You can follow me on twitter: mich8elwu. I definitely tweet about my new posts. But I also use it as a giant public IM, so at times you might get a lot of chatters about social analytics.
I'm very glad that this article helped you clear some questions in you mind. As I said, there will be a few more articles coming in this series on the science of gamification. So stay tuned! See you again next time.
Thanks for an interesting read – and a good review of some key works. I especially like the ‘walking the thin line’ between certainty & uncertainty as I do think the yin and yang of these states define our life pathways in general.
Motivation is definitely a complex topic with many dimensions to it. Even in the business world, understanding the underlying motivational elements is a prerequisite to creating any sort of triggers, rewards, or point system. Firms that manage to inject just the right amount of rewards/triggers (fueling extrinsic motivation) to balance the existing intrinsic motivation are more successful than those that just throws rewards/challenges around when it is not needed.
From a consumer behavior point of view, I also like viewing motivation through the lens of psychogenic needs - affectional, ego-bolstering, ego-defensive being one way to look at it.
And lastly, I think culture also has a say in how individuals are motivated. I think this is also something to consider from a business standpoint as what triggers/motivates an Indian might not motivate a German or an Italian etc.
Looking forward to future posts.
More great things, of course - this makes me wish I had gone through with plans to double major in psychology! It appears that there is much to consider when gamifying a product/service and my real worry is how to incorporate gamification and these psychological principles into an established product/service. It feels like the well-known gamified services started out as such, and there aren't many examples of established companies that integrated it well. So, I suppose what I'm trying to point out is, what difference will it make knowing the motivations of general society compared to knowing the motivation of your market? Or is there even a difference?
Thank you for the affirmative comment.
Yeah, motivation is a very complex. But it is also a very basic and primal instinct. It works in business, and consumer (end users) alike. Moreover, some of these principles are so robust that they work even in other animals. There are part of it that is purely biological. That is why gamification (if done right) works so well.
I think the cultural aspect of motivation is an implementation detail rather than a principle. We had to do this with our international clients. For exmple, we have the kudos function, that enables people to tell the community that they like a particular post. Communities in different countries would like to use different text (e.g. Like, Super, etc) and different icons. As icon or text that is rewarding to one culture may be completely meaningless to another. I consider these just implementation differences. The underlying principle in these features are still the same.
That being said, maybe there are some fundamental principle of how human psychology operates that has a strong cultural dependency, and I'm just unware of them.
Thank you again for the comment. See you next time.
Nice to see you again, and thanks for the comment.
I'm glad that this post made you re-examine psychology. One thing that I must say is that it is never too late to learn, and there are many ways to learn about these topics. There are lot of great books and resources out there. Moreover, many of the psychological principles have been established, tested, and accepted long ago, so we don't have to worry about the accuracy or rigor of these theory. We just have to find a trusted source.
However, gamification is a practice that is rather new compare to the psychologicla principle behind them. As you said, there are definitely a lot to consider when you want to gamify existing products/services. It is not as easy as "just give them some points and badges." If someone tells you that, you should think twice. We are definitely trying to incorporate these principles deep into the core of our platform, but there are still much work to be done.
Knowing what motivates the society in general or your market really depends on how general the psychological principle is. If it is a very general principle like those of Maslow, Skinner, and Csikszentmihalyi, then it doesn't matter. Their principle are so universal that they should apply everywhere to anyone -- in fact, some of them are even applicable to other animals. But if there may be some principles that are not as general or universal, and they only work for some smaller sub-populations, then you would have to worry whether that sub-population overlaps with your market of interest.
OK, I hope this addresses your question. Thanks again for coming back, see you next time.
When I mentioned culture, I did not mean it from a surface implementation point of view (thought that definitely is a factor) but more from the direction that certain personality traits that are inculcated in us can be traced to our cultural and environmental upbringing than say needs per se.
As an example, folks brought up in a "scarcity culture" might show different intrinsic motivation thresholds and competitive nature than say those who grew up in an "abundance culture". Folks from the former might appear to be easily triggered or compete more fiercely because of a percieved notion honed into them that one has to compete for resources (even though in reality a resource might not be scarce).
Anyway, just a thought....
Thx for some "re-examine psychology".
Do you prefer or is to prefer some of described approaches to applied research of game mechancs?
I have a request from my friend to evaluate one game for Android.
How can I start with research in this case?
Thank you for the clarification. I think that is a good point. There are definitely some differences in people's propencity to compete or react to different types of reward or incentives. However, I havn't notice very many game mechanics/dynamics that take advantage of these are cultural difference specifically. I've only seen some that are design specifically for different types of gaming personality (Bartle's gamer typology). I talked about this a little bit in the introductory post of this mini-series.
Maybe Bartle's gaming personality already subsume these cultural difference that you talk about. Or maybe there hasn't been a need, because the general principles are sufficient. And because they have a wider applicability, there is no need to worry if the particular game mechanics/dynamics will work in the market of interest. But as game mechanics/dynamics become more prevalent, and the play ground evens out, maybe these principles that are applicable to niche population will come into play. Good observation.
Thank you again for the comment. See you again next time.
Thank you for the question. However, I can’t possibly summarize the research techniques applied to game mechanics/dynamics here. That subject would required a whole book, maybe several books. But as most research, you start with the simple questions.
What does your friend want the game to achieve? Then you break down the game and analyze whether it can achieve the goal of its designers. Some games may be totally dumb and stupid, but it achieves what it’s designed to do. Then it is considered a pretty good game. Other games may be very sophisticated and well designed, but doesn’t do what it’s designed to do. Then that would be considered a failure.
Anyway, I hope this will get you started. The specifics of method for deconstruction, Identifying game mechanics/dynamics, evaluation of the efficacy of the game dynamics, etc. is way beyond the scope of this blog. Nevertheless, thank you for asking, even though I don’t think I can provide a full answer here. See you again next time.
Great post Michael, haven't had time to dig into the comments yet but I'm sure there's some meat there as well. One component that's always caught my eye in this space (did my undergraduate work in Psychology and Philosophy) is the relation to addiction related behavior.
Particularly in applying Game Dynamics/Mechanics in the context of Marketing, I often run up against the "wall of irresistability" particularly as it relates to a particular demographic (gamblers for example) - where do you see the ethical line in terms of the business application of these powerful techniques/structures?
Thank you for stopping by. I'm very glad to have an affirmative comment from someone who has background in psychology.
I agree that game mechanics/dynamics are very powerful techniques for behavioral modification and manipulation. I've mentioned the example of gambling addiction in this post also. These powerful techniques can certainly be apply to anything, good and bad alike. But the same goes with any knowledge or technologies, such as the internet, it is not inherently good or bad, it all depends on how people use it.
As humans, we are certainly susceptible to our own psychological weaknesses and can easily get trapped in addiction behaviors. But the great thing about science is that once we understand the underlying principle that governs these undesirable behaviors, we can also correct it. So gamification can also be use to correct addictive behaviors by gamifying other more desirable activities so people start doing something else. Gamification can even dis-incent and demotivate people from continuing their addiction. In practice, it is usually harder to get people to stop a certain behavior than to start doing something, but it is not impossible.
As for ethics, I think that it is the same as any other business practices. Total and complete transparency is the first step. Then listen to the crowd, and learn from the wisdom of the crowd. Otherwise, with anything as powerful as gamification, the back lash can also be very strong. It is not only important to do it right, it is more important to use it right!
Hi Michael. As always...great insights. These concepts are indeed universal but I am certainly guilty of NOT thinking about how to leverage them more effectively. Have you seen a best practice at gamification of jobs such as call center agents, inside sales, etc? Thanks.
Thank you for commenting. Great question.
In fact there are quite are quite a bit of research as well as resources on how to gamify work. Reward frequent in small steps, use lack of reward instead of punishment, count up rather than count down, compare only with similar peers, etc. There are probably too much for me to summarize here.
I recommend you checking out a book by Prof. Byron Reeves, another academic friend and game researcher at Stanford. Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compet....
Finally, keep in mind that motivation, which is the subject of this post, is just one element of the Fogg's Behavior Model. You need all three factors: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. Moreover, you need all of them at the same time. The next post of this series, which is on the 2nd factor of FBM: ability, has just been posted. Feel free to check it out at your leisure.
Thank you for asking your question. Now that you asked, I think it might be worthwhile for me to summarize some of the best practices I know in a later post. I'll think about it. Maybe I'll do that when I write about the application of gamification after I finish all the science and theory. See you again next time.
There are a lot of negative behaviors in the world today (e.g., terrorism) that I'd like to see changed, but I wonder if that is beyond the range of games. How do you get people you want to influence to participate in the games? Can we shape politics and economics with games? And will we have dueling games, where the right and the left each try to promote their agendas? Does it become a more sophisticated version of propaganda?
Thank you for stopping by and commenting.
I believe that games (and gamification) are extremely powerful, and they can really change human behaviors for the greater good. And that includes shaping our politics and economics. It really comes down to how we implement these games. In fact, many things in our life already have all the elements of a game (e.g. education, business, etc). Gamification simply uses game dynamics to change their incentive and reward structure to make them enjoyable rather than stressful. That is how people gamify education and work.
As in my reply to Matt (above), like anything else, gamification is merely a technology, and it is not inherently good or bad. It all depends on how people use it. That being said, it is definitely possible for gamification to become just another form of propaganda. That is, if the only application of gamification that people can think of is to get more people to play their game and beat down their opponent. But if people use it for good, then it can also become something great. So far people have use games for a lot of good purpose (e.g. entertainment, education, boost productivity, training, etc).
My speculation is that there will be good and bad uses of gamification in the future, and there will probably more good than bad. We just have to learn to make the best use of this new technology. However, if people abuse it or don’t know how to use it in the right way, then legislators will have to establish rules to tell us how it is use it.
Alright, thank you for bringing up this sensitive issue. It is an important issue though. So I appreciate that your voice your opinion. Hope to see you again next time.
What we need now in my opinion are game design patterns for such areas as education (ie learning a subject), small business, etc as well as easy to use technology tools to enable this for people who aren't tech savvy. Think of the success and virality of cut and paste widgets like YouTube embed codes, wordpress plugins, and the like. We should all understand the underlying motivations and attraction to games by now. What we need is design and implementation to solve real problems.
Glad to see your comment again.
I certainly believe there should be easy to use technology. Complexity is less of an issue, because good gamification procedures can always break complex tasks into a series of simpler tasks. In fact, that is the subject of the next post.
I believe you can get many specific designs / implementations of gamification elsewhere. So I don't want to just copy and paste them here. Rather, I want to talk about the underlying principles. You can think of them as some kind of design patterns. They are just higher up, and more abstract, like the principles harmonics in music. If you truly understand these principles, than you can create infinite number of implementation from different combinations of the basic principles that suites your specific needs.
If you have some implementation that are proven to work, please feel free to share them here.
Thanks for your comment again. See you next time.
Would like to know how lithium is implementing gamification into the software. I have not found anywhere where it is talked about. Also how it compares to what others are doing in the space
Lithium implement a lot of game dynamics in our product without being very explicity about it excep the reputation engine. I've written a series of blog articles on how we design our reputation system's ranking ladders. It leverages the state of flow that I mentioned in this article.
Aside from the ranking ladder, there are leader boards, and the ranks are associated with other permissions (i.e. roles) in the system to enable users who earn a certain rank to get special access privilege. There are a lot that are not very organized. Lithium spun off a gaming community, and the game dynamics were just part of our DNA. So our founders were not particularly careful in documenting these, since they live and breath it every day. I hope that we have a more systematic way to incorporate game dynamics in our platform in the future.
Anyway, I hope I've address your question. Hope to see you again next time.
Thanks for this Michael. I wasn't familiar with the concept of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow so this was really eye opening for me. We employ gamification techniques with our idea management software at Qmarkets and so it would be interesting to hear what you have to say about the connotations of gamification with regard to employee engagement.
It's really interesting how effective numerical motivation is on social media. I look forward to reading any further research into these mechanics in the future, it feels like there is still a lot to be discovered!
Thank you for taking the time to comment here. Glad to hear that you find this eye-opening.
With respect to employee engagement, one of the biggest difference is the type of behavior we need to drive is typically much more complex and motivation alone is usually not enough. We also need to empower employees along the way by education, exploratory learning, etc. So they acquire more skills (abilities) in order to carry out the complex behaviors you want to drive. Remember, you can only drive behaviors reliably when there is a temporal convergence among 3 factors (from the Fogg's Behavior Model😞
This is too big of a subject to be address haphazardly here in a reply. But if you are intereted in the basic pinciples, I recommend that you look through my entire series on gamificaton.
And you can always ask me questions in the discussion area of any of my post. I may not respond immediately, but I will always respond.
Hope to see you again on my blog.
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