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The Magic Potion of Game Dynamics

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium'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.



When I kicked off this short-series on gaming last week I explained the various game related terminologies. Hopefully we are all on the same page now with the basics. If you are still unclear about the difference between game mechanics, game dynamics, and game theory, please take a minute to review Gamification from a Company of Pro Gamers.


Now we are ready to talk about the cool and interesting stuff. Despite the ever growing list of game mechanics (and dynamics), there are actually some basic design principles behind all of them. And these principles are surprisingly simple. Once you have mastered these fundamental principles, you would be able to analyze the game dynamics and understand why and how they drive actions. You will also be able to understand why certain game dynamics work better than others in certain situations. Moreover, you can even use these fundamental principles to design your new game dynamics.


The Fogg Behavior Model

FBM.gifThe goal of game dynamics is to drive a user-desired behavior predictably. Therefore we must understand how humans behave, in order to understand game dynamics. And to do this, I’d like to take a psychologist’s perspective and try to understand human behavior though psychological models and frameworks. There are many such models, and they are useful in different contexts, so the criteria for choosing a model/framework should be whether it can give you the understanding you need to address your problem.


To understand game dynamics (and gaming mechanics), I will use a simple behavior model by Prof B. J. Fogg of Stanford University, an experimental psychologist I met at the Persuasive2009 Conference. I like Fogg’s behavior model (FBM) because it is a multi-factor model, similar to my 6-factor influence model. It facilitates analysis, construction and deconstruction of game dynamics. FBM asserts that there are three required factors that underlie any human behavior:

  1. Motivation
  2. Ability
  3. Trigger

But the most important aspect of FBM is that all three factors must converge at the same time. That means, in order to successfully drive a behavior, the game mechanic/dynamic must guide these three factors so they ALL occur at exactly the same moment. Any temporal misalignment (even if it’s just a few seconds) in these three factors will degrades the effectiveness of the game dynamics.


Between Motivation and Ability

Game dynamics often motivate people by positive feedbacks, such as accumulation of points, badges, status, progress, customization, pleasant surprises, etc. In theory, negative feedback can also be use, but they are less effective in practice. Negative feedback mechanisms can lead to the complete abandonment of the gamified activity, unless the users are extremely motivated, or used in a social/communal context. So negative feedback should be used with caution.


How do game dynamics increase the ability for users to perform the target behavior? I’d like to clarify that, ability doesn’t always mean skills in this context. Ability can be time, attention, mental capacity, or any scarce resources that the user might need to complete the behavior. If a user doesn’t have these resources, he won’t have the ability to carry out the behavior. For the target behavior to happen, users usually require a minimum level of ability and motivation. This minimum level is called the activation threshold for the behavior.


There are two general approaches to increase ability. The usual way of increasing a users’ real or perceived ability is through practice and training. So their ability (in conjunction with the proper motivation) would exceed the activation threshold needed to perform the target behavior. This is use frequently in both games and gamification.


Another method of increasing a users’ perceived ability is to make the target behavior simpler so users require less ability to accomplish the behavior. This essentially lowers the activation threshold of the target behavior. Although this is also used in games, it is less common in gamification. Perhaps it’s because gamified work is still real work that needs to be done with real abilities. However, there are ways to make the gamified work appear simpler, and these are used frequently in gamification. For example:

  1. Divide and conquer (break up a complex job into smaller and simpler tasks)
  2. Cognitive rehearsal/guidance (showing you how the job is done and how simple it is)
  3. Cascading information (instructions and information are release in minimum snippets to guide you through a multi-stage task).


Trigger is ALL about Timing

Stop Watch.pngDespite the level of motivation and ability, a trigger at the appropriate time is necessary to bring about a behavior predictably. A trigger is simply something that prompts or tells the users to carry out the target behavior now. It can take any form as long as users are:

  1. Aware of the trigger
  2. And understand what the trigger means

The most important aspect for the trigger is timing. An appropriate trigger at the right moment (e.g. above the activation threshold) not only leads to the inception of the predictable behavior, it also makes the users feel good about doing it. But a poorly timed trigger could have adverse effects. Not only is the behavior not carried out, it might not produce the desired outcome, and on top of that, users can get annoyed, frustrated, and develop a negative emotion about the activity.


For example, spam email and pop up ads are, in fact, triggers, as they usually prompt users for some action, and users usually understand what they want and are aware of them. But we hate these triggers, because they usually don’t arrive at the right moment (i.e. when we are motivated and have excess ability).



So why do game mechanics/dynamics have the magical power to turn boring chores into desirable activities?

  1. Game dynamics use positive feedbacks (e.g. points, badges, status, progression, customization, surprises, social factors, etc.) to build up the users’ motivation.
  2. They increase the perceived ability of users by making difficult jobs simpler and more manageable; either through training/practice or by lowering the activation threshold of the target behavior.
  3. Game dynamics place triggers in the path of motivated users when they feel the greatest excess in their ability. That is, triggers that prompt the user for action are designed to bring about the convergence of motivation, ability, and trigger all at the same moment.

This is why game dynamics (and game mechanics) are such effective drivers and manipulators of user behavior. And that is why gamification can turn chores into something fun and enjoyable. It seems magical, but now you know the magic behind it.


Alright, enough psychology for today. This is just a brief introduction; we can dive deeper next time. In the meantime let the discussion about gaming psychology begin! See you next time.




Not applicable

So far so good, with the only exception that I find the difference between motivation and trigger a little bit blurred.

After all, if I'm correct, you say that a trigger is a motivational aspect enriched with a time dimension and in particular if the dimension is right, the trigger becomes motivation + ability = actual behaviour. Is that correct?

Don't know the final objective, but maybe the difference between the two factors will clarify later on ...

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Gianluca,


Thank you for the comment.


You are right that in some case the trigger can be build into and be part of the mechanism of motivation. But they don't always have to be that way. One of these cases is when the mechanism for motivation serves to drive one action, where the trigger can call for a different action.


For example, Bob may be a lurker on this Lithosphere community, and he reading the content of this community, but never do anything else. As he continue to lurk, he's re-visits are tracked, and points are rewarded for his re-visits. And Bob's sees his re-visit points, which encourages hime to revisit. Then when Bob's re-visit point reach a certain level, which the system determined he is a engaged lurker, a trigger can be apply to prompt him to take some new action (e.g. give a kudos). Maybe he will receive a message saying that "You have earn XXX points for your frequent visit. Did you know that you can earn participation point by giving kudos to contents you like?" This trigger will prompt him to take a different action, which he normally doesn't take.


Another case where the trigger don't have to be part of the motivation mechanism is when the user don't know that they can take a certain action. They may be motivated and have the ability, but they may not be aware of all the features or action that they can take. In that case, a trigger can show them how to carry out that action explicitly. There are many other examples.


OK, I hope this make sense. You are absolutely correct on that I will dive deeper into each factor of the FBM in future post. So, stay tuned for deeper discussions about the 3 factors.


Thanks again for the comment. I'm sure many reader are probably thinking abou the samething too. Hope to see you again on Lithosphere.


Hi Mike! 

Good trigger for reading your gamification serie!

1. FBM is a good simple action model of one game stage. I think, the power of good games is to explain fast observable and actionable horizont of game scenario.

2. What is with social aspect? It does be a very strong trigger (motivation and simplicity too). 

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Andrei,


Thanks for the comment and question. Only that I didn't quite understand your statement #1. But let me try to respond.


1. A good game will simply create a desired to take some actions quickly. Basucally, it has to bring people into the mental state of flow quickly before they get frustrated or bored. I recommend you take a look at this post on flow.


2. The social aspect is actually not the trigger. Social cohesion is simply a motivator. People want to be connected and that contributes to the motivation factor. Basically anything that people want or desire, can be seen as a motivator. Trigger is just a signal for action when people are already motivated and has the ability. Since I will talk about each of these factors later. Deeper discussions will come. So stay tuned...


Hope this answers your question. See you again next time.



Those interested in 'gamification' might also be interested in the following talks:


Sebastian Deterding's talk at Playful London 2010 Pawned: Gamification and its Discontents which provides really good overview as well as a critique of over-narrow and overly ambitious extensions of the concept.


Seth Priebatsch's TED talk Building the Game Layer on Top of the World, which, as you probably picked up from the title, is more in the enthusiast corner of the ring.  

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Heather,


Thank you for providing the resources.


I agree that there are a lot of hype now, and many people are definitely in the enthusiast corner of the ring now. That is precisely why I wanted to provide some science and well founded psychology & behavioral economics behind the hype.  🙂


And finally, there are definitely a lot of pros and cons of gamification. And it is precisely because they are so effective at driving and manipulating human behavior. It all depends on how people use it and at what level and intensity. Overdosing of anything, even very good thing, can easily turn bad.


Thanks again for commenting. See you around on Lithosphere.




Hello Michael,

Good set of articles and looking forward to the good stuff and discussion coming my way :-). 


As someone straddling the world of cognitive science and business, I find gamification pretty interesting. I think many of the basic concepts of gamification actually overlap with fundamental management principles and leadership theory (especially as it relates to motivation, incentives, feedback etc. to drive an outcome).



Also, as you mentioned in the case with communities I think the principles of gamification can be leveraged succcessfully in various areas of business including customer service, acquisition and retention. Trigger-based marketing is not a new concept but like you said a shotgun approach to trigger based marketing is useless -- setting up the right triggers at the right time in the customer's behavior path is essential.


Good stuff.




Not applicable

Hi Mike,


I also had some initial difficultly reconciling the differences between Motivation and Triggers in the model. I think we need to be careful not to conflate the notions though. Keeping the concepts distinct is a critical part of the model. That said, triggers are not motivational and do not play any part of the mechanism of motivation for a given behavior. Instead, let me suggest the following definition: Triggers are the mechanism which gives actors an abrupt sense or belief that their Ability is sufficient to satisfy their Motivation. That is, a trigger creates an immediate awareness that action will result in satisfaction.


Thanks for the article. Smart work.


Best regards,

Aaron Fanetti

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Ned,


Welcome back. Your comment and discussion are always welcome here.


Glad you find the topic on gamification interesting. It is a topic that I want to write about for a long time, but there is just not enough time for me to write.


I actually know very little about management principles and leadership theory. Maybe you can give me some pointers on these subjects. I think it would be interesting to draw the connection between the two. Although I know the science, it is sometimes nice to learn a little bit more about business, which I know very little about.


Actually, I will write a bit more about the application of gamification in business (e.g. in customer service, acquisition, retention, marketing, etc.) after I finish all the science and principles behind it. I'll look forward to your input when I write about those posts. There are already a lot of success cases of gamification. And it really seems that gamification can be apply to pretty much anything. As we move forward, we'll find out more about the conditions under which gamification works best.


Thanks for your comment. See you again next time.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Aaron,


Thank you for stopping by and commenting.


It seems that there are still a lot of confusion about the motivation factor and the trigger in the FBM. As you said, they are different. I just didn't made it clear enough with this initial post. But in subsequent posts, I will write about each factor in greater detail. I hope that would clarify some of the confusion about these two factors later.


I think your definition of the trigger is a fine one. But I would stick with Fogg's own definition. The reason is because there are actually different kinds of triggers. I will write about their difference later. But in brief, trigger designed for people who have ability, but not motivated is different from triggers for people who are motivated, but don't have the ability. So please stay tuned for clarification later.


I suspect one of the reason for the confusion is because most gamification relay heavily on the motivation factor. But in reality, the ability factor is an equally important factor. Likewise trigger. They are really three independent factors.


Trigger is really just something that prompts the user for an action (as long as the user are aware of it and understand what it means). Let me leave it at that for now, because more post about trigger will come later.


Thanks again for the comment. See you next time.





Thank you for the response. I have much respect for your work.

I’ve yet to find a clear definition of a Trigger in Fogg’s freely available work, mostly examples. However, saying that a Trigger prompts action seems to beg the question. After all, aren’t we talking about what causes behavior in the first place? Somewhat like saying: “What causes behavior? Triggers. What are Triggers? They’re what cause behavior.” My definition above is an attempt to escape this kind of loop, viz. that a Trigger is what brings awareness to the actor that his Ability can satisfy his Motivation.

Look forward to reading your further work.

Kind regards,
Aaron Fanetti

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Aaron,


Thank you for coming back and continuing the conversation. And thank you for your regards to my work. I definitely appreciate that.


I believe Fogg has a definition for Trigger. Have you check out his work at Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There are a lot of good stuff there. I definitely have learn a lot from him.


I think your definition would work well for people who are motivated by didn't have the ability. But there are a lot of situation where people have the ability but are not motivated. In that case, he is well aware that his ability can satisfy his motivation. Signaling his ability can satisfy his motivation is no use, because he knew it all along that he can (has the ability) perform the action. He simply doesn't have the motivation. So that definition may not be general enough.


Maybe I should say that a trigger is a signal that tells the user to perform the action now. The key is "now." And I must clarify that action is not caused by the triggers alone. You really need a convergence of all three factors. What cause behavior is not trigger. It is a combination of Motivation, Ability and Trigger. Trigger just tell them to do it at the time the trigger was activated.


I apologize if I still didn't make this clear. But when I write about this factor later, I will give more examples. Hopefully things will be clear by then.


Thanks again for digging into this topic. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who also have the same confusion. I think your question will definitely help clarify them. And I will try hard to keep this in mind when I write my later posts. Stay tuned!