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The Motivating Power of Games

gamification illustrated

Yu-kai Chou has spent nearly two decades studying how gamification can drive long-term behavior change. In a recent presentation to the Yale-Ipsos Think Tank, Chou walked through what he’s learned and his framework for applying insights.

Suppose you tell someone to push a button every 30 seconds for hours on end. At the conclusion of their button pushing they get some money. That’s drudgery.

Suppose, instead, you tell them to push a button every 30 seconds for hours on end and when they’re done they may get some money, or they may not, or they may owe some money. You’ve just invented the casino.

It’s a striking example offered by Yu-kai Chou, an expert in gamification who wears many hats, among them head of digital commerce at HTC/VIVE. In a recent presentation to the to the Yale-Ipsos Think Tank, Chou walked through his Octalysis Framework, which demonstrates the potential power of gamification by connecting eight fundamental human motivations to eight elements of effective game design.

The Promise of Gamification

“Gamification combines the fun elements of a game into what is often a boring context,” Chou explained at the beginning of his talk. “It can help you do the things that you don’t necessarily want to do.”

Getting people to spend time on things they otherwise wouldn’t is the history of gaming in a nutshell. While we can’t simply stop doing our job when it gets boring – it is, after all, our job – nobody needs to play a game. We stop playing when we lose interest. And so game designers have for centuries refined the mechanisms that make repetition exciting: launch a bird; launch a bird again; launch a bird, again.

How do games do this so effectively? And how can these tools be applied in other realms?

The Octalysis Framework

By studying the subtle differences between games that are successful in the market and those that aren’t, Chou devised the Octalysis Framework, which distills the basics of good game design into eight “core drives.” These drives motivate not only game play, but any action we take, and so properly weaving them into other activities can inspire people to perform those activities.

“Everything we do in life is based on at least one of these drives,” Chou said. “Without these, customers are not buying, workers are not working, people have zero motivation.” The drives are described in their most basic form below. (In his presentation, Chou provides much greater detail as well as examples of gamification that use each drive.)

  1. Epic meaning and calling. People are motivated by ideals bigger than themselves – notions like honor and patriotism and philanthropy. This core drive, said Chou, helps explain the hours that some people spend contributing and editing articles on Wikipedia: they perceive the work as preserving humanity’s knowledge.
  2. Development and accomplishment. People are motivated by work that is rooted in personal improvement and that allows for achieving some form of mastery.
  3. Empowerment. This core drive comprises opportunities for self-expression, autonomy, and the ability to make meaningful choices.
  4. Ownership. People will work at something when they feel that it is truly theirs – when they need to protect and care for and improve it.
  5. Social influence. If we are told that other people are doing something, then we are more likely to do it – especially when those people are similar to us. This element can be deployed either competitively or collaboratively.
  6. Scarcity. People will work hard for something when it is difficult to obtain or exclusive.
  7. Unpredictability. “What happens next?” is a question that often inspires action. Variable and unpredictable rewards alongside simple curiosity create motivation.
  8. Loss and avoidance. People will reliably take action in order to prevent something bad from happening.

The Octalysis Framework also defines each of these elements along two broad dimensions.

First, those drives at the top of the list Chou describes as “white hat,” meaning they make people feel part of something bigger than themselves. They are about self-improvement and creativity. They also aren’t attached to a timeline, and so, while deeply motivating, they don’t tend to create a sense of urgency.

The bottom half of the list constitutes “black hat” motivations, which often revolve around the need to take action to avoid some unwanted outcome. These game elements drive behavior quickly, but they leave a bad taste in the person’s mouth. “Because of this, black hat motivation is good for one-time transactions,” Chou said. “White hat is good for longer-term motivation.”

Second, Chou broke the motivations down as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Accomplishment, ownership, and scarcity are extrinsic motivations: the task itself may be unpleasant, but people are motivated by the reward or goal. Empowerment, social influence, and unpredictability are, instead, intrinsic motivations: people enjoy the activity or game enough that they will often pay to play.

Companies, he said, prefer to design around extrinsic motivation, as simply placing a reward at the end of an activity is relatively easy. But it’s important to keep in mind that prodding people exclusively with extrinsic motivation can detract from – and even eliminate – whatever intrinsic motivations they possess. People need balance between the two.

In the end, effective gamification can be immensely powerful for motivating action, but it must be executed carefully to both inspire the desired behavior and make that behavior durable. “It’s not realistic to think you can simply grab basic elements from a game, like points and a leaderboard, slap together some narrative, put it into a product and expect it will automatically become fun and successful,” Chou said. People are complex; gamification must reflect this. “It all depends on the target culture and audience.”