Gamification and Self-Determination Theory

Games are not just for fun anymore—and indeed “fun” is not a good enough description for the psychology of gameplay anyway. Designers are trying to “gamify” applications which traditionally were not game-like at all. And this isn’t limited to just the Serious Games movement that’s been around for several years. This is a type of design thinking that has spread from the gaming world and is now merging with the User Experience Design / Interaction Design world.

Beyond the hype and mistakes of gamification that might be going on right now, there does seem to be a design thinking emerging with the intention to increase engagement and motivation of products. I assume the business angle is that this of course can result in more users and keeping users longer.

Dustin DiTommaso, experience design director at Mad*Pow, presented “Beyond Gamification: Architecting Engagement Through Game Design” yesterday. As I already mentioned, he says how “fun” is not a good definition. His main psychological theory (at least for this presentation) is Self-Determination Theory (SDT). What follows are my notes based on DiTommaso’s presentation (hopefully I haven’t butchered it too much).

Games keep people in intrinsic motivation. There are three intrinsic motivation needs (these terms are directly from SDT):

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Relatedness


This is about meaningful growth. Good games achieve a path to mastery. The user experiences increased skill over time. There are nested short-term achievable goals that lead to success of the overarching long-term goal.

The experience should be that of a challenge. If you’re familiar with Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow, it is similar (or perhaps exactly the same) as that.

As with most good interaction design, there has to be feedback. Specifically, there has to be:

  1. Meaningful information
  2. Recognition
  3. Next steps

Action-Rules-Feedback loop

On the meaningful info item: Progress should be made visible. But, rewards have to be meaningful. Rewards for meaningless actions are not good in the long term—-users will hack (or “game”) the system if they get bored and/or detached.

Screenshot from Rockband 3 (developed by Harmonix)

DiTommaso says that you should strive for “juicy” feedback. For example, the interface for the popular video game series Rock Band is entirely “juicy” feedback. Visual Thesaurus is a good example of juicy feedback that is less flashy than Rock Band.

Failure should be allowed in a graceful manner if it provides an opportunity to learn and grow. This might sound weird for interaction design where usually you don’t want users to fail at all. Mad*Pow supposedly has done research to back this up.


The game belongs to the user. Choice, control, and personal preference lead to deep engagement and loyalty. There has to be the right feedback for the type of autonomy for a given user. Experience pathways can be designed “on rails” to limit or give the illusion of freedom.

To motivate sustained interest the game should provide opportunities for action. For example, on a ski mountain, there are literally multiple pathways, and multiple levels of difficulty.


This is about mutual dependence. We’re intrinsically motivated to seek meaningful connections with others.

A game should provide meaningful communities of interest. The users should somehow be able to value something in the game beyond the mechanics that run the system. The users should get recognition for actions that matter to them. And they should be able to inject their own goals. An example of a system that allows user-customizable goals is

It’s also worthwhile to think of non-human relatedness. Dialogues between user interface avatars and humans actually matter and affect motivation. They are a type of relationship. So scripts, text, tones, etc. are very important.


This is my rough interpretation of DiTommaso’s “Framework for Success” intended for designers and related professions.

  1. Why gamify? Consider the users and the business cases.
  2. Research the player profile(s) (perhaps game-oriented personas?). This research can and should inspire the design. What are the motivational drivers? Is it more about achievement or enjoyment? Is it more about structure or freedom? Is it more about control of others or connecting with others? Is it more about self interest or social interest?
  3. Goals and objectives: What’s the Long Term Goal? What steps? Etc.
  4. Skills and actions: consider what physical, mental, and social abilities are necessary. Can the skills be tracked and measured?
  5. Look through the lenses of interest. The concept of “lenses of interest” comes from Jesse Schell. The list of lenses provided by DiTommaso are:
    • Competition types
    • Time pressure
    • Scarcity
    • Puzzles
    • Novelty
    • Levels
    • Social pressure/proof (the herd must be right)
    • Teamwork
    • Currency
    • Renewals and power-ups
  6. Desired outcomes: What are the tangible and intangible rewards? What outcomes are triggered by user actions vs. schedules? How do users see and feel incremental success and failure on the way to the Ultimate Objective?
  7. Play-test and polish: Platforms are never done. This isn’t really specific to gamification. I would say this is about the general shift from waterfall to iterative development methodologies (which I have used successfully in my own work). This can even extend out to the actual end users—they can be involved in the loop and even expect updates for improvement.

Image Credits:
1. Nightrob
2. Dustin DiTommaso / Mad*Pow
3. IGN
4. Mount Sunapee

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