Gamification – Motivation and rewards

In the world of gamification one of the key questions is how to motivate people and how to keep them motivated. I recently did an online course on gamification, in which this topic was explored in quite some detail. The course was instructed by Kevin Werbach, an Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at Wharton School, Pennsylvania.

In his lectures, Kevin talked about motivation a lot since it’s such a critical part of gamification. “What motivates people?” “Is it the right kind of motivation?” “Is it enough?” Answers to such questions aren’t straightforward, but it’s fair to assume that gamification is most likely to work if one is motivated to do something (see this great talk by Tom Chatfield in Fig. 1 below).

Gamification examples such as Recyclebank, eBay and SAP all try to find ways to motivate their users. Kevin highlighted two different theoretic approaches to motivation in gamification: behaviourist and cognitive. He also outlined the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I’ve learned the following things about these different approaches:

  1. Behaviourism looks at what people actually do – Behaviourism is highly empirical and it focuses solely on those things that can be tested. In other words, trying to get into a person’s head is off-limits under the behaviourist model. ‘Observation’ and ‘feedback loops’ are two tangible artefacts of the behaviourist approach. A good example of a feedback loop is LinkedIn’s progress bar, which shows users their progress with respect to completion of their LinkedIn profiles (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Reinforcement through rewards – In the behaviourist approach, rewards act as a kind of behavioural feedback. Rewards are all about motivating users to play a game or to keeping playing it. Rewards are based on the notion of “The Dopamine System” which neuroscientist Jaap Panksepp describes as the brain’s “seeking” circuitry and which propels us to explore new avenues for rewards in our environment. In the lecture, Kevin outlined some useful reward structures to consider (see Fig. 3 below).
  3. Pitfalls of the behaviourist approach – The risk with a purely behaviourist approach, as Kevin explained, is that of looking at the person involved as a black box, ignoring the inner thoughts or feelings of that person. We’re, however, dealing with players of flesh and blood and we have to account for players’ feelings and thoughts. For example, the hedonic treadmill is a concrete risk in a sense that once you’ve got people only responding to rewards, you’ll have to keep putting in rewards to keep things interesting.
  4. Cognitive behavioural approach looks at intrinsic motivation – The cognitive approach to gamification takes into account player motivations which are independent from (tangible) rewards. In contrast with the behaviourist approach, the focus is on a person’s inner thoughts and motivations. One can distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in this respect. Intrinsic rewards are those things that people want to do just for the sake of the thing itself. Extrinsic rewards are all about the reward and not about the thing itself. Gamification expert Gabe Zichermann has created a nice mnemonic to capture the key reward schemes, called “SAPS” (see Fig. 4 below). These SAPS address both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
  5. Factors of intrinsic motivation – Whereas I struggled a bit to fully understand the distinction between behaviourist and cognitive theories, the thinking which underpins “intrinsic motivation” really resonated with me. In 2000, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci wrote an influential article on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in which they outlined a motivational spectrum. This spectrum includes “amotivation” (i.e. no motivation) to “extrinsic motivation” (i.e. external motivators) and “intrinsic motivation” (i.e. doing something just because it’s fun) (see Fig. 5 below). Ryan and Deci have also studied the three common factors of intrinsic motivation: (1) competence (a sense of ability) (2) autonomy (a feeling of control) and (3) relatedness (activities being related to something beyond yourself).

Main learning point: I didn’t find the topic of motivation and rewards in gamification the easiest to understand. The psychological theories which underpin players’ motivations can be quite hard to fully grasp. Also, there’s a motivational spectrum to bear in mind, with most people likely to fluctuate across this spectrum. The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators resonated with me the most. This distinction urges people involved in gamification to think constantly about the appropriate motivators and rewards.

Fig. 1 – Tom Chatfield: 7 ways games reward the brain (at Ted Global 2010, July 2010)

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of LinkedIn progress bar (taken from:

LinkedIn Progress Bar

Fig. 3 – Some gamification reward structures to consider (from Kevin Werbach’s Gamification Course, January – April ’14)

Questions to consider when creating and offering rewards:

  • Which behaviours can/should be rewarded? Provide people with meaningful choices and reward accordingly
  • Tangible / Intangible rewards – Offering money is an obvious example of tangible rewards. A digital badge is a good example of an intangible reward.
  • Expected / Unexpected rewards – Does the player know that he/she will receive a reward or does the reward come as a surprise?
  • What are the rewards contingent on? Rewards can be automatic (‘task non-contingent’), which means that players will get a reward regardless. In contrast, rewards can be related to actually doing a task: ‘engagement contingent’ (starting the task), ‘completion contingent’ (finishing the task) and ‘performance contingent’ (related to how well a player performs the task).
  • When is the reward offered? There are four basic ways to schedule rewards: (1) continuous rewards – these rewards are somewhat automatic (2) fixed ratio rewards – a player will receive a reward at a set number of times (3) fixed interval rewards – these rewards are based on time (and not on what a player does) and (4) variable rewards – these rewards aren’t based on a fixed schedule.

A good example is Samsung Nation’s Quest Badge, which is intangible, expected and completion contingent:

Samsung Nation quest badge

Fig. 4 – Gabe Zichermann’s SAPS (adapted from:

  • Status – Example: being on top of the leaderboard
  • Access – Example: access to new content (as a reward)
  • Power – Example: the ability to moderate a game (once you’ve earned a certain amount of points)
  • Stuff – Example: receiving a tangible reward

Fig. 5 – The Motivational Spectrum (taken from:

Motivational Spectrum

Related links for further learning:


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