5 psychological principles that drive successful gamification

    Anyone who has lost countless hours playing Candy Crush, Farmville or Bejewelled can speak to the addictive qualities of simple game mechanics. In recent years, there has been an interest in applying these same characteristics to non-leisure contexts, and this process has been termed ‘gamification’. Gamification guru Yu-kai Chou defines this activity as “the craft of deriving all the fun and engaging elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities”. From a behavioral perspective, gamification is a treasure chest of psychological drivers that make for a fascinating topic of study. In this article, I want to give an overview of five of these drivers that I think are most prominent, and provide some examples of how each one has been leveraged in good gamification design.

    1. Unfinished Tasks

    Imagine that you have are working on a crossword puzzle, with only a few clues left to solve, when you are suddenly interrupted by a call from an old friend. Unable to concentrate fully on the remaining solutions, you can only gaze wistfully at your uncompleted task while your friend chats your ear off about their latest accomplishments. If you have ever experienced something along these lines, then you have probably felt the effects of the Zeigarnik or Ovsiankina effect. Both effects refer to the finding that an interrupted task leads people to better recall the task (The Zeigarnik Effect; Zeigarnik, 1967) and prompts people to resume it at the next available opportunity (The Ovsiankina Effect; Ovsiankina, 1928). In essence, an unfinished task weighs heavily on our mind, and we have an inherent need to gain closure.

    Systems like incomplete progress bars and task lists in gamification take advantage of this phenomenon by setting a procedure in motion that people are naturally motivated to complete. Take for instance the gamified language learning company Duolingo. Much like standard video games, users are rewarded for completing language lessons with XP, or experience points, which upon hitting a certain threshold increases their ‘level’. And while the level might not necessarily reflect any linguistic proficiency, the mere implementation of a completion goal is likely to fuel motivation by causing people to better remember the task (The Zeigarnik Effect) and encourage completion (The Oysiankina Effect).

    2. Unpredictable rewards

    Blizzard Entertainment, the game studio behind the immensely popular online multiplayer game World of Warcraft, is a king of using randomization to captivate players. In games like World of Warcraft or Diablo 3, players are rewarded with random ‘drops’ of items from slain enemies and treasure chests, with more powerful items possessing the lowest probability of appearing. In their latest games, such as Hearthstone and Overwatch, Blizzard rewards players for investing time (or money) with packs of virtual items (functional and/or cosmetic) that are also randomized, making each digital reveal (i.e., ‘opening’ a pack of digital cards) feel like tugging the arm of a slot machine. And although players will always experience positive outcomes, the variance in rewards can be quite large.

    By mastering this system of randomized rewards, Blizzard is capitalizing on an effect observed in behavioral research: people actually work harder for randomized rewards than for certain rewards, even when the expected value of the random reward is lower than the certain value (Shen, Fishbach, & Hsee. 2015). For example, in one experiment researchers asked participants to drink 1.4 liters of water in exchange for a reward. They found that participants offered a chance to toss a coin for 1 versus 2 dollars (i.e. expected value of 1.5 dollars) were more likely to complete the task than participants who were offered a guaranteed 2 dollars. In essence, the prospect of uncertain rewards can increase motivation.

    But harnessing randomized rewards is not limited to video games, and has been successfully applied in marketing gamification contexts. A fantastic example of this is Starbucks for Life, a game where customers can earn ‘plays’ with purchases and other loyalty-centric activity, which then provide randomized game pieces and rewards. Although there is certainly an extrinsic motivation present with the ultimate goal of tangible rewards (such as free products), Starbucks is also taking advantage of people’s preference for randomized rewards.

    3. Social Comparison and Competition

    Nike+ Run Club, a fitness app that lets users track personal progress (i.e. time, distance) relies very heavily upon a key aspect of gamification: competition. It features the ability to share progress, compete in leaderboards, and compare with others. Why should competition be so addictive? One likely reason is that people are naturally drawn to social comparisons, and this in turn fosters competition (Garcia, Tor, & Schiff, 2013).

    Researchers argue that two factors that greatly increase comparison (and thus competitiveness) are similarity and social closeness. By developing an app specifically for runners, and allowing people to compete within their social networks, Nike+ successfully takes advantage of both of these factors. Other gamifications systems such as leaderboards and rankings are also using social comparison to drive behavior.

    4. The Medium Effect

    A common system in both real games (i.e. those purely for entertainment purposes) and instances of gamification is to issue users with rewards in the form of points or some other virtual currency. Although these points often only act as an intermediary between an action (e.g., some form of loyalty behavior, such as a purchase) and an outcome (e.g., a free item or chance at winning a lottery), they are nevertheless incredibly widespread. And the reason they are so effective likely boils down to the ‘Medium Effect’ (Hsee, Yu, Zhang, & Zhang, 2003).

    In a clever experiment, researchers gave participants an option between two boring tasks, one of which was short, the other which was long. If they completed the short task (6 minutes), they would be rewarded with vanilla ice cream, and if they completed the long task (7 minutes), they would be rewarded with pistachio ice cream. Half of these participants were also offered a medium currency, such that the short task would reward them with 60 points, and the long task would reward them with 100 points. They were informed that 50-99 points could be redeemed for the vanilla ice cream, but that the pistachio ice cream cost 100 points. Although the outcomes were the same (short task = vanilla ice cream, long task = pistachio ice cream), the researchers found that those participants offered the intermediary points were more likely to choose the long task. Why? Because the medium (points) offered an illusion of advantage in the long-task condition, whereby participants were receiving 40 extra points for only one more minute of work!

    So how does the medium effect apply to gamification? By providing users with a disconnect between actions and outcomes, virtual currencies cause users to increase focus upon the relationship between their effort and the medium (and not the final outcomes). As such, the presence of a medium can in some instances give an illusory advantage. Indeed, researchers inspired by the medium effect recently found that in a loyalty program, issuing 10 points per purchase (whereby 100 points was redeemable for one free item) was more effective at promoting effort than simply requiring customers to make 10 purchases for the same outcome (Nunes & Drèze, 2006).

    5. Feelings of competence

    Beyond the external rewards associated with gamification, such as points, badges, and tangible rewards (i.e. free drinks at Starbucks, the chance to win prizes with McDonald’s Monopoly), we also need to consider people’s internal motivations for playing games. And this is where the psychological model “Self-Determination Theory” (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) comes into play. According to SDT, our internal motivations for participating in activities are driven by three needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Although both autonomy (i.e. not feeling controlled by external rewards) and relatedness (i.e. the need to belong and interact with others) are both vital, gamification is often very reliant upon feelings of competence. Positive feedback on accomplishments, earning ‘levels’, and overcoming challenges are a great way of satisfying people’s need to feel mastery and accomplishment.

    A great example of employing this was an incredibly effective marketing campaign by M&Ms, wherein the candy company posted an ‘eye-spy’ image to their Facebook page. The task? Identify the pretzel from amongst the other M&M candies. The results were perhaps surprising, but understandable in light of self-determination theory and the need for competence. The post acquired over 26,000 likes, 6200 shares and 11,000 comments. All for a simple puzzle posted to their wall. But in addition to fulfilling the need for autonomy (people were not incentivized in any way to participate) and relatedness (it was conducted on Facebook, allowing people to share and comment on the puzzle), it was also probably perfect for feelings of competence. Although easily solvable, it still required some effort to solve, and the minor challenge let users feel a small degree of competence over the puzzle.


    Garcia, S. M., Tor, A., & Schiff, T. M. (2013). The psychology of competition a social comparison perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 634-650.

    Hsee, C. K., Yu, F., Zhang, J., & Zhang, Y. (2003). Medium maximization. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 1-14.

    Nunes, J. C., & Drèze, X. (2006). The endowed progress effect: How artificial advancement increases effort. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(4), 504-512.

    Ovsiankina, Maria (1928). Die Wiederaufnahme unterbrochener Handlungen. Psychologische Forschung. pp. 302–379 – via http://interruptions.net/literature/Ovsiankina-PF28.pdf.

    Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

    Shen, L., Fishbach, A., & Hsee, C. K. (2015). The motivating-uncertainty effect: Uncertainty increases resource investment in the process of reward pursuit. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(5), 1301-1315.

    Zeigarnik, B. (1967). On finished and unfinished tasks. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A sourcebook of Gestalt psychology, New York: Humanities press.

    1 comment:

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    • Torgrim

      Wow, thank you for this great article! I was researching the Ovsiankina effect, and trying to figure out what is meant by it not being in effect where the actions is “an easement of the system”. Your article did not give me an answer to this question, but working with elearning I learned something even better. English is not my first language, so I have trouble figuring out when the Ovsiankina effect does not work, and what is meant by “easement of the system”. Have a nice day! 🙂

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