Gamification and Self-Determination Theory

Play, or Else!

Games are not just for fun anymore—or so I declared back in 2011 in the original version of this post.


Designers try 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’s spread from the gaming world into the User Experience Design / Interaction Design world.

Image by Rick Brown from Pixabay

And for the past decade, at least, this design thinking was used to increase engagement and motivation of products. I assume the business angle has always been to get more users and keeping users longer.

In 2011 Dustin DiTommaso, who was an experience design director, presented “Beyond Gamification: Architecting Engagement Through Game Design.” He said how “fun” is not a good definition for games. The main psychological theory he presented was Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

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

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 game the system if they get bored and/or detached.

DiTommaso said 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 was an example of juicy feedback less flashy than Rock Band.

And he said failure should be allowed in a graceful manner if it provides an opportunity to learn and grow.


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.

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” in 2011 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?
  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):
    • 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.

Social Games for Health Behavior Modification

Not long after seeing DiTommaso’s talk, I attended a Boston CHI presentation by Chris Cartter called “The Socialization and Gamification of Health Behavior Change Apps.”

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Fuzzy Gamification

One thing that Cartter said that sounds right is that games are fuzzy—not perfect sequential processes. And that is what health behavior changes are more like.

So gamification in this area might actually result in better methods than old fashioned x-step procedures.

At the time Cartter was working for a Boston company called MeYouHealth, which was cranking out well-being apps for the iPhone. Largely the games used a concept of small action—little by little one approaches a specific goal.


The whole tie in with mobile phones was and is still a big trend for everything of course, but it’s possible that health behavior change is particularly ideal for phone apps. Over ten years ago behavior design guru BJ Fogg said “Mobile phones will become the #1 platform for persuasion.”


The other major aspect of Cartter’s presentation was the social network links. Basically there’s lots of social graphs which can indicate interest things such as self emergent groups and individuals who are catalysts and how new members integrate into groups…stuff like that.

The support of friends can be used effectively to change unhealthy behavior. Cartter worked on a successful friend network website for quitting smoking called QuitNet. Obviously there could be some differences with communicating issues with existing friends as opposed to making new online friends who are struggling with similar problems.

An interesting potential health aspect was written right into a Facebook app by MeYouHealth called Super Friends:

Your relationship with your friends don’t just affect you socially – they affect your health as well. If a friend of yours becomes obese, your other friends who don’t know your obese friend are more likely to become obese.

Another Boston company, RunKeeper, had explosive growth ten years ago. At that time they had six million people on their own social network, Health Graph. They opened it up with an API so other apps and products could tie into it. It must have worked out well because they were acquired by ASICS in 2016.

What is Well-Being?

The now defunct MeYouHealth was assembled to explore and/or perhaps create the well-being niche of mobile apps for well-being tracking and behavior change.

They developed a well-being quiz with statistics, so questions that you might expect like “Do you smoke?” were not even asked.

But how did anybody know if that stuff was related to their well-being? What is well-being? A popular website Psychology Today defines it as:

Well-being is the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and the ability to manage stress.

They then offer you a link to a quiz to determine your well-being “level.” Because of course (I’m a bit skeptical of surveys).

But Does It Matter?

But does the definition of “well-being” even matter if people get something out of gamified apps? There must be some balance: achieving change that is specific to their personal desires vs. achieving change that is known to be good in some way for any person, i.e. humans in general.

I suspect there must also be a balance between choosing to use a gamified process because you think that might be a fun and effective way to accomplish a real life change vs. becoming addicted to apps arbitrarily because that is the nature of games.

And one aspect of games specifically exploited is the social network integration. So I see at least three factors to keep in mind:

  1. Doing it because it’s effective.
  2. Doing it because you started and now you’re addicted
  3. Doing it because your friends are all doing it.

Well…this has been mostly a historic look into a decade or so ago…but some of it still seems relevant, right? TikTok didn’t even come out until five years after I originally wrote this content.

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