Self-determination theory describes 3 core needs and incentives used in games:
Autonomy | Competence | Relatedness
Autonomy is the player’s level of choice and free will.
Competence is the skills required and gained.
Relatedness it the feeling of connectedness to others.
When designing effective gamification solutions, designers need to make sure these three needs are met. These needs are more likely to be met when the goals created in a game are intrinsic (sought for their own sake) rather than extrinsic (sought as a means to an end). The importance of the intrinsic merit of a goal is also seen in learning, and that intrinsic motivation and playfulness are critical to the successful learning of new knowledge and skill.
Related to intrinsic motivation is Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of autotelic flow.
Individuals achieve a ‘flow’ state when there is a matching between the player’s competence and the challenge of the activity. In this state, users are completely immersed in the activity to the point where they can lose track of time and physical needs such as food and even sleep.
This principle is well utilised in games, where players are guided or on-boarded into the game when they begin, and gradually gain competence as they aim for levels within the game. Each level becomes increasingly more difficult, and provides a new challenge for the player as they become more skilled and competent at the game. Users do not achieve the flow state if there is a mismatch in their skills and the challenge of the activity. If the challenge is not great enough, the user will become bored and disinterested, and if the challenge is too great, the player will become frustrated and disengaged.
When thinking about the gamified experience you are creating, ask yourself how you are giving players a way to meet their need for autonomy, competence and relatedness.