Beyond Gamification: How Motivation Drives the Best Learning Experiences

It is not the fleeting experience of “fun” that drives engagement and value when playing video games, but feeling the game specifically fulfills the psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. These also can be applied to learning.

We’ve all seen people playing mobile games on their smartphones—in airports, while standing in lines, and even in less appropriate places such as movie theaters. They are everywhere. But please, don’t play Fortnitewhile behind the wheel.

It’s a big business. Mobile games are a $50 billion industry, making up 80 percent of Apple’s and Google’s respective app store revenues. Gaming in general continues to grow, fueled by devices that are always on us. 

But why do we play games with such fervor? 

As a behavioral scientist who specializes in understanding human motivation and emotion, my colleagues and I did extensive research and cracked the code of engagement in games over a decade ago. Over the years, we’ve continued to consult with developers on the psychology of games and how they can understand, measure, and impact the experiences that truly engage and delight their customers.

Imagine if the same principles that draw players into leading games such as Pokemon Go could draw employees into better and more fulfilling learning experiences. 

But We’ve Used Gamification, Right?

Sort of. In fact, this was the promise of gamification when it first emerged in learning seven years ago—but it never got things right.

It tried to skim superficial mechanics from games (badges!) without really understanding what we already knew. It then haphazardly sprinkled them into learning and training experiences with little consistency or thought about what they wanted their learners to accomplish. 

Gamification done this way missed the opportunity for developing a deeper motivational approach based on a simple fact:

The same basic needs and fulfillments that enrich our experience of games are also what engage us in learning.

The answer to engage learners lies in well-established and practical principles in human psychology and applying them to the way we learn at work.

The Core Needs Behind Games and Learning

In numerous empirical studies of the psychology of games, we use a psychological framework we developed called Self-Determination Theory to assess players’ motivation and engagement. 

At the heart of the Self-Determination Theory Model are three basic psychological needs that apply to every person on the planet—regardless of age, race, or gender. When these needs are fulfilled, engagement, motivation, well-being, and a host of positive outcomes emerge. 

These three core psychological needs are autonomy, relatedness, and mastery:

  • Autonomy is the experience that you’re in charge of your life. It means your mission each day is endorsed and reflects what you value. 
  • Relatedness is the experience of belonging. The sense that “I matter” to you, and you matter to me. And that we both value mutual support of one another.
  • Mastery is feeling effective in what you’re undertaking, that you’re successfully tackling tasks and challenges, and constantly growing in the process.

We applied this model to video games and found it was not the fleeting experience of “fun” that drove engagement and value, but feeling the game specifically fulfilled autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. These also can be applied to learning, and the process won’t even require a great deal of change management. 

How Core Need Fulfilment Impacts Learning

Let’s explore this through the story of an employee named Jessica.

Jessica, like everyone, wants to grow at work. The need for autonomythat pulls her into exploring a video game world also fuels a desire to explore opportunities for growth and development at work. Even when she has to engage with learning that’s required, she wants to believe in the purpose of that learning, that her “quest” is worthwhile and valued.

Where possible, Jessica wants to have a meaningful say over how and what she learns. To provide personal input and have agency in her career development and progression. When Jessica experiences autonomy, she will be much more deeply engaged in her learning—whether in a virtual world or the very real workplace.

Just as in games, for Jessica to have a learning experience that fulfills her basic need for relatedness, there needs to be meaningful social relationships where she feels respected and supported. Collaborative learning, where groups of people can work together to solve problems, can feel more like Call of Duty when relatedness is thoughtfully integrated. 

Finally, once Jessica is in a collaborative learning environment, does she experience mastery in her development and growth? Just as she will “level up” and gain new abilities and opportunities in a game as she succeeds, at work does she receive useful feedback and coaching to help her improve and develop? In games and in the workplace, Jessica needs to have challenges to allow her to grow, but be supported so she can successfully meet those challenges. 

Properly challenging learners builds loyalty and interest rather than boredom and frustration. And specifically understanding and measuring mastery fulfillment and support empowers you to gauge whether your efforts are striking a balance that will truly engage.

Learners and Gamers: More Connected Than You Might Think

The tools exist to understand, measure, and take action on these key principles of engagement. Through our motivationWorks initiatives, we’ve built an evidence-based platform that’s bringing lasting engagement, value, and positive change to the workplace and the entertainment space. 

After decades of research, it’s exciting to see how the framework empowers the great experiences that build great workplace cultures of success and fulfillment—cultures that make every employee feel like he or she can grow and develop.

As a leader, you can use the framework of Self-Determination Theory to build incredible learning experiences, so your organization can develop star talent, allowing everyone to level up.

Dr. Scott Rigby is an author and behavioral scientist. In addition to being the co-creator of motivationWorks, he is founder/CEO of Immersyve Inc., a company applying behavioral science to organizations, products, and services.


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