Finding Motivation Through Gamification

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Gamification can be a powerful tool for motivation. Try it.

Motivation is a fickle thing. While the desire to learn or improve is a common trait, turning that desire into the ability to learn is always a challenge. Even the best intentions,  employees or students fall to the wayside if there’s no engagement present.

Being engaged is the difference between genuine learners and passive observers. Motivation can quickly wane and it has absolutely nothing to do with laziness or a lack of effort.

But you probably don’t want to tell your boss you’re “just not feeling it” when you’re caught zoning out.

Instead of getting flak for zoning out when you’re not engaged, try treating the task like a video game. Not a gamer? Don’t worry about it. Gamification is an offshoot of the powerful self-determination theory that was developed well before video games hit the mainstream. Essentially, this theory presents a way harness our natural tendencies in order to improve motivation.

The self-determination theory is being used by in places you might not even realize. Employers motivate their staff by insights gleaned from the theory, while companies use it to make more appealing products.

Now take control of the theory and use it on your own terms.

Breaking Down the Self-determination Theory

For all the complexity that the human mind is capable of, there are some brilliantly simple techniques that hijack our attention. Games first hooked people decades ago when video games were a just handful of simplistic pixels on a screen. Through non-physical rewards like high scores, new content and a sense of accomplishment, games been able to addict generations of people.

Even with the rise of other technologies, games still work like they always have. Good games, whether they’re simple smartphones games or violent affairs with life-like graphics, are powerful things. The reason games are so effective at engaging players can be found in the self-determination theory.

This landmark theory states there are three intrinsic motivations needed. If these elements are missing, then people won’t be motivated. These are akin to Maslov’s famed Hierarchy of Needs (safety, love, esteem, and so on) except purely related to motivation.

Competence: The desire for control of an environment and the ability to master that environment.

Autonomy: The sense of having free will when acting in our own interests.

Relatedness: The desire to interact with and care for other people. Essentially, feeling a sense of belonging.

Using Gamification for Good

It doesn’t matter whether the goal is to beat a game’s level or learn a new language. If any of those three elements are lacking, then motivation will be wanting. Video games typically do a great job of including all three elements, which is why they are so compelling to players.

However, anyone can use the elements of the self-determination theory in order to improve motivation and fulfill their goals. Here are a few strategies to do exactly that.

Make the Rules

One thing that gets players hooked to video games is the feeling of incremental progress. They become better at the game, while their character becomes stronger. That motivation to continually improve — while getting instant feedback — is an even more powerful tool in real life.

If you’re in the gym and tracking your workouts, there’s a sense of euphoria when you beat a personal record. Looking back at how weak you once were compared to the present is an impressive feeling.

To apply this to aspects not related to the gym, it’s important to measure progress in some way. Are you trying to learn some coding? Give yourself a score of 1-100 and re-grade yourself as you make progress. You can do the same thing with a language, writing skills, or just about anything else. Keep those grades in a convenient place so you can see how far and how fast you’ve made progress.

Set the Rewards

Another addictive aspect of gaming is the rewards. These in-game items have no physical value whatsoever, but they serve as a reward for a job well done. Various apps harness this feeling with badges.

Setting your own rewards is even better because you know exactly what you like. If you study a subject every day for a week straight, treat yourself to a special meal on the weekend. The rewards can be as simple as a short break or a piece of chocolate. The reward itself, as video games have shown, isn’t too important. Rather, it’s the way of reinforcing good behavior with a sense of accomplishment.

Use an App

An easy to way to gamify your life for the better is to simply use an app. There are plenty to choose from. Some of these apps are fancy to-do lists that grant users experience points and other non-physical rewards for completing a task. Others, like Habitica, are more extensive and try to genuinely change bad habits into good ones.

Researcher Jane McGonagall developed her own real-life video game called SuperBetter when trying to recover from a debilitating concussion. Her program, which encourages players to think of themselves as heroes and their problems as villains, has been a huge success.

Rethinking Motivation

When motivation is slipping due to outside factors (poor upper management, a dearth of engagement, etc.), know that you have the power to change the rules. The tasks at hand can be gamified in a way that accomplishing them might actually be a little fun. The hardest part is creating a workable system. The easiest part is making progress once that system is in place.

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