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Connecting Gamification and Motivation Theory

Gamification’s effectiveness relies on leveraging the psychology of motivation to encourage players to play.

The following is an extract from Virtual Ashridge’s whitepaper: Gamification in eLearning

You can download the full whitepaper by clicking here.

Gamification’s effectiveness relies on leveraging the psychology of motivation to encourage players to play. When combined with a non-game process, gamification can make players motivated to perform tasks which beforehand they may not have been interested in.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a suitable model to examine before mapping game principles to motivational theory. Maslow suggested that individuals have a hierarchy of needs and that each need must be addressed and fulfilled sequentially if the individual is to become self-actualised/complete. These needs are listed in order below:

– Physiological needs: These include air, food, water, sleep, sex, rest, shelter and sanitation. Unless these needs are satisfied, all other motivators are potentially undermined.

– Security needs: The step up relies on feeling happy about protecting the basic needs established above. These elements encompass both emotional and economic security.

Belongingness needs: Most people prefer to get on with those around them; to feel part of a group; wanting to be accepted by your peer group. This may involve adapting to meet that group in terms of values, behaviour and even dress.

– Esteem needs: These needs include status and recognition, being valued for the contribution being made to the group. In business, status can be reflected by position in the company, salary, company car and other perks, whereas in games it could be score, rank, etc.

Self-actualisation needs: This is a need to feel that you are achieving something, that you are making a difference. There may be no external physical signs of fulfilling the need, as it is personal and within. It reflects being aware yourself that you have done the best you can or perhaps exceeded your previous expectations.

Maslow’s hierarchy is based on needs and not wants. It operates on an ascending scale where a move upwards requires the previous layer to be fulfilled.

Daniel Pink suggests that in a modern Western society, the base levels of Maslow’s model are generally fulfilled. As a result, attention moves up the pyramid to more detailed analysis of self-actualisation. Pink states that to achieve this level there are three extra motivational factors which make up the top level of self-actualisation:

1. Purpose: An individual must feel they are engaged in a purposeful, meaningful activity/existence and that what they do has an effect. 

2. Autonomy: An individual must feel free to choose their own lives and not be overly restrained by external factors.

3. Mastery: An individual must feel they are actively improving at something that matters to them and contributes to their objectives.

Further to this, we can also assume that if an individual’s lower hierarchical needs are unfulfilled they are unlikely to participate in any gamified process. For example, a staff member is unlikely to participate in a game if they are starving or feel under physical threat.

To summarise, Maslow and Pink state that an individual is motivated to act in a way that fulfils their needs, specifically if a need is particularly urgent. By linking a game’s mechanics directly to these needs, the game designer can motivate players to act in certain ways – this is the core of gamification.


The effectiveness of gamification relies on leveraging the psychology of motivation to encourage players to play. When combined with a non-game process, this makes players motivated to perform tasks which beforehand they may not have been interested in.

Marczewski’s gamification user types theory expands on previous research into gamer types by Richard Bartle, and lists six user types and their particular motivations to play games and gamified systems.

In brief, these types behave as follows:

Socialisers: Socialisers want to interact with others and create social connections; they will actively seek out and encourage social interaction in any environment and are motivated by this.

– Free Spirits: Free Spirits want to create and explore — they will experiment and find ways to push the boundaries of any process but will become discouraged when they meet the ‘edge’ of a world.

– Achievers: Achievers are looking to learn new things and improve themselves. They are motivated by challenges to overcome and the rewards that overcoming those challenges can provide.

– Philanthropists: Philanthropists are altruistic, wanting to give to other people and enrich the lives of others in some way with no expectation of reward. They are often at the hub of other types.

– Players: Players will do what is needed of them to collect rewards from a system. They are in it for themselves and are more interested in learning and exploiting the rules of the game.

Disruptors: Disruptors as the name suggests want to disrupt your system, either directly or through other users. While they can be destructive, they can force either positive or negative change.

An individual will possess traits of each player type to some degree; this mirrors Maslow’s hierarchy that every individual has common motivational factors but their circumstances will dictate the most pressing. Marczewski’s suggests that rather than circumstance, motivational factors rely more heavily on an individual’s personality traits and are usually consistent across games and situations rather than specific circumstances.


Having examined some basic principles behind the psychology of motivation and gamification, the next step is to map gamification principles to each need identified previously.

The link between gamification principles and motivational need is vital in order to design an effective gamification process — the intended players need to be identified and a game geared towards fulfilling their particular needs.

However it should be noted that unlike traditional motivation theory, gamification is not required to progress up Maslow’s hierarchy in order to be effective as it is a parallel activity to an individual’s everyday life. Because of this, a gamified process can focus on only a single driver and still be an effective motivational tool. The best examples often focus on multiple drivers simultaneously with different gaming elements.

Physiological and Security needs

While games do not affect a player’s physiological state in terms of shelter, air and food, they can play on the brain’s need for them through game elements such as scarcity and ownership. Scarcity in games is the artificial limiting of an in-game resource, or the delaying of gratification. This is most famously used in mobile apps which delay the player by imposing a limit on how many actions a player can do in a given time-frame. The player is incentivised to pay if they want to reduce that delay and ease their fear of scarcity.

Ownership in games is the in-game possessions a player can accumulate over time — these possessions are made more tangible if the player feels they were earned. Games play on this driver by allowing players to collect sets of items and arrange them for display.

Much like physiological needs, games rarely affect an individual’s security, but a game can be intentionally designed to target these factors through emphasising loss avoidance. Loss avoidance is when players avoid negative actions and their consequences. An example would be if the player loses the game then they lose some points – directly linking the security driver to scarcity (a physiological driver).

Most games relate to some extent to our basic needs (points, items, badges, etc.), however games which heavily rely on targeting these needs can quickly become addictive. While this may seem ideal for tricking employees into learning, addictiveness at this level is quickly replaced with boredom if players are not also engaged at the higher level of needs.

The ‘disruptor’ player type mainly operates at this level as they can take advantage of any game mechanics setup to influence other players. A common example is fraudulent sales and abuse in online games.

Belongingness needs

Social elements such as forums, chat-rooms, competitions, clans, groups and mentors are all appropriate at this level. Incorporating these social elements into a game directly appeals to our belongingness needs. This driver is vital as it is integral to us as a social species. Other people excite us, whether from a collaborative or a competitive mind-set, and can promote engagement with a game or process quickly and effectively if planned and integrated properly.

Belongingness is most effective when geared towards a particular type of player and an objective. If the aim is to promote teamwork amongst a group containing mixed levels of seniority, then incorporating group and chat-room mechanics is likely to be more effective than competitions.

Game elements that appeal to this driver particularly attract and engage the ‘socialiser’ player type and will motivate these individuals more to take part in the game itself, not just the social aspects that are built in.

Esteem needs

Esteem is directly linked to an individual’s own development and accomplishment; however this is reliant on there being a challenge to make the progress meaningful. If the accomplishment is deemed too easy to achieve, it is hollow and will not act as a motivator.

Esteem must be earned to be worthwhile; therefore the best method for appealing to esteem drivers is to have a multitude of rewards at different values, based on the completion of different challenges. This encourages players of different skill levels to play the game and progress to achieve more rewards, regardless of whether their skill level is relatively lower than others.

‘Players’ are the most associated gamer type with esteem. While ‘Players’ typically play the game for the game’s sake, the rewards and achievements which they earn throughout motivate them and are directly linked to esteem. Adding these rewards throughout a game at various levels of difficulty will specifically motivate these players to engage more.

Self-Actualisation: Purpose needs

Purpose is when the player is playing for more than the game itself. This could be a belief that they are performing a ‘greater good’ or that they were chosen to play this particular game for some reason. Examples of individuals motivated by purpose include the new player who thinks their initial run of luck is a sign they were destined to play the game, or an experienced player who maintains a game’s help desk/forum.

Designing purpose into a gamified process is difficult as it is more reliant on the players themselves. However many popular games use narrative or tutorials to instil a sense of purpose into a player by creating a false sense of uniqueness.

The ‘Philanthropist’ is the most common player type at this level, as due to their altruistic nature they are more likely to participate in activities such as forums and mentor schemes which instil a sense of purpose.

Self-Actualisation: Autonomy needs

Promoting autonomy in a game is directly linked to a player’s desire to explore and learn new things. This allows the player to exercise their creativity, often creating things within the game, or for the game.

The ‘Free Spirit’ gamer type operates at this level and strives to learn new things about the game and its environment. The quickest way to demotivate the Free Spirit would be to create too linear a process when implementing gamification. If there isn’t something new to learn or freedom of choice (however limited that choice may be), the Free Spirit will be demotivated and will often not participate in the game.

Self-Actualisation: Mastery needs

Mastery is a drive that motivates players to achieve more, both for personal (internal goals) and social (links to esteem) reasons. Mastery is at the root of most games as players strive to perfect their methods to overcome challenges and achieve rewards. Because of this, the most associated player type with this motivator is the ‘Achiever’.

The Achiever is motivated by both external rewards within the game as well as internal rewards — the key to maintaining this motivation however is the use of feedback. By providing clear feedback of a player’s progress they are more able to visualise their improvement over time and their mastery over the game. There is a need to ensure that all feedback and rewards are at the right level of difficulty; if they are too easy the Achiever will discount them as hollow and not be fulfilled.

This article is an extract from Virtual Ashridge’s whitepaper: Gamification in eLearning.
You can download the full whitepaper by clicking here.

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