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Gamification: The Three Intrinsic Motivations3 min read

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When designing a gamified system, which is essentially a system for motivating users to continue using your software or process, one good model to use is the Self Determination Theory. This theory states that there are three primary intrinsic human motivations that we need to tap into. By intrinsic, we mean that the activities that meet these needs are a reward in themselves – they don’t need extrinsic (external) rewards like achievements or points. In fact, adding extrinsic rewards to such intrinsic motivators may have the effect of lessening their appeal.

Intrinsic motivation is always superior to extrinsic, and we need to ensure that we are addressing the three emotional needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


Even if your process or software has a prescribed main path, giving users the sense of real, meaningful choice is important. In a gamified system, this might mean allowing the user to choose the order of tasks to be undertaken within a section, or alternate side quests, the ability to customize their experience and/or their avatar, or the ability to employ powerups or game currency at their disposal. While designing, we need to ask ourselves

How have I built choice and autonomy into my system?


Whether or not your user is gaining real-world or merely game-based skills, the need to feel an increasing sense of competence through increasing difficulty (with success and positive feedback) is critical. While designing, we need to ask ourselves

What skills are my users gaining? How am I confirming those skills? Is my difficulty increasing at the right rate? Too slowly or too quickly?


Solo gaming can be fun, but sharing our increased competence and experience of intrinsic fun is greatly heightened by, and may actually stall without social interaction. The ability to share our experience and successes through social sharing, leader boards, and co-0p or PVP challenges are some ways in which our systems can tap into the need for a web of human relatedness. When designing, we need to ask ourselves:

What would I want to share about this journey? How would I share it? Is there a role for cooperation and teamwork, or player vs. player interaction? If there are leaderboards, is there a global one, and/or more localized cohort groups? How do we define a cohort?


Intrinsic motivation is what makes a game or software or process fun all by itself – people want to do it because it meets human needs. And THAT is the idea behind gamification.