Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gamification: Adding Autonomy

This is my second post on gamification and motivational strategy (see Adding Purpose). A successful strategy can use some form of gamification, as well as other tools, to develop and enhance motivation from within.

Let’s consider autonomy, the second of the three pillars of sustainable motivation according to Dan Pink. Autonomy means giving people freedom to make meaningful choices.

Goals vs Processes

Granting others autonomy does not come easy to people who want to motivate, whether they are teachers, parents, clergy, or managers. Setting a goal is not the same thing as defining the process of achieving the goal, yet goal-setters often fall prey to the temptation to control every aspect of how the settee achieves the goal.

You may believe that your process is the coolest thing in workforce management, or the most efficient means of producing results, but the stricter and less leeway you provide for a person to achieve a goal, the more dehumanized and demotivated they feel. An imposed process tells the actor that he or she is a cog in a machine that, if at all possible, should be replaced by a robot.

Furthermore, the goal that you set is often not really the goal you want! For example, the teacher whose goal is to have her students memorize a list of bible verses should consider carefully if that is really her goal. Perhaps her goal is really for her students to understand the verses' meaning and to have the ability and motivation to learn bible. I’m not arguing for or against memorization, but a teacher would do well to remember that memorization is a methodology, not a goal.

You will not harm your children, students, or employees if you discuss the reasoning behind your process, asking them what they think about it, and considering alternative methods to reach their goals. When people are engaged in what they are doing and have a say as to why or how, they will be more engaged. This is the first step toward creating autonomy.

Gamification vs Playification

Straight gamification's aim is to inspire a specific behavior. Gamification attempts to motivate a person to choose to perform a specific task by adding a small amount of reward to this choice. Simultaneously, they punish NOT choosing the desired task by virtue of not providing a reward for it. In this way, gamification attempts to narrow the desire for choices outside of any pre-defined ones [1]. As such, it is poorly suited for fostering autonomy.

Playification's aim is to promote autonomy within a specific context. The word "play" is equivalent to the word "freedom"; for example, a latch that "has play" moves around freely in its socket. Similarly, a person who can play is free to explore. There may be no extrinsic reward, but there is also no punishment for playing. If the required goal is incorporated into the play process, playification can increase motivation towards that goal by providing a more enjoyable process.

Gamification can motivate simple procedural, non-autonomous behavior, while playification can motivate creative, autonomous behavior. But turning simple, procedural tasks into creative, autonomous tasks also increases motivation, and often you can design for both.

Game Design

Not all choices are meaningful. Game design has a lot to say about meaningful choices. Here are a few examples.

Number of choices

Choices that have only one good option are not meaningful choices. For example, a multiple choice test offers choices, but typically all but one of the choices is wrong.

Obscuring the right choice by making it complicated also does not provide a meaningful choice. In many games, a single option is best, but it takes a lot of math to figure out which one. This simply serves to bog down play while the player works out the solution (or the player gives up and chooses randomly).

Providing too many options produces the opposite problem but the same frustration, since the player must spend a lot of time before he or she can make an informed decision.

The correct number of choices is between 2 and 7 (give or take), depending on how hard the choices are to evaluate. More than 7 choices tends to overwhelm [2]. The depth of the choices and the time spent evaluating them should be commensurate with their importance.

Order / subset of choices

Choices about the order in which to perform a series of mandatory actions are mildly meaningful. It’s nice to be allowed to choose the order in which to perform certain tasks, allowing you to tackle the difficult ones when it suits your schedule. However, autonomy becomes constrained as tasks are completed and fewer choices remain.

A choice that allows you to select only a subset of available tasks – allowing you to skip certain tasks or entire categories - is often a meaningful choice, especially if it opens the door for negotiation (either with the task-setter or with the other students or workers). Dividing housework chores is a classic example of this.

Informed choices

The information available when making a choice determines the skills required to make that choice. With no information, your choice amounts to luck. A little information provides odds calculation, aka gambling. A lot of information provides room for tactics and strategy. Complete information requires calculation.

Choices made by luck are not meaningful. For example, if you can choose to work on project A or B, but you can’t know what the projects are until you decide, the choice is not meaningful.

Choices made by gambling are marginally meaningful, though they may be entertaining. For example, if you’re offered a choice of a new teammate, and all you know is that one is a Java programmer named Sue who comes from New York and the other is an app developer named Ted from El Paso, you know only enough to take a gamble.

Tactical and strategic choices are generally meaningful, though they may not always work out.

Choices made using complete information are always meaningful if you are really free to make the choice. The choice “work or get fired” is not a free or meaningful choice (that’s a choice with only one good option); the choice “either write this specification or program an installation script” is.

Note that information that exists, but is too unwieldy or too time-consuming to obtain, has the same effect as information that does not exist.

Opportunity cost and value

Most choices involve an opportunity cost: if you choose one thing, you lose out on all of the options that you didn't choose, unless these options are saved for you for later. Opportunity costs present meaningful choices of assessing value.

Some of the best choices involve assessing value, for example: learning; discovering workable solutions from seemingly equal options; managing resources, such as time, money, equipment, or people; or managing risk.


Real autonomy is the freedom to customize, personalize, self-distract, and develop your own plan. Of course, too much play can lead to nothing getting done; that's why games, as opposed to free play, have rules and goals. The goal-setter and settee can work together to provide as much autonomy as possible while remaining focused through a shared sense of purpose.

Straight gamfication tools are not specifically suited for adding autonomy, but will come in handy when I discuss adding mastery in the next post.

Comments are welcome.

[1] Gamification can provide brief moments of autonomy, such as allowing you to choose how to redeem points you have collected. These kinds of choices do not substantively affect the tasks you must perform.

[2] This is slightly different with regards to creative freedom. Creative freedom thrives best on an infinite palette limited by a few guidelines. For example, "do anything" is hard to deal with; "draw a tree" is empowering.

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