More On “Drive,” Mastery, Autonomy, Gamification, and All That

by nils  - September 13, 2012

Board games
A mess o’ games (photo by Eric Mallinson, CC 2.0 license)

Comments Are Good!

I was chuffed to get a long comment from Kathy Sierra on my last blog post, about how gamification of enterprise applications aligns with Dan Pink’s “Motivation 3.0” as he describes it in his book Drive. I’ve been a big fan of Kathy’s for many years, since I first discovered her “Creating Passionate Users” blog, and then listened to her many talks that are available via IT Conversations and other places on the web. (An annotated bibliography of Kathy’s good stuff is below.)

Kathy took some exception to my admittedly simplified descriptions of the components of Motivation 3.0 – mastery, autonomy, and purpose. And some of her points were welcome clarifications to what I sketched in my post.

Any attempt to use external regulation for anything that might EVER be intrinsically motivating is a dark path, and one I would strongly reconsider if I were looking into enterprise gamification. Gamification claims to be taking “what is good about games”, but it is actually doing the opposite. What is good about games does NOT lie in the mechanics (look at the oldest game — one still extremely popular throughout much of the world — the game of Go. It has all the essential ingredients for Motivation 3.0, and almost none of the surface mechanics), but rather in the core experience which IS intrinsic motivation: it feels good to do it for its own sake.

First of all, I completely agree with her that the fundamental challenge we have in gamification of enterprise applications is that adding extrinsic rewards to a knowledge-based activity can have the extremely counter-intuitive effect of reducing the intrinsic motivation to do that activity. As I’ve said over and over in this series of posts about gamifying enterprise applications, I’m assuming that the users are already well motivated, intrinsically, to use the apps and to do a good job. So gamifying them is not about increasing their motivation, but rather about achieving other important goals that enterprise applications (indeed, most other applications) do not do well, but which gamification can do a good job of.

So let’s rephrase what our goals for enterprise gamification are. There are three problems:

  • Getting attention – that is, competing against all the other distractions, whether they are hallway conversations or Facebook, or doing expense reports
  • Getting feedback, especially enabling feedback
  • Making the interactions more fun, engaging, satisfying, pleasant

Which summarize to one big goal, in Kathy’s own terms:

  • Enabling them to “kick ass” at their work

As Kathy notes in her comment:

Games often make excellent use of feedback, but it is the feedback in games, not that they are games, that makes them so good at creating higher skills. Feedback is an absolutely essential element for developing competence (and ultimately mastery), as virtually all learning and improvement happens as a result of high-quality, low-latency feedback.

And that’s the key component of what I’m suggesting we learn from good games in our gamification of enterprise applications.

Again, I’m not trying to motivate people to do a good job (they are already motivated to do that, and I don’t want to mess with that intrinsic motivation), but I’m trying to:

  • Help them make the decision to leap into the work, which is the only way you get into flow
  • Help them get into flow by removing obstacles and making the experience more engaging
  • Help them know when they are doing a good job or have done a good job, so they can be constantly improving – think of this as supporting “deliberate practice.”
  • Help them have a better time doing the thing that they already want to do – this is like giving a musician a better instrument, or a photographer a better camera – they can’t always take advantage of all the improvements, but it’s just easier to learn to play guitar, for example, on a good instrument that’s well set up than on a cheap instrument that’s always going out of tune and has terrible action.

Work is always hard, or it should be, but it should be just as hard as you can actually accomplish, and not easier, and not harder, in order to make maximum progress.

Heading Toward A New Categorization of Gamification

As I’ve pondered this conversation with Kathy, and what I’ve learned in Kevin Werbach’s (@kwerb) Coursera course on gamification, I’ve realized there really are two threads or rivers of gamification. I’m calling them, for now “coercive” and “encouraging” – I’m sure there are better words, especially for the latter type. Specifically, I’m partitioning these as follows:

  • There’s the set of things that we don’t want to do but we need to do (e.g., fitness and new habits fall into this category for some) or that someone wants us to do (e.g., visiting a marketing website, slow down on the road). That’s the realm of coercive gamification.
  • Then there’s the set of things that we want to do, and we’re motivated to do, but we sometimes need some help in doing them as well as we’d like, or in getting started, or in keeping going, or in truly getting into flow or getting engaged, or in knowing how well we’re doing, or what we need to do in order to get better. This is the domain of “encouraging” gamification.

It’s very possible that this distinction has been made already, and I’m just rediscovering an already well-known map, that even has correct place names. If so, I’m sure I’ll hear about it in Werbach’s course in the next few weeks!

In any case, I expect to spend a lot more words on these concepts in future posts.

Also, I just found another recent post from Kathy on a very similar topic, responding to a post by Larry Ferlazzo on gamification in education. Similar concerns, and very apropos of this discussion.

My Favorite Kathy Sierra Stuff

Now, as I mentioned, I’ve been a big Kathy Sierra fan for a long time, and I’m always happy to have a chance to share her awesomeness with the rest of the world. Here are some of my favorites from her:

Of course, there’s her blog, Creating Passionate Users, which is an archive at this point, but I highly useful archive. Some of my favorite posts are:

Her talks (most of these are audio only, but some videos) – all worth the time spent watching/listening and learning:

Comments Are Open!

OK, I’m looking forward to hearing about how far off base I am – let ‘er rip! (In the comments.)


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Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

  • So delighted to read this! I will be back for a longer discussion, but I think we agree in most areas 😉

    I also really like the "encouraging" vs. "coercive" as categories, but I would define them differently, I think, because (according to Self-Determination Theory), the notion of autonomy is at the core of this whole motivation discussion. And so with "coercion", for example, there are things we do not want to do but WISH we would do (like exercise) and anything that gets us to do it doesn't mess with autonomy, whereas if an employer or marketer gets us to do something we KNOW we do not want to do (whether we "need" to for our job is a different question), falls on that darker side.

    If you use coercion as a category, then I still would want to know if I — the gamification "target" — are a willing conspirator in the coercion. If I pay a personal trainer to kick my butt into working out, I am being coerced, but because I want the resulting benefit. Very different from an employer wanting me to get my numbers up, etc.

    But again, I am so happy to be having a high resolution conversation with you about this as my MAIN complaint about most of the gamification discussions today is that they are way too oversimplified, and these are subtle and complex topics.

    (side note: I too am taking the gamification course, but by far my biggest complaint and frustration is with the appalling lack of actual learning theory used in this course. I like the teacher and so far the content is interesting, but wow, as a learning professional, I would have been fired two decades ago for the kind of passive-listener-then-take-a-short-term-memorization-quiz approach. And the idea of taking the same quiz until you get it right… There is absolutely zero point in this form of interactivity, and passive lectures are still considered the single least effective teaching approach, at least until the learner has already made critical distinctions which are THEN explained. But the learning theory (or lack of) in Coursera is a whole separate topic, and at least the course is pretty much NOT gamified, though I am tempted to say it could not have made it any worse ;). Again, this is it a criticism of the teacher or his actual lecture content, but nobody should confuse this with deep learning… It is shallow knowledge transmissions period.)

    • Kathy – I'm so happy we're getting aligned on this. I have been having extensive discussions (with myself in the shower) about the effect of e.g., World of Warcraft, on me and how that a) plays into the theory of "gamification" and b) how I can make that happen in my applications. I hope to turn these internal conversations into a few more meaty blog posts soon, and then tie them into why I still think there's a role for points and badges, or rather, how points and badges work into the "encouraging" type of gamification.

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