The 8 Core Drives of Gamification (#8): Loss & Avoidance


(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

The 8th Core Drive of Octalysis Gamification

For a video walk-through, check out: Episode 17, Loss & Avoidance

Loss and Avoidance is the eighth and final core drive in my Octalysis Framework. It motivates through the fear of losing something or having undesirable events transpire.

A concept within many popular games is to stay alive in order to advance to the next round. Depending on the game’s design, dying or injuring your character means that you’re now forced to start over or lose something significant – be it coins, money, the number of lives you have, or other setbacks that make it more difficult to reach the Win-State.

This aversion towards loss is obviously not limited to games. There are many situations in the real world where we act based on fear of losing something that represents our investment of time, effort, money, or other resources. To preserve our ego and sense of self, Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance sometimes manifests itself through our refusal to give up and admit that everything we have done up to this point has been rendered useless.

Even new opportunities that are perceived as fading away can exhibit a form of Loss & Avoidance. If people do not act immediately on this temporary opportunity, they feel like they are losing the chance to act forever.

A common example can be seen in the coupons that arrive regularly in the mail. Let’s say you receive a coupon that gives you a 10% discount to a popular chain store that you have no interest in visiting, and the coupon is labeled to expire on February 12th.

Your brain may be absolutely certain that, if you let the coupon expire, the very next month you will receive the exact same coupon that expires on March 12th. But you might get an annoying feeling that you are somehow losing something if you don’t use the coupon before the expiration date. Rationally it shouldn’t matter, but you are compelled to think about the offer a little more. As a result, you become a bit more likely to go to the store for a discount that you may not truly care about.

Cropping your Losses in Farmville

Many social games effectively employ Core Drive 8: Loss and Avoidance to motivate players towards taking the Desired Actions. In the now familiar example of Farmville, if we look at the early part of their onboarding stage, we can see that avoidance design was already integrated into the system, inducing users to “log in” multiple times each day.

The first few minutes of Farmville seems very positive as the player spends time creating their avatar and starts working on their farm with an initial pool of free *Farm Cash*. However, Farmville soon demands that each player maintain their crops and livestock through routine farming chores – mostly in the form of coming back and clicking on the crops and livestock to harvest their products.

If you don’t return to reap your harvest within a given number of hours, as determined by the crops’ profiles (you can choose which crop to plant, which plays into Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback), you will lose your invested hard work and be shown demoralizing images of crops withering and dying. This mildly depressing incident upsets the user, compelling them to log back in frequently to keep their crops alive. The player becomes proactively involved in avoiding this negative outcome.

Gamification Farmville Dead Crops

When players lose their crops, it not only costs them Farm Cash to replace but also their time, as they have to replant and maintain new crops again. Each time you see the discouraging images of dead crops, you are hit with the triple whammy of having lost your time, effort, and resources.

Many years ago I was astonished at how effective this design could be, as my technology abhorrent mother suddenly became obsessed with playing Farmville. Back then, my mother was the type of person who thinks that technology is a source of evil that is polluting society and crippling authentic relationships; she still barely checks her email.

But in 2009, due to her close friend’s enthusiastic recommendation – a nice example of Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, my mother signed up on Facebook and started to play Farmville. The beginning of the Onboarding phase was smooth and fun, as she used the game to relax her mind and connect with her friends.

However, after a few months of playing, my mother would sometimes wake up at 5:00am in the morning simply to harvest her crops and prevent them from withering. It became so bad that when my mother needed to travel out of town, she would call up my cousin and ask if he could log into her Facebook account and help manage her farm. She needed to make sure her crops didn’t die. (Though she also used to ask me, being a son that was lacking in “{chinesefont}孝{latinfont}” as discussed in Chapter 5, I eventually deferred the responsibility so I could focus on my “other” important work).

At the time, this blew my mind. I initially thought the reason for most people to play games was because they had too many responsibilities in the real world and needed to immerse themselves into a fantasy world to escape those responsibilities. However, here you have a brand new set of virtual responsibilities that add on even more stress and anxiety to daily life. It didn’t make any sense.

Of course, today I understand the nature and power of Black Hat Motivation. For a period of time, Farmville was able to successfully increase its Daily Active Users Metrics and lower short-term turnover with this type of Loss & Avoidance design. That is, until users hit a “Black Hat Rebound,” where they eventually burn out and find the courage to pursue freedom outside of Farmville.

Flipping other Core Drives Off

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance complements many of the other Core Drives for an interesting reason: often it manifests as the reversal of the other Core Drives. You don’t want something bigger than yourself to fall apart (Core Drive 1), hence you act; or you don’t want to look like a loser in front of your friends (Core Drive 5), hence you make a purchase.

Some may argue that this doesn’t constitute a separate Core Drive. As an example, critics might point out that people are driven back to Farmville because they want to feel a sense of accomplishment or ownership and that the loss of either feeling is simply the removal of these drives. However, from a design standpoint, it is important to consider Loss & Avoidance as its own Core Drive.

This is because gaining something and preventing a loss is incredibly different from the standpoint of motivation. Studies have shown over and over that we are much more likely to change our behavior to avoid a loss than to make a gain. It forces us to act differently and plays by different mental rules. In fact, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman indicates that on average, we are twice as loss-averse compared to seeking a gain. This means that we have a tendency to only take on a risk if we believed the potential gain would be double the potential loss if the risk were realized.

Through using the Octalysis Framework, this differentiation improves behavioral design by specifically identifying opportunities to integrate proactive loss-avoidance mechanics that generate a more subtle set of motivational dynamics.

A Caveat: Avoiding the Avoidance

One caveat in using Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance is that the user must know *exactly* what they should do to prevent the undesirable event from happening. As mentioned in Chapter 10 on Scarcity & Impatience, if a loss-focused message is simply there by itself, but it is not intuitively obvious what the user needs to do, it often backfires – the Core Drive 8 becomes an Anti Core Drive and the user goes into denial mode. The brain irrationally concludes, “Since I don’t know how to deal with it, it’s probably not that big of a problem anyway.” *Status Quo Sloth*, which we will learn about later in this chapter, then dominates over the motivation towards loss-prevention.

A study done by health researchers Howard Leventhal, Robert Singer, and Susan Jones asked students to read pamphlets that describe the dangers of tetanus infection. There were three groups of students in the experiment: the first group received the warning pamphlet, but without clear steps to prevent tetanus infections. The second group received the warning pamphlet along with a specific plan towards arranging a tetanus injection (a *trigger* towards the Desired Actions). The last group received the specific plan towards arranging a tetanus injection, but did not receive the high-fear warning pamphlet.

As you might expect, only the group that received *both* the high-fear warning pamphlet *and* the plan towards the remedy became highly motivated to take on the Desired Action. As mentioned in Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment, we only want to act if it makes us feel smart. If the user feels confused (hence stupid) when thinking about what to do regarding this potential threat, they would rather just dismiss it altogether instead of feeling incompetent over it.

As cleverly put by Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin, and Robert Cialdini, perhaps President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous quote should be amended into, “the only thing we have to fear is fear *by* itself”.

Game Techniques in Loss and Avoidance

You have learned more about the motivational and psychological nature of Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, but to make it more actionable, I’ve included some Game Techniques below that heavily utilize this Core Drive to engage users.

Rightful Heritage (Game Technique #46)

A common game technique that utilizes Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance is something I call the *Rightful Heritage.* This is when a system first makes a user believe something rightfully belongs to them (remember expectations matter a lot?), and then makes them feel like it will be taken away if they don’t commit the Desired Action.

The Rightful Heritage game technique can sometimes be implemented in a simple word change. Have you ever been on a website, where you click around before you stumble upon the conversion page (“sign-up” or “purchase”), and then see some offer that reads, “Purchase now and instantly get a 20% discount!” or “Sign-up now to receive 3000 free credits”? Often, we dismiss these offers as gimmicky, and a poor appeal to Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession, so we ignore them.

However, some sites integrate game techniques into the experience by harnessing our loss aversion tendencies. Imagine as you click around a website, there is a little popup widget that says, “Great! Your actions have earned you 500 credits!” As you click on more places, it will continue to say, “Great! Your actions have earned you 1500 credits!” Finally, when you get onto the landing page, the text reads, “You now have 3000 credits. Sign-up to save your credits for later!”

Even though this is the exact same result as “Sign-up now to receive 3000 free credits,” the experience design makes signing up feel more compelling. Previously, the hassle of signing up did not justify the 3000 credits, but now it feels like you have “earned” these credits from your “hard work” of clicking around the site and the idea of losing what you have rightfully obtained feels absurd. As a result, there is a much higher chance of you signing up.

Evanescent Opportunities (Game Technique #86) and Countdown Timers (Game Technique #65)

An Evanescent Opportunity is an opportunity that will disappear if the user does not take the Desired Action immediately. One of the biggest sensations in the game *Diablo III* is a little monster called a *Treasure Goblin*. The Treasure Goblin is an enemy creature that appears randomly, but runs away when being attacked instead of attacking the player. With a significant amount of Hit Points (HP, health, or life), players will all rush to attack the Treasure Goblin as it runs away. Defeating the Treasure Goblin will sometimes (but not often) result in great treasures. However, if the Treasure Goblin is not defeated within a certain time frame, it will jump into a portal and disappear.

In the real world, every limited-time offer that forces you to decide whether to buy the product or lose the offer forever uses this Game Technique. Used car salespeople love to tell you, “Look, I just had the biggest argument with my boss about how if you got the car at a deal like this today, you would be so happy that you would become a lifetime loyal customer. That finally convinced him! I couldn’t believe it! Now, of course there’s no real pressure for you to actually become a lifetime customer, but you have to take the deal today. If you walk away, I guarantee you my boss will quickly come to his right senses again and change his mind.”

You snicker because you know the tactics car salespeople use and automatically put up a mental guard against them. But what about charity fundraisers? “We just got a generous donor that said for every dollar we collect in the next hour, he will match it! Your donation dollar will serve double the impact!”

Evanescent Opportunities motivate us to act quickly for fear of losing a great deal. Matching well with this technique is the simple feedback mechanic called the *Countdown Timer*.

A Countdown Timer is a visual display that communicates the passage of time towards a tangible event. Sometimes the Countdown Timer is to introduce the start of a great opportunity, while at other times it’s to signify the end of the opportunity.

Countdown Timers ensure that users recognize the presence of the Evanescent Opportunity better than a simple expiration date because the user constantly sees the window of opportunity narrowing, establishing a sense of urgency in the process. Intuitively for this purpose, Countdown Timers should display the smallest time interval that is appropriate (more often that not – seconds), instead of showing longer intervals such as weeks or months.

Status Quo Sloth (Game Technique #85)

Sometimes Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance comes in the form of simply not wanting to change your behavior. I call this lazy tendency of behavioral inertia *Status Quo Sloth*.

Every once in a while, a startup entrepreneur will tell me, “Hey Yu-kai, there’s absolutely no reason why a customer wouldn’t use our product. We save them time, we save them money, and we make their lives better!” On lucky occasions, even the customer himself would say, “Yeah, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t use your product. It saves me time, it saves me money, and it makes my life better. I’ll definitely sign up tomorrow!”

For those who are experienced in launching new and innovative products, you might recognize that the key phrase here is “I’ll definitely sign up tomorrow.” More often than not, the true meaning of “tomorrow” is “never.” Not because the person isn’t being genuine, but due to the fact that with so many distractions in life, there simply won’t be enough motivation to perform the Desired Action.

As experience designers, our goal is to build Status Quo Sloth into the Endgame phases of our products by developing highly engaging activity loops that allow the user to turn Desired Actions into habits.

FOMO Punch (Game Technique #84)

On the other hand, in order to counter the Status Quo Sloth that is working against you, something I call the “FOMO Punch” might be implemented. FOMO stands for “Fear of Missing Out” and it’s trick is to apply Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance against itself.

In life, we fear losing what we have, but we also fear losing what we could have had. This fear of regret, when prompted correctly, can penetrate through the behavioral inertia of Status Quo Sloth and trigger the Desired Action.

When Steve Jobs wanted to recruit Pepsi executive John Sculley into Apple as the new CEO, he famously said, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Boom! That was a powerful FOMO Punch that prompted Sculley to think he would miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime if he “wasted” the rest of his career at Pepsi. He later remembers, “I just gulped because I knew I would wonder for the rest of my life what I would have missed.” (Ironically, Sculley’s lasting legacy would likely be known as the guy who fired Steve Jobs and ran Apple into the ground – just for Steve Jobs to return and resurrect).

As the context suggests, FOMO Punches can be very effective in the Discovery Phase of an experience when users are trying out a new experience. In contrast, the Status Quo Sloth technique plays a bigger role in the Endgame phase when the designer wants to keep the veterans in the system.

The Sunk Cost Prison (Game Technique #50)

Perhaps the most powerful and sometimes treacherous mechanism within Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance is what I call the Sunk Cost Prison. This occurs when you invest so much time into something, that even when it’s no longer enjoyable, you continue to commit the Desired Actions because you don’t want to feel the loss of giving up on everything.

Imagine a scenario where you played a game for a long time and it begins to become boring and meaningless. You ask yourself why you keep playing it, but subconsciously you realize that if you do quit the game, you will feel the pain of losing all the time, points, currencies, status, and customizations that you’ve invested. Quitting will result in that ugly sensation of admitting that you truly wasted hundreds of hours that ended up becoming nothing.

As a result, in order to avoid that depressing feeling of loss and emptiness, you instead convince yourself to use that powerful pristine sword to kill even more monsters, or tap into the two million coins you’ve earned with all your labor in an attempt to feel awesome again. Eventually you invest even more hours into the game and build up even more things to lose. You become trapped in a deadly spiral, and it can become quite depressing.

From a design standpoint, if you make sure the user is accumulating – and knows that they are accumulating – things that will be gone and wasted if they leave your system, it will be very difficult for the user to leave during the Endgame.

Sunk Cost Prisons, though powerful, adhere to the Black Hat principles of making users feel uncomfortable. As such, they should always be accompanied by White Hat Core Drives, (such as allowing users to recognize that they are actually helping the world and they shouldn’t give up the impact accumulated to that point). These technique should only be employed when the user has a quick urge to leave the system, such as being attracted to Black Hat Techniques used by other companies. (for instance, a special “limited” promotion that the user *must* sign up for.)


When you design your experience, you should think regularly about what makes users reluctant to let go and therefore stay in your system for longer.

Core Drive 8: The Big Picture

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance is a powerful motivator that is bluntly utilized by all sorts of organizations and systems. Core Drive 8 generates Black Hat results such as a high sense of urgency and obsession. However, in the long-run this puts the user in a state of discomfort.

In many cases, Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance works hand-in-hand with Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience because exclusivity and limited offers often come packaged with the anticipated fear of losing that exclusivity or having that offer fade away. These two Core Drives don’t necessarily have to coexist though. For instance, the Core Drive 6 game technique of Anchored Juxtaposition (where you provide users two options for completing a Desired Action, a combination of Core Drive 6 and 3) does not draw much strength from Loss & Avoidance.

Matched with Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity, the emotional fear of Core Drive 8 becomes magnified and even more crippling. Interestingly, Daniel Kahneman’s insightful *Fourfold Pattern* shows that, in low probability *loss* events, we become risk-averse to prevent that small risk from happening. However, in high probability loss events where we are forced to choose a certain (100%) loss, or a 90% chance to lose $200 and a 10% chance to lose nothing, we become risk-seeking and choose the route where we can foresee a glimmer of hope. After all, fear is what motivates us to stay alive, but hope is what many of us ultimately live for.

How to Create Intrinsic Motivation via Octalysis Gamification

Left Brain vs Right Brain Gamification

How to Create Intrinsic Motivation via Octalysis Gamification

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Since this book is entitled Actionable Gamification, we want to make sure you have a set of steps and tools to help you develop your own projects. The ultimate question that this chapter seeks to answer is: “How do I make my users more motivated intrinsically?”

Well, we’ve noted earlier that Intrinsic Motivation is often derived from Right Brain Core Drives, which relate to Core Drive 3, 5, and 7. Therefore, the actionable way to add Intrinsic Motivation into an experience is to think about how to implement those Core Drives into the experience.

Intrinsic Motivation Tip 1: Making the experience more Social

One of the common Right Brain Core Drives that the business world has been using in recent years is Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness. Many companies are seeking ways to make things more social by incorporating social media, and constantly spamming their users to spam their friends.

Of course, there are better and worse ways to make your experience more social. The first principle to note is that users are intrinsically interested in inviting their friends to an experience only if they are first sold on its value. Often this happens during the First Major Win-State, which is a term referring to the moment when the user first says, “Wow! This is awesome!”

Many companies make the gigantic mistake of asking users to invite all their Facebook friends at the beginning of the Onboarding Stage, which happens right after the user signs up. The users don’t even know whether they will like the experience themselves, let alone risk their friendships by spamming others. In fact, this prompting interface actually delays the First Major Win-State, which could be detrimental to the entire experience.

The experience designer needs to identify exactly where that First Major Win-State is, and count exactly how many minutes it takes for the users to get there – because every second before that you will be seeing dropout. Once the user hits the first major Win-State, that’s the best time to ask them to invite their friends or rate the product. (We will reiterate these important points on First Major Win-States in our chapter discussing the Experience Phases of a Player’s Journey.)

Besides finding the right time to prompt friend-invites, it is important to determine the right type of message. I’ve seen many companies require their users to share a default text such as, “I just used Company A, the leader in B space, to solve all my problems! Sign-up right now for a 30% discount!” This is a message that is obviously not genuine, and will lead to users feeling like they are being baited to share crappy promotional messages.

Rather, it is better to have something less informative, but more believable, such as, “I’ve been reading Yu-kai’s book on gamification. It’s worth checking out! #OctalysisBook.” A default tweet like this (which still allows the user to modify it anyway they wish), produces a social message that their friends will more likely recognize as a true endorsement.

With that all said, none of the above is actually making the experience itself more social. It is much better to foster collaborative play within the Desired Action, where users can help each other out, socialize, and grow together.

When you design for Intrinsic Motivation, you want to create environments that foster socializing, even with areas that are non-critical to the Desired Actions (such as the Water Cooler game technique). Also, consider adding in more Group Quests where users can work together, utilize their unique strengths, and accomplish tasks together. This often makes an experience more intrinsically motivating and enjoyable.

Intrinsic Motivation Tip 2: Add more Unpredictability into the Experience

Another way to add Intrinsic Motivation into the experience is to utilize Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity. If every result is expected and the experience predictable, much of the fun and excitement will fade. Adding some unpredictability, though Black Hat in nature, increases the thrill to the experience and prevents the user from losing interest and dropping out.

When you design your experience, ask yourself if there is a way to build controlled randomness into the experience? If the user performs the Desired Action again and again, does the result have to be exactly the same each time? Or can some things be altered from time to time, even if they are just trivial things like alternating feedback dialogue or randomly generated tips.

Unpredictability matched with Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance will often make an undesirable event even more stressful, and sometimes more motivating in a Black Hat way; but unpredictability accompanying Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment or Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession increases the excitement of the experience.

If you implement a variable reward, either in the form of a Mystery Box (users expect a reward but don’t know what it will be) or an Easter Egg (users don’t expect a reward at all), you will likely build positive anticipation and unpredictability. In the book Hooked, Nir Eyal confirms that, “Variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users.”

Obtaining a reward is in and of itself extrinsic. However, when you make the reward variable, you add a layer of intrinsic excitement, much like how the animal in the Skinner Box continues to press the lever to get more food, even though it is no longer hungry.

Do be cautious though, since Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity is by nature a Right Brain and Black Hat Core Drive, it may unsettle some users who feel uncomfortable because they are not in control of their own destinies. If I told an employee, “Work hard for a year, and you may or may not get a surprising reward!” I may have made the year more intrinsically “interesting” because of the suspense and guess work. However, it may also cause the employee to leave my company because of how uncomfortable it feels when a person is exposed to long-term Black Hat motivators.

Before you snicker for too long, it is worth noting that this is also what most companies implicitly communicate to their employees regarding their raises and promotions: work hard for a few years, and perhaps you will receive some type of promotion! Is it a wonder then that companies complain about their employees lacking loyalty and joining a competitor as soon as they are offered an immediate and higher compensation package? Once you are exposed to Black Hat Motivation and have received your Extrinsic Reward, there is often a very high chance you will leave the game for more “empowering” environments.

Like anything, there’s a right way to design something, and a wrong way to design something. Ideally, if you use variable rewards, you should make sure the action to obtain them is relatively short and easy, such as pulling the lever on a slot machine or refreshing your Facebook home feed.

If I told you, “Can you please bring me my crystal ball that’s lying on the couch? There’s a chance I might give you a surprising reward when you do.” Since the Desired Action is fast, my variable reward offer sounds intriguing, especially compared to just stating what the reward will be. If I asked you to get my crystal ball from the other side of town, the intrigue factor would be diminished and you would be less inclined to take this protracted action for me. Of course, if you consider me of high status and want to gain my liking, Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness might still be a motivating factor for you to take the Desired Action.

If you must drag out the Desired Action, it would be advisable to make sure all of the variable rewards are appealing to the users, and that the user knows that up front. If I promised my employees a free vacation either to Italy, France, or Denmark if they worked hard for a year, that likely would be much more appealing than being completely vague with what the reward might be. In this case, there is sufficient information for the employees to get excited about the reward. Perhaps they would even stay in the company for longer in anticipation of finding out which of the vacation options are finally offered.

Intrinsic Motivation Tip 3: dd more Meaningful Choices and Feedback

Since I mentioned that adding unpredictability into your experience utilizes Black Hat Core Drives, you may wonder about how to make an experience more intrinsic through White Hat methods. I’ve mentioned a few times that Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback sits at the top right of the Octalysis Framework, representing the “golden corner” of being both White Hat and intrinsic in nature. It is the Core Drive where the process becomes “play” and generates evergreen mechanics that keep a user engaged. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult Core Drive to implement well.

In your own experience design, you want to make sure that users are able to make as many Meaningful Choices as possible to reflect their style, preference, and strategy (recall that this is done with the “Plant Picker” Game Technique).

If a hundred users go through your experience and all hundred take the exact same actions to achieve the Win-State, there are no meaningful choices present for the user to express their creativity. If thirty of those hundred take one path, another thirty take a second path, and the last forty take a third path to reach the Win-State, a greater feeling of having meaningful choices will be present.

If all hundred users played the game differently and still ended up reaching the Win-State, your experience will have been successful in generating an optimal meaningful choice design.

If you asked a hundred children to build something great with a box of Legos, it is almost statistically impossible that any two will build the same thing (outside of kids copying each other) in the exact same order. There is a high sense of Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback with this type of experience.

You should ask yourself, “Is there a way to allow my users to take multiple routes but still reach the same goal? Are there places that I could allow them to make meaningful choices to craft their own experiences?” These are often difficult questions to answer. But if you can address them with insightful design mechanics, you will see a great deal of value in the form of enthusiastic, loyal, and engaged users that are glued to the experience – from Onboarding all the way into the Endgame Phase. And remember, in order to be successful, this must go beyond providing a shallow perception of choice.

Also keep in mind, our brains hate it when we have no choices, but we also dislike having too many choices. The latter leads to decision paralysis and ultimately makes us feel stupid. This is an Anti Core Drive within Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment, which I also call the “Google+ Problem.” In Google+, there is an impressive amount of technology and engineering hours behind each feature, but users feel lost, powerless, and end up leaving quickly.You should avoid this by letting users choose between two to three meaningful options at any given point so they feel empowered without being overwhelmed.

Don’t forget the Boosters for Intrinsic Chains Combo Designs

Finally, designing multiple Boosters as your rewards increases strategy and creative play within an experience. If users can choose different paths to obtain different power-ups that work together towards different goals, they can optimize on what combinations to use and paths to take.

The biggest innovation introduced by the iconic game Megaman (known as Rockman in non-American companies) in 1987 was that it allowed players to pick which stage and boss they want to challenge. This was contrary to the traditional linear design where players challenge through Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3 sequentially.

Besides allowing each player to play the game differently each time they come back (this was before games could “save” their progress), it allowed players to strategize their own optimal path to play the game based on booster abilities along the way. When Megaman defeats a boss, he absorbs the boss’ ability and is allowed to use that ability on other stages and bosses. Some abilities are perfect solutions to other bosses and scenarios, which incentivize the players to carefully pick which bosses they want to fight early on and which bosses to fight later.

In the real world, when you see people figuring out how to take multiple layovers to maximize their Airline Miles points, signing up for various credit cards to optimize spending and rewards, or collecting a variety of coupons to reduce a $20 item to $1, you are seeing strong implementations of Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback in making Extrinsic Rewards more intrinsically motivating. The end reward is often nice (Core Drive 2 and 4), but it is often the process of strategizing and optimizing that is truly engaging the individuals.

How Extrinsic Rewards turn off our Social Brain

Going Dutch Rewards

How Extrinsic Rewards turn off our Social Brain

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Giving people financial rewards through Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession doesn’t simply reduce our intellectual curiosity (Core Drive 7) and our creative problem-solving skills (Core Drive 3), it also shifts the focus away from our social brain (Core Drive 5) to our economical brain. Depending on the actual goals of the gamification designer, this could become detrimental to the intended outcome.

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely makes it clear that these aren’t just two different ways of thinking; they are completely different behavioral modes that make us act differently in everything we do. Ariely defines these differences as Social Norms versus Market Norms to show the significant contrast between these paradigms.

For example, Ariely demonstrated that people were often very willing to perform mundane tasks, leave candy for others, perform free legal work, teach martial arts, solve difficult puzzles, move large pieces of furniture, and work on open source projects, all without any material reward. This was because their brains were following a social norm mode, “I will do them a favor as we appreciate each other. We take care of each other when we can.”

But once we offer money for the service, the brain immediately shifts into a market mode norm. If we offer as little as 1¢ for the service, people will feel insulted with the amount of money and not only refuse to perform the activity, but question the social relationship itself. The social ties weaken and break, with everything boiling down to: “Are you paying me my worth to do this for you?”

Suppose you were willing to do me a favor for free because you genuinely take pleasure in helping me improve my situation. But then I asked you, “Can you do this for me? I can pay you $5.” You are not likely to think that you are getting the pleasure of helping me out as initially intended, and making an extra $5 bonus on top of it. Our brains are either using the Social Norms, or the Market Norms. Once I offer to pay you, you begin to think, “My time is worth much more than $5. This is insulting.”

Extrinsic Motivation reduces Human Empathy

Ariely adds another hypothetical scenario to drive this point home: what would happen if you offer to pay your mother-in-law a few hundred dollars for hosting a great Thanksgiving meal and a wonderful evening? Immediately, you transition the situation from Social Norms to Market Norms, and it is not difficult to predict that she would respond quite poorly to this generous offer.

After conducting a few experiments, Ariely found that when the price of delicious Lindt chocolate truffles shifts from 10¢ to 5¢ to 1¢, demand from university students increased by 240 percent and then by 400 percent, which fits well into traditional economic models.

However, when the price went from 1¢ to free, instead of a massive increase in demand, as basic economic theory would predict, the number of truffles taken (without cost) by each student was immediately reduced to one. In the end this led to an overall decrease in demand by 50 percent.

When the price was shifted from 1¢ to free, our brains shifted from the Market Norm of “This is a great deal! I must get more!” to the Social Norm of, “I don’t want to be a jerk and take too many. What if it runs out and other people don’t get to have any?”

In the Octalysis Framework, this is a perfect example of Left Brain Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession shifting to Right Brain Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness. When you incentivize people with money, they lose some of their social altruism and generosity, which means that they are not selflessly collaborating and sharing useful information with one another as much as they would otherwise. They become more like rational economic calculators and tend to work more only when the pay justifies it. (Assuming of course, that there aren’t much stronger Right Brain Core Drive forces within the environment.)

Fooling our Brains with Gifts instead of Cash

An interesting caveat is that when you offer gifts instead of cash, experiments reveal that the rules of Social Norms still apply. Your mother-in-law would unlikely become offended if you brought a nice wine as a gift for the Thanksgiving Dinner. This is because “Gifting” (or Social Treasures) is still mostly in the realm of Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, so the interaction is still intrinsic in nature.

However, the moment you mention the dollar amount of the gift, the Social Norm shifts to a Market Norm once again. In another experiment by Dan Ariely, simply mentioning something along the lines of, “Can you help with something? I’ll give you this 50¢ chocolate bar,” caused applicants to immediately switched to their Market Norm mode and interpreted the statement as an insult.

But when the experimenter simply said, “Can you help with something? I’ll give you this chocolate bar,” many people were eager to help because they were still operating within the Social Norm.

Exploring this further, let’s look at a dating scenario. When you buy gifts for your date, once you make statements such as, “I would be happy to buy you this $80 steak!” or even “I’ve spent quite a bit of money on our dates now. Perhaps we should take this to the next level?” the situation shifts dramatically. The person might become offended, because you have transitioned the Social Norm to a Market Norm. You likely won’t accomplish the goals you intend, since the potential partner will likely prefer to treat your relationship as a “social” one instead of a “market exchange” one. Here again, when applying a Left Brain Core Drive technique, the Right Brain Core Drive becomes diminished.

Of course, our brains are quite easy to fool. A clever device that bypasses this gifting inconvenience is known as the gift card. Though in reality it functions like cash, since the value is stored on a card and can only be used at a certain place, people treat it as a gift. Sometimes they even include the receipt so that the recipients can even return the gift card for cash! However, since it is still a gift, not a real payment, people accept it without shifting to Market Norms – unless you say, “Here is a gift card that is worth $50. I would like you to have it.”

The Chinese and some Asian cultures also disguise their cash gifts with “red envelopes.” Though it is still just pure cash, the envelope represents good luck, and therefore it is received as a Social Treasure. But once the person takes the cash out from the envelope and gives it to another, the exchange becomes a Market Norm, and is therefore insulting again. After all, people don’t like to be treated as beggars.

Better put a red envelope around it or invest in a gift card.

How Rewards kill our Creativity

Reward Creativity

How Extrinsic Motivation kills our Creativity

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Remember when I mentioned that Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback is the golden Core Drive, where people use their creativity and “play”? Often, if you can establish a strong Core Drive 3 element in your experience, it becomes an evergreen mechanic that continuously engages the mind of users without needing to add more content.

Unfortunately, there are many examples where Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession (in the form of financial rewards) overtake Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback.

There are studies that illustrate how our creative problem solving skills diminish when we are offered financial rewards. One of the more famous and effective demonstrations is the “Candle Problem” quoted earlier.

Many of my readers may have seen the Candle Problem in other literature, but if you have not first take a look at the image below:

Candle Problem Rewards

Karl Duncker was the notable psychologist who created the Candle Problem in the 1930s. The goal of the problem was to figure out how to attach a lit candle to a wall using only the tools given, so that the melting wax would not drip on the table.

Later in the 1960s, a psychologist named Sam Glucksberg divided participants into two groups to solve this problem. One group was promised $5 to $20 if they could solve the problem quickly – not bad for a few minutes of work. The other group was simply told that he was simply having them establish the norms for how long it typically took people to solve the problem.

I’ll demonstrate the solution to the problem soon, but the originally findings were quite astonishing. It turns out that the people who were offered money to solve the problem took on average, three and a half minutes longer than those who weren’t offered money.

Getting paid resulted in the Left Brain Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession overtaking the Right Brain Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback, in producing inferior results.

Before I present the solution, here’s another image of the same problem, just in another setting.

Candle Problem Rewards 2

Remember that we talked about how Extrinsic Rewards enhance focus and increase performance towards straightforward tasks that require less creativity? If the problem is described using the Illustration above, the solution becomes more obvious. With this version, the people who were offered rewards did solve the problem slightly faster than those who weren’t.

If you haven’t solved the problem yet, don’t worry – since you are in a “book reading” mode and less likely to be intensively focused on problem-solving. The solution is below:

Candle Problem Rewards 3

As you can see, the way to solve the problem is to think “outside the box” and actually use the unassuming box itself.

When a person is trying to solve the problem for free, the activity resembles play. The mind searches for new, creative ways to do things. This makes the right solution easier to find because the mind is flexible and dynamic.

In contrast, when a person is offered a reward, the situation immediately becomes one devoid of play. Unless clear, simple directions are laid out for the person, performance will actually decrease because the mind is fixated on completing the assignment.

Why our Education System is Broken explained by Intrinsic/Extrinsic Motivation Design

Intrinsic Extrinsic Motivation Education

Intrinsic/Extrinsic Design explains why our Education System is Broken

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

The negative shift from Intrinsic Motivation to Extrinsic Motivation is a big issue within our educational systems.

I hold a firm belief that we as a species are endowed with an innate desire to learn, often driven by Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity – a Right Brain Core Drive, and Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback – the Right Brain desire to use that knowledge in different ways. However, when it comes to school and training, that intrinsic motivation to learn quickly shifts into the extrinsic desire to obtain good grades, appease parents and teachers, gain respect from classmates, and secure prestigious, career-requisite diplomas. All of which are powered by Left Brain Core Drives such as Core Drive 2 and 4.)

Because of this, students often stop caring about the learning itself and do the minimum amount of work to achieve those extrinsic results (which sometimes involves copying each others’ home work or cheating on tests). They may even forget why they are learning the material in the first place.

In early 2014, I had a research interview with a high school senior student on a variety of games. He was an overachieving student who was finishing high school two years earlier than his peers. He knew just about everything there was to know concerning the elite universities he was applying to. Over the course of our conversation, he stated (paraphrasing of course), “Well, Stanford is great at these things, but I’m not sure about this. Harvard is okay on this subject matter, but they have an amazing program that could help my future.”

Then, somewhere in the conversation, I mentioned that math is a very useful subject to prepare for one’s career. To my surprise, this teenager who was polite and enthusiastic the entire time suddenly responded in an almost disdainful way:

“Come on Yu-kai. When do people ever use advanced math after graduating from school?”

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