Gaming Motivation: Positive vs. Negative Motivations for Players

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Actionable Gamification" by Yu-kai Chou. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is gaming motivation? How do video games positively and negatively motivate players?

In Actionable Gamification, Yu-kai Chou explains that understanding positive and negative gaming motivations is essential if you want to keep players motivated and engaged. By blending both motivations, you can create a game that players will stay invested in for the long term.

Read on to learn more about positive and negative gaming motivations, according to Chou.

Positive vs. Negative Gaming Motivations

According to Yu-kai Chou’s book Actionable Gamification, most successful games strike a balance between positive and negative gaming motivations. In this article, we’ll define each, talk about the motivations that fit into each category, and discuss how to balance them.

Positive Motivations

Chou states that positive gaming motivations make players feel good during the game. The benefit of positive motivations is clear: People will keep playing a game if it makes them feel good. Positive motivations include a sense of purpose, growth and achievement, or creativity and invention—doing something important, gaining prizes, or making their own choices all make people feel good. 

If you need to add more positive gaming motivations to your gamification system, consider telling players an epic story about how their participation is contributing to a better world. You could give players more points and badges to earn. Or you could provide more options for customization.

(Shortform note: Researchers have sought to answer the question of why people enjoy playing games. In other words, what is it about the positive gaming motivations that make people feel good? One theory maintains that games allow people to experience parts of their ideal selves. For example, games that foster a sense of purpose will appeal to people who want to do something impactful with their lives. Achievement or creativity will appeal to people who want to accomplish big things or create their own solutions. Therefore, when designing your gamification system, don’t just try to figure out who your players are. Figure out who they want to be. Then design your gamification system to provide that experience.)

Negative Motivations

Chou identifies negative gaming motivations as ones that make players feel pressured or compelled to take an in-game action. Negative motivations would include limited opportunities, randomness, or any situation where the player has to take a certain action to avoid loss. These include countdown timers, peer pressure, or scarcity.

These motivations can add layers of excitement and urgency that keep players coming back. For example, a countdown timer might make a video game feel more stressful, but it can also make the game more exciting and lead to a greater feeling of accomplishment if players beat the timer. Losing a poker hand may feel bad at the moment, but giving players the ability to take risks adds excitement to the game.

You can incorporate more negative motivations into your gamification system by offering players vanishing opportunities, like a prize that needs to be redeemed within a specific timeframe. The fear of not having something everyone else has is a strong negative motivation, so you could build tiers into your gamification system, where some customers are able to access perks that others will have to earn.

However, Chou offers two important caveats. 

  1. Negative motivations need to be used very carefully, as they can make the experience addictive. If players feel addicted, Chou warns, they will try to break the addiction by leaving the game and never coming back. 
  2. Chou also advises that negative motivations need to be used ethically. To implement these game mechanics ethically, you must be transparent with your players about the purpose of the game and its mechanics. This gives players a chance to knowingly opt in or out of the game before they become invested. 
Can Players Become Addicted to Your Gamification System?

Chou explains that negative gaming motivations have the ability to pressure players into becoming addicted. He explains this is usually a bad thing for gamification systems, as people who are addicted will have a negative experience and leave the gamification system for good as soon as they’re able to. Therefore, it may also help to understand some of the risk factors for addiction to games

Researchers have found that people are at the greatest risk for getting addicted to games when they are using them as a form of escapism, often from anxiety and depression. People also struggle with game addiction if their social network excessively relies on people they know through the game. While you may not know the risk factors in your target demographic, this is still something you might want to consider. For example, if you know your product is intended to help people with depression or low self-esteem, the ethical choice may be to go easy on stressful, compulsive game mechanics.

Balance Positive and Negative Motivations

Chou encourages designers not to think of positive motivations as good and negative motivations as bad, but to keep them balanced with each other to prevent a one-sided gaming experience. Positive motivations can keep games rewarding in the long term. Negative motivations can increase the sense of urgency in a game, making them more exciting.

Let’s again say that you’re designing a learning app. If you already have opportunities for users to win points, collaborate, and exercise their creativity by customizing their own curriculum, then your app has plenty of positive motivations. You could balance it out by adding an element of gambling with unpredictable rewards or random outcomes. Or you could limit opportunities by making certain lessons or prizes only available at certain times. Or you could create a challenge mode where users have a countdown timer to complete lessons.

On the other hand, if you’re already using unpredictable rewards, countdown timers, or vanishing opportunities, you may need to add more positive motivations. Reinforce the story that makes players feel they’re accomplishing something important, add more prizes and points, or give players more options so they can creatively invent their own curriculums. By blending positive and negative motivations, you can create a learning app that is compelling enough to be habit-forming while rewarding enough for users to invest in long term.

Long-Term and Short-Term Rewards

Chou emphasizes that negative gaming motivations can make games more compelling in the short term, while positive gaming motivations make them more rewarding in the long term. Therefore, we can also understand how they work together by looking at how the brain pursues short-term and long-term rewards.

Researchers have found that short- and long-term rewards are pursued by different systems in the brain. These systems are often in conflict with each other: For example, should you save money for retirement or spend it on a fun experience now? One system in your brain wants the fun experience (short term), while the other wants the long-term reward of a secure retirement. Looking at gamification through this framework, we can see that successful gamification systems are able to activate both parts of the brain. You work toward long-term goals like mastery and purpose by obtaining short-term rewards like points and prizes. This reconciles the conflict between the reward systems, providing a channel for them to work in tandem.
Gaming Motivation: Positive vs. Negative Motivations for Players

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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