Self-Determination Theory: The Foundation of Games
You’ve likely heard the word gamification thrown about frequently by business gurus attempting to make work more fun. For the gamers among us, gamification is how we see the world; from chore charts to martial arts belts, gamification is everywhere. But how effective is gamification at influencing behaviors? The answers depend on the kind of game you’re playing.

Gamification is built on the needs of self-determination: relatedness, autonomy, and competence. Each one is an important part of what makes people happy. This is the coveted trifecta that causes “engagement” – people to go above and beyond in their jobs. It is the alchemical quality of passion that people who work for a living sometimes lack. Gamification seeks to tap all three of these needs.


Competence, the need we think of most when speaking about gamification, is simply the ability to control outcomes and get better at a task. Working at something and never improving is discouraging and can cause a person to give up, which is why advancement in large companies can be so challenging.

Gamers are accustomed to leveling up frequently in their games, and gamification for kids reflects this – the work world hasn’t quite caught up. Getting better at a task is also an interpretation of one's own competence. In some cases, one’s skill at a task is relative to the skill of others; I may be not be good at playing the piano, but if everyone I know is terrible then I look skilled in comparison. 

Competence ties to relatedness. Humans want to interact, connect, and care about others. This is the eternal battle between people who work together in groups (sometimes known as a party in role-playing games) and people who quietly toil on their own (in game parlance, this is a soloer). The amount of connectedness and interaction varies by the individual, the task, and the environment, but in isolation it could just as easily be made up.


Relatedness also is about scale, how one ranks relative to another. This is why, in games, it’s important to share one’s score. Ranking, and the bragging rights that come with it, have been with games since video game high score boards. 

You might not know who the person was, but you knew your initials

would be seen by someone else. And you also were able to determine just

how good your high score was by your rank on the screen.

Dungeons & Dragons introduced leveling, which is also used as relatedness, and this concept has been imported to massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) in which a level is affiliated with a specific character.  This distinction creates a power gap between "highbies," "lowbies" and new players known as "newbies."

Relatedness has been ported to gamers themselves through achievements, which all major game consoles have embraced.  Each player's account shows trophies or badges that show how much a gamer has played a game and their level of mastery at it.


Autonomy is not about being a solitary contributor but rather being in control of your destiny. Humans want to feel like they have a choice in their path and control over their life. All too often you hear about candidates concerned that they will be lost in large companies – what they’re really concerned about is autonomy.


In video games, this is called player agency; plots are often predetermined, outcomes already scripted. It is the illusion of agency that matters and keeps a player engaged. Without it, he may as well be watching a movie or reading a book.

In role-playing games full agency for players is called sandbox play, where players can do anything and go anywhere and the game master reacts to their wishes.  Conversely, games in which players have little or no say as to what is happening in the game are referenced as "railroading."

Too much autonomy and the player may not know what to do.  This is particularly difficult for new players who want just enough autonomy to learn on their own but need some guidance to get started.  Too little autonomy and the player becomes disengaged because they feel their choices don't matter.

The Recipe for Gamification

Put this all together and you can see where games succeed or fail by fulfilling the three elements of self-determination theory.  It works particularly well for children and young adults, who crave autonomy and relatedness as they mature, but the elements seem to be endemic to the human condition.

The best forms of gamification touch on all three of these elements, as well shall see in future articles. 

Join me at the Enterprise Gamification Forum on Wednesday, October 7 to explore this topic further at my session, “From Kids to Kidults: Gamification as We Grow Up (or Don’t)”. Use code “SPK1015” and my name for a 50% discount!

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