Gamification Theory: Perceived Tolerance and Resistance

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Gamification Theory or How do we Measure the Motivation and How do we Increase it with Gamification Elements

On this post, we part from basic elements from three different motivation models: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Goal Theory and the Self-Determination Theory to create a new gamification theory that explains motivation.

Flow and Perceived Difficulty

In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies the concept of “Flow” which describes the dynamic balance between Boredom and Anxiety related to the perceived difficulty and challenge of a task[1]. According to Csikszentmihalyi, there is a state of the Flow that triggers optimal intrinsic motivation where the subject will be focused to accomplish the task.

Gamification Theory

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model (1990)


In our gamification theory, we will merge Skills and Challenges – the 2 parameters used in the Flow theory, to create our horizontal axis “Perceived Difficulty[2]”. We can spot here the ‘Comfort Zone’ (or Safety Zone) between Boredom and Anxiety where the subject operates in an anxiety and boredom neutral conditions where the sense of risk is nonexistent[3].

Gamification Theory


Comfort Zones and Perceived Tolerance

The frontier between Comfort Zone and Boredom or Anxiety is relative to the task itself, the subject demographics, psychographics and mental conditioning at the time being. However, we can identify 4 broad categories of a subject comfort zone:

1. Never Bored / Easily Anxious

Gamification Theory


2. Never Anxious / Easily Bored

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3.Never Bored / Never Anxious

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4. Easily Bored / Easily Anxious

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The above helps us to visualize and understand the elasticity of a subject’s comfort zone depending on the “Perceived Difficulty” of his task. On out gamification theory, we call this variable condition the ‘Perceived Tolerance’.

Gamification Theory


Needs & Motivations

To define the vertical axis of our gamification theory, we need to take a step back and have a look at different motivational theories. There is a multitude of theories and we will only cover 3 of them in this article: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Goal Theory and the Self-Determination Theory.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

You’ve all heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs described in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”[4]. This theory has been a very popular framework used by researchers and marketers in the second half of the 20th century but has encountered various criticisms in the late 80s: Chilean economist and philosopher Manfred Max-Neef argued that fundamental human needs are non-hierarchical, and are ontologically universal and invariant in nature[5] and others were contesting the position and value of sex in Maslow’s pyramid[6].

Gamification TheoryGamification Theory

Whilst this model may seem outdated, it remains an essential basis to understand motivation and gamification as an extent.

Goal Theory

Studied by American psychologist Edwin Locke in the late 1960s and explored with Dr. Gary Latham, the Goal Theory proposes that human beings are more motivated to act when there is a reward at the end of the performance of a task or a behavior[7].

Gamification Theory

In “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance” published in 1990 and still on of the basics on gamification, Locke and Latham identify 4 essential components to a task with regards to the Goal Theory:

–          Proximity of a goal, where the time to completion is in-reach

–          Difficulty of a goal, with some parallels with the Flow theory

–          Specificity of the goal and expectations

–          Feedback for measuring progress towards the goal

Gamification Theory

The Goal Theory has been largely used in Education and Business Management to self-motivate students and employees to learn or achieve tasks in the name of personal satisfaction and therefore influencing their intrinsic levels of motivation.

Self-Determination theory

The idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has been proposed in the late 1990s by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan[8] as part of the Self-Determination theory (SDT).

SDT is centered on the belief that human nature shows persistent positive features, that it repeatedly shows effort, agency and commitment in their lives that the theory calls “inherent growth tendencies”[9].

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for reward. Intrinsic motivation has been studied since the early 1970s. Students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage in the task willingly as well as work to improve their skills, which will increase their capabilities[10].

Extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain an outcome, whether or not that activity is also intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards (for example money or grades) for showing the desired behavior, and the threat of punishment following misbehavior. Competition is in an extrinsic motivator because it encourages the performer to win and to beat others, not simply to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity. A cheering crowd and the desire to win a trophy are also extrinsic incentives[11].

On our gamification theory, we’ll be representing Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivations in the vertical axis as follows:

Gamification Theory

Within this axis, we will recycle and map out Maslow’s Needs following a new hierarchy structure.

Gamification Theory

Similarly to the ‘Flow’, we can identify the same’ Comfort Zone’ at the center of the vertical axis and its position and frontier between those different needs vary according to the subject. For instance, when the need for Survival is high, the Comfort Zone becomes a more intrinsic motivation. Oppositely, when the need of Social status is high, the Comfort Zone tends to be more extrinsic.

Comfort Zone and Perceived Resistance

The Goal Theory explains the relationship between Motivation and Reward. A bigger challenge will need to a bigger reward to increase the motivation of the subject.

If we tie this back to our gamification theory, when the motivation or reward is higher, the subject’s Tolerance to the Perceived Difficulty will increase and he will become less resistant to the task. As an example, a subject will be less resistant to walk 10 kilometres in the desert if he knows there will be water at the end of the walk. And this principle applies to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, illustrated below:

Gamification Theory

We’ve seen that the Perceived Resistance decreases when the Perceived Tolerance increases.

To give a visual representation, our final gamification theory looks like this:

Gamification Theory


[7] Motivation & Goal Setting Theory

[8] Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personalit’. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.),Nebraska symposium on motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237–288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[9] Self-determination theory

[10] Wigfield, A., Guthrie, J. T., Tonks, S., & Perencevich, K. C. (2004). Children’s motivation for reading: Domain specificity and instructional influences. Journal of Educational Research, 97, 299-309.

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