Fun and games: how gamification works to drive giving

Keeping a digital audience’s attention can be a tough ask for cause-focused games, says psychologist 

Video games and software interfaces with game-like attributes are opening up new ways for charities and non-government organisations (NGO) to raise funds for their causes.

But getting and keeping a digital audience’s attention can be a tough ask in a world where alternative entertainments are just a click away. To keep people engaged the balance of features in any game has to be just right, which means understanding what people get from playing them and what keeps them coming back for more.

“Psychologists have gone about looking at it through a motivational lens,” says Jamie Madigan, an industrial-organisational psychologist and a writer who examines the overlap between psychology and video games. “In other words, it is looking at what it is about video games that motivate people to engage in that behaviour, as opposed to any other behaviour.”

Known as self-determination theory, it is an approach originally developed to look at why people engage in work activities. Applying its principles to video games suggests that people are motivated to play video games because it satisfies three basic psychological needs.

“There’s the need for competence: feeling like you’re good at something and getting feedback that says you’re doing well,” explains Madigan. “There’s the need for autonomy: having meaningful choices in what you’re doing. The third need is relatedness: feeling like you’re important to other people or that what you are doing matters to other people.”

Madigan says video games that are successful hit on all three points, giving feedback to players about how well they’re doing and matching skill levels. They apply equally whether a game is purely for entertainment, trying to deliver a message, or motivating people to give.

“The good ones have difficulties attuned to your abilities so you feel like you’re being challenged, but you also feel like you're getting better at something,” he says. “Games that offer a lot of different choice on how to proceed are satisfying that need for autonomy and relatedness - especially in modern video games - comes from everything being social and connected.”

Social games, where progress is easier if you are widely connected to virtual friends, give players the chance to compare themselves to peers. This says Madigan adds to the motivation to play. “If a leaderboard shows I'm ranked 14,000 out of 70,000 globally that is meaningless to me,” he says. “But if it shows me I’m eighth out of 15 on my friends list, that’s more motivating. Successful games are the ones that make it personal and make your relationships matter.”

These relationships, whether with real people players know, or virtual friends connected only online, can influence decisions about giving.

“Giving is contagious within a social network,” says Madigan. “The closer I am to people within a network, the more likely it is that I will give as well. To the extent you think that a person is a part of your in group, you are more motivated to imitate their behaviour because you think you're capable of it too.”