Motivation in Gamification: You have to get the motor started first

A year from now you may wish you had started today.
Karen Lamb

I’m giving another course in Gamification (see, e.g., this posting). One of the students had an idea for a gamified system. To keep it general and anonymous, let’s just say this student wanted to develop a task manager and use gamification to support doing the tasks. The idea is simple (and not new): People set their goals, and once they complete them they get reinforced by the system for completing them.

I’m ignoring the how — whether it’s a more behaviorist or cognitivist route, let’s just suppose the feedback works. What’s the problem here?

The student already imagined the user doing the tasks. However, I’m pretty sure that for many potential users, doing the tasks in the first place is the problem. If you find something to reinforce the behavior, yeah, it will make it more likely they do it again in the future. But you have to get them to do the tasks “cold”, without prior reinforcement. You need to get the motor running in the first place. Otherwise you are essentially developing a tool for people who don’t need it. At worst, you might even fall prey to the overjustification effect and crush someone’s intrinsic motivation for doing tasks.

Frankly, I think that’s why many systems fail. It’s easy to create a todo list, possible to imagine some kind of reinforcement, but much harder to get people started in the first place. There’s the (first) gap to address.