Power as a Key Motivator for Play

by Jonathan Peters, PhD
Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia Gamification

In the first-ever empirically-based taxonomy of human needs and desires (how’s that for an opening line), Steven Reiss, PhD identified 16 Core Desires that we all have. These Core Desires motivate us to do certain things in life to satisfy them. What makes us different from each other is the emphasis we place on each one of the Core Desires.    

For instance, Power (the desire to exert one’s will) is an important motivator because the more power we have, the more resources we have, and by extension, the more likely our children will survive and pass along our genes to future generations.    

So while we all have a desire for Power, some of us want more power than others (think politicians vs. your company’s receptionist of 24 years).    

From an evolutionary perspective, whether packs or tribes, animals tend to self-organize in a hierarchy. Typically, an Alpha will lead and be supported by a small number of Betas who protect and serve the Alpha, until he shows weakness, then the Betas will compete to be the next Alpha. But most of the pack or tribe will be Gammas, content to let the Alpha and Betas lead them. And even within the Gammas, there will be different motivations for Power.    

But Power isn’t just about leadership. Yes, an Alpha must have the ability to lead, but more importantly, they must demonstrate their ability to overcome obstacles and challenges, whether those come from the environment or internal rivals. Therefore, the Core Desire Power also involves exerting one’s will over challenges.    

What does this have to do with gameplay? Have you noticed that if a game is too complicated or challenging that some people give up within minutes, while the same challenges are fun for other players? For instance, some people will play a Hex game that lasts for hours, while most people reading these words don’t know what Hex games are (hint:  they were playing one in A Beautiful Mind), much less play one.    

On the other side, there are plenty of games that are easy to play, that don’t involve strategy or complex play. A player simply goes on a journey without significant thought or effort on their part. Most people enjoy these games—to a point. Some will get bored almost immediately; others will play longer. An extreme example is Tic Tac Toe. When you were a child, how long was the game fun for you? Would you get any joy playing it today?    

So when it comes to gamifying a learning experience, it’s important to be aware of our level of motivation for Power, and more importantly, the level of motivation for our learners. If we happen to be highly motivated by Power, we will put challenges and complexity into our programs. We will apply game mechanics that require thought or effort to overcome and solve. And we will be disappointed when our learners quickly give up and check out. We tend to judge them as lazy or lacking company loyalty, when in reality, they are simply less motivated to struggle through your program. They’d rather play Tic Tac Toe than Go.    

The need for Power is yet another consideration we must make when we’re designing learning experiences for other people. When you look over your learners, do you perceive that they have a higher motivation for Power than you? Or less? Once you understand their motivation for Power, you’ll be better able to determine which game mechanics will engage them.  

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