Engagement loops are the best way to motivate people using game mechanics

It has been a pleasure to see our associate Sebastian Deterding’s thinking evolve through his presentations over the years. It has been a treat to read every new deck and to follow his reasoning in detail. You can also trace a very distinct line about games, user experience, psychology and ethics that has become more pronounced over time.

Recently Sebastian published “Magic Wonder Pixie Dust”, a presentation which serves as our main reference when designing for motivation. This one comes in at 204 slides and it touches on everything you need to know to do this. I’ll go through it taking the engagement loop slide as a guide (below and 101 in the presentation) and talk about how we apply it as a design method in our day-to-day consulting work.

Engagement Loops

We use this engagement loop as a way to structure activities around learnable challenges. People who start a challenge go through this loop and get reinforcement while they try to achieve mastery. Multiple loops can be interlinked where certain actions or completion will move you to another loop. Other people can also go through this system and their social interactions will also feed into the various loops.

I’ll walk through each element of the engagement loop below.

Business Goals and User Needs

Whenever we start the design of a motivating and engaging product or service, we try to find a correspondence between what the organisation wants and what users want. Finding this is a precondition to be able to do anything at all. To find out user needs, we’ll look to see what concrete user research is available. We’ll also figure out what the business actually wants to achieve. Asking through a series of “Why?” questions is a good way to get to a core business goal.


The next step is to see what kind of interesting challenge we can find. This needs to be something that a user would like to get better at. We will then create a loop around this challenge to reinforce that process of improvement.


The motivation (slide 113 and onwards) is the thing that makes a user actually want to be better at this challenge. This can be any of the social, psychological or physical factors from slide 117. The specific motivation informs the kind of goals we can work towards.


Goal/Call to Action

The goals (slide 175 and onwards) we offer users can be anything, but they need to be clear and relevant to the current situation. If they aren’t, the system will lose credibility and quickly alienate users. The goals also need to adapt to a user’s increasing mastery of the challenge.


The resource a user can perform an action on (slide 189 and onwards) should be small enough to quickly oversee and make progress on. This makes it easier and quicker to go through the loop. It can then tie into a larger system if that makes sense.

The action that somebody can perform should not be constrained to a single button or value. The agency of the person going through the loop is valuable. We should use that by giving them the freedom to act and express themselves.

If the action is too big, we’ll split up the loop into several loops.


The feedback we offer (slide 151 and onwards) should appeal to the motivation we identified earlier. This feedback could either be immediate feedback on the action the user just performed, or progress feedback on where they are with regards to the challenge.

Giving people feedback in the form of extrinsic rewards is effective in the short term but it is not sustainable in the long run. Either avoid it entirely or prop up your external rewards with intrinsic rewards so they transition into something that is longer lasting.

Player Journey

The player journey is about embedding the loop in a broader context and seeing where somebody comes from and where they can go when they are done with this particular loop. You could picture this as a customer journey, but with all of the touch points replaced by loops.

The engagement loop model makes it fairly straight-forward to design engaging products and services. We identify challenges, come up with loops and decompose those into whatever kind of interaction flows are necessary for the problem at hand. In our opinion this is the best method to design for agency, competence and motivation.

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