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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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