How to measure motivation, user engagement and gamification

User engagement is one of the hottest buzzwords and concepts being thrown around with the connotation that it may be the holy grail to solving all motivational – human engagement – problems in learning, and other societal issues such as poverty, global warming, and energy conservation.

The lack of a unified and clear definition has muddled the concept leaving it open for interpretation. Its application has thus been skewed to suit the various areas where it has been applied. The engagement spectrum (below) charts possible engagement categories – depicting the attributing motivational aspects in each.

The engagement spectrum:

The Engagement Spectrum

NB: Engagement (and its sustainability) decrease when moving downwards in the spectrum above. However, the two do not necessarily increase on moving upwards since extrinsic motivation doesn’t necessarily result to intrinsic motivation.

Optimal engagement (I1, E0) – caused by the engagement in actions out of intrinsic motivations – personal interest in a specific phenomenon, including how and with who they do it with.

Case study example: democratic education affords students the freedom to decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn and to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their learning environments are run.

Diluted engagement (I1, E1) – caused by the interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements.

Case study example: the truth about what motivates us [Video] describes studies that have shown that the introduction of monetary rewards reduces performance in cognitive tasks. For physical/manual tasks, extrinsic motivations may increase performance until the limits of performance are reached.

Concocted engagement (I0, E1) – caused by the invention and or introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to ‘deceive’/ make someone do something

Case study example: Milligram’s experiment may be taken as an extreme example of extrinsic motivation, suggesting that extrinsic motivation does not necessarily result to intrinsic motivation. Participants in such phenomenon do not assume ownership of the rationales for doing an action.

Coerced participation can be seen as an act of aggression according to Peter (2011).

McGonigal explains that when we are forced to face negatively stressful situations, we become angry and our stress response make us want to disengage and withdraw emotionally from those situations. Furthermore, Karasek & Theorell model of safe work point that stress accrued from the lack of autonomy in dealing with challenging situations can result to chronic illness.

Control, manipulation and guidance of individuals by their authority only serves to remove their autonomy, making the controlled emotionally and intellectually dependent on their superiors. This, Carse (1986) says requires a veiling of oneself, a suspension of one’s freedom, the lack of acknowledgement of one’s intrinsic motivations by oneself and others.

Notably and perhaps of essence in extrinsic motivators are the concerns that have been raised over the effects of the hidden curriculum in education systems. Gatto (1992) and Neil warn that control and guidance of students by their teachers only serves to remove their autonomy, making the students emotionally and intellectually dependent on their superiors. Gamification can be said to have similar effects (Zichermann & Cunningham 2011) since, no matter how subtly it is applied or its impact are recognized its outcomes including stages of success and failure and the actions to them are predetermined before participation commences and as a result a participant only follows established footsteps without necessarily being able to forge a route that suits them. Carse (1986) compares this to play, where a learner’s actions are not their own but a theatrical act of the role that they are required to play by their educators. This, Carse (1986) says requires a veiling of oneself, a suspension of one’s freedom, the lack of acknowledgement of one’s intrinsic motivations by oneself and others.

‘The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots’. – A.S. Neill

Zilch engagement (I0, E0) – caused by the lack of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.

Case study example: energy conservation can be seen in some individuals as a phenomenon where there is no intrinsic  or extrinsic motivation, and thus those individuals do not take actions to reduce their energy consumption.

To put the various categories of engagement in perspective, the Engagement, Causes and Effect Matrix (download pdf) below:

Engagement Causes Effects
Optimal(I₁ E₀) Voluntary participation to a situation out of personal interest – Individual’s sense of purpose, mastery, autonomy The most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state one can experience. (McGonical 2011, p.45)
Diluted(I₁ E₁) Interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements. (Obvious & visible)Poor performance, Emotional withdraw,  Conformity, Chronic illness, Hedonic adaptation, Triggers avoidance, behaviors/disorder, ..(Invisible)Invisible curriculum: emotional & intellectual dependency (Sheepling, dumbing down), Suspension of one’s freedom, human waste
Concocted(I₀ E₁) Introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to ‘deceive’/ make someone do something
Zilch(I₀ E₀) Lack of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. None

As can be deduced from the matrix above, Optimal engagement may not necessarily directed towards productivity but is more favorable to it than the other categories of engagement.


  • Pink, D. H. (2010). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.
  • McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
  • Karasek, R., & Theorell, T. (1992). Healthy work: stress productivity and the reconstruction of working life.
  • Gatto, J. T. (1992). Dumbing us down. Philadelphia: New Society.
  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games.
  • Wikipedia. Avoidant Personality Disorder
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.Psychological bulletin125(6), 627.
  • Human resources; Social Engineering. Retrieved from []

Measuring engagement using the Engagement Spectrum

Various motivations for participating in different situations can be categorized either as extrinsic or intrinsic. As a result, it is possible to measure engagement for a population of participants taking part in phenomena and chart it on the engagement spectrum.

Some background

Having designed a home energy display gamification service as a user engagement concept for home energy device/display and participated in a project that attempted to design games to make learning fun and interesting for kids inspired me to ask 2 basic questions:

  1. Why is learning boring and uninteresting?
  2. Why are people not interested in doing tasks even though they know doing them is beneficial for them?
Energy saving gamification concept
An energy conservation (gamified) engagement concept

In search for answers to these questions, I have sent some time crawling the web and books for something to give. Democratic education has been quite inspiring both while the Karasek & Theorell’s model for safe work has solidified the grounds for engagement. Discussions on resource based systems design such as the Zeitgeist movement, the Venus Project have been an eye opener in painting a holistic picture of status quo and how to design systems that move beyond that.

As a result the two questions has merged into one; what are we trying to achieve through extrinsic motivators? Or in other words, in what situations are we seeking to lower performance, to deprive individuals their sense of purpose, mastery and autonomy and in other words to create a sick society, if optimal engagement only happens in the absence of extrinsic motivators?

Is it an attempt to increase productivity and consumerism? Because if its the former, then we are failing by all means as the emergent beast of burden – the robot will beat us at productivity/efficiency in most ‘jobs’. Furthermore, research has shown that engagement is inherent in intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivators reduce performance. If its the later, I rest my case for then we are deluding ourselves – when we inhabit a planet with finite resources. Resource based system designs such as the Venus Project are suggesting alternative designs based on the scientific tool…

In closing this article, lets indulge ourselves further and look at some critical perspectives on gamification and engagement:

Zichermann & Cunningham have perhaps the simplest yet comprehensive perspective on gamification

Uniquely, games are gamification is able to get people to take actions that are not always in their best interest, without the use of force, in a predictable way.

(also see) Zichermann G. & Cunningham C., (2011) Gamification by Design. Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. O’Reilly.

Deterding and Wond suggest that:

“Intrinsic motivators create greatness, while extrinsic motivators are nothing more than pellets dropped for rats in a cage,” “creating virtual food pellets for you to eat” Deterding S. (2011), Wond D (2010)

Anderson, S., (2012) (Just one more game) expresses concern that gamification is a vehicle that will accelerate consumerism to the next level;

Gamification seeks to turn the world into one giant chore chart covered with achievement stickers — the kind of thing parents design for their children — though it raises the potentially terrifying question of who the parents are. This, I fear, is the dystopian future of stupid games: amoral corporations hiring teams of behavioral psychologists to laser-target our children’s addiction cycles for profit.

James P. Carse gives yet another simplistic view that sums the effects of extrinsic motivators;

It is an invariable principle of all play, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play.

Derterding S., (2010) Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents


7 thoughts on “How to measure motivation, user engagement and gamification”

  1. Magnificent web site. A lot of helpful info here.
    I’m sending it to a few buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And of course, thank you in your effort!

  2. […] Optimal engagement can be described as a state in which a human has potential to reach a peak experience – the most pleasurable, most wonderful, most ecstatic, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state a person can experience (Maslow, p. 163; McGonigal 2011, p.45). Such experiences have also been described as the creative experience, the esthetic experience, the lover experience, the insight experience, the orgasmic experience, & the mystic experience (Maslow, p. 163). […]

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