What makes games so engaging?

The surprising truth about learning, motivation and mastery

Amy Jo Kim
6 min readNov 11, 2017


How do you grab people’s attention — and then keep them coming back for months, even years? What makes any experience truly engaging over time?

We know that games can be deeply engaging — and that no single type of games holds the key. Stylistically, people seek out a wide variety of different experiences. Just look at today’s gaming landscape — from adrenaline-pumping shooters to candy-coated puzzlers to the creative freedom of Minecraft, one person’s beloved game is another’s worst nightmare.

Yet beneath the surface, all these games have one thing in common: progressive skill-building. Games keep players engaged by helping them get better at something meaningful.

Skill-Building, Challenge & Flow

It feels good to engage our brains, improve our skills, and make progress on a path towards mastery. Games, sports and education are particularly good at accomplishing this — but every product leader can learn to harness the underlying power of skill-building & challenges.

Structured activities — games, sports, office work, fund-raising — usually revolve around developing and using a skill. And if the level of challenge in the activity increases to match your newfound skill, you’ve got a setup for flow — the ultimate goal of every game and product designer.

Setup the conditions for Flow

Flow takes effort. Without learning, practice and challenge, there is no flow.

At their core, games are pleasurable learning engines that deliver an experience that’s deeply, intrinsically motivating. Over time you absorb the rules, build your skills, tackle ever-greater challenges — and in the process, you’re transformed in some way that’s meaningful to YOU.

Forget Points — Think Character Transformation

Just as character transformation is the backbone of great drama, personal transformation is the backbone of great gameplay. In games, WE are the protagonist — the person with agency, facing a series of choices and challenges along a journey towards mastery.Progress metrics (points, badges, levels, leaderboards, reputation systems) are icing on this learning/mastery cake. These markers help you gauge where you stand, and how far you’ve come — but they’re meaningless as a stand-alone system without something to get better at — some skill to develop. That’s what makes games truly engaging.To make your product or service compelling in the long run, forget points — think character transformation, skill-building and empowering mastery.

Game Design ≠ Loyalty Marketing

The idea of applying game design to non-gaming experiences takes many different forms. Not surprisingly, game designers approach this from a game-centric perspective, developing play models & niche genres like Games for Health, Games for Good & Serious Games.

People from a marketing background look at games — and see a set of extrinsic motivators and reward schedules that can be lifted out and plunked down elsewhere. That’s natural — because points, levels, status, and rewards are the atomic units of loyalty programs, a staple in the marketer’s playbook.

Support Intrinsic Pleasure with Extrinsic Scaffolding

Although loyalty programs have a lot in common with games, trying to drive long-term engagement with extrinsic rewards is a fool’s errand. Status markers and variable reward schedules are not what makes an experience truly engaging.

Games are built from systems and rules that engage you in a micro-world — a “magic circle” that’s shared by everyone playing the game. That’s the power and pleasure of a game — you get to take a mini-break from daily life, and spend time (together) in an alternate, simplified reality.

If metrics and rewards are your main event, you’ve got a shallow and/or manipulative product that won’t hold people’s interest over time .Well-crafted games are an artful blend of intrinsic pleasure and extrinsic scaffolding. Pleasurable activities are the beating heart; progress scaffolding (points, levels, badges, power-ups) serves to support and amplify the core activities.

Well-crafted games are an artful blend of intrinsic pleasure and extrinsic scaffolding.

Self-Determination Theory: the science of motivation

To create a truly compelling experience, tap into the trinity of Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. This framework emerged during the 1970s as Self-Determination Theory and was recently re-popularized in Dan Pink’s ‘Drive’ for workplace motivation, and in Rigby and Ryan’s ‘Glued to Games’ for explaining gaming motivations.

Extrinsic rewards can devalue pleasurable tasks

This research shows us that extrinsic metrics and rewards can be effective at getting people to complete simple tasks — BUT these same rewards often backfire and lower effectiveness & motivation for creative or pleasurable tasks

Why is this problematic for long-term engagement? Numerous studies show that extrinsic rewards can de-value otherwise pleasurable tasks like reading or drawing. For example, this famous study took kids who loved reading and rewarded them extrinsically with points and money for reading. Guess what? The kids completely stopped reading for pleasure.

So what’s the solution? As much as you can, design your feedback & rewards system around these three core principles of intrinsic motivations.

Autonomy: Self-Determination & Meaningful Choice

Autonomy is the feeling of controlling your own destiny. In a game, app or service, this boils down to how and when you offer choices.

Great games offer meaningful choices with interesting constraints. Think of Settlers of Catan, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, even Kickstarter — all systems that can be explored and mastered by following your interests and making a series of increasingly interesting choices.

Mastery: Skill-building, feedback & challenge

Mastery taps into the feeling of getting better at something. Games offer the player a set of actions and choices within a constrained, rule-based environment.

In a great game, mastering the ruleset is deeply pleasurable. The lack of anything to master is often why simple gamification fails. Points, badges, and leaderboards aren’t compelling unless you’re improving along some personally meaningful dimension.

Purpose: connect w/something greater than yourself

Purpose is all about connectedness and relatedness — with other people, with a shared cause , with something bigger than yourself. And

numerous studies have shown that people who cultivate meaningful relationships report higher levels of happiness.

Purpose is often best communicated through storytelling. Here’s the thing: the most powerful story is happening inside your customer’s head — the personal narrative of how engaging with your product transforms her into someone better, stronger, more powerful, more skillful, more connected to the issues and people she cares about.

Building something new? Eager to drive deep customer engagement with motivation science and techniques from hit games?

Learn more & get free resources at gamethinking.io