The 'I Did That' Effect: Why Gamification (Sometimes) Works
Understanding the science of motivation can help us design better products.
I have a confession to make. But first, a little background. Over the years, I've played in a few bands and done a little bit of recording. So I’ve had an experience most people haven’t had: Listening to a recording of myself playing music and singing.
To appreciate this confession, you should understand that I was a mediocre singer and guitarist. But despite that, here’s what I can tell you about the experience of listening to a recording that's starting to come together: It is exhilarating.
Once I had one of these recordings in my hands, I would listen to it on endless repeat. It gave me a feeling that is hard to describe. It was a mixture of pride, fascination, and amazement. This sounds like real music! I couldn't get enough.
Perhaps this means I'm a narcissist, but I'd argue that fascination with your own creations is a part of human nature. I call this the "I did that" effect. It's been documented from Aristotle to TikTok. Think of something like mowing the lawn and admiring the fresh patterns in the grass. For a moment, order conquers chaos and you think to yourself, I did that.
I particularly like the lawn mowing example because it is such a trivial non-achievement. As we'll see, when it comes to the "I did that" effect, the triviality is the point.
A Motivational Puzzle
In product design, the "I did that" effect can be a useful filter for thinking about the bag of tricks called gamification. When I was at MapMyRun, we created a series of in-app badges that users could unlock with Under Armour's connected footwear. There were two types of badges:
- Those that were earned by trying different product features.
- Those that were unlocked by hitting total distance milestones in the shoes.
Only the second group of badges drove incremental engagement. In retrospect, the difference seems obvious. Runners were motivated to unlock badges that reflected their own achievements—even if these achievements were somewhat trivial. They were not, however, motivated to check arbitrary boxes in the app.
Here's where a reasonable person might point out aren't badges just dumb? Do they solve any real problems? And yet some of these dumb badges did motivate people to track additional distance in their shoes. If it's true that something about the set of succesful badges inspired a greater sense of ownership—that these represented "their own" acheivements, what is behind this sense of ownership? What's the difference between saying "I did that" and "Who cares?"
The Psychology Behind 'I Did That'
There is a broad theory of human motivation called self-determination theory (SDT) that sheds light on the roots of the "I did that" effect. The theory suggests the following:
- Humans have an innate drive to learn, explore, and grow. This intrinsic motivation drives us to do things like finish crossword puzzles, go on hikes, or write blog posts. We do these things because we derive some pleasure from the task itself, as opposed to an outcome of the task.
- Intrinsic motivation can be augmented when three basic psychological needs are met: the needs for "competence, relatedness, and autonomy."1
- Even when we are motivated by outcomes, there are ways of internalizing motivation that resemble intrinsic motivation. Researchers call this "integrated regulation." The motivation to work out, for example, is done partially out of enjoyment and partially because we believe in the value of the outcome.
With this little bit of theory in mind, we can articulate how gamification works and how it's related to the "I did that" effect.
How Gamification Works (When it Works)
Gamification can't manufacture motivation—but it can amplify it. Tricks like badges should be thought of as providing a tailwind that enhances intrinsic motivation. The person's motivation might be purely intrinsic or "integrated," but some degree of pre-existing, autonomous motivation must be present for any kind of gamification to work.
The "I did that" effect is a response to feelings of competence. In a previous post, I wrote that a fundamental truth of fitness is that everyone wants to get better. SDT suggests that this drive is not unique to fitness. That said, the craving for improvement is particularly relevant in a fitness app, because as training becomes more advanced, true signals of progress (PRs) are harder to come by.
Gamified goals work when they are authentic proxies for real goals. What do competent runners do? They put in a lot of miles, which is exactly what our successful badges rewarded—racking up miles. These badges were authentic to runners' goals, and served as (small) evidence of competence. By contrast, the less successful badges rewarded trying different features of the shoes, such as tracking a treadmill run. These "achievements" did not serve as authentic signals of competence, so they failed to motivate.
From Theory to Practice
Even if you think that badges and gamification are dumb, we can still admit that these tactics attempt to solve a real problem: Real progress can be difficult to identify. Sometimes we will settle for a small sense of "I did that" on the way to our ultimate goals. Gamification is one way of supplying that feeling, but there are many others. At MapMyRun, we found coaching and insights to be a much more powerful motivator to track. The badges actually didn't come close.
If I were considering gamification as a motivational tool, I'd first ask myself: Are we operating in a domain where people are intrinsically motivated to increase their competence? To the extent the answer is yes, gamification might be worth considering. I'd then answer the following questions:
- What is the user's ultimate goal? It bears repeating: We must start with the user's goal. If we start by asking "What would we like the user to do?" we will likely fail to tap into intrinsic motivation.
- What are some proxies for progress that users might want to chase and celebrate? What might motivate them to say "I did that?"
- Are there other methods (besides gamification) that might more effectively motivate our users by increasing their sense of competence?2
I'm not a gamification advocate. But I am curious about human motivation. Thinking about how gamification works might actually lead us away from games, and towards other motivational tools like PR-tracking, data-driven insights, and data visualization. These are the "badges" I'm personally interested in.
In fact, this post started as a simple introduction to some charts and graphs I've been designing to visualize progress in strength training. But my intrinsically motivated curiosity led me down the rabbit hole of self-determination theory. I didn't end up where I planned, but I can still look admiringly at this published post and think to myself, "I did that."
1: Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
2: I haven't explored "relatedness" in this post—and not because it isn't important. It's too much to cover in a single post.