Motivate me: reflections on gamification for productivity

If making your tasks more like a game would make you more productive, would you do it? Gamified productivity apps promise just that. As someone who loves a good game and is always looking for ways to be more productive, I’ve experimented with different productivity apps, many of which have game elements. Over the last year or so, the apps I’ve tried have produced mixed results and none have really motivated me long-term. Does this mean gamification for productivity doesn’t work on me, or is there more to it than that? I looked into it and here’s what I found.

Does gamification really equal motivation?
Designed by L Bevilacqua using Canva, February 2020

What is gamification?

If you’ve ever turned something you don’t like doing into a game, you’ve used gamification. More formally defined, gamification is ‘the process of making activities in non-game contexts more game-like by using game design elements’ (Sailer et al. 2017, p. 372). An example of this is how Habitica uses virtual rewards, quests and teamwork to motivate users to complete real-life tasks and record their habits. Habitica (2019) claims to ‘gamify your life’, but you can find apps to gamify your fitness, your productivity or your finances. There’s even a gamified app for learning organic chemistry.

Gamification can take many forms (Sailer et al. 2017, p. 372). It can use game elements such as points, badges, levels, leaderboards, progress and performance statistics, avatars, stories, and quests or challenges (Kodacere & Cağlar 2018, p. 14; Sailer et al. 2013, pp.30-31). However, not all uses of game elements in non-game contexts will lead to a gamified experience (Werbach 2014, p. 267). Rather, it seems that both the context and the preferences of the user will make a difference.

Designed by L Bevilacqua using Canva, February 2020.

How does gamification aim to motivate?

A number of studies have examined how gamification or specific game elements motivate, as well as the factors that influence motivation levels. At the broadest level:

‘Gamification builds on the idea that the target user finds joy in the gamified environment and fulfills the target behavior without being forced to’

(Diefenbach & Müssig 2019, p. 194).

Put another way, gamification for productivity seems to rely on the premise that making something more game-like will naturally motivate us more. The only thing is, it’s not that simple.

What motivates you might not motivate me. For example, friends have recommended Flora as a great way to track tasks and maintain focus with a pomodoro-style timer that grows a plant while you’re working on a task. You can even link your game to real-life tree planting around the world. But while the graphics are cute and the cause may be worthy, I’m just not motivated by plants (as my garden will attest).

Having tried a few productivity apps, I’ve learnt which game elements I like most (points, levels and badges in case you’re wondering). Being curious about what motivates others, I asked:

The results of a small survey I did on what people find most motivating.

It seems that those who responded to my poll have similar preferences to me, but further discussion showed that we liked the same game elements for different reasons or in different configurations. This reflects the findings of Kodacere & Çağlar (2018, pp. 19-21) that the same game elements can motivate players in different ways. For example, some players like advancing through levels because to them it represents status, but for others it can mean progression (Kodacere & Çağlar 2018, p. 20). In addition, none of the game elements examined in that study – leaderboards, points, content unlocking and levels, badges, achievements, gifting, teams and story – were motivating for all players (Kodacere & Çağlar 2018, p. 20). This reinforced to me the importance of choosing the right motivation for you when choosing a gamified productivity app.

A visual representation of player type and the game elements they respond to.
Created by L Bevilacqua using Canva, February 2020.

When does gamification not motivate?

So gamification is intended to motivate, but depending on the person and the context that may not always be the outcome. Conway suggests that gamification could be demotivating, at least in some circumstances or for some people (2014). Others have found instances where gamification did not motivate users and was counterproductive (Diefenbach & Müssig 2019) or where the level of motivation was ‘ambivalent’ (van Roy & Zaman 2019). The other thing is that users may need to recognise and understand the game elements to experience motivational benefits (Sailer et al. 2017, p. 378). The findings from these studies may go some way to explaining the lack of motivation I have experienced from gamified productivity tools. Two examples from my experience illustrate this point.

Example 1: Task-centred productivity

First, when attempting to gamify my productivity with Habitica I found that keeping my avatar alive soon became an end in itself and no longer served my aim of increasing my productivity. I would be spending time entering and checking off simple, low value tasks just for the app instead of working on higher value tasks that actually mattered. This is similar to one study that identified ‘perceived usefulness’ as a factor relevant to effectiveness of Habitica as a gamified task manager (Diefenbach & Müssig 2019, p. 199). Ultimately, this app has not been useful for increasing my productivity, despite my attraction to some elements of it.

Example 2: Habit-centred productivity

Secondly, I have tried using 750 Words, a daily writing web app, to motivate me to write more. The aim is to build a daily writing habit and points are awarded for each day you write. One game element I recognised was a leaderboard, but what I couldn’t do is work out how it related to my performance. While it was interesting when I made the list (it didn’t seem to show all users), it provided little motivational value because I didn’t understand how to improve my performance. I also didn’t know anyone else on the leaderboard so the sense of competition was minimal. These experiences highlight some of the difficulties that can arise when applying gamification to productivity.

To gamify or not to gamify?

If you’re looking to increase your productivity, gamification is one option that might work for you. For me, I’ve found limited success with gamifying my productivity, but maybe I just haven’t found the right combination of game elements yet. You can hear more about the apps I’ve tried, what motivated me and what didn’t in the following video.

Now it’s over to you: will you gamify your productivity?

Reference list

Conway, S 2014, ‘Zombification?: gamification, motivation, and the user’, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 129–141, doi: 10.1386/jgvw.6.2.129_1

Diefenbach, S & Müssig, A 2019, ‘Counterproductive effects of gamification: an analysis on the example of the gamified task manager Habitica’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, vol. 127, pp. 190–210, doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2018.09.004

Habitica 2019, Habitica – Gamify Your Life, Habitica, retrieved 3 February 2020, <>.

Kocadere, SA & Çağlar, Ş 2018, ‘Gamification from player type perspective: a case study’, Educational Technology & Society, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 12–22, retrieved 18 January 2020, <>.

Sailer, M, Hense, J, Mandl, H & Klevers, M 2013, ‘Psychological perspectives on motivation through gamification’, Interaction Design and Architecture(s) Journal, no. 19, pp. 28–37, retrieved 27 December 2019, <>.

Sailer, M, Hense, JU, Mayr, SK, Mandl, H 2017, ‘How gamification motivates: an experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction’, Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 69, pp. 371–380, doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.033

van Roy, R & Zaman, B 2019, ‘Unravelling the ambivalent motivational power of gamification: a basic psychological needs perspective’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, vol. 127, pp. 38–50, doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2018.04.009

Werbach, K 2014, ‘(Re)defining gamification: a process approach’ in Spagnolli, A, Chittaro, L & Gamberini, L (eds), Persuasive technology: 9th international conference, Persuasive 2014, Springer, Cham, Switzerland, pp. 266–272, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-07127-5_23

Video credits

Written, filmed, edited and presented by Lauren Bevilacqua.

Title and question slides created by L Bevilacqua using Canva.

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