Psychological Theories Related to GWEN

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Adam Palmquist,
Chief Science Officer and PhD(c)


Insert Coin (IC) continuously collects data on the platform through user surveys and A/B testing. Runtime information, such as anonymous user actions, is sent by the client’s system to the platform. This data is made available to the entire team so that it can be added to the platform development. The information is later utilised in design iterations, back-end balancing, and development of new gamification features. IC uses modules – game mechanic patterns – in a manner where modules can be implemented individually or together.


The Levels module, for example, is a combination of game mechanics, experience points, progress bars and avatar. The mission module is the combination of the mechanics’ quests, progress bar, and skill tree. It is possible for a client to choose with the gamification design team which module(s) they want to use and/or combine in a GWEN implementation. The game mechanics that are applied correlate to the user onboarding process, the platform tutorials, and the user journey (from novice to adept user).


The analysis of the interviews conducted was made from the perspective of five major types of psychological motivation theories relevant to understanding and designing gamification – Goal-setting theory, Operant conditioning (Behaviourism), Self-determination theory, Need for achievement theory and Flow theory. These theories seem to have gained acceptance in the field of gamification research and work as a scientific explanation model why gamification manages to drive user engagement.

Insert Coin explores another psychological model for understanding, designing and evaluating gamification; the multidimensional PERMA(V) model of Martin Seligman. PERMA(V) is the foundation of the Well-Being theory and it has been used to explain why video games have a positive impact on the players’ well-being. Positive psychology is a reaction against the psychological focus on human mental illness and rehabilitation which emphasises maladaptive behaviours.


Positive psychology suggests paths to achieve happiness and is one of the cornerstones in the so-called happiness research. Seligman has constructed a framework to promote and measure happiness and well-being; Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment (Vitality). These five elements are the pillars of the PERMA(V) theory. Each pillar must have the following attributes:

1. The pillars contribute to a person’s well-being.
2. People shall pursue the pillars for its own sake, not to get any of the other pillars.
3. The pillars are defined and measured independently of the other elements.

Well-being theory and the PERMA model is an upcoming theory in areas such as education, exercise, environmental science, and social sciences. Insert Coin has also linked the pillars to different game elements used in GWEN.



This element of the model is the most prominent connected to happiness. Positive emotions are the ability to be expectant and view the past, present and future from a positive perspective. The P explains the positive feedback that games give to players. The positive emotions grow a so-called flexible optimism in a video game which makes the players challenge themselves and try new ways to beat the game. Even failure can give positive emotions and make the player want to try again. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behaviour is strengthened as a result of receiving a positive condition. The basic structure is as follows:

Do X ==> Y happens ==> Feel good ==> Do X more

Negative reinforcement happens when a behaviour is strengthened as a result of stopping or avoiding a negative condition. The basic structure is as follows:

Z happens ==> Feel bad ==> Do X ==> Z happens less ==> Feel better==> When Z happens, Do X

This pillar could also include parts of Goal-Setting theory and Need for achievement theory.

Source: Operating-Conditioning-Theory, B.F Skinner


It’s essential for an individual to do activities that request their engagement. Engagement is essential to learn, grow and nurture our happiness. Individuals are dissimilar and find enjoyment in different tasks, whether it is participating in sports or an exciting project at work or in school. Individuals need at times to be entirely absorbed into the present moment. In a game, the primary determinant in creating a flow experience is finding a balance between perceived skills of the player and the challenge that goes together with user experience, which also applies to gamification design. Game mechanics in the engagement pillar could be badges. Badges have proven to promote user engagement. Another game mechanic is the progress bar in Levels, which could be used as a mechanic to drive engagement.

Source: Flow-Theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990)


Positive psychology is about other people. Relationships and social connections are two of the most significant aspects of life. Individuals are social beings that thrive on connection and interaction with other individuals. Building positive and healthy relationships is essential to achieve happiness. Many games are played in the company of others as multiplayer video games and game forums focus on topics like competition, cooperation and/or human social interaction. Game mechanics in the pillar is used for Leaderboards and the Collaborations module (upcoming module).

Source: Self-Determination-Theory, Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000)


Having a purpose and meaning is essential to obtain happiness and satisfaction. Rather than the pursuit of material wealth, there should be an actual meaning to the assignment. Such meaning gives individuals a reason for their responsibilities, and there is a higher purpose in life. If an individual recognizes why she chose a profession and understood the impact of her performance, it will help her enjoy the work-tasks even more and become further satisfied.

A gamified system should provide the user with meaningful choices is also consider fundamental for the gamification to succeed. Users’ ownership is important in gamification, it provides meaning for the experiences provided in GWEN. Game Mechanics that correlates are meaningful Badges because they work as both signpost and goal post, progress bars in Levels because they keep the user informed about their progress, Mission/Challenges and Levels. The different mechanics provide both goals and feedback to the user.

Source: Goal-Setting—Theory, Oracle (2004)


Having goals, determination to complete them and succeeding in doing so helps individuals to achieve things that can give them a sense of accomplishment. All individuals should have realistic goals that they can master in order to be motivated. The effort to achieving those goals gives individuals a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and self-realization when they finally complete them. One of major aspect of why games is experienced immersive is that we constantly defeat different obstacles – that are considered tougher and tougher as the game develops. Positive feedback and progression in games, e.g. leveling up, is one of the reasons individuals play. Competence in the theory is described as the ability to generate entreated results and to experience mastery and efficacy. Game mechanics that correspond with the pillar used in GWEN is Levels, Badges and Achievements.

Source: Need-Achievement-Theory, Gills (2014)

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