According to a White Paper that Bunch Ball came up with, Gamification appeals to the following human desires:
Below are my thoughts on each one. The White Paper describes each one in more detail.
People like getting rewarded. This is one of the most basic things gamification provides: rewards. On Stack Exchange sites, rewards take three forms:
- Reputation Points
Of these three, privileges are probably the most powerfully motivating reward.
Even though Reward is one of the most basic things about gamification, it is also one of the most abstract. Rewards aren't a stand-alone motivation. For a reward to be valued by the recipient, the reward itself must meet another desire. The desires that rewards meet are usually status, achievement, or competition.
Julius Caesar once said, "I would rather be first in a small village in Gaul than second in command in Rome." While not all would agree with such a sentiment (There's also the "Big fish in a big pond" adage), it does show the value many people put in status. People naturally want to be looked-up-to, to be considered higher up on the ladder, to feel like they have more ownership of a place. In Stack Exchange sites, status is conferred most obviously in the privileges one gains with the site by reaching certain reputation thresholds. When a user has enough reputation to edit almost anything and make new tags, that user will feel a deep satisfaction that he is high up in that site's community.
Status. It's powerful. Don't underestimate it!
Most people likes achieving things to show how great they are. On Stack Exchange sites, this is expressed as badges. If you are good at asking really useful questions that everyone else wants an answer to, you can get badges for good questions. You also get badges for writing good answers. If you achieve writing the answer most useful to the one who asked the question, you get +15 reputation when it's accepted.
Personally, the achievement I want most on Stack Overflow is to earn "tag" badges for technologies that I want the world to know I'm good at -- Java, for example.
This one is probably not as central to Stack Exchange sites. The idea is, the more you participate, the more you can customize how you look on that site. For example, maybe a site will let you decorate your profile with custom bling or flare as a type of achievement or award.
This one is probably the most obvious. When you see that you are rising up on the leaderboard, or that someone lower than you is starting to draw even with you, it stirs up your competitive spirit and urges you on to do better to maintain your lead or take the lead from someone else. (This can also lead to problems if not balanced out -- for example, not upvoting a good question or answer that was useful to you because you're trying to outpace the person who posted it. But that's another topic.)
The noblest of all our desires. Even without the virtual rewards, the competiton, and the excitement, people tend to feel good about themselves when they've helped out someone else or aided someone in becoming better at what they do. (This is also why I dislike seeing rude comments or answers from people with a know-it-all attitude on Stack Overflow towards people who are new to the site and didn't research or make their question specific enough. It suggests to me that the person making such a remark had little Altruism in them.)
Altruism also gives you motivation to upvote someone else's post if it's good -- that person helped you by posting a question or answer you needed, and you help them back with an upvote.
Interactions of Desires and Mechanics.
Here is a diagram from the White Paper that shows how these desires and the the mechanics of gamification typically interact.
The green dots signify the
primary desire a particular game mechanic fulfills, and the blue dots show the other areas that it affects.
Link to the White Paper: