The Secret to Sustaining Engagement, featuring Michael Wu

The Secret to Sustaining Engagement, featuring Michael Wu


You just started a new game. As you learn the rules and begin to experience success, you earn a few badges notifying you of your achievements. Then, as you advance in the game, you start to beat harder challenges, earning you… more badges.

According to Michael Wu, Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies, this is the problem with most gamification initiatives. Too many gamification programs focus on the short term, neglecting to create sustainable and effective models. Good games include leveling structure that keeps users in the state of flow. All subsequent obstacles are challenging, but attainable because of the skill users have acquired from playing the previous levels. Instead of developing solid, sustainable games, some companies will implement a few models hoping that one will stick. When companies create multiple loyalty programs, they are assuming their customers aren’t loyal. In the words of Dr. Wu, “when you’re loyal to more than one, you’re not loyal to anyone.”

So how can companies create a sustainable gamification program? Start by taking baby steps. Experimental psychologist BJ Fogg summarizes successful game design as including motivation, ability, and a trigger. There is a large focus on motivation in gamification — most gamification initiatives have a trigger — but many people fail to include ability in their design. Good gamification programs make tasks simpler for the users, so that less resources are required to perform the task than before. Users are more likely to stay engaged when their motivation is matched by a noticeable increase in ability due to active participation. By analyzing data on your users, designers can create games that increase pertinent ability instead of general skills. This is where levels come in. By sustaining engagement and increasing ability, levels help improve motivation and teach specific skills.

Many gamification programs lack sustainability because they are focusing on the wrong type of motivation. Because motivation precedes and dictates behavior, it is important for games to focus on creating intrinsic motivation. This can include mastery (getting better at something), autonomy (the freedom to do something), or uniqueness (individuality achieved through something). Games that lack the ability to create intrinsic motivation in users aren’t sustainable.

It is also important for gamification designers to notice the difference between intrinsic motivation and intrinsic rewards. While intrinsic rewards aren’t bad, they exist as a result of behavior. Any kind of reward, intrinsic or extrinsic, is extrinsic motivation. While intrinsic rewards are helpful, designers should focus their efforts on inspiring intrinsic motivation in users to create more sustainable platforms.

The impact of inspiring true intrinsic motivation is powerful. At Lithium Technologies, designers begin creating a new game by focusing on extrinsic rewards, followed by shift to intrinsic rewards. This lets the designers slowly learn the value of user’s behavior, allowing them to establish intrinsic motivation pertinent to their audience. By following this process, instead of losing users to the newest fad, Lithium Technologies is able to create a user-base of super fans who spend over 20 hours a week on the platform.

According to Dr. Wu, companies who want to experience success in their initiatives need to stop implementing overly simplistic gamification tools. Create value for your users instead of attempting trivial brand engagement. By giving something to your users other than badges and coins, your users will continue to engage your platform, creating a win-win scenario.

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Listen to the full interview here on the TechnologyAdvice Podcast Soundcloud.


  • Integrate leveling platforms into gamification initiatives.

  • Focus on creating intrinsic motivation.

  • Create platforms that provide value to users by improving their ability to do tasks.


This interview was provided by Gsummit media partner TechnologyAdvice, an Inc. 5000 company that is dedicated to educating, advising, and connecting the buyers and sellers of business technology. Interview conducted by Clark Buckner.


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. If there would be just one advice I would be allowed to give concerning Gamification, it would be “Listen to Michael Wu”.
    Ok, perhaps if I could give you two advises 😉 No, I really mean that. Listen to him, it is worth it.