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Competition, Games, Motivation - Oh My!

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

I like to play an online car racing game.  It provides a nice distraction and total concentration when I need a break from the rigors of work and life.  Games like this one can be addicting, and they are designed to motivate you to play more and spend more.  One of the ways they do this is to create competition.  As an example, I got a notice from them recently about joining a local leader board:

“Think you’re the best racer in town?  Now you can find out, with the new local leader boards!  Race against your friends and compare your results to all the other racers nearby!  Don’t just boast that you’re the best drive around – prove it!”

The modern video game is a study in motivation – not the intrinsic kind that carries you through thick and thin but the temporary kind that still is useful at work, home, and in games.  What are the basics of this game theory?  Here is a starting place:

  • They are free to play, right?  Yes, many games and other sites are free to play, but likely contain “in app purchases”.  This means that while you can play, and they want you to start playing, there are serious incentives to get you to “level up” that cost.

  • The games are designed with a steady flow of immediate feedback in the form of “rewards” and "recognitions".  You cannot play for more than a few minutes until you get some stars, bonus points, applause or other dopamine promoting feedback.

  • There are clearly delineated goals, you want to level up, conquer your neighbor, beat a time, or somehow progress in the game.

  • Having a goal is a great motivator, and the games give you constant feedback on how you are doing on your goal e.g. progress bars.

  • Creating social context.  Most every game, as demonstrated at the beginning of this post, encourage you to join a group, ideally of people you know.  If your friends are doing it, you are much more likely to do it as well.  If you cannot get current friends, they will help you to feel part of a tribe, group, or class so you feel part of something and have a clear enemy that you must defeat.

These principles can be used to good effect to lose weight, achieve a project on time and on budget, plan a vacation, or any other worthwhile thing.  So, you want to lose weight, follow the principles:

  1. Immediate Feedback:   Evidence shows that if you weigh every day your odds of success increase.

  2. Clear goals:  Set a long-term goal, and break that down into smaller, say, weekly goals.

  3. Progress bar: Track progress on your goal in a way that you see it every day.

  4. Social Context:  If you share your goal with friends and family, they can help you remain accountable and provide social pressure to make the best daily decisions that will help you meet your goal.

We can think of these tools as social and structural motivation.  These principles, while effective, only have limited effect.  They are “bolted on” if you will, they are applicable only if they are actively managed and are subject to change and various outside influences and circumstances.  As soon as the technique drops off – your scale breaks and you don’t weigh for 2 weeks, the results drop off – but the pounds do not.

For any change to really stick, no matter the social and structural supports, we need personal or intrinsic motivation.  This is our desire or will to do something.  If intrinsic motivation is low, energy tends to be low, if motivation is high energy tends to be high.  So, what is personal motivation built on? Current scientific research has shown that there are three key aspects:

  1. Your values:  What is important to you?  These must be yours, not someone else's.  Only you can determine these, and getting this down is critical.

  2. Self-compassion:  This is a superior version of self-esteem.  This set of skills includes both your esteem and your sense of balance.  Critically it does not rely on the fool’s game of comparisons with others.

  3. Self-efficacy:  This is the set of skills that result in greater confidence and a feeling of control over your life.

The importance of developing the skills of personal motivation cannot be overstated for 2 primary reasons:

  • First is that they constitute who you are.  You have unique control how you develop these, and no one can ever take them away from you. 

  • Second is that without those skills social and structural supports are simply much less effective. 

I use the word skills purposefully.  It is common to refer to these things as character traits but they are actually skills that anyone can develop, and they are in some more or less developed form in every person.

I hope this helps you understand a bit better why those games are so darned addictive, and how you might use those same principles to better your life.  I hope you also get a better sense of our modern research-based understanding of personal motivation and how critical it is to living your own, unique, best life.


HVASF provides an automatic, small, daily dose of motivation that you don’t have to do anything to get except what you likely already do – turn on your phone.  With this daily "vitamin for your mind” you are primed mentally to take the further steps to accomplish your personal and professional goals.  This small thing can help you overcome your inertia.  Click here to find out more

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