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Understanding Gamification Through Goal-Setting Theory


Goal-setting theory has been used for decades to explain how to motivate people to perform better in work-related tasks by setting and monitoring goals. Gamification is also inherently a goal-oriented activity, aimed at fostering motivation; therefore, it is logic to expect that these two practices would fit very well together and help us design better motivational experiences. Surprisingly, very few research works so far have seriously explored the use of goal-setting theory to explain and inform gameful design, with most literature focusing more on self-determination theory as the theoretical background for gamification. Therefore, for a recent paper published at HICSS 2018, we decided to conduct a literature review and a conceptual investigation of gamification through the lens of goal-setting theory. This research had four goals:

  1. to identify the current uses of goal-setting theory in gamification research;
  2. to explain the principles and common elements of gamification within the framework of goal-setting theory;
  3. to understand how goal-setting recommendations can be implemented with gamification; and
  4. to understand how goal-setting recommendations can improve gameful design.

Goal-setting theory is a theory of motivation that aims to explain the causes of people’s performance in work-related tasks. It was developed from findings of hundreds of empirical studies and posits that performance is directly related to the goals set by individuals for pursuing. Both the content (the object of an action) and the intensity (the difficulty or the amount of effort required to achieve the goal) are relevant. More specifically, the two core findings from empirical studies that led to the development of goal-setting theory in 1990 were:1,2

  1. There is a linear relationship between the degree of goal difficulty and performance. The linearity of this relationship was supported in several empirical studies, except when the individual reached the limit of their ability to perform the task or when commitment to a highly difficult goal collapsed.
  2. Difficult goals lead to higher performance than no goals at all or abstract goals such as “do your best.”

Therefore, goal-setting theory posits that optimal performance is achieved when goals are specific (the objective to accomplish is clear) and difficult (the achievement of the goal requires considerable effort).

So, how can we employ goal-setting theory to explain what happens during gameful experiences and to inform gameful design? To answer this question, we divided our research into two parts. First, we conducted a literature review to identify the existing works using goal-setting theory and gamification together. Then, we studied the goal-setting and gamification literatures to find correspondences between them, creating a conceptual framework of gamification through the lens of goal-setting theory.

Literature Review

In our literature review, we found 42 academic, peer-reviewed papers that employed goal-setting theory to explain gamification theories or interventions. However, many of the reviewed papers employed goal-setting theory only to explain a specific gamification element rather than broad gamification principles. The two elements that appeared more often were badges (13 papers) and leaderboards (6 papers). Rules, goals, challenges, and progress bars also appeared, but less frequently. Some papers also used goal-setting theory to understand how gamification works in a broader sense.

Moreover, a few empirical studies explicitly used goal-setting theory to design and evaluate a gameful intervention, focusing mostly on badges and leaderboards. These studies provide promising empirical evidence supporting the use of goal-setting theory to explain gamification phenomena; however, they were focused on a small set of game elements. Thus, additional studies are required to investigate other gamification elements and mechanisms through the lens of goal-setting theory.

Conceptual Framework

Goal Setting Theory x Gamification

Although having goals is not a requisite for gamification, goals are present in many gameful applications. Hence, goals are often specific in gamification, consonant to the theory. In practice, there are many ways by which goals can be implemented in gameful systems; however, there are two common strategies: giving the users clear goals to follow or allowing the users to self-set their own goals. These goals can be explicit, identified as goals or quests, for example; or they can also be implicitly presented as outcomes that can be pursued, such as earning badges or achievements or reaching a certain position in a leaderboard. The reviewed literature recognize the following elements as potential mechanisms for goal setting in gamification: badges, leaderboards, levels, progress bars, rules, goals, challenges, conflict, points, achievements, and rewards.

In addition to these gameful elements that are already mentioned in the literature, there are many other elements that can be used for goal setting. From our recent work, which aggregated gameful design elements, from multiple sources, we suggest that the following elements can also be used to set clear goals in gamification: boss battles, certificates, collections, exploratory tasks, learning, quests, unlockable or rare content, and unlockable access to advanced features. Thus, there are many possibilities that remain unexplored in implementing the principles of goal-setting theory using gameful design elements.

On the other hand, goal difficulty in gameful systems is dependent on the system’s design and the matching between the available goals and the user’s skills. Ideally, in a well-designed system, goal difficulty should increase with the user’s skill to always provide a challenging activity. This would require the ability to consistently monitor user skill. Several gameful design methods cite flow theory and suggest seeking means to always balance the challenge according to the user’s skills to facilitate flow and avoid boredom or anxiety. Hence, if these recommendations are followed, gameful systems should provide difficult enough goals for each user, without making them impossible to achieve due to a lack of ability, congruent to goal-setting theory.

In summary, many gameful applications and systems are based on setting specific and difficult goals. Thus, it is logical to conclude that goal-setting theory can explain why gamification can lead to improved performance in these cases.

The mechanisms behind goal setting and gamification

Besides the basic relationship between goals and task performance, goal-setting theory has been able to explain the mechanisms by which specific and difficult goals improve performance, as well as the moderator variables that enhance or attenuate this relationship.

Our investigation allowed us to devise a probable explanation regarding how gameful experiences activate the mechanisms at work when goal setting is used to improve performance:

  1. setting clear goals through gameful elements and encouraging users to pursue them help users focus their attention and efforts towards achieving the goals;
  2. gamification can encourage users to fail and try again until they achieve mastery, thus fostering persistence;
  3. gamification can help users learn new skills by scaling the challenges according to the users’ current abilities;
  4. gameful experiences usually lead to self-attribution of performance, positive affect, and self-efficacy, further enhancing the effect of performance improvement.

Furthermore, we have also explained how gamification can act on the moderator variables that influence the relationship between goals and performance:

  1. gameful design guidelines suggest that the system should scale the difficulty and help users acquire new skills, so they would always feel they have the ability to pursue the goals;
  2. gameful systems usually provide constant and actionable feedback, which not only informs the users regarding their current performance, but also hints at the potential next actions towards the goals;
  3. gamification can facilitate goal commitment by helping users identify the importance of their goals and by fostering social interactions.


In our original publication, we also included several detailed recommendations on which gameful design elements or techniques can be used to take advantage of each one of the principles outlined by goal-setting theory.

Additionally, we have pointed out that several opportunities arise for empirical works investigating how the relationship between goal-setting concepts and gamification concepts works in practice.

In the most basic form, future research can propose new ways to implement goal-setting interventions with gamification, focusing particularly on the implementation of goal specificity, goal intensity, and feedback. Following that, empirical studies can investigate the overall effects of gamification on task performance. Next, studies specifically constructed to measure the intensity of the mediating variables during the gameful experience would be invaluable to understand if these mechanisms work in gameful experiences in a similar way than in traditional goal-setting activities.

Furthermore, studies focused on the moderator variables could try to variate the type of game design elements in a gameful system and measure the effects on goal commitment, as well as perceived feedback and ability, and try to establish how much these variations influence the overall task performance. Similarly, specific studies could variate the kinds of goals employed in gameful systems and verify if different types of goals lead to similar or different overall performance, mediating, or moderating effects.

We hope that this work will open a new research avenue focused on applying goal-setting theory principles into gamification theories and interventions. To learn more about the topic, please check the slides of our presentation at HICSS 2018, and the full paper published on the Proceedings.

Original publication: Gustavo F. Tondello, Hardy Premsukh, and Lennart E. Nacke. 2018. A Theory of Gamification Principles Through Goal-Setting Theory. In Proceedings of the 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS). IEEE, 1118-1127. Online:

Originally published by the HCI Games Group.



  1. E. A. Locke and G. P. Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey,” American Psychologist, 57 (9), 2002, pp. 705-717.
  2. E. A. Locke and G. P. Latham (eds.), New developments in goal setting and task performance, Routledge, New York, NY, 2013.

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