5 Mechanisms by Which Goal Setting Affect Performance: A Theory of Gamification Principles Through Goal-Setting Theory

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The goal-setting theory posits that goals affect performance through four mechanisms: choice or direction, effort, persistence, and knowledge or task strategy. Furthermore, self-efficacy has a prominent role in the goal-setting theory and there is recent evidence that it can also act as a mediator of goals. In this subsection, we will explore how these mediators can explain and inform gameful design.

The first mechanism that mediates the goal-performance relationship is choice or direction. When an individual has a goal in mind, this helps them orient their attention and effort towards goal-oriented activities and away from those that are irrelevant for the goal. Besides specific goals, many gameful systems also present the next best actions that, when executed, will lead to accomplishing the goals. This practice is suggested by several gameful design methods. This helps users focus their choices towards goal accomplishment, thus leading to better performance as postulated by the goal-setting theory.

The second mechanism or mediator is effort. Once an individual chooses a goal and chooses to act on it, the effort is mobilized in proportion to goal difficulty. One of the goals of employing gamification is increasing the user’s motivation to carry out the activities and pursue the goals. Thus, in theory, gameful systems could motivate users to exert more effort into pursuing the goals than traditional goal-setting mechanisms. Hence, the goal-setting theory would suggest that gamification can lead to the increased applied effort because of the increased motivation to pursue the goals. Nonetheless, this effect still needs to be tested and quantified in empirical studies, as well as compared to the effect of traditional goal-setting interventions.

The third mechanism is persistence. Studies have shown that a specific and difficult goal leads people to work longer at the task than a vague or easy goal. Many games encourage users to fail and try again until they master the skills needed to succeed, without fear of serious consequences. Gameful systems can also be designed to provide this safe space for experimentation and learning. This is particularly important when achieving the goal requires learning new skills or improving current skills. However, since gamification sometimes introduces artificial challenges for users to overcome, the designer needs to be careful: if the challenge is not adequately balanced and is perceived as excessively hard by the user, this fact can lead the user to prematurely giving up. For this reason, Deterding suggests designing gameful systems around the challenges that users already face in accomplishing the goals, rather than creating additional artificial challenges. Another example of suggested motivational affordance to avoid the user giving up is a glowing choice, which consists in providing free hints or clues to help the user move forward if they are struggling with a challenge for too long.

The fourth mechanism is knowledge or task strategy. This means that clear and difficult goals cue the individual to bring upon their extant knowledge or skills required to achieve the goals. If the individual currently lacks the necessary knowledge or skills, this might prevent them from attaining high performance. As we have previously stated, several gameful design methods suggest balancing the difficulty of challenges according to the user’s skill. This can help create a smooth learning curve that allows users to practice the needed skills as they go.

More recent research has also shown that causal attribution for performance (either one believes they are directly responsible for their success in achieving the goals or not) and positive affect (the positive emotions experienced while carrying out the tasks) can influence self-efficacy, and thus, the level of goals that the individual is willing to pursue. In gamification, the feedback mechanisms and the narrative can help users feel they are directly responsible for their success. Moreover, they can also feel they are part of something larger than themselves, helping them feel self-efficacy in contributing to a larger cause; this is often accomplished by some sort of narrative or theme that depicts the user as the “hero” or as a contributor to an “epic goal”. This can contribute to increasing both self-efficacy and positive affect. Additionally, gameful systems can potentially afford direct positive emotional experiences because of the game elements with which the user interacts, further contributing to the effect postulated by the goal-setting theory.


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