Gamification: What are the 8 Core Drives?

Sam Liberty
9 min readDec 4, 2023

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of workshopping with a startup interested in gamifying an app for kids 6–11. This is a huge task! It’s hard to know just where to begin when designing gamification for adults.

Knowing which gamification techniques to use has three parts. The first is knowing your audience. The second is knowing what you need them to do. The third is putting them together: designing mechanisms and features that make it fun, easy, and rewarding to do those things.

But there are an ocean of techniques and little tricks out there. Knowing which one will get user A to do action B is the trickiest bit. The key to this is knowing what drives them to use your app in the first place, and to that end, I like to turn to the 8 Core Drives outlined by Yu-Kai Chou in his highly practical book “Actionable Gamification.”

What is a “core drive?”

To bring A and B together into a meaningful framework, Chou designed a framework called Octalysis. It breaks down every feeling and impulse that human beings have into eight categories. These, he says, are what motivates us to do everything we do. And they can be used by designers who understand them to build incredibly engaging or even addicting applications.

Before we dive into these 8 drives, first a couple words of skepticism.

Off the bat, I don’t know if there are truly exactly eight impulses that motivate us. In my workshopping I have seen this framework fall short of my audience’s needs and desires.

Additionally, it’s not always clear which drive a gamification concept fits into, and often it is multiple of them. Or none.

Second, it is not even close to the only framework that describes human motivation. See also Maslo’s Hierarchy of Needs, Freud’s “Id, Ego, and Super-ego,” Bartle’s Taxonomy of Players, and many, many more. Some are referring to games and play specifically. Some are about app development.

What I like about Chou’s Octalysis Framework is that it was designed from the ground up to explain gamification principles, so the vast majority of gamification techniques easily slot into the framework. This makes it exceedingly practical for a designer who just needs to get some ideas of what to try.

So if I had to describe what a core drive is, I would say it is a psychic force that drives us toward pleasure or away from discomfort. There are eight of them.

The 8 Core Drives

1. Epic Meaning And Calling

This could be thought of as the Altruistic Drive, but it’s also about our ego. Not only do we want to help others, but we wish to feel like we are good people, and when given the chance to do good, we want to do it!

Most of us run toward our Epic Calling

You can also think of this as the Tribalism Drive. It triggers when we are called to be something bigger than ourselves. petitions, donating earnings to charity, being rewarded with planting trees for buying shoes, and making a purchase because it is “more sustainable” or “fair trade” all align with this core drive.

It also explains why people edit Wikipedia with no expectation of payment or even recognition. And why politics and religion consume us so thoroughly. And why for some, Wikipedia is a religion.

Chou claims that this is the same drive that makes us tell stories, roleplay, and fantasize, but in my opinion this is trying to cram too many things into one bucket.

2. Development and Accomplishment

This is the drive of struggle and victory. If you’ve ever played a great game, you know how powerful this one is. I’ve written in the past about the idea of Fiero, the feeling of celebration after achieving something difficult like scoring a goal in soccer or clearing a hard level in a video game. That’s what this is all about.

This isn’t just about winning, though. It’s about the struggle. And anticipation. That means it is important to show progress and give feedback along the way.


If you’ve gone back to your LinkedIn profile to make sure it’s “100% complete,” you’ve been influenced by this drive. Or if you’ve saved up credit card points for a big purchase, high-fived yourself for beating a hard video game boss, or if you’ve ever collected a set of, well, anything.

3. Empowerment and Creative Feedback

We all strive to be the best versions of ourselves. This drive taps into that impulse. It primarily has to do with creativity, but this creativity can come in many forms!

People love creative problem solving and games give them the opportunity to experiment until they succeed in a solution. We also like to customize our spaces, avatars, and possessions.

Minecraft is pretty much the biggest game of all time, full stop. It taps into many core drives, but Empowerment is the biggest one. Lego is similar. Even the most recent Legend of Zelda games have shifted gear to be more sand-boxy and allow more creativity in how the players solve problems.

Wouldn’t you like to live here?

These ideas cross over with some of the other core drives. You might see some echoes of Epic Calling here, or Achievement. This does start to get confusing pretty early on, but the truth is crossover is OK.

4. Ownership and Possession

“Find gold and sit on it.”

In the great book “Grendel” by John Gardener, the titular monster seeks wisdom. He talks to the Dragon, who gives him this advice: “Find gold, and sit on it.” This advice seems absurd, but isn’t this what so many people spend their lives doing this? The reason is, we want to possess and control things.

Hey, didn’t you just say controlling an avatar, space, or object is Empowerment? Yeah, I did. But this drive isn’t about expressing creativity, it’s about acquring stuff and keeping it, just like the dragon said. It’s why we over eat, invest our money, and collect things.

Systems that award currency and let users spend them on things trigger Ownership and Possession. So do collection mechanisms — games like Pokemon fit the bill.

5. Social Influence and Relatedness

I think it’s a little cynical to foreground influence in this core drive. Humans are social animals and a huge chunk of our mental health, psychic wellbeing, and sense of worth originate in our relationships with others. Healthy relationships are some of the most valuable treasures anyone can have: worth much more than their weight in gold.

Grab those likes.

It’s no wonder that people are driven to connect with others, whether that connection is deep (like a years-long conversation with friends in a group chat) or facile (like racking up likes and retweets on Twitter, sorry — I mean X).

Any kind of feature that allows liking or upvotes triggers this drive. So does social sharing. Creating communities around a brand, topic, or idea is also incredibly powerful.

You can combine this with other drives as well. The Snapchat Streak feature does this well by symbolizing your relationship with another as an ongoing streak of sending snaps, the core part of the app’s experience. This is something we want to foster and develop, and also not something we want to lose (see Core Drive 8 below).

Be warned though, there are certain things that people don’t wish to share.

6. Scarcity and Impatience

Here we start to get into what Chou calls “black hat” drives. Behavioral designers call them “dark patterns.” These kinds of features drive people to do things that might not be in our best interest, such as buying an item from an online store because there was “just one left in stock!” or spending hundreds of dollars on “gems” to unlock game features just to avoid waiting the necessary days or weeks it would take to earn them through play.

I’ll be in bed in 10 hours! Better buy it now.

This is the FOMO drive. With careful design, even something with no value at all, like a digital badge or pet, can become exceedingly valuable due to its rarity.

Putting countdown clocks on “deals,” or cool-down times on actions trigger this drive.

And if you remember the Great Toilet Paper Rush of 2020, you know it works in real life, too. Sometimes with bizarre results.

We can easily tigger this in our own apps by offering special achievements for using the app on special days, orchestrating in-app events, and giving limited time discounts on currency and items.

7. Unpredictability and Curiosity

I’ll give you two scenarios that explain this drive and let you draw your own conclusions.

Scenario 1: You just bought the newest open world video game. You load it, and are amazed at how huge the world is. Everywhere you turn there is something new to do and experience. More dialog, more items, more characters, more secret areas. It feels like anything can happen, and so you explore the world for hours and hours.

Scenario 2: You sit in front a slot machine. No need to put in a coin, it’s all done digitally these days. Causing the reels to spin is effortless, an watching them lock into place is exhilarating. A loss is no big deal, you can just spin the wheel again. Yes, you’re putting a lot of money into the machine, but you’re due! And look, that third gold bar almost fell into place! A near miss. You spin the wheel again. You get a big win! It feels amazing. So you spin the wheel again. At some point you realize the sun is up and you’ve lost way more than you planned. Can you afford your cab ride home?

Both of these are about unpredictability and curiosity: What will happen next? They also tap into a psychic force known as “random, intermittent feedback.”

A lot of modern game revenue is driven by “loot boxes,” essentially a dressed up slot machine that takes the place of typical game rewards. They’re mystery boxes containing gear, currency, skins, and upgrades. It seems like a nice way to supplement revenue for a game studio, until you hear that upward of 90% of the game’s revenue is from this source.

8. Loss and Avoidance

The final core drive is the pain drive. We want to avoid discomfort. We want to keep what we have. We hate losing things, hate giving them up, and dread consequences.

Streak mechanics like the one in DuoLingo depend on this drive. But Candy Crush does too. Players invest lots of time into their score, and don’t want to quit the app because they want to keep what they’ve earned.

DuoLingo actually uses this drive quite a bit, which should tell you how strong it is. It’s heart system encourages you to pay for upgrades so you don’t miss out on content. And its notifications warn you that you’re in danger of losing your streak or your progress toward your goal.

In fact, behavioral science shows that the desire to keep what we have is up to twice as strong as the desire to acquire something new. Risk-averse people are extra-susceptible to features that exploit this drive.

How To Use The Eight Core Drives

Hopefully this article has given you a good sense of the core drives. I encourage you to go out and pick up a copy of Actionable Gamification which lists many, many gamification techniques for each one as well as advice on how to combine them.

If you want to apply these ideas to your users, normally I begin with research and workshop-based analysis around what drives your audience generally, and why they value your app in particular. Do they come to become the best version of themselves? Because they want to connect with others and prove their ability? Or do they just need a path laid out for them full of value to discover?

Answer this question and you’re more than halfway down your own path of discovery.

Sam Liberty is a gamification consultant, serious game designer, and professor of game design at Northeastern University. He is the former lead game designer at Sidekick Health.



Sam Liberty

Lead Game Designer at Sidekick Health. Co-Founder of Extra Ludic; Designing and teaching serious games for social change and real-world impact