Gotta Catch ‘Em All: The Motivation Science Behind Pokémon Go

I confess—I’m a digital immigrant. Even though I’m pretty proficient in office software, online games elude me. However, the study of human motivation and engagement surrounding gamification intrigues me to no end.

So I had to wonder if the motivational aspects of computer and smartphone games could be applied in the workforce to generate enthusiasm and engagement for employees. Something has to drive people to play games.

And, recently, there’s been a lot of people driven to play Pokémon Go—on July 8, only 2 days after the app’s release, it was already installed on 5.16% of all Android devices in the U.S. More than that, over 60% of those who have downloaded use it daily—more than 21 million active users.

That’s a lot of engagement—something workplaces around the country could use more of, according to recent Gallup polls.

What can we learn from Pokémon Go and other video games to keep people engaged in the workforce? I did some hands-on research to find out.

A Walk in the Park

To get started, I called a friend of mine who’s also a digital immigrant to show me how to play it. I figured he could speak my language—and basically go a lot slower in his instruction to me than perhaps a digital native (like a member of Generation Z or a millennial). We agreed to meet at a city park on a warm summer evening.

After downloading the app, my friend and I began the game by winding our way around the park. We weren’t alone—there were many people enjoying an evening walk playing Pokémon Go like us. The game seemed to create a sense of community somehow—a smiling glance here and a nod of the head there.

By strolling around the park and tapping on images of landmarks and art objects along the path (called “Pokéstops”), I began to build up points in the form of red and white pokéballs.

These, I learned later, were to be used to bounce off Pokémon as they appeared on screen waiting to be captured. At first, this was easy and fun! So much so, that it kept me engaged in the game, completely forgetting about my friend who was still trying to show me how to play it.

A few days and several hours later, I reached Level 5. The true test for a bona fide gamer was about to begin. The game truly got a lot harder and more complicated—and the challenge was exciting.

Not only did the game get more difficult, I was uncertain about what I would get if I made it to the next level. I was on my own at this point with little background in gaming and I soon began to feel discouraged—and eventually lost interest.

Intrinsic Motivation

Back at home, I thought about how Pokémon Go’s motivational aspects could be converted into the workplace. As I looked at the motivators that inspired me to participate in the game, I identified several intrinsic factors that kept my interest:

  • I was driven to try something new so I could learn something new.
  • I wanted to be part of this intriguing community.
  • I wanted to excel at something I hadn’t done before (or at least gain some mastery of a new topic).
  • I wanted to be outdoors and be active.

This intrinsic motivation is something managers can’t compel people to do. However, it is something that managers can strategically appeal to by providing opportunities for employees to become engaged at a higher level, based on their own sense of purpose for their lives.

Extrinsic Motivation

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation focuses on the external rewards people get. I noticed extrinsic motivation being used in the game in these ways:

  • Earning “candy” and “stardust” encouraged me to move to higher levels
  • Competition with friends
  • Cumulative awards

Understanding what moves your people from an intrinsic and extrinsic motivational perspective is key to engagement and motivation in the workplace and in video games. Using this knowledge helps to determine and implement motivators that can create real behavior change in the workplace.


My engagement really began to lag as I advanced in the game. The objectives at this point were not clear to me and I could see no purpose in continuing on—so I quit.

This is much like what can happen in the workforce when employees don’t understand the “why” behind their work or how it aligns with the overall objectives of the company. They simply won’t be as productive as they could be otherwise.

Keeping Your Head in the Game

Whether it’s a smartphone game or an irresistible sales incentive, engaging your people with motivational engagement tactics—the unique brand of motivation we call Motivology—can be as simple or complex as you’d like—but it’s important to have a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to encourage top performance. Remembering that makes all the difference between a highly engaged, productive workforce and one that doesn't have their head in the game. Continue reading to learn that when it comes to employee motivation one size does not fit all