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Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Gamification


Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. This emerging discipline – at the intersection of loyalty, behavioral economics and game design – is growing dramatically, with Gartner Group projecting that 70% of the world’s biggest companies will be actively using gamification by 2015.

With extraordinary early successes and a rapidly-growing body of case studies highlighting the power of Gamification, many questions still remain. Chief among them has been something resembling a debate about gamification’s role in shaping behavior and its alignment with theories of human motivation. For product designers, strategists and marketing executives, motivational theory is simply intuitive – you design products, brands and experiences to match innate consumer desires as a matter of course. But while you don’t need a psychology degree to design great, intrinsically meaningful products/services, it is useful for us to delve a bit deeper where Gamification is concerned.

One of the hottest current issues is the question of human motivation. At the risk of sounding old, it was also hot during my thesis work, researching the psychology of gifted children over 15 years ago. Broadly speaking, most people divide motivation into two camps – intrinsic and extrinsic. In simple terms, intrinsic motivation is an innate drive to do something (or your pursuit of activities that are rewarding in and of themselves). Extrinsic motivation pushes you to do (or avoid) something because of an external reward or punishment.

Though most people intuitively understand this division, it’s not as clear cut as it may seem. For example, holistic concepts like Self-Determination Theory posit, among other things, that these motivations are fluid; people can convert extrinsic motivators to intrinsic if they internalize the desire to do so. In other words, if an extrinsic motivator is found to be meaningful, pleasurable and consistent with a person’s worldview, he/she can adopt it as though it were intrinsic.

Clearly, in every human-system interaction, we can see a complex interplay of motivational states at play; over-polarizing their relationship would be a mistake. Consider your average, run of the mill corporate job. Over the course of a year, you may experience many different motivational states related to your work: intrinsic love of the activity, extrinsic desire for a paycheck, intrinsic need to be recognized for achievement, extrinsic desire for the employee of the month parking space.

But why do we care to understand intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in the first place? There are three main reasons:

  • Closer alignment with users’ intrinsic motivations produces greater satisfaction.
  • Research suggests that this alignment also produces higher quality outcomes (particularly when we measure tasks that require a great deal of sophisticated thinking and perseverance).
  • We need to know what rewards users will value so that we can focus our efforts and capital on useful incentives.

    While there is little disagreement about points 1 and 2 above, there are two areas where some degree of conflict emerges both in the science and its practical application in gamification. Principally, these center on the question of what constitutes an intrinsic or extrinsic reward (matched to motivation, but markedly different), and how we leverage this to create desired behaviors. Let’s tackle these in order.

    For the sake of simplicity, most research into motivation and the effect of extrinsic rewards has used cash as the tested incentive. Fairly consistently, introducing a monetary incentive to a task that was intrinsically motivating reduces subjects’ sense of intrinsic desire (and/or interest and satisfaction). Cash incentives however do not always reduce demonstrable performance, even if they damage motivation.

    In contrast, the limited number of studies that have tested non-cash incentives (such as praise) have found that they increase satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. This conclusion is consistent with theories such as Maslow’s (assuming the user were not at risk of starving without cash) and squares with my SAPS model of gamified rewards (Status, Access, Power and Stuff provide the optimal reward system in order of influence). Heuristic analysis of highly successful gamified systems (like Nike+) and videogames themselves suggest this is a supportable conclusion.

    I have long argued that cash (aka Stuff in the SAPS model) is actually the enemy of good, long-term engagement building with users. In particular, it allows them to value their actions in a clearly denominated currency (e.g. $10 Gift Card, 20% off coupon, free $3.50 coffee) that tells them what you think their actions/loyalty are worth. With the introduction of a monetary value, users behave according to their econometric view of the world, which is substantially less leveraged that their emotional view. Any company that principally rewards users with stuff can readily illustrate the dependence that arises from that strategy (Bed Bath & Beyond, and Old Navy spring to mind as examples).

    What’s been interesting is the conflict between self-reported views of value exchange and the known science. Most modern gamified designs – and certainly those inspired by my work – deal predominantly with non-cash rewards, so as to avoid over-justification and replacement. Many users report however that they don’t value those rewards as highly over time, and they expect stuff as an eventual part of the process (e.g. “Foursquare will only be interesting once I can redeem those badges for something”). This more holistic view of drive, incentive and reward perfectly parallels the continuum of human motivation.

    Put another way: the best systems of motivational design speak to the intrinsic motivation of the user while also providing extrinsic rewards that they value that are both monetary and non-monetary (or tangible and intangible). Sometimes however, the intrinsic motivator that is triggered may not be the most politically correct or even the most logical one.

    Take for instance the problem of getting low socio-economic status children to lose weight (or to perform at expected grade level in school). The empirical evidence suggests that these children have a low intrinsic motivation to be fit. They have all the tools at their disposal to exercise (but don’t), they receive the same basic education on nutrition in a standardized curriculum (but they and their parents seem to ignore it) and with some exceptions, they don’t have any greater strict genetic pre-disposition to be overweight than their affluent peers.

    Now, we know that they eat generally lower-quality food (including much fast food) but without legislation to ban fast food, and in the context of a slow movement to improve school lunches, what else should we do? The argument – on which both strict intrinsic motivationalists and libertarians would seem to agree – is that we should place responsibility for this problem on the kids (and/or their parents) directly. Despite all the evidence, choice and tools, they just don’t have the necessary motivation to do what’s right. If we can’t design a system that speaks to their intrinsic desire to be fit, we shouldn’t be doing anything at all.

    The alternative view – embodied in organizations like Zamzee (a recent spin out from HopeLab, and a company that I advise) – is that we must act today to prevent a crisis even if the intrinsic motivational state of users isn’t perfectly aligned to solving the problem. Zamzee’s ingenious solution – a portable accelerometer and matching gamified social online system – has shown an astonishing effect: getting otherwise sedentary kids to exercise the equivalent of an incremental marathon per month. Zamzee does this by offering patently extrinsic rewards (points, badges, leaderboards, free stuff) that feed a core intrinsic desire: every kid’s craving for agency and self-determination – not necessarily the drive to be fit.

    Therein lies one of the most important conflicts between evidence-based gamification design concepts and simplistic views of motivational theory: a slavish reliance on intrinsic motivation is unlikely to produce large-scale behavior change where the challenges are “hard”. The introduction of carefully selected extrinsic rewards, built around a design that speaks to intrinsic motivational states (sometimes not the ones most closely aligned with the behavior we seek to change), is the most powerful design model we have today.

    This conclusion is not only reinforced in empirical evidence (see Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers), but supported plainly by motivational theory: if someone wants an extrinsic reward badly enough, it can become intrinsic and authentic. Once internalized, it has the same potential to motivate as other kinds of innate desires. This is certainly true of concepts like fame (or wealth), and seemingly does not rob people of their individuality or determination. Moreover, this interplay of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and motivation forms the basic structure of our economic, political, religious and social systems – suggesting that this duality itself is innate to humans.

    Good gamification design seeks to understand and align an organization’s objectives with a player’s intrinsic motivation. Then, through the use of extrinsic rewards and intrinsically satisfying design, move the player through their journey of mastery. This journey requires elements such as desire, incentive, challenge, reward and feedback to create engagement.

    While we always strive to activate the intrinsic motivation of our consumers, we must also acknowledge that this exists on a continuum. We are likely to deploy both kinds of matching rewards, and address a range of motivational states. When we do our jobs well, the experience will be fun and entirely satisfying for our consumers – even though we aren’t always acting on the most obvious motivation. And, the better crafted (and targeted) our extrinsic rewards and system of mastery, the more likely users are to internalize and take ownership of the process.


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