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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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    • Kathy Sierra

      There is way too much here to take apart, though I appreciate that you are at least making an attempt to show how complex and nuanced the extrinsic/intrinsic topic really is.

      However, I think you suffer from the same misunderstandings most people in this discussion have, beginning with this:

      “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).”

      While it is true that research shows the reduction in intrinsic desire from extrinsic rewards used in this way, it is misleading and inaccurate to spin this as a problem with CASH incentives. There are mountains of evidence that do NOT use cash or even anything cash-like including treats, badges, ribbons, or — in the case of Amabile’s work with writers – just the mere SUGGESTION of the IDEA of extrinsic rewards (including things like status) cause a reduction in creativity and quality in areas where intrinsic motivation plays an important role.

      And thus:

      “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. ”

      That is simply NOT TRUE. The “limited number of studies that have tested non-cash incentives” have INDEED found that they, too, can harm intrinsic motivation (assuming it was for an activity that was intrinsically motivating). You have included “praise” as evidence that “non-cash incentives do not harm intrinsic motivation”, but praise-as-incentive is not the same as all other forms of non-cash incentives in this regard. And then there is Dweck’s research on the exact “form” of praise, but that is a whole different motivation discussion for another time…

      Just want to point out that it is inaccurate and misleading to lump extrinsic motivators into two camps: cash vs. Non-cash, and state that cash demotivates while non-cash does not. That is simply not what the evidence shows UNLESS you are looking at purely a subset of studies where ONLY cash and praise are tested.

      But moving on, you then state:

      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.”

      Which is wrong because the research does NOT square with your SAPS model since the research in Self-Detereminatiom Theory DOES show that the potential undermining effect of NON-CASH incentives in some situations.

      Also, you suddenly introduced a NON-intrinsically motivated behavior into the topic of whether extrinsic rewards harm intrinsic motivation. Fir most people, exercise is NOT in the category of “intrinsically motivating” and therefore extrinsic rewards cannot potentially harm the intrinsic motivation. This was made fairly clear in Dan Pink’s overview of the research, and of course it is well-covered in the research on which his popular book was based. In other words, OF COURSE it is powerful to use extrinsic rewards the way Nike+ does, *because there is no intrinsic/extrinsic conflict*. Nothing to undermine. Intrinsic values are not the same as intrinsic motivation. Just because someone *wants* to be fit does not in any way suggest that they find the behavior of fitness-generating activities *intrinsically rewarding*.

      For most people, most fitness activities performed to be in better health and condition are NOT intrinsically rewarding activities, no matter now badly they want to be fit. To be intrinsically rewarding, they must be enjoyable in themselves (the way good games are). That simply does not apply even for most runners, so Nike+ is a brilliant application of extrinsic rewards because it is mostly all upside, nothing to undermine. (studies do show that people can become intrinsically motivated by some fitness-related activities, but usually these are related to fitness within a context of a sport they DO find enjoyable on it’s own. For example, people who are in a martial arts program tend to persist at their workouts over time more sustainably than those who are doing workouts at the gym, etc. But again, that is a longer discussion for another time. Just saying there are more reliable ways to produce long-term behavior changes, but many of these can be externally incentivized without harm, in the short term at least).

      The problem with gamification as it stands is that it is almost entirely based on extrinsic rewards *and applied regardless of potential for intrinsic motivation*. If all gamification was used in situations like Nike+ or other areas where there is almost no opportunity for intrinsic motivation (or no need for it), no problem. But in an attempt to “square” your SAPS model with the research on motivation, you have somehow failed to understand that the undermining effect on potentially intrinsically rewarding behaviors is NOT limited to just some special property of CASH incentives. As I have said before, part of what drove me into this is the research on animals, not humans, where cash was never a factor. But there are plenty of human studies showing the over-justification effect and DE-motivating effects of non-cash incentives.

      Bottom line: Nike+ = awesome. Perfect use of extrinsic incentives. But SAPS applied to things like education and even some areas of sustainability (not to mention “engagement” on web sites) is a hornet’s nest of potential long-term danger. The problem is, the danger of undermining is often masked by the initial rush of activity fueled by the extrinsic reward structure, so both participants and Gamificiation implementers can be seduced by the activity.

      I completely agree with you that we should never make this an intrinsic vs. Extrinsic battle, especially in areas of education, because what is most correlated with long-term success in school (through college) is a combination of intrinsic motivation and the upper-ends of the extrinsic continuum: identified and integrated regulation. But the one thing that does NOT appear in studies related to SUSTAINED success in education are the lower ends of the extrinsic continuum, namely EXTERNAL REGULATION. In education, external regulation through ANY quadrant of operant conditioning is a poor choice for sustaining success. We used to think only punishment was the problem, then negative reinforcement, but the results show that even that old stand-by and the core of gamification– positive reinforcement– is also a problem for ANY area where long-term engagement is needed, UNLESS we can somehow use it as a temporary bridge to move people up the continuum to at least identification/integration. But that is flippin’ hard and subtle and nuanced and nobody — including you — is anywhere near talking about that aspect. And until they are, adding gamification is potentially even MORE damaging than doing nothing at all.

      Health, fitness, tedious or rote tasks benefit from gamification. That is where our focus should be with gamification. I totally get the desire to apply it everywhere when you somehow believe it is all as simple as “you get what you incent.” The problem is, in some key areas, you end up eventually with LESS of what you incent than you started with. That is the massively inconvenient truth that gamification proponents do not want to address, or they believe the myth that somehow enough engagement will push people over the threshold into intrinsic motivation. Research says otherrwise except in HIGHLY specific, carefully-controlled situations, and I have yet to see a gamification discussion that actually attempts to use anything beyond “hope” for that.

    • Kathy Sierra

      My fourth paragraph is so poorly composed I can barely understand what I meant ;) . Here is what it SHOULD say:

      “There are mountains of studies showing the undermining effects which do NOT use cash or even anything cash-like, and instead use treats, badges, ribbons, or — in the case of Amabile’s work with writers – just the mere SUGGESTION of the IDEA of extrinsic rewards (including things like status). These studies show that non-cash extrinsic rewards can cause a reduction in creativity and quality in areas where intrinsic motivation plays an important role.”

      Summary: it is not just cash that can undermine… most other extrinsic rewards have the same potential. Praise (and other forms of progress feedback) are often exceptions, but even praise needs to be considered carefully (fixed vs. growth, etc.) And most of what gamification is using as an incentive is NOT “praise”. To say, “praise is OK therefore all of our other non-cash incentives are OK” is wrong in so many ways…

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    • admin


      I appreciate your assertions, but over-justification isn’t the topic of this post. You can still argue that diminishment of intrinsic desire is “bad” while also accepting my fundamental premise: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exist on a continuum.

      For what it’s worth, I know plenty of people who find exercise (and learning) either profoundly intrinsically rewarding or merely extrinsically motivated. It’s why the internalization elements of SDT are so fascinating. Because what no one has an answer to is “where does intrinsic motivation come from?” e.g. By the time we’re doing research on young adults they’ve been exposed to so many influences it’s fundamentally impossible to tell what’s intrinsic and what’s teachably intrinsic. :)

      So if a well-crafted extrinsic reward can become internalized, then this is really a question of design, not of some absolute (or religious) view of the individual. Intrinsic motivation can be taught (or extinguished) and this is where opportunity for great and meaningful change exists.


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    • Toby Beresford

      I started swimming regularly to counter back pain from typing too much despite disliking it. I now enjoy it and would miss the swim and opportunity to exercise.

      Has my extrinsic motivation become intrinsic?
      :o )

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    • gamification in social application

      “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.”

      I agree with this. To showcase your appreciation tied to a tangible that has a written value will lose its meaning since suddenly all goodwill and behavior driven by gamification has a monetary tagged to it. If it has to be an extrinsic , tangible reward, make it exclusive that no amount of money can buy unless you have showcased the following qualities via actions and behavior. I am not against extrinsic motivation, but just disturbed that these rewards can be attained via other means as accessible as earning enough cash to exchange.

    • Kathy Sierra

      Well… extrinsic motivation exists on a continuum, though technically I think *intrinsic* does not. If we think of three “buckets”, we have: intrinsic, then the extrinsic continuum, and then amotivation. But I agree the important thing is the extrinsic continuum, so that it stops being just an extrinsic vs. Intrinsic discussion, which just makes everything even MORE confusing and inaccurate.

      Yes, there *are* some people who find exercise itself *intrinsically rewarding*, meaning the actual act itself is pleasurable, but for most people — it is the “I liked having run” as opposed to “I liked the actual run”. There are studies showing that long-term sustainability of fitness programs goes up if the activity is integrated (or identified) within the context of something that IS intrinsically rewarding, for example a martial arts program. Whereas most people are still exercising for externally motivated reasons including social acceptance for being fitter, etc. Even health reasons, as you know, are not enough to generate true intrinsic motivation and often not even enough to generate identification and integration. (the the only-1-in-9-will-change-their-lifestyle-when-their-life-depends-on-it problem).

      There are people who are extnerally regulated into making a serious habit and ritual of going to the gym, for example, and occasionally the strong social aspect can then become an intrinsically motivated activity, but even when people develop habits, those habits alone are still not clearly tied to long-term success in the way that true integrated regulation and/or intrinsic motivation are. So the goal should absolutely be integrated regulation for things which either do NOT offer affordances for intrinsic motivation OR where integrated regulation is what gets people through the parts of the behavior which are not themselves intrinsically motivating. Like doing deliberate practice which, by definition, is not intrinsically rewarding (if it is, then it does not meet the definition of “deliberate practice”).

      So, I am so totally agreeing with the idea that if we can lessons of game design to help generate identification, integration, and — where appropriate and possible — actual Intrinsic Motivation, then yes, that is where meaningful change can happen. But as I said, that is not where the discussion is centered in gamification. It is — and you are the leader in this — focused on getting people to buy more things, be more “engaged” with brands, and even the attempts at “doing good” are NOT having this kind of nuanced discussion around motivation so they are NOT typically designing for the extremely tricky bridge between extrinsic rewards and identification/integration (and/or intrinsic motivation).

      Why is this not happening? Because it’s not easy. It is far easier to assume “you get what you incent”, therefore, most of the discussions around what is wrong with gamification still focus on “you just have not figured out what to incent” when for some of the most crucial things we are trying to do in this world, the answer is not to ADD extrinsic incentives (the one form of extrinsic motivation LEAST likely to produce lasting results and MOST likely to lead to the nasty side effects where the better/higher forms of external regulation and/or intrinsic motivation play a role), but rather to REMOVE extrinsic rewards and replace them with something that pushes us further up the extrinsic continuum or, where appropriate, into imtrinsic motivation.

      I wish this were all NOT true. If it were as simple as most gamification proponents believe — that you get what you incent — we would not be where we are today. I know you have said, “intrinsic motivation has not worked…” (In various areas), and of course that is true. But the answer is NOT “so let’s use extrinsic rewards!” Or we could up in an even worse spot. Because many of the problems today were not cause by simply a lack of intrinsic motivation… they were caused by extrinsic incentives to do the wrong things. Shifting those extrinsic incentives to things we *want* might be the right answer in some cases. But to go deeper and solve problems, rather than just fiddle temporarily with the symptoms, we need to look at removing ALL extrinsic incentives and using more effective and sustainable forms of motivation. Why some of us are freaking out a little, is because the rush to gamification-using-extrinsic-rewards, by those who do NOT understand all this complexity, can harm the long-term possibilities for producing lasting changes.

      My wish would be that people are given “safe” areas for things-to-gamily-now, while they take the time to better understand the deeply complex system when behavior manipulation is used for things that matter. That is why rote memorization, dull tasks and chores, and many areas of health and fitness are mostly “safe” to gamify. Getting a reward for more push-ups will probably not cause you to lose the spark to bring innovation and creativity to your push-ups. But step beyond those safe zones, and people better know exactly what the hell they are playing with. And this is the first time I have seen ANYONE leading the gamification “movement” even begin to address that this is far more nuanced and tricky than you and others have been making it sound.

      I used to think you just did not *know* what was really involved here. Now I think you understand much more than you typically discuss. But that makes it even more tricky because you have a clear conflict of interest where being honest about how damn nuanced and complex and risky some aspects of gamification/operant conditioning can be in some areas. It is clearly in your best interest to frame gamification as something that — if done right — is all upside. The problem is, the gamification people including you have defined “done right” as “getting the incentives right” and this completely hides the inconvenient truth that for some things, ANY incentive might be harmful, and that using extrinsic rewards to try to move people up the continuum is flippin difficult. In some cases, harder to do THAT than to build a really good, intrinsically motivating game! But I agree in principle that it can be done, and could be awesome.

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    • brettflorio


      Thanks for your posts here. I also have been trying to figure how gamification can be applied without the pitfalls of extrinsic motivation.


      Thanks to you as well. While I remain concerned about the long-term impact of gamification, you do bring up some ideas that weren’t on my radar. In attempting to seek out evidence that runs counter to my own beliefs (about motivational psychology), there’s some food for thought you’ve presented, though it seems the straw man you set up for libertarians and “strict intrinsic motivationalists” could be improved upon. From my perspective, it’s less about unwillingness to use extrinsic motivation, and more about addressing the root problems, paired with a profound respect for the damage that extrinsic motivators can do in the long term.

      Also, to your previous comment grouping learning and exercise: I think Kathy’s already spoken to the exercise, but there’s a solid body of research dealing with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation wrt education. The short summary (from what I’ve seen) is that your friends who love to learn just haven’t had their intrinsic motivation crushed. Learning is indeed profoundly intrinsically rewarding. It’s just that it’s so frighteningly easy to erode intrinsic motivation that few of us escape our formal educations unscathed.

      That’s what I’ve read seems to suggest, at least.

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    • Eugene Victor Sheely

      Gabe! Great article!

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