Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 23, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 23, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Intrinsic/extrinsic motivation: A false dichotomy?
by Gabriel Recchia on 01/14/13 01:25:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The impact of Deci & Ryan’s self-determination theory in social psychology is difficult to overstate. This is the source of the frequently argued point that intrinsic motivation (motivation to do something based on inherent properties of the task that make it interesting or enjoyable) is undermined by extrinsic rewards (i.e., points, money, badges, etc.). The theory is not universally accepted: Extrinsic rewards offered for performing boring tasks have been demonstrated to lead to greater intrinsic motivation, and two (controversial) meta-analyses have argued that rewards that reflect competence increase inherent interest in a task. Chris Hecker has sorted through the literature to illuminate the two points on which most researchers seem to agree:

For interesting tasks,

  1. Expected, tangible rewards that are contingent on task completion (generally) reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
  2. Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback (generally) increases free-choice and self-reported intrinsic motivation.

Let’s focus on the first point. Why is this true? Some argue that it’s because we tell ourselves stories about why we do what we do: when rewards are present, our story is more likely to become “because I’ll get a reward” than “because I want to.” Others say it’s because we feel that we are being cajoled or bribed, which causes us to devalue the task—if someone has to reward us for doing it, it must not be worth doing on its own. In either case, it is our beliefs about the inherent value of the task that drive intrinsic motivation. The danger in both cases is that when the rewards are removed or become uninteresting, our motivation for the task will vanish as well.

However, things get complicated in the case of games, in which some tangible, expected, contingent rewards also happen to make a game more inherently interesting or enjoyable. Furthermore, rewards that are extrinsic to one aspect of a game can provide intrinsic motivation for another, often in an indirect or unpredictable way. A thought experiment from Jesse Schell’s 2010 Gamasutra interview illustrates how easily things can get hairy:

"But this is where it gets tricky -- is that intrinsic and extrinsic are tangled in complicated ways. So, for example, I may set up a system of giving out points, right, that's totally extrinsic. And you would say, "Well, therefore, in the long run, it won't work."

Well, but what if me and my friends all kind of get into it, and like we start this kind of social thing about one-upping each other, and we're now doing it not because we care about the points for the sake of the points, but it now becomes like a little social ritual with us, which is intrinsically rewarding?

So, these extrinsic systems can sometimes become an anchor for something that has intrinsic power, and that part is where I think our brains get a little tangled up, because it's difficult to predict and it's difficult to plan for."

And another from Ted Castronova (reprinted with permission):

"If a man does not want to do a task, but does it in return for $10, we say that he was extrinsically motivated, but not intrinsically motivated. OK.

If the man plays a game and is not paid to do it, we say that he was intrinsically motivated. He "wanted" to.

Suppose a man is playing a game and does not want to perform a task, such as, mining. Yet if he mines ore and sells it in the game, he gets a thing called "gold pieces." So he performs the task. Is he intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? Which if any of the following are true?

1. The man is intrinsically motivated to play the game, since he wants to do it without any reward other than just playing the game.

2. The man is extrinsically motivated to play a part of the game, the mining.

3. The mining is nested inside the game. Thus you can have extrinsic motivations nested inside intrinsic motivations.

4. The man is motivated partly intrinsically and partly extrinsically to play the game.

Here's where it cuts. According to the theory, a game is more engaging if it is more intrinsically rewarding… These games could take out all the mechanics that use extrinsic motivation, all the grinding elements. It seems to me that that would be a pure candy environment, and boring."

The research on intrinsic motivation suggests that if the mining task is “interesting” (in the absence of reward), then receiving a reward is likely to make it seem more dull; if the mining task is dull, receiving a reward might make it seem more interesting, or it might not, depending on whose theory you subscribe to.

If we assume the mining task is dull, then fewer people are likely to put in the effort to perform it, making the resulting gold pieces objectively more valuable. Also, independent of the actual economics, self-perception theory suggests that the duller the task, the more valuable the reward will seem (I wouldn’t be swinging this heavy pick, the player tells herself, if I weren’t getting something totally awesome in return). I’m speculating here, but it doesn’t seem too implausible that having an in-game currency of high psychological value enables a more interesting economy, more difficult and compelling choices about how to allocate one’s resources, and other high-level phenomena that make the game inherently enjoyable. So here, as in Schell’s example, eliminating a mechanic that seems superficially extrinsic is likely to undercut an intrinsic motivator that supports the experience of playing the game as a whole.

If we can’t be sure about the effects of eliminating seemingly extrinsic motivators, a logical alternative strategy would be to amp up seemingly intrinsic ones. In the next post, I’ll talk about how multifaceted theories of motivation provide game designers with more actionable ways to do just that.

Related Jobs

Nexon America, Inc.
Nexon America, Inc. — El Segundo, California, United States

Localization Coordinator
Petroglyph Games
Petroglyph Games — Las Vegas, Nevada, United States

DeNA Studios Canada
DeNA Studios Canada — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Analytical Game Designer
Xsolla — Sherman Oaks, California, United States

Senior Business Development Manager


Andreas Ahlborn
profile image
Very interesting read. Looking forward to your Motivation-Theories paper!

Bart Stewart
profile image
Of course, a game task one person finds interesting will feel lethally dull to another, and vice versa.

Suppose you offer a task that consists of reading numerous relatively long pieces of lore text and finding the common thread in them. On its face, some players will find intrinsic pleasure in that task because it's a kind of perceptual puzzle. Other players will reject even starting such a task because they find such play intrinsically boring.

What does adding extrinsic rewards do? Let's say you split the lore into objects such as books, hid the books in scattered parts of the gameworld and required exploration and combat to obtain then, and provided XP or (in-game) money for finding each book and for solving the puzzle.

Would many of the "reading is boring" players now find the puzzle more satisfying because you provided extrinsic rewards?

Would many of the "reading is fun" players now find the puzzle *less* satisfying because you provided extrinsic rewards?

What do you do (and why) if both of those consequences are true?

Welcome to motivation-based game design. :)

Altug Isigan
profile image
Imho, a man who doesn't want to perform anything that is presented as part of a game, is simply someone who is subject to bad game design. In good game design, all motivation feels "intrinsic".

Joshua Darlington
profile image
Nice work. Single axis analysis is typically a tool of persuasion for creating false dichotomies.

More design pathways are opened up when you realizes that a human brain is a collection of hundreds of resources working in parallel and part of a complex multivariable landscape. Humans always have more than one motivation for anything they do.

E McNeill
profile image
To address Castronova's example, I think that the man is extrinsically motivated (nested inside a presumably intrinsically-motivated game) unless the mining task is somehow intrinsically motivating for some other reason (e.g. in Minecraft, the elements of exploration and danger and architecture). If this were the case, we would expect that the more valuable the "gold pieces" are to the player, i.e. the greater the extrinsic motivation, the more the intrinsic fun of mining would be compromised. I do, in fact, see this at work when I play Minecraft. At the beginning of the game, when I'm just establishing a character and starting a mine, I quite enjoy the process. When I just need to find some damn diamond, the previously pleasant task of mining becomes a chore.

The "pure candy environment" he talks about would be Farmville, if all the purchasable decorations were free. Yes, this offers some small intrinsic motivation, but this would get boring quickly. I believe Farmville is exploitative due to its stacking up extrinsic motivators on the back of this less-significant intrinsic one. The game can throw lots of early positive feedback at the player (various Good Job! indicators) and continue to dole these out at a slower and slower rate, while also pointing at how awesome the farm could be. A tiny core of intrinsic motivation (design-your-own-farm, plus the small management challenge of optimal planting) is stretched as long and thin as possible, until eventually other effects (Mere Exposure effect, obligation to friends, the need to justify the time already spent) start kicking in.

Thus players who were somewhat interested in the promised premise of the game (manage and design a farm!) end up playing for far longer than they normally would choose. Can the original motivation, stretched out like taffy and held up by extrinsic motivators, still really be called intrinsic? It seems rather empty to me.

Zhan Gurskis
profile image
You should look up Deci's Soma experiment. I think, it also matter whether or not you want to participate in the activity to begin with. Conciser that you like the activity: intrinsic motivation will keep you hooked in anyway, on the other hand extrinsic will demotivate you because you know that you can get more reward than you already enjoyed. And if you don't like the activity, intrinsic motivation is likely to keep you neutral towards the activity as before- because you're not forced to do something you don't like, whereas extrinsic will stimulate you to enjoy it as long as reward is there... Deci concludes that extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic one, but I think both can be applied well - no need to pick a side