Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation in Games

Sharan Shodhan
Mar 29, 2017 · 4 min read

While developing educational games in the past, I have often been criticized for providing the kids an extrinsic motivation to learn a subject. Some educators believe that kids should only have intrinsic motivation towards learning. In order to understand the concept better, let me first give a brief description of what these terms mean. Intrinsic motivation refers to a person’s internal drive to perform an action purely because of the enjoyment they get from it. For example, an individual doing work for the sole reason that working gives them joy. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation refers to a stimulus that originates from external influences, such as money or other types of rewards. For example, a person taking up a job because they get paid for working. I would like to talk about an arguable theory that states intrinsic motivations are undermined by extrinsic motivations.

Let me first start by arguing for the topic. How do tangible rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation? There have been arguments that the bribe or cajoling involved causes the task to be devalued. One might feel that if a task needs to be rewarded for, it must not be worth doing on its own. This leads to the belief that if the reward is taken away, the motivation to do the task vanishes as well. With respect to educational games, kids might play the game till they are reaping rewards, but the moment the kid is taken out of that context, their willingness to learn might stop too. This is certainly not the desired behavior for educational games. Hence, this might lead to the belief that extrinsic motivation is indeed bad and this approach would not work in the longer run.

However, the rewards in the games are what makes it more inherently interesting or enjoyable. Imagine a game that made you do mundane tasks and had no reward. It would be a boring game and no one would want to play it. Hence, it is important for games to have some sort of extrinsic reward to drive user engagement. It is a challenge for the game designer to channelise these rewards such that it leads to intrinsic motivation and retain the users in the longer run. Jesse Schell in his Gamasutra interview illustrates how an extrinsic motivator can lead to intrinsic motivation among the players:

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.

Having spent time in classrooms looking at student behavior and student-student interactions, I could see how much they love competition and collaboration. Games that include a social aspect where kids could work with each other or compete against each other work quite well with kids. The social ritual of comparing points, coins or level in a game motivates the players intrinsically to play the game.

Self-determination theory broadly states the psychological needs that internally motivate humans to take action — Competence and Autonomy. Game designers can tap into these in order to motivate players to play their games. When a game provides opportunities to acquire new skills and offers optimal amounts of challenge, the feeling of accomplishment is quite satisfying. This is a way of using competence as an intrinsic motivator for the players. On the other hand, perceived autonomy is high when there is freedom of choice and non-controlling instructions. Minecraft is a great example here as the sandbox nature of the game gives the players a lot of freedom.

The reason why intrinsic motivation is important is because research suggests that closer alignment with players’ internal drive produces greater satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation also leads the user into the state of “Flow”, the enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can do their best work. These factors lead to better player retention and in turn make for a successful game.

To conclude, I would argue that understanding intrinsic motivation should be the goal of every game designer. Finding out what makes your players tick translates into a better, more fulfilling game. However, extrinsic rewards aren’t bad per se, they simply serve a different purpose. They should be used to get the players to start playing the game and be structured in a way that they gradually lead to the players being hooked onto the game for intrinsic reasons. Khan Academy, Code Academy, and other similar products in the educational technology space have successfully achieved this. In Khan Academy for example, users earn energy points and badges for completing exercises and watching videos. Although these are extrinsic motivators, the competition with fellow classmates prompts the students to continue practicing through the product.

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