Intrinsic Motivation Theory and Interactive Media

Meet Mark Lepper.

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Mark Lepper was was born on December 5, 1944. He earned a degree in Psychology from Stanford in 1966 and a doctorate in Social and Developmental Psychology from Yale University in 1970. In 1971 he returned to Stanford as an assistant professor. Lepper defines intrinsic motivation as:

Motivation that someone has within themselves to complete a certain task. This motivation often comes from the aspects of the activity and the interaction that the activity has with the person.

Lepper identifies four ingredients that can help create the conditions for intrinsic motivation: enjoyment, interest, control, and feelings of competence. Interactive designers can bake these ingredients into their products to increase the chance that a person will be intrinsically motivated to use the experience.

Lepper’s Ingredients

1. Enjoyment

Enjoyment as an aspect of motivation is obvious. If the user of the interactive media is not finding pleasure in what they are doing, they will cease to do it and will not return.

This pleasure can come from competition, frustration, and success, and sometimes all of these at the same time. Enjoyable interactive media tends to have a target audience, but still appeals to people of all ages.

Such is the case in the movie Big (1998), where Tom Hanks plays a grown up child after he wishes to be older. In this scene, the gigantic floor piano in F.A.O Schwartz in New York is enjoyed by the child, Tom Hanks, and his boss.

Big (1998) — Produced by 20th Century Fox, Courtesy of Movieclips on YouTube

The movie was so good at showing the enjoyment that the characters were having, that eventually people were charged to play on the piano in real life!


The second aspect of intrinsic motivation is interest. Without interest, how would people become involved in the piece of media in the first place? Well, the designers over at Fun Theory seemed to have figured it out. Their super deep trash can seems to attract a lot of attention., Courtesy of gabrielhummel on YouTube

As the video shows, people go back for the experience multiple times. There are even users that try to figure out what is causing it by looking underneath the lid of the can. This is interesting to them. Mark Lepper would agree that the sound and the confusion that it looks like a normal trashcan, but is in fact not a normal trash can, would spark curiosity within the individual. Time and time again, users go back and throw out trash.


Control is the next portion that is key for intrinsic motivation. In terms of technical requirements, this is one that is absolutely crucial for interactive media specifically. Without working code or the ability to do anything within the media, there is no media to be interacted with. Often times online multiplayer games are criticized for control or lack there of due to response times and internet connection. Without the proper balance in control, the other three aspects become irrelevant and there will be more frustration than enjoyment, interest, or feelings of progression in ability.

However, there is another definition that can be used for control. Interactive media is just that. Interactive. This means that a passive experience in which the user has no control over what is going on, such as a movie or a video game that many dub as a “walking simulator”, is not technically interactive media. Being able to have some, if not all, input on the game is what makes control so addicting at times. The Sims, a video game in which you create an avatar and basically control their entire life, is fantastic in this department.

The Sims — EA Maxis, Courtesy of Twotorial on YouTube

Feelings of Competence

The fourth ingredient for intrinsic motivation is the ability to feel as if you are getting better at the activity you are participating in. For a video game, it might mean getting better gear for you character or beating more and more opponents online. Other forms of media, such as electronic teaching applications, show the development immediately. When a child is able to place a circle shaped block into a circle shaped hole correctly, they feel good about it and they know they are progressing.

Courtesy of Playstation Access on YouTube

For video games, feelings of competence usually comes from the difficulty of the game. Good games allow the player to change the difficulty, with the exception of a few like the Dark Souls series. If the game is too hard, most players will become frustrated or even angry at the game and not want to play it again afterward. If it is too easy, player can breeze through the game and not feel satisfied with their accomplishments. Finding the perfect middle ground is tough to do, but it is what sets apart the good games from the bad ones.

Sometimes, gaining the competence in the game takes hours, or even days, of playing time. Other times, it only takes a few short minutes before the player gets the gist of the game and the mechanics of it. Getting that huge sigh of relief after defeating a particularly difficult boss is always gratifying and is proof of how far the player has come from starting the game.

One More Ingredient?

Yes, there is another that has been floating around for a little while. The last aspect of intrinsic motivation that applies to interactive media specifically is crispness. It is tied in with control in that is mostly deals with responsiveness and feedback. If you tap an application on a smart phone, does it load right away? When you beat a level, does the game let you know immediately?

Dark Souls — FromSoftware, Courtesy of Henchwoggy on YouTube

Visual responses are not the only way for crispness to appear. Sound can also be a trigger for feedback. A sad horn sound usually means that the player did something wrong or lost the game, while a bright bell sound might mean that the player finished the level. These portions of the design for interactive media are overlooked by the players if they are immersed, but they add to the immersion of it whether they know it or not. To the player, it might just be background noise, but psychologically, it affirms that they are doing poorly or well.

Downsides to Intrinsic Motivation

The problem with intrinsic motivation lies in the fact that it is intrinsic. Motivation lies in how well the activity is executed from a designer’s standpoint and from a player’s standpoint simultaneously. There is a point at which extrinsic motivation, that being outside pressure from other people or things, starts to decrease intrinsic motivation. Lepper calls this the overjustification effect.

Overjustification means that there is an outside source that is influencing the user. Money or prizes are examples of this. For a child, doing the chores might start out as being a help to the family and keeping the house clean, but once an allowance or reward is given for the same tasks, the motivation to do the tasks without this reward is decreased. The child will ask, “Why should I do it for nothing if I have been doing it for something up until this point?”

Take Aways

Think of a video game or an activity that you always find yourself going back to. Perhaps it is the MMORPG of World of Warcraft or the massive open world of Skyrim? Is the choose-your-own Coca-Cola machine with the touch screen more interesting than the regular fountain with a button?

Now think about what it is that makes you return to that interactive media. Mark Lepper would say that you are intrinsically motivated to go back to this. You probably enjoy it, found it interesting at first, felt like you were getting better at it, and felt that you were not just sitting back and watching it, but actually participating. In a world that is growing ever more digital and interactive, only those designers that take into account Mark Lepper’s ideas of intrinsic motivation will succeed.

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