Player motivations: The carrot, the stick, and the holy grail

An introduction to player motivations in gaming, and their relationship with game design

Stanislav Stankovic
ironSource LevelUp
Published in
9 min readMay 30, 2021


“It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion” — P. De Vries

Human motivation is a strange thing. I would groan in agony at even a mention of a crunch, yet I would gladly spend a weekend with a couple of all-nighters on a Game Jam. Millions of people around the world scoff at jobs that involve manual labor, yet would happily pay each month for a privilege to pump iron in the gym. From Linux to Wikipedia, much of our modern internet infrastructure is built on software written and maintained by volunteers.

What is the catch? Why do we find some trivial tasks so soul-crushing, yet we persist in grinding at other similar activities?

Understanding the nature of human motivation is a useful tool for any game designer. After all, we are designing games that we expect players will feel motivated to play. This is especially important in the world of modern free-to-play games that are expected to run as a service for years and retain players for months and longer.


The Basics

In order to unpack the notion of human motivation, I resort to my favorite psychological framework, the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). As I mentioned earlier, this theory has been originally developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1980s, and applied to diverse areas of human activity including wellness and wellbeing, sports performance, workplace performance, and job satisfaction, to name but a few. It was applied to the study of games by Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan via their The Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) Model.

The SDT defines motivation as our willingness to engage with activity and the drive to persist with this activity until a goal is reached. It talks about motivation in terms of satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.

In simple terms, people seek out activities that would allow them to satisfy these basic psychological needs. Some activities are better at this than others, and people will gravitate towards them.


KEY IDEA: People engage more with the activities that better satisfy their basic psychological needs.

Turns out that there is more than one type of motivation. Broadly speaking, there are two main forms of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation — when we engage with the activity because of the activity itself,
  • Extrinsic motivation — when we engage with the activity for other reasons.
Burning heart

Intrinsic motivation means that we find the activity enjoyable in and of itself. The SDT claims that this is the case with all activities that are suited to the fulfillment of our basic psychological needs. Basically, we are choosing activities that have the potential to, at least temporarily, increase our mental wellbeing.

This type of motivation is something of a holy grail of game design. The most successful games are successful precisely because players find them intrinsically enjoyable. In SDT terms, they satisfy one or more, ideally all three, basic psychological needs to a great degree.

A good example of these are games with strong core mechanics. Most traditional arcade and 8-bit games, from PacMan and Space Invaders to Super Mario have such properties. Modern examples include multiplayer FPS games and MMOs on one end of the game spectrum, and Match-3 or Merge games on the more casual side.

On the other hand, we also choose to partake in the activities, not because of the activities themselves, but because of the broader context. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors. Namely by either:

  • The promise of a reward,
  • Avoidance, even fear, of punishment.

This is the proverbial carrot and stick metaphor!

Battle Pass systems are typical examples of External Motivation.

In the gaming world, this type of motivation is usually in the domain of the metagame. All types of reward systems for which players need to endure a period of grind are examples of extrinsic motivation. Consider the mechanic of hatching the eggs in Pokémon GO. A player is required to walk a certain distance in order to incubate a virtual egg. In general, a player is not interested in walking 5km without a specific reason. He is extrinsically motivated by the promise of the reward, a new character that will spring out from the hatched egg.


The Advanced Topics

Even the understanding of the distinction between Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation is useful from the point of view of game design. However, the SDT goes even deeper and defines a whole spectrum of different motivational types.

Motivational continuum
Types of Motivation according to SDT

The basis of this spectrum is the level to which various activities can satisfy basic psychological needs, primarily the need for autonomy.


Just like the darkness is the absence of light, the total absence of motivation is known as Amotivation. This is the state of total lack of motivation as a result of total lack of autonomy! It can be characterized by the feeling of helplessness. A person might feel not capable of acting or compelled to do a particular action regardless of his own opinions or intentions. It can be seen as a lack of perceived value of the action itself or the lack of context.

This definition may sound bleak and conjure images of oppression, however, this phenomenon is surprisingly common in games. The examples of UX that can induce the feeling of Amotivation, include:

  • Tutorials in which the player chases the arrow and taps without getting immersed in the content,
  • Superfluous dialogues in narrative-driven games and cutscenes that players feel the urge to skip,
  • “Push button to continue” type of gameplay in many narrative-driven games, where gameplay takes second place to the story,
  • Grind without context in any free-to-play game.

All of these patterns are something that should be avoided at any cost. These are design failures detrimental to player retention. Put in this situation players will reassert their autonomy in any way they can, quite often by churning.

The polar opposite of this is, of course, the fully Intrinsic Motivation, which anchors the right side of the spectrum diagram. The area in between these two extremes is occupied by various forms of Extrinsic motivation. These forms differ from each other in terms of how much the action by itself is fulfilling to the player.

Carrot And Stick

External Control

The so-called External Control is the first of those. It is characterized by the carrot and stick metaphor we discussed already. The action itself is pretty much irrelevant to the player, but the reward is meaningful - the player endures the grind to get to the chest! As such, it is very prominent in modern free-to-play games. So much so that to many players this is the pattern that defines the whole class of games.


Introjected Motivation

This is the second type of extrinsic motivation that we are going to examine. It is the part where the ego gets involved and the need for Relatedness starts to appear. The activity may not be rewarding by itself, however, the act of doing it, is. This type of motivation is rooted in approval. The approval might be coming from others or even from the person itself.

This is why the bragging rights in games are so important. Especially in competitive multiplayer games. A game designer toolbox is full of design patterns and features that hinge on this type of motivation. To name but a few, this includes:

  • Leaderboards of any sort,
  • Achievement systems, medals, and badges in multiplayer games,
  • Any type of unique items that can be obtained as rewards that can be seen by other players,
  • Even avatars showing player progression on a saga map in casual games such as Candy Crush.

These types of features can be extremely valuable in boosting player motivation. However, there is a potential pitfall associated with some of them. There can be only one name at the top. Boosting one player’s ego can come at the expense of everyone else!

Recycled Plastic Bag

Internalized Motivation

The term Internalized motivation implies that external factors are becoming more and more absorbed by the person. They start to take personal importance in their own right. An individual starts to consciously endorse the value of the action itself.

I do not particularly enjoy the act of sorting out my garbage into categories, glass, plastic, bio, several types of paper, etc. However, I do believe in the importance of recycling.

In the world of gaming, the patterns that correspond to this type of motivation are less tied to concrete types of features and more to the player's behavior.

Taking one for the team. Consciously doing any sort of action that doesn’t benefit the player directly, but matters in the big picture is driven by this type of motivation.

One of many versions of Taj Mahal built in Minecraft.

Being a healer in the MOBA team is not directly beneficial to the individual player, but regarded highly by others. Building a replica of the Taj Mahal in Minecraft is another example. Laying down 10000 blocks is tedious, but being praised for the final result is extremely rewarding.


Identified Motivation

The final type of motivation that we are going to examine is Identified Motivation. This type of motivation blurs the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic. Participation in activity becomes a part of one’s own identity. In other words, the person identifies not only with the value of the activity, but the activity itself!

In the gaming world, this type of motivation is what makes certain games transcend the mere short-term pastime and transforms them into a digital hobby. I am a hard-core Overwatch player. I am a Redstone builder in Minecraft. Some deeply engaged players will self-identify in this way. The presence of this type of motivation usually indicates deep and prolonged engagement with a particular game. The players that are driven with this type of motivation are the game’s Superfans! Treat them like royalty!


Key Takeaways

  • Understanding player motivation can be very useful in game design.
  • The Self-Determination Theory provides a robust framework for this purpose.
  • Broadly speaking, there are two types of motivation.
  • Intrinsic motivation comes from the enjoyment of the activity itself.
  • Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors, for example, rewards.
  • In addition, there are several types of external motivation that differ in the level by which the external factors are internalized.
  • When engaging with games, players will be driven by several types of motivation.
  • Designing a game involves creating the motivational drivers for various types of motivation.


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Stanislav Stankovic
ironSource LevelUp

Game Designer at Supercell, Ex-PixelUnited Ex-EA, Ex-Rovio.