Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

There is a lot of discussion in gamification regarding the use of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations or rewards. However there seems to be a little confusion regarding the terminology. A common misperception is that extrinsic rewards are tangible things like money or material possessions, while intrinsic rewards are things that make you feel good on the inside like altruism or benevolence. However the real difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is where the pressure or stimulus to perform a specific behaviour is coming from.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. People engage in a task because its enjoyable or because that’s the reward in itself. For example, when a child studies science because they are curious or interested to learn more about the universe.

Extrinsic motivation comes from a source that is outside the individual and beyond their direct control. Such sources could include a supervisor at work, parents, or peers. If another child studies science because they want to get good grades or be top of their class, that’s extrinsic motivation. Even praise from a parent or teacher for studying is an example of extrinsic reward.

In the context of video games, hunting down zombies in a survival RPG because its “fun” is an intrinsic motivation. Hunting down zombies because you earn points and unlock the next level is extrinsic. Sebastian Deterding, a well-regarded user experience designer and researcher on the subject of gamification, uses Progress Wars (a parody game from designer Jakob Skjerning) to illustrate the potential pointlessness (excuse the pun) of some game mechanics such as points and progress bars. At the end of the day, we don’t really complete tasks for the pure love of earning points or achievements.


– Here, have a badge!

– But I don’t want a badge.
Uh, ok…. what do you want?

Someone read my review of a tiny Croatian restaurant. Hope they tried the Pašticada!

I’ve written a few reviews on Trip Advisor and apparently I’m only one review away from my “Senior Reviewer” Badge. But I don’t want or care about the badge (extrinsic motivation). I wrote those reviews because I enjoyed my experiences and want other people to benefit from them, perhaps leaving a little less of the travel experience to trial and error. I am much more inclined to write another review because I am contributing to a review community that helps other travelers which was my intent (intrinsic motivation). Trip Advisor recognises that this is a key motivator and allows readers to tag a review as “helpful. Although the act of tagging is a form of praise (hence extrinsic), I wrote the reviews without ever knowing if anyone would read it or tag it. This may seem a bit philosophical like “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound” but noting the difference makes a difference when incorporating game elements within the user experience.

why does it matter?

Although both can be powerful motivators, I’m confident that intrinsic motivation is more sustainable in the long-term especially when applied in gamification. Extrinsic motivation tools require constant monitoring and evaluation. They are also more likely to be exploited resulting in users “gaming the system” to obtain an unfair advantage and claim rewards. Over time their impact and effectiveness can also deteriorate causing the user to be desensitized to the rewards offered. Consequently the value or quantity of rewards must be increased. For example, what is the likelihood that a parent who offers their child 50 bucks for every A grade on their report card, will be still be paying out at that rate two years down the track? However, the most important difference is that when the external stimulus is removed there is a far greater risk that users will revert back to their previous behaviour.

Understanding users, their current behaviour and the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations behind those actions is the best starting point to designing a gamified experience. Particularly when a new feature aims to alter an existing behaviour or introduce an entirely new behaviour, the choice of motivations and rewards can have a significant impact on overall user perception and experience.

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