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.

Who cares what they look like online?

The answer is: everyone.

Before we step out the door each morning, most of us would have paid careful attention to our appearance. From the clothes we wear and the way we style our hair to our choice of accessories and whether we use make up or not. So it’s not surprising that we also spend a lot of time and effort on the way we look online. That is, the appearance of our online and gaming avatars.

Social media profile photos

Some people update their Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook profile pictures with the frequency of changing their underwear, while others stubbornly retain the same picture from the very first upload. Both actions represent conscious decisions (whether people admit it or not). Profiles provide an important opportunity to communicate our identity through a tiny piece of onscreen real estate. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to create a first impression, which prompts a lot of navel gazing when considering the options. Do we change our photo or leave it as is? Do we use a picture of ourselves at our impeccable best or do we crop a photo from this year’s Halloween party while dressed as a zombie in the early stages of decomposition? We don’t want to be judged solely by our photo but we are all guilty of casting judgement on others. What do we think about the person that uses a profile picture with their significant other and kids? Or when they use a photo of themselves surrounded by a big group of friends? How does that compare with someone else who has a picture of their dog or cat? Or those who opt out completely and use a comic, toy or celebrity as their avatar?

Avatar customization in video games

Video games are a rich source of avatar customization from the delightful Sackboy in LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule) and epic fantasy characters of World of Warcraft (Blizzard) to the creepily detailed features available in the Fallout series (Interplay Entertainment). Moreover, the hours that gamers dedicate to their beloved games also results in a strong attachment to their online avatars.

British artist Robbie Cooper, published a book called Alter Ego (Chris Boot Ltd) which featured photographs of video game players alongside images of their online avatars. These pictures confirm something all gamers know: never assume anything about a person’s real life identity from their avatar. Some people create avatars which are versions of their ideal self, someone who is stronger, taller and better looking. Others want to role-play lives that are completely different from their own. In fact, it is quite common for players to choose avatars of the opposite gender or radically different ethnicity. Games provide an environment for individuals to look and act in a way that is just not possible in real life. But why is that important?

Photograph from Robbie Cooper’s book Alter Ego, featuring Thierry Te Dunne, a building superintendent in France and his avatar in Guild Wars.

The importance of self expression and multiple identities

The central issue is not how people express themselves but in providing an opportunity to do so. There is a deeper level of engagement when online identities are created and customized. Moreover, the time and effort invested into that process means that over time, online profiles become an extension of real life identities. The short film below, from director Gavin Kelly, is a great illustration of this concept. Avatar Days, follows four MMORPG gamers talking about their online avatars, while their avatars go about their daily routines. 

Just as we fulfill multiple roles in real life, our online avatars represent different facets of our personalities. At the Web 2.0 Conference held in San Francisco last month, Christopher Poole (aka Moot) founder of online imageboard 4chan, rightly asserted : “Identity is prismatic”.

[A related article on identity which includes Poole’s speech is located here .]

Evolution of users

In the beginning, there was a group of creators. The men and women who created information. They worked for academia, corporations, government and the media. The content was trusted because it came from figures and institutions of authority. It was understood that a specific process was utilized to produce that content including thorough research, testing and investigation. Content was then distributed through a variety of media: newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. As institutions rose and fell, as individuals were named and shamed, people began to realise that content was not necessarily free from bias just because it came from a figure of authority. We became suspicious of the content because we did not know if we could trust their sources. We did not know the connections that may or may not have existed between media outlets, governments and corporations. At that time creators were in the minority and the majority of users could only consume.

And then came the Internet.

Sure academia, corporations, government and the media still produced content, as they always did, and just uploaded the same content to the Web. But after a very short time, consumers realised that they too could be creators. They could create and share words, images, sounds. They could communicate directly with someone on the other side of the world. They could make the middle-men disappear. Their message could be raw and unsophisticated but it hadn’t been filtered through any other medium. It was real.

Another activity people discovered, was the ability to curate. They could scour the Internet and collect all the things they liked, then place them in one place for others to see and like. Some people have turned this into an endeavour that can be just as creative and innovative as creating something from scratch. Internet memes and mash-ups and are the children of curation. Its digital recycling for Gen Y.

Consequently, we arrive at the latest phenomenon and desire: collaborate. We can form online communities and generate infinite threads around common interests. We can crowd source for new ideas and find solutions for problems that perplex us. We can work together to fight a problem that may be a challenge for one person, but not for thousands. These connections extend beyond our own street to people across the globe. There has never been a more exciting time where it is truly possible to create a positive change in the world from our very own keyboards. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of users is to become agents of change where our ideas are transformed into real world action.

real money + virtual goods = potential to change the world

People have gone gaga for virtual goods lately and who can blame them? They’re fun, cheap, can increase your virtual status, enhance your online relationships and don’t need to be stored away in real space thereby adding to your sense of minmalistic zen. From elephant topiary in Sims Social to a resort spa in City of Wonder, the market for virtual goods is a booming industry to a tune of millions. But is this a case of something for nothing or is this new currency exchange providing an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate?

mig33: access all areas

Mig33 is a mobile social network aimed at the youth market. With over 40 million users worldwide, the app can be downloaded onto over 200 different types of mobile phone. This feature opens social networks to a wide audience in developing countries where the majority of people don’t own smart phones. Its service connects users via chat, photo sharing, games and the exchange of virtual gifts. In 2010 alone, their virtual market was worth 40 million. Online purchases of mig33 credits can be made by anyone with a credit card or bank account. However, many people in developing countries live off very small salaries and consequently have access to neither. Paypal and other financial transaction payment systems are often unavailable in developing countries which provides mig33 with a very unique opportunity.

A small percentage of people within developing countries do have access to a bank account or credit card. They are able to buy mig credits and then on sell them to people within their communities, with a small margin, and those people can then buy virtual items within the network. Here is an amazing example of real world money turning into virtual currency and then being exchanged for real money again. What’s more, its a legitimate source of income, with some merchants known to make several thousand dollars a month by acting as a conduit for mig credits purchasing. Although gold farming in WoW (World of Warcraft) is very lucrative and offers a solution for time-poor/cash-rich players in developed countries to support players in poorer nations its still an offense that developer Blizzard expressly forbids and can see players banned from the game for life.

Microfinance for maximum good

Championed by the Grameen Foundation, microfinance is the process of lending small amounts of money at very low interest to low-income individuals in developing countries. These loans can assist a farmer to hire an extra animal to harvest their crops, a woman selling dry goods at a tiny road side stall or a group of women working together to sell clothing. The aim is to support individuals or small groups with the capital they need to get started or continue earning an income that supports their families while distributing funds throughout the wider community.

Kiva is a US-based non-profit organisation that connects people in developed countries with organisations and individuals in developing countries who require loans from as low as US25. The power of small amounts of money passing between many, many people is demonstrated in the following amazing infographic courtesy of Kiva’s success: 62,000 lenders and 615,000 entrepreneurs over five years. (Make sure you have the sound turned on as the music is well chosen! Kicks in around 00:43)

I’ll leave you with this thought. Imagine if we could harness the power of micro-transactions utilised in virtual economies and gaming to support individuals and organisation in developing countries. What a powerful tool that would be.

You’ve been gamified

Simply put, gamification is the use of game thinking or game mechanics to enhance user experience with a product, process or procedure. The word has been cropping up with more frequency as the popularity of social gaming continues its meteoric rise through mainstream society. But what’s all the fuss about?

Search results on "gamification" from google trends.

A quick google trends search suggests that gamification is a new field. I mean, look at all those hits post-2010. Surely this is a new industry riding the current popular wave of Web 2.0? Wrong. Gamification has been around for a long time. In fact, its highly likely that you’ve been interacting with gamification for some time.

Example 1: loyalty programs. Enjoy a 5% discount off your next purchase when you join today. Collect five stamps and get your sixth cup of coffee free. These programs encourage your custom by rewarding multiple purchases. When you’re only one cup away from a free one, it’s a great incentive to steer clear from a competing coffee company. Multiple purchases or actions also help to instill a habit into your daily routine, for example picking up a cup of coffee on your way to work.

Example 2: frequent flyer points. Most airlines offer a reward program where you can earn points for every mile you fly. Earn enough points and they can be redeemed for free flights. Pretty simple gamification. But how about all those other gamified features like cabin bonus, status bonus, status credits and lifetime status credits? Airlines know the power frequent flyer points and status credits can have in influencing a person’s future purchasing decisions. They even team up with other related services such as car rentals to help you earn more points while establishing aligned brands. Up in the Air is not only a great movie but also provides insight into the obsessive journey of one man to claim the ultimate frequent flyer status.

Example 3: Klout. A way of measuring a user’s overall influence within their social community on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Klout also offers rewards for reaching different peaks in the social sphere. Demonstrating the power of influence, a minimum Klout score was recently used as a VIP entry pass to an exclusive fashion event!

The world of gamification is evolving rapidly, taking advantage of new technologies and expanding social media networks. But beware, this is not a fad or gimmick. Gamification will be THE  way brands will engage with their customers in the future. As companies begin to appreciate the breadth and scope for gamification, existing programs will be enhanced. Coffee loyalty programs could offer incentives for buying multiple cups of coffee at one time, encouraging users to do a “coffee run” for their office, claiming the extra stamps or bonus rewards for themselves. Bonus points for referring friends to the program. Special achievement rewards for flying to exotic destinations, while filling those empty seats.

However, gamification is not just a tool for corporate organisations to gain more customers. It will also have a significant impact on the ability of governments and non-profits to attract, retain, inform and advise their constituents and supporters respectively. The potential for gamification is far reaching, limited only by our imaginations and willingness to try something new and innovative. For anyone involved, these are exciting times.

Hard lessons without the angst

A great article was recently published in the New York Times entitled “What if the secret to success is failure?“. It’s well worth reading, providing an insight into the New York school system and what some inspiring educators are doing to nurture the character of their students in an attempt to increase the likelihood of success and happiness in later life.

There are valuable lessons like “Work Hard” and “There Are No Shortcuts” but these are difficult virtues to teach within the confines of school let alone anywhere else. There have been countless studies on delayed gratification, trying to teach children that waiting a little longer can result in a better reward later but there will always those who just want to eat their candy now. How do you teach the value of studying hard, putting extra hours into piano practice and sticking to difficult tasks when the rewards are not realised until much, much later? In the article, Assistant Professor Angela Duckworth notes that “Learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging…”. These negative feelings often come about when one fails at the task at hand.

Next time you meet your friendly neighbourhood gamer ask them about when they failed while gaming. They will inevitably respond with “every time I play, man”. That’s because unless you’ve set the game on a way too easy difficulty level, you are going to fail. It happens to everyone. No gamer believes that they will walk through a level unscathed. What’s more: its expected. Why? Because that’s how you learn. After you’ve respawned (come back to life) you dust yourself off, review your strategy and try again. And again. And again. Basically you keep trying because its the only way to get through to the next level, see what’s around the corner, or uncover the mystery. And what’s more, when you finally pass and complete the challenge, you feel awesome. All that hard work was worth it and you remember that feeling the next time you are confronted with another difficult challenge. The lure of the epic win is what entices so many gamers to keep trying in the face of adversity.

Games provide an opportunity for people to fail, learn from their mistakes and try again. Failure is not treated like a punishment or the end of days, but part of the learning process. Moreover, by giving people a chance to try repeatedly they have an opportunity to test different strategies, weigh the risks and rewards attributable to certain actions.

There’s an old quote that goes something like this: in school we learn the lesson and take the test, but in life we take the test then learn the lesson. Perhaps an updated quote could include “games allow us to take the test and learn the lesson but without the real world angst”.