Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation In Mechanic Design

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Extrinsic motivation happens when we are motivated to perform an action in order to earn a reward. Intrinsic motivation is when the action itself is rewarding. There’s been some interesting research done on these two types of motivations. In The relationship between pay and job satisfaction Timothy Judge et al draw the conclusion that high pay does not lead to high job satisfaction. Much more significant results are obtained from the intrinsic rewards of actually doing the job.

I assume that the same general point is true for games. The act of doing is more important than the reward for doing. But how does this apply to games? What does an intrinsic and an extrinsic reward look like? And where do we strike the balance?

In the physical game of football the intrinsic motivations are things like performing a tackle or a pass or kicking the ball into the goal. An extrinsic motivation is getting more points than the other team, being promoted, getting MVP.

The extrinsic motivations are important. They provide the structure of the game, they provide things to aim for but they make up a relatively small part of the game of football. The intrinsic rewards; the act of kicking the ball, the mastery of control, the comradeship with team mates are much more significant to the fun of the game. These are the reasons kids play in the park well before the extrinsic rewards are in place.

In order to apply this to videogames we need good definitions of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards/motivations specifically in our field. This is where it becomes tricky.

In the physical game of football you specify a set of rules and structures and the intrinsic rewards are the what players get out of engaging with those. Players have a physical interface. Kicking a ball is a matter of athleticism, study and physical prowess. In this respect videogames have a pretty minimal interface. You might kick by pressing a button. Of course this is not the whole story with regards to videogames. The intrinsic action is also what we see on the screen and how mechanically that feeds back on itself. The issue is that what passes for an intrinsic reward (what you see on the screen) could very easily be interpreted as an extrinsic reward.

To illustrate this lets take an example of two ball kicking games. The first waits for you to hit the button and then a bit of text appears on the screen “your man kicks the ball”. The second shows your player on the pitch. When you press the button he animates, makes contact with the ball. A particle effect emits from the contact point. A sound effect is played. The ball flies off into the distance, trailing sparks and the camera follows it. Do these offer the same intrinsic reward? Player presses button, action happens.

What if we made it a point scoring game?  The player presses the button and some text appears on the screen “you get 10 points”. We could add all the bangs and whizzes of our previous example but haven’t we basically created a skinner’s box. Are these four any different when it comes to intrinsic and extrinsic rewards? Have we not boiled all button-press mechanics to literal skinner’s boxes – press button get reward.

I actually think that this is a failure of terminology rather than anything else. In a virtual world extrinsic and intrinsic motivations need better defining. I believe that the two kicking mechanics above offer varying degrees of intrinsic reward and the two point scoring mechanics offer varying degrees of extrinsic reward.

I think the first thing we need to accept is that players can find all kinds of things rewarding and those things exist on a continuum. On one end we have things that are “close to the action” and at the other end we have things that are “far from the action”.

Doing a kick is close to the action. It has an immediate and profound effect on the game world. We don’t think of this as a reward. The reward is implicit. It is intrinsic. Scoring 10 points is far from the action. It has no immediate or substantial effect on the game world. We think of this as a reward. The reward is explicit: 10 points.

We consider the quality of a kick as the “feel” of it. The kick is a means to an end but it has to “feel” right. The feeling right is the reward. And feeling right includes all some of the extrinsic rewards; the sound, the particle effect, the animation, the physics model of the ball, what the camera does. These are all parts of the implicit reward.

But when we give the player a “First Kick!” achievement this is explicitly a reward. This is something we give the player or we reward them with. This is something that is removed from the game world. This may have particles and sound effects etc. but it provides a different type of reward.

Note that both the things that we have labelled here as intrinsic/extrinsic can be supported by things that are not qualitatively distinct e.g. In principle you could use the same sound effect to enhance a kick and to accompany an award of 10 points. The important thing is not what you use but how close to the game it is used.

The vast majority of a game designers time should be spent on stuff that’s close to the game.

In Mario 64 the player can perform a triple jump (a series of higher jumps) by tapping the jump button in a particular rhythm. The rhythm and the qualities of the jumps (heights, translations, control in the air etc) are the closest to the game. Then we have the extrinsic rewards that support the mechanic (the animation, the sound effect, particle effect, screen shake) these communicate what’s happening to the player and simulate the “feel” of the mechanic. These all contribute to the intrinsic reward. The rhythm and jump qualities are where the lions share of your time should be spent but the extrinsic rewards that support the mechanic are still very important.

These definitions are a little wooly (by necessity). There is a value judgement to be made about whether something is contributing to the intrinsic or the extrinsic reward but I think it is worth thinking about in terms of proximity to the action.

Also we are dealing with a very isolated case. Many games intrinsic rewards are actually more about what happens between interactions. In the proceeding commentary I have treated a kick as an atomic bit of interaction. This is artificial. An interaction happens in the context of a game. That game may very well mostly occur outside of the interaction. Chess is played in the mind. The interactions simply update the world.

Mechanics are typically intrinsic rewards. They are your game. If the player enjoys the core actions of the game they will enjoy the game. Work on the challenge, the depth, how they telegraph, how they feedback, the visceral action of them.

Extrinsic rewards cannot be ignored though. They give you the framing of your game. They can be motivators. They drive you up leaderboards. They help contextualise. They support the intrinsic rewards. A game needs extrinsic rewards. Without extrinsic rewards it would be a toy. Football wouldn’t be football without the scoring system. When I score a goal I want my score to go up. I would not be content just in the satisfaction of a good kick on goal.

But let’s not get carried away. A game is a game because of the intrinsic rewards. Football is mostly fun because of the sophisticated physical action, the tactics, the play.

And is what we sometimes forget.

Adding extrinsic rewards can often help a game. They should never be used as a substitute for an intrinsic reward. Get your implicit rewards right and the explicit ones are icing. Think about that when you design a game. There will be times when people don’t get the right feeling from a mechanic and you will be tempted to layer on all kinds of extrinsic rewards to fix it. Before you do that take a moment to think about the intrinsic ones.

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