Lesson 3 - Theories of Motivation

What is motivation and why are games motivating? 

Understanding what motivates us and why is no easy task. Over the years many different theories have been proposed and a lot of research has been undertaken. However, we can narrow our focus to look at theories and research that specifically focus on studying games and why we're so motivated to play them.  

Part 1 - What is motivation?

Motivation is a theoretical construct used to explain behaviour. In particular the initiation, direction, intensity, and persistence of behaviour, especially goal-directed behaviour. (Brophy, 1998). Motivational psychology is interested in studying and trying to explain the reasons behind the way we behave.

You'll probably agree that some of our behaviours seem pretty easy to explain. For example, why do we eat food? It's because we need it to survive. But then other behaviours are harder to explain, for example, why are just over 52.3% of Americans unhappy at work, something they’re paid to do? And why are some of us happy to collectively contribute over 70,000 hours a day of our own time editing Wikipedia articles? Or why would millions of us spend ~50 billion hours of time in the game World of Warcraft, something we have to pay a monthly fee for? 

These are good questions, and further on we'll look at some theories of motivation that can help explain further why video games might be so engaging. Why should we look motivation? Because understanding what makes games so motivating to play can lead to a better understanding of how we might design more effective gamification. 

To put it plainly, if we are going add points and badges to our site to engage people we need to understand why this might motivate people and importantly, if it will actually work.

Part 2 - Carrots and Sticks

There has been a little bit of a common theme with gamification design over the last couple of years. Known as the gamification blueprint it usually involves the use of one or more of the following elements:

  • Points
  • Badges
  • Leaderboards

We can probably thank Foursquare for this. 

Foursquare used to be a location sharing service (it’s changed a bit now). Initially released in 2009, by 2011 it had 10 million users (Tsotsis, 2011). At this time the app allowed you to “check-in” to various locations, such as coffee shops or parks, and then you could share this check-in with your friends so they knew what you were up. 

But what Foursquare really became well known for were the game elements that it included in the app as a way to encourage its use. When you checked-in to any location, you received points. If you checked-in to a new location you hadn’t visited before then you received even more points! You could compare the number of points you had on a leaderboard with friends. Check-in enough times and you became the virtual mayor of a location. You also received badges for doing special things, like checking-in on a boat. For a lot of people this felt like a game!

Since then we've seen an increase in the number of websites, apps and software that have decided to include these elements (points, badges and leaderboards) as a way to gamify the system and (hopefully) engage users.

The thing is, these elements are fairly easy to add to existing systems - you simply need a way of identifying a particular behaviour that you want to encourage and then you can reward users when they complete it with points or a badge. There are even entire platforms and plugins out there to help you integrate these elements into your website. However, if we’re focusing too much on rewards to gamify our systems then we may run into some trouble.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that simply by rewarding a particular behaviour with points or a badge then it will make it more fun and motivating - but this is often far from the truth.  

If it was then Progress Wars would be the most enjoyable game in the world right? Here's what it looks like (click it to play).

In Progress Wars you are tasked with a random mission that you complete by clicking the Perform mission button. As you press the button the progress bar fills up and once it is full you gain a level and get your next mission. To complete your next mission (and every mission afterwards) you simply have to click the Perform mission button again and again. 

After a while this becomes pretty boring. Although the rewards are in place (gaining levels and getting a new mission in this case) there's something missing. Can you remember what makes a good game motivating to play?

Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug.
— Raph Koster, 2005

When we focus on just using rewards to encourage users we're relying on using extrinsic motivation. We are extrinsically motivated when we perform an activity in order to attain a desired outcome, or to avoid a negative one - think carrot and stick.

CC BY 2.0   Alan O'Rourke

CC BY 2.0 Alan O'Rourke

This kind of motivation can work incredibly well well to motivate us in some contexts. In fact, for as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured most of our work lives around the assumption that the way to improve performance is to reward good performance and punish poor behaviour (Pink, 2011).

However, there are disadvantages when we rely on extrinsic means to try and motivate people. Dan Pink (2011) discusses how research suggests that using rewards and punishment can have the following effects:

1) They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
2) They can diminish performance.
3) They can crush creativity.
4) They can crowd out good behaviour.
5) They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviour.
6) They can become addictive.
7) They can foster short-term thinking. 

Research also suggests that the value of rewards diminish over time (Kohn, 1994). So a bigger and bigger reward is needed to keep us motivated. Research also so suggests that once the reward is removed, we're unlikely to continue (Kohn, 1994).

Extrinsic motivation doesn't really explain why we play video games either. Yes rewards are a big part of games, but they're generally not the primary reason we play games. Instead, there is another type of motivation at play... and that is intrinsic motivation

Part 3 - Intrinsic Motivation

Someone who is intrinsically motivated will undertake an activity primarily for the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. The drive is internal, rather than external, such as reading because you are enjoying the book and not because you're being rewarded with, let's say, pizzas for the number of books you've read (even though pizzas are pretty delicious).

CC By 2.0  Tim Pierce

CC By 2.0 Tim Pierce

What's so interesting about intrinsic motivation? Well, the advantage of being intrinsically motivated is that it this type of motivation can be long-lasting, self-sustaining and fulfilling, which is awesome. Previous research has demonstrated that, compared to those who are externally controlled, people whose motivation is authentic will typically have an enhanced performance, persistence and creativity, heightened vitality, self-esteem and general well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

And for most of us the reason why we play games are because they are so intrinsically motivating. The act of playing a game is also considered an enjoyable and intrinsically satisfying activity on its own.

So if this is the reason games are so motivating, then rather than just focusing on rewards when it comes to gamification, we should probably further investigate what makes games intrinsically motivating to play. Luckily there are a number of well-established theories that can help us out here. Let’s start by looking at one popular theory of motivation, Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) proposes that satisfying three innate needs, autonomy, competence, and relatedness, allows for optimal function and growth (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Supporting these three needs is argued to encourage an incredibly high quality form of motivation.

  • Autonomy refers to the choices people make and why they make them. We perceive autonomy to be high when we choose to take on an activity because we're interested in it, rather than doing it for external rewards or fear of punishment.
  • Competence refers to the ability to be challenged appropriately. This generally happens when we are given a challenge that matches our skill level - something that is not too easy that it becomes boring, and not too difficult that we become anxious.
  • Relatedness refers to a our connection to, and support from others. It has to do with our development and maintenance of close personal relationships.

It has been hypothesised by the same researchers that games are primarily enjoyable and motivating to the extent that players experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness while playing (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Take a moment and think about a game that supports these three needs? One I can think of is World of Warcraft, which might account for why it's so popular. It particularly supports relatedness very well, allowing the development of close personal relationships which have led to friendships in the real world and even some marriages.

A marriage in World of Warcraft - from  Megan Finley

A marriage in World of Warcraft - from Megan Finley

So if this is such a valid explanation for why games are so enjoyable and motivating then it may be a useful considering how we can support the three needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness, when we're designing gamified systems. 

While we're on the topic of SDT, and in particular competence, it's well worthwhile mentioning another related theory - flow theory.

Flow Theory

We can't talk about intrinsic motivation without also discussing the theory of flow. Flow describes a state of full immersion - when someone is concentrating so intently on an activity they are said to be in a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). And flow has been witnessed in people who rock climb, dance, play chess… and also those who play video games.

When you're in a state of flow, researchers Nakamura, & Csikszentmihalyi (2009) propose that you experience the following:

  • An intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • A merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of control over the actions you're taking
  • A distortion of time, where time passes faster than normal
  • You experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding, where often the end goal is just an excuse for the process

Does this sound familiar to you at all? I know this sometimes happens to me, I'll sit down to play a game for five minutes and then two hours later I'm still playing.

How do we reach a state of flow though? Well, it's suggested that three conditions need to be met to achieve a flow state:

  • The activity must have clear goals and clear progress towards goals as this adds and structure
  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps us to make choices and adjust our performance in order to maintain the flow state.
  • The task can't be too difficult or too easy for us. We need a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task our own perceived skills.

The state of flow is fragile though, if challenges exceed our skills then we can become anxious and if our skills exceed challenges then we may become bored.

Flow theory has been explored in video game research. Sweetser & Wyeth (2005) proposed GameFlow which is a model for evaluating player enjoyment in games. Jenova Chen explored flow in games for a masters thesis (2007) and developed the game flOw to encapsulate his research and learning (click the image below to play).

Click here to play flOw  (Flash player required)

Click here to play flOw (Flash player required)

So this theory of flow is very relevant to video games and considering it when designing a game is useful. Therefore, this theory may also be useful to consider when trying to design an engaging gamification design.

Wrapping up

So now we have a better understanding of motivation, what the differences are between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and some theories of motivation that relate to games. 

There are other theories of motivation out there that we haven't discussed, however those we have looked at in this lesson are core to understanding why games are so motivating, and if gamification is all about framing activities like games then these theories are likely going to be the most useful to us.

So now we are at a point where we better understand what gamification is, what a game is, and why games are so engaging. It's time to wrap up this lesson series by talking about effectively using gamification.


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