« Nerf, Nerf, Nerf | Main | Law & VWs Update »

Apr 11, 2007



That's a common belief system from communists, but it's not held in high regard in the real world. In case you hadn't noticed, communism failed miserably at anything except murdering its own citizens, while capitalism has led to almost magical levels of prosperity.

In reality, people work for rewards. "Social motivation" without equal financial compensation (or experience in games) just drives people to pretend to work; the classic line about the Soviet Union was "they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work". People may engage in a sufficiently fun non-paying activity for a while without pay, but will soon abandon it for one that does offer rewards. Offer someone a non-fun, non-paying activity, and they'll laugh in your face. If you don't pay your employees in accordance with their ability, the good ones will all leave you, and warn others, so you will soon have only incompetent employees who can't get work elsewhere.

Mechanical Turk has been such a miserable failure because it did not set reasonable (or legal) minimum wages, and therefore most people who heard about it logged in, looked at the pathetic wages offered, and gave up in disgust. It needed to be seeded with good initial tasks at honest wages. People write Amazon reviews because it's a trivial amount of work to do, it's fun to express yourself and have others see it, and most importantly, has the "X of Y people found this review helpful". That's the reward system. You see your review with a high rating, and it's like heroin hitting the blood, like a good orgasm. You want to do that again and again.

Consider Second Life. The ability to get paid for your creative efforts has led to an amazing variety of user-created content. I make several hundred US$ most weekends by writing scripts for other people, and my shop full of scripted gadgets serves as both a modest income stream and advertising for my scripting contracting business. Most people don't make as much as I do, but they make enough to keep coming back and making more stuff.

The majority of virtual worlds without reward systems do very poorly (A Tale in the Desert, for instance), while those that offer the addictive food pellet button as a reward for activities see massive fandom. The only contrary examples are the social networking sites, where accumulating the largest friend list is the "reward" of the game.


I agree with Kami that what is at stake for those who participate in virtual worlds, as in life, is absolutely central to why, on the whole, people tend to do the things they do. And as Kami also notes, it's important that we don't make the easy mistake of thinking that the only rewards which motivate us are material ones (or, relatedly, that a utilitarian model is the best way to account for our behavior).

This should lead us to thinking about the relationship between those other rewards and the never-absent possibility that, at times, we do do things as ends in and of themselves. It seems to me that we're imposing a false dichotomy if we think these are mutually exclusive possibilities. After all, new experiences by their very nature involve some uncertainty about whether there might be much of a "reward" at the end at all, but we do seek them out nonetheless. Good game design itself seems to demonstrate that we do do things without definite extrinsic rewards. The promise of possibility that new experience represents is in itself compelling, at least at times, imho.


One way to look at this is that people choose to focus on things and carry out behaviors because they have some degree of meaning to them. The meaning can be entirely illusory, as with characters on a TV show that we follow, but to our brains it's still meaning. The meaning and relevance can be intrinsic or extrinsic; we are, by definition, motivated on our own to do those things that are intrinsically satisfying, and are only prodded along by some external factor for extrinsic rewards.

Extrinsic motivators are what you use when you can't find an intrinsic reason for someone to do something. In real life it's most common to tie extrinsic motivators to survival and safety (you're given food or money to buy food) or to combinations of social acceptance and skill esteem (you get a medal, title, or other public recognition). This way, it's possible to get people to do things they otherwise never would consider or put up with. (If this seems like Maslovian psychology, it should.)

Extrinsic motivators are strongest when they're most directly linked to overt survival, or when the actor has somehow forged a link to their own internal, intrinsic motivations: they've come to believe (or been fooled into thinking) that getting that next promotion to Second Assistant to the Deputy Associate Project Manager is in fact an intrinsic statement of their acceptance and value for their skill.

So the question for games is whether extrinsic motivators are good enough. Many, probably most game developers seem to think so, and yet they turn a blind eye to problems of churn, boredom, and social pathologies that arise in online games when extrinsic motivators wear out and there's nothing intrinsic to replace them.

This leads to the question of how to find and hook into intrinsic motivations. Some seem to think this is a fool's errand: that people will always do what's un-fun if you give them an extrinsic reward (gold coin, experience point, or other bauble) for doing so. And there is clearly some merit to this POV, as the millions of people pressing a key to simulate whacking a monster over and over and over again illustrates. On rare occasions the rewards for this sort of behavior are intrinsic -- you save a friend's character, you forge social bonds over shared danger, feel the thrill of discovering a new (to you) vista, etc. -- but the vast majority of the time the rewards are entirely extrinsic because a) we can't think of anything better, and b) people seem to respond well to this so why fight it?

And yet there are small signs that we're learning, that there's hope for latching on to more intrinsically satisfying motivations: games like Flow or Boomshine offer almost the intrinsic/extrinsic inverse of MMOGs: there are "points" in Boomshine, and it's fun to see how deep you can go in Flow, but those are really secondary to the purely intrinsic pleasure (hitting perceptual and short-term cognitive centers from an evolutionar psych POV) of playing these games.

Or consider any other entertainment medium: if the rewards for watching TV, movies, listening to music, going on roller coasters, etc., were extrinsic -- if you were given some kind of points for doing so -- do you think they'd be as popular as they are? On the contrary, we enjoy those things, and in some cases become attached to them, solely and specifically because of the intrinsic rewards they provide to us.

So I think this is a big challenge for games: we need to move beyond the easy crutch of the extrinsic reward (at least if we're interested in increasing the social currency of games, broadening the market, etc.) and find ways to provide intrinsic rewards as part of gameplay. I know, the achievers and old-school game designers will howl. Don't worry: extrinsic rewards aren't going away any time soon (you do want to get your next paycheck, right?), but games will, I believe, move beyond just these to include much more powerful and pervasive intrinsic rewards too.

My bet is that since we don't do a very good job in a computer game of playing to people's survival or security needs that we're going to do much better at appealing to their social and skill needs (again, as TV, movies, and music do). Everyone says that MMOs thrive because of the communities in them, and this is right -- but we really haven't capitalized on that fact. We need to find ways to encompass the social landscape and use it as a set of intrinsic rewards, and do the same with people's desire for skill esteem and feeling like they're part of a greater whole. We've dipped our toes in this water with level 60s (now 70s), flying mounts, and guilds, but even here we tend to retreat to easier if less effective extrinsic rewards than intrinsic ones.

People do things because their actions and the perceived consequences have some meaning to them. The more we can move away from ultimately vacuous, unsatisfying extrinsic rewards of gold, loot, and levels and toward the intrinsic rewards of security, belonging, esteem, and contribution, the more relevant games will become (and by relevant I mean both "more broadly accepted in common culture" and "easily monetized over a long period of time").

(Oh, btw, in the article you referenced by Mary Poppendieck, the dysfunctions are not in the team using the Agile methodology as you state above -- they're in the surrounding old-school competition/achiever organization and how it tries to shoehorn teams driven by intrinsic rewards into a solely extrinsic system.)


@Kami,in case you hadn't noticed, capitalism failed exactely same miserably as communism did , same as Christianity did , and the list can continue. Both communism and capitalism shows almost magical levels of prosperity for the " chosen few " and are murdering their own citizens ,but when looking at the main populaces , the level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness and the lack of perspective are indeed incredible - almost magical - high , in both cases. The point should be : are the elites raised by the capitalist system , able to be efficient and satisfactory in their leading/ruling role , for their entire society ? When an elite disconnects from its " body ", that's the sure path to failure for both the elite and the " crowd ". Above the systems of organisation , be them political or religious ( if any difference at all , afterall ), there are few truths : we are social beings ; as individuals we want to live better, longer , safer and having children. So , i believe that in the matter of " social ", when the elites detach /dispatch /disconnect themselves from their populaces and focus/aim on their own individual goals ,disregarding the populace's needs and wills, that is parasitism and leads to deep disfunctions of the whole " body " . The same applies to MMORPGs, where the devs/makers are the elite. The word should be " together ", not " against " and the competition should be fighting the environment , not eachother . The MMORPGs body is polaryzing , as the makers tend to see their playerbase as a "milking cow " and the player see the House as " those stealing my money , those nerfing my skills, those acting against my happiness and goals , those setting an unfair/unsecure playground ". Devs, dont forget : we come in your worlds to play, not to work or to do business. When a healthy society needs happy and many workers , a healthy MMORPG needs many and happy players. When in the real world we have nowhere else to go for our living , when about fun we can re-discover " the 1st life ". Or /and try another MMORPG.


We're making an assumption that the "games aren't fun enough on their own" and require the reward. I also wonder if the delivery of reward doesn't change the nature of an activity that might otherwise be fun without a reward.

As a tabletop-game example, my friends and I enjoyed Battletech growing up- played it regularly- no continuing campaign, no long-term in-game or out-of-game reward, just engaging scenarios.

When Battletech was succeeded by Mechwarrior:DA, many of my friends rabidly bought into it. With a few house rules, it enabled us faster gameplay and larger-scale battles than battletech. Everyone loved it.

Then, we discovered "Official Tournament" play- where a venue (game shop) hosts tournaments with limited edition prizes supplied by the manufacturer. Within months, all casual play stopped. It was sanctioned play or nothing. If there wasn't the promise of some LE prized toy, it wasn't worth the "investment" to play. When the prize changed from valuable playing pieces to cheaper "cards," interest collapsed.

Now, maybe we would have tired of the game long before without the promise of prizes... but maybe the promise of "prize" changed the nature of the game for us. We stopped seeking enjoyment in the experience and started seeking it in the outcome.


A friend pointed out the following from Action Button, a well-written (and highly opinionated) game review site. While this is from a review of Oblivion (1.5 stars out of 4), the author manages to skewer both that game and MMOGs overall. He doesn't mention intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards even once, but the point is nevertheless pretty clear:

Here in Oblivion, when there’s a weird little delay between your pressing of a button and your character’s swinging his sword, where in the end, you’re just bashing buttons and slamming your numbers against your opponent’s numbers, expecting ultimate victory, it just doesn’t feel fun. It doesn’t feel entertaining. I’m sure if you spend all of your time plotting which orcs to kill next in World of Warcraft with guild-mates as excited as you are about clicking that mouse, if the most exciting part of your evening tends to be when you ask this Night Elf who is actually a girl in New Hampshire who’s probably hot what she’s drinking tonight and she says “Peach Schnapps” and you feel a stir in your boxers like Hell yeah, she might be drunk soon, then maybe Oblivion seems like “Ben-Hur” must have seemed to the moviegoing kids of 1959 who’d spent their fall semesters reading books. The truth is, MMORPGs are like spreadsheets you share with other people via the magic of graphics, and Oblivion, a decidedly singleplayer game, lets you manage that spreadsheet without the hassle of having to constantly compare yourself to other people and feel inadequate because there’s always someone with higher numbers in something. [Emphasis in the original]
"Spreadsheets you share with other people via the magic of graphics" hits current MMO gameplay perfectly. This is like the standard 'dancing bear' line: rather than wondering why more people don't find MMO's compelling, maybe I should be amazed that anyone does at all.


Hear, hear, Mike. And I love chas' Battletech example; it shows how rationalizing/regulating something (its rewards, how it's measured, etc) can change the experience of it. Habermas called that the "colonization of the lifeworld by the system."


Oblivion's an interesting example, appearing as it does on the Xbox360 and therefore having associated achievements and GamerPoints. Useless as GPs are for anything, including as a measure of gaming prowess, given the diverse 'achievements' different games award them for, I have found myself tempted to push along quest threads in Oblivion that I might otherwise have left to one side because I know there will be GP associated with them. Which is kind of fair enough - it's partly why they're there, to encourage replay and exploration after the main 'plot' of a game has been completed, and that's certainly how they're working for me in Crackdown. But the unsettling moment came when I was idling away on the DS performing some trivial fetch and carry task in Animal Crossing and I thought "why am I even doing this, I'm not getting any gamer points for it...". Now if it had been something that was genuinely fun and engaging, I would probably never have thought that, so it's about quality of gameplay from that point of view. But I had started questioning the reward system. As with the Battletech example, once you've shown people they could be getting 'paid', its harder to find volunteers...


Maybe I'm reading the comments too quickly, but isn't there a disconnect here between comments w/r/t what exactly the intrinsic/extrinsic line is?

To me, making that line too clean has as much danger as trying to set up a tidy IRL/game-VW division.

So 1) Payment. But even payment can operate in a variety of social registers (see Viviana Zelizer's work on the social meaning of money).

2) The "extrinsic" complaint Nate seems to be making is against the *mimesis* of payment systems in game structures. But note that 1) many view XP (e.g.) as antithetical to payment (since it isn't IRL) and 2) extrinsic reward structures are endemic to games -- if it isn't drops, it's points, or chess pieces, or hex grids. So the comment about MMORPG=spreadsheets is true enough, but remember that there are plenty of grognards out there who *love* moving numbers on spreadsheets.

3) The longed-for more "intrinsic" system is what exactly? Genuine social relationships? Some kind of ilinx type of embodied pleasure? Well, there is plenty of that in social worlds and first-person shooters, right? But then again, what do you see in plenty of social worlds and first person shooters? Rankings.

So I don't know, I think the intrinsic/extrinsic line is worth spotting, but I'm more interested in how fuzzy it is than in pushing it one way or the other. As Veblen observed, the pursuit of money and the pursuit of intrinsic rewards aren't neatly separated. And concluding with that, I guess I'm just echoing what Thomas has said before.


I agree with points greg raised. The line between what is intrinsic/extrinsic feels fuzzy at the edges.

Even within the context of the OP, one will note that Jeff Atwood cites a number of examples of "intrinsic" rewards in RL that one would very likely map (at least I would) into extrinsic categories in virtual worlds.

To my way of thinking, when it becomes monified (RW sense) it is blatently extrinsic, hence my more restrictive assumption.

I also agree that spreadsheets can be quite intrinsically motivating to old wargamer types. ;-)


First, my apologies for my long, long post above: probably too long for many to read.

I agree that there's a blurred line between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards -- but there are differences. And I believe MMOGs, in particular, are being held back (in terms of market adoption and exploration of a satisfying entertainment space) by the ultra-reliance on extrinsic rewards.

Greg said: extrinsic reward structures are endemic to games

I disagree. Yes, many (most) games rely mostly or wholly on extrinsic rewards -- they're easier, more overt, and frankly more part of the young western male mindset. But many of the most successful and most innovative games do not rely on these: I already mentioned games like Flow, Boomshine, Tetris, or Bejeweled, where there is at most minimal reliance on extrinsic rewards -- there may be points or leaderboards, but those are not what make the games enjoyable or made them phenomenally popular.

Capping those, games like SimCity or most especially The Sims have almost no extrinsic rewards: they don't tell you what to do, what gets you externalized "points" etc. People play these games (sometimes derisively termed 'toys' by game developers because of their lack of extrinsic rewards) in a self-directed fashion that maximizes their intrinsic reward structure. That these games have been wildly popular and yet remain almost unique in the game industry -- and that when taken to an MMO, The Sims was drained of all intrinsic rewards and failed miserably -- says a lot about the power of these games and the inability or unwillingness of our industry to follow these and capitalize on their success.

I believe the MMOG community has consistently underplayed the success of these games (9 of the top 20 selling PC games in 2006 were Sims games, IIRC, a trend that's been in place since the game's first release in 2000) because they don't fit the mold of how MMOGs have been made. But I think they also show (as I discussed more at length above) how we are hobbling MMOGs by maintaining that extrinsic rewards are all that is possible, or all that's worth doing, rather than seeing the much larger (market, artistic, entertainment) reality.


Mike --

Thanks for reiterating. And I agree with all that -- I'd personally like to see more MMORPGs that are about the intrinsic joy of playing the game. Actually, for me, most MMORPGs are like that -- but of course, I usually give up on them after I reach about 1/3 of the content... Someone called this malady WoW-nnui I believe. :-)


Really interesting discussion -- many great insights here. I would only remark that the acknowledged-as-problematic intrinsic/extrinsic distinction may actually be faulty because we're trying to make it do too much. In many of the comments above, we seem to be reaching for something else. To me, when we want to distinguish things like points systems and the like from the experience as an end in and of itself, we might be better served by a relative distinction between hyper-rationalized systems within games -- that measure player actions in precise ways -- and relatively unsystematized game environments that rely much less on precise yardsticks.


I just had the chance to check out A Tale In The Desert recently, but it seemed it had changed from the "rewardless" gameplay I had heard about.

Now, there had been levels added to the game, and indeed all the people playing seemed to be mostly interested in getting those levels.

After I made several thousand mud bricks, I found out my reward would be to build a "compound", basically a factory for making more bricks.

Then I quit..

The comments to this entry are closed.