Can gamification cultivate intrinsic motivation?

Can gamification cultivate intrinsic motivation?

Business people on a board game.
Gamification techniques. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In my latest blog post, I outlined 5 attributes of the dark side of gamification.

My point wasn’t that gamification is necessarily bad; on the contrary, I believe it has much value to offer workplace L&D. Done badly, however, it can do more harm than good.

The term “gamification” is one of those buzzwords that tends to polarise people. Its promoters adore it and believe it cures all education’s ills; while its detractors believe it is the devil incarnate wrecking havoc on our lives. Most of us, of course, stand somewhere between these two extremes.

One of the lines of argument advanced by the detractors is that gamification cultivates extrinsic motivation at the expense of intrinsic motivation. The pursuit of badges and points is derogatorily labelled “pointsification”, whereby their accumulation usurps the importance of the task which was done to attain them.

I think we all agree that the empty pursuit of external rewards is… ahem… pointless. But it begs the question:

Can gamification cultivate intrinsic motivation?


  1. You pose a good question Ryan!

    My answer is not complete intrinsic motivation but if done well I believe it can improve motivation.

    To me intrinsic motivation is doing something for the pleasure and enjoyment of the activity itself. People play games because they want to, it’s not for compliance or because they have to (which tends to be the eLearning expereince of many people in the workplace). So it seems logical that if we create game-like conditions people will want to take our courses. But what seems logical and what the reality is, are often two different things (think learning styles).

    On the surface, games appear to be about points and leaderboards and badges. They’re often colourful make cool sounds and are an escape from everyday life. But game design is much deeper than this. There might be a story or you have freedom to explore the ‘world’ you’re in or you can make decisions (that have consequenses) or you can connect with friends. Often games have a combination of these elements. So this is what we should be replicating in our eLearning courses if we want to ‘gamify’ the experience improve peoples motivation towards it.

    So while there are points, badges and leadersboards in games – they aren’t a given, they must be earned. Games present a series of challenges that must be satisfied and players need to develop their competence in order to succeed and progress. Points and badges are just the symbols of this competence.

    To create a more authentic game experience in our eLearning, give people autonomy and let them make decisions, let them develop and demonstrate their competence and allow them to connect with others.

    • Thanks Matt. I really like what you have to say about deeper game design. “To create a more authentic game experience in our eLearning, give people autonomy and let them make decisions, let them develop and demonstrate their competence and allow them to connect with others” – well put.

      I would add that while games present a series of challenges, they need not involve points, badges and leaderboards. And to be authentic, perhaps they shouldn’t?

      • I agree Ryan, you don’t need points etc. It would be much more meaningful if the user prevented an accident or made an ethical choice or closed the sale based on the decision they made when presented with a challenge as opposed to just being given 10 points or a badge.

  2. Two things about the question. (maybe three)

    I am a proponent of gamification, however, I don’t believe it cures all education’s ills. But neither do I believe that lectures, discussions or demonstrations cure all educational’s ills (they obviously don’t). As with any instructional effort, balance is required. Gamification has its place as do the other methodologies, why we continually point to the ills of gamification while consistently ignoring the horrible track record of lectures is a bit beyond me.

    Second, this entire intrinsic vs extrinsic reward argument is a false dichotomy. People are simultaneously intrinsically and extrinsically motivated most of the time. It is artificial to separate intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, if you are motivated to go to college to get a better job and, therefore, more money. You could be motivated by the money (external reward) as well as motivated about learning new knowledge (internal reward) so are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated in this case?

    Or if you need to learn new policies and procedures to keep your job, are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to learn the policies and procedures? Dan Pink is “cute” in theory but totally breaks down in the real word.

    In fact, some research indicates that an initially extrinsic motivator like getting an “A” can, eventually, become internalized and turn into intrinsic motivation. So the entire intrinsic/extrinsic discussion is much more nuanced than the overly simplified “extrinsic is bad” and “intrinsic is good” argument.

    See Lepper, M.R., Iyengar, S.S.,m & Corpus, J. H. (2005) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation orientations in the classroom: Age differences and academic correlates. Journal of Educational Psychology 97(2) pp 184-196.

    Also, interesting is that some of the intrinsic vs. extrinsic research is, itself, flawed. One widely used scale to measure intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation was created by Harter, who designed a scale with three subscales of intrinsic motivation and one scale of extrinsic motivation. The scale is “designed in such a way that it is not possible for children to report themselves as simultaneously intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. [In fact], a perfect negative correlation between the two scales is built into the scale.” (same reference as above).

    The scale itself prevents you from indicating both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation which, in fact, co-exist in humans. So the argument that a seemingly externally driven event, like earning points, will totally undermine intrinsic motivation is, indeed, not found in “real life.” People, especially at work, are typically motivated both internally and externally (how many people would do paperwork if they didn’t have too…even if they loved their why do they do it…so they don’t get fired–that extrinsic motivation but they love their job, isn’t that intrinsic motivation?)

    Third, thinking of gamification as only points, badges and leaderboards is shortsighted. Those are the least interesting elements of games. The more engaging elements, the elements of challenge, story, continual feedback, sense of mastery and strategic thinking are why people actually play games. Not because they’ll earn a few points. The true application and power of using gamification comes not from adding a point layer on top of “boring” instruction, it comes from adding elements that truly drive game play, elements that truly drive engagement. So if you think gamification is just points, badges and leaderboards, you are not thinking hard enough about how games drive behavior and how elements of games can be used in exciting and relevant ways.

    To learn more about how gamification can really work, check out a post I did reflecting on gamification

    Or read a book on the topic “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction” which goes much more deeply into the issues of motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) game elements (storytelling, challenge, mastery) and how those apply in the creation of effective and meaningful instruction.

  3. Hi Ryan,

    I think you nailed it. There is a big confusion between gamification and pointification. And as Matt was saying, i good game design is deep. People will realize that doing gamification is far from being easy. The problem is that it looks easy and because of that, a lot of people are trying and are not prepare for the real journey !

      • 🙂 It depends on what level you are looking at. Life is the best examples of deep game design. In the gaming world, the company telltale games design emotional game with strong ethical choices that keep the player engage. This emotional connection because of the game play is a good example of deep game design.

        Gamified projects with deep game design are more difficult to identify right now but they will as we learn how gamification works not just for marketing but for things that matter.

        There is tons of projects but I can talk about a project called : A mission to the moon. It is a project that have been develop with a children hospital to help kids to go through MRI treatment. It includes a strong role-play mechanic where to kids are astronauts and the MRI machine is a space shuttle. It includes an app and a book. It is not about getting point or badges but to emotionally prepare the kids with an engaging experience. Basically the kids level up to prepare for the mission and at the end of the experience they are ready to go in the reel machine with almost no fear which was the problem.

        I don’t know if it answer your question ! Have a nice day !

  4. I think serious practitioners should first know the difference between gamification and game-based learning. They overlap somewhat, but the source of motivation can be quite very different. I’ve shared a few thoughts at

    Eric Klopfer of MIT has coined “gaminess”. I described it briefly at

    Sebastian Deterding has tips on getting gamification right,

  5. One of the best examples of GBL I’ve seen recently is and app called Life-Saver. It’s literally helping people save lives in the real world. You can check it out here:

    The app throws learners into scenarios where they must make life saving decisions and fast (just like in the real world). They are also challenged to use their device to replicate giving CPR and are given immediate feedback on how well they are doing (via the accelerometer in the device). If it goes badly through poor or slow decision making and poor CPR, the patient dies. There are three scenario sand each builds on the skills gained in the previous ones.

    The thing I love about it is that if feels authentic – there is an emotional connection to the outcome and that makes it effective. Its proof that GBL done well can be ‘serious’ and can be seriously effective.

    • Such a great example, AJ. This game is engaging, it has an authentic story, and indeed it feels real. Also, it doesn’t have any points or badges; rather, the player’s decisions dictate the outcomes.

      In terms of intrinsic motivation, everyone knows the importance of first aid. Having said that, however, I can say for myself that playing this game motivated me to brush up my DR ABC. I could imagine too that someone who hadn’t taken first aid very seriously would be motivated to do something about it.

      I see loads of potential here for compliance training in particular. Instead of being boring and onerous — I must do it because my boss says so (extrinsic motivation) — why not I want to do it because I appreciate WHY it’s important. So you don’t just get the boxes ticked, you also influence a change in mindset and behaviour.

  6. You’re so right Ryan. It actually reminded my to book in for a refresher, which I promptly attended the next week. (And discussed the app with the trainer who was a big fan.) So for me… raised awareness – Tick. Prompted real world action – Tick. Created change – Tick

  7. Great continued discussion. To add some helpful information (hopefully). Here are three articles from Learning Solutions Magazine that provide some insights into “gamification” done right with positive organizational results.