February 4, 2014

Why Intrinsic Motivation Is the Key to Successful Gamification

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Tags: Gamification

Gamification Needs More Than Points. It Needs Value.

“You’re not going to get people to do something they don’t want to do by giving them points and badges. You have to think of Gamification as a way of amplifying an existing signal.” – Daniel Debow, VP of Work.com, a division of Salesforce.com.

Debow was referring to the difference between successful and failed gamification strategies, which means he was really talking about how any good gamification strategy requires an understanding of motivation.

Motivation comes in four types: positive, negative, intrinsic, and extrinsic. Since it’s unlikely many consumer-facing or business-facing games will be designed with negative motivation, let’s make positive motivation the default and focus on intrinsic and extrinsic. Definitions are helpful:

Intrinsic motivation: engaging in a behavior because of its inherent value in terms of interest or joy.

Example: Seeking a job that pays you to do what you enjoy.

Extrinsic motivation: engaging in a behavior in order to trigger a separable outcome.

Example: Seeking a job that pays you a lot of money.

While experts agree that extrinsic motivation alone won’t suffice for extended periods of time , take Debow’s example of a points system isolated from any intrinsic motivating factors , extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren’t as divorced as some would believe. As with nearly all gamification tactics, extrinsic motivation just requires the right context.

Michael Fauscette’s explanation of Badgeville’s case study with Engine Yard is an excellent example of applying extrinsic rewards to motivate behavior. Engine Yard, a platform-as-a-service provider, needed to reduce the burden on their support team while also creating an online community for their customers. Engine Yard wanted to build feedback loops for performing specific tasks, like completing surveys, and contributing feedback and knowledge to forums. Badgeville developed a system that positioned completed tasks as achievements and uncompleted tasks as missions to be undertaken.

Consequently, Engine Yard realized a 20% reduction in support tickets along with a 40% increase in forum engagement.

This type of recognition is more extrinsic, so the success of Engine Yard’s integrated achievements program illustrates how extrinsic motivation can play an effective role in motivating behavior. However, this program wouldn’t have worked had Badgeville and Engine Yard not targeted the correct, intrinsically motivated behavior to gamifiy — their users’ enjoyment of sharing knowledge to help others and improve a product.

The key to understanding intrinsic motivation lies in developing an understanding of your audience’s values. While extrinsic motivation can create some initial success on its own, humans are pre-disposed to boredom and will move on from tasks that we no longer find personally challenging. So unless a company wants to continually increase the reward for the same task, they need to find a way to appeal to user’s values.

Values vary between individuals, but putting the needs of the user before the needs of the organization, a practice also known as user-centric design, goes a long way toward creating a meaningful connection between your audience and the behavior you wish to influence.

Kaplan University, for example, increased their student body’s academic performance through smart gamification. Kaplan features a high amount of non-traditional students, a population who often have time-consuming obligations on top of their study regime. Kaplan recognized simply supplying guidelines and course material wasn’t enough to guarantee effective learning. Partnering with Badgeville, Kaplan applied game mechanics to encourage specific learning behaviors, which motivated students to continue the learning process by recognizing their achievements and making it easier to meaningfully interact with their peers and faculty.

Kaplan’s results speak for themselves:

  • raised the time students spent in class by 17%
  • increased the percentage of students who chose more challenging coursework by 85%
  • raised the prevalence of higher grades by 9%

Kaplan’s success story perfectly illustrates the necessity of identifying and utilizing intrinsic motivation. Students attend Kaplan University for the purpose of learning new skills that they can later apply careers. Kaplan’s gamification program yielded such excellent results because the university understood what its audience valued; they appealed to their intrinsic desire to improve, best illustrated by the overwhelming amount of students who began choosing more difficult coursework.

So while both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have their place in game design, identifying underlying intrinsic motivation remains the differentiating factor between long-term success and failure. Every long-term, sustained extrinsic success story tapped into intrinsic motivation at its core.

The key takeaway: learn about your audience, find out about their dreams and their goals, then relate those motivations to the behavior you’re trying to encourage.

Congratulations, you’ve just laid the foundation for a successful gamification strategy.

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  1. Zach Watson

    Thanks for the feedback, Victor. You’re right, I see where the last article describes recognition as an intrinsic motivator. My opinion is that recognition can be either extrinsic or intrinsic, depending on the context

    For example, if someone receives a life-time achievement award for years of work, I certainly agree that recognition is intrinsic. This person has worked so hard because the work was intrinsically meaningful and the lifetime achievement award is recognition for that. 

    However, typical gamification mechanisms like points and badges are really more extrinsic motivators because someone is telling you "good job" by providing rewards that you weren’t pursuing in the first place. 

    I consider this type of recognition to be extrinsic because these rewards do not truly improve the user, meaning this user has been motivated by external sources. 

  2. Víctor Valle

    I’ve been checking the 2nd to last link where there is a drawing about the 4 types of motivation. I that article I can find that recognition is an intrinsic motivation and in your article you say that it is an extrinsic motivation.

    Could you explain who do you think is wrong?
  3. Víctor Valle

    I think this is a great article and I agree in what you say. Also take a look at what Nicholson says at "A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification". 

    I think both writings go in the same direction and complement each other.