SIMAGES 2015.2 – Motivation in Play

Motivation in Play

By Brian Remer

Why do we play?  The simple answer is because it’s fun.  But it’s not so easy to describe why something is fun.  Even activities that look like work, digging a hole, for example, might be fun depending on who’s digging with you, how many stones are in the way, or whether you are digging for treasure.

I think, ultimately, play is fun because it can tap into any combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

We are all influenced by both extrinsic motivators (rewards, punishments) and intrinsic motivators (autonomy, belonging, competence, destiny).  In play, we might be motivated to win or to avoid a penalty of some sort (an extrinsic reward or punishment).  But we also might be motivated intrinsically in our play by being able to make choices (autonomy), by the chance to be a team member (belonging), by the opportunity to refine one of our skills (competence), or by the ability to achieve a goal (destiny).

Games are engaging because they tap into a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.  Traditional competitive games tend to motivate us more extrinsically.  We play to win or avoid losing.  In cooperative games, the motivation might be more focused on being with other people, beating the clock, achieving a higher combined score among teams, or just keeping the game going.  But there is nothing absolute about this division.  To find out what motivates a player, you have to ask them.  One basketball player may be trying to win points while another in the same game is trying to perfect their layup and yet another is playing to keep their place on the team.

We tend to be less familiar with intrinsic motivators.  Because they are internal to each of us, they are harder to notice, but they are important in moving us to action.  For example, tapping into a person’s long term goals for health and fitness is usually a more effective and longer lasting motivator than offering them a reward of money each time they play tennis.

Because we are so familiar with competition and winning or losing to motivate people in games, we may not take advantage of the wider motivational opportunities available through autonomy, belonging, competence, and destiny.  Here are a few ways you can use each of these intrinsic motivators to make the games you design more playful.


Intrinsic Motivation in Play

Autonomy:  We always have constraints in whatever we do but we also always have choice within those limits.  Most of us prefer to make those choices on our own even if those choices are minimal.  Provide opportunities for meaningful decision-making.  Make game rules fair and logical.  Let people decide whether to play or be an observer.

Belonging:  We are social beings who want to be respected and accepted by our peers.  We are motivated to perform well for those we care about and respect.  Provide opportunities for team formation, sharing of experiences individually or in small groups, and celebration.  Promote trust.

Competence:  We do things to gain a skill or to demonstrate our abilities.  Motivation drops off if we don’t know how to do something or it’s too difficult.  Provide opportunities to share expertise and build skills.  Too much reliance on chance events in a game may make people feel their level of competence is not important.

Destiny:  We become motivated when we see the connection between our actions and our sense of purpose.  Make sure people know why they are playing a game, what they will learn, and how it fits with the organizational mission, business goals, or personal desires.

When you are able to make a game more intrinsically motivating, I believe you are tapping into the elements that make play inherently fun.  The more elements you include the more fun you probably will have.  You can learn more about the elements of play in the article in this issue of SIMAGES titled “Start Goofing Around”.


Books and Articles:

Brown, Stuart, Play:  How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Group, New York, 2009.

Csikszentmihalyi, MIhaly, Creativity, Harper Collins, New York, 1996.

Deci, Edward and Flaste, Richard, Why We Do What We Do, Penguin Books, New York, 1996.

Gagne, Marylene and Deci, Edward, “Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2005.

Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1999.

Pink, Dan, Drive, Riverhead Books, New York, 2009.

Ryan, Richard and Deci, Edward, “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being,” American Psychologist, January 2000.

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