Thoughts on Motivation, Achievements, and MMOs

There is an idea in psychology that people are motivated by two different routes:

  • Intrinsic Motivation: driven from within, driven by intrinsic fun, enjoyment, creativity, opportunity to use signature strengths (e.g. if you’re smart, you may enjoy playing games where you get to show off your smarts). Also includes the drive to master a topic, just for the sake of it.
  • Extrinsic Motivation: motivated by shinies, competition, or external threats.

Interestingly, the people with better intrinsic motivation tend to be happier. (This is debatable, incidentally, but probably depends on how you define happiness.)

In MMO terms, it’s easy to see how game designers try to design in gameplay to fit both of these moulds. Fun gameplay itself, and complex and interesting skills to master, expansive worlds and creatures to explore, and vibrant online communities to join give the intrinsically motivated guy plenty to chew over.

And for everyone else, there’s always achievements and PvP titles.

An interesting experimental result showed also that if you offer extrinsic rewards for something that an intrinsically motivated person was doing anyway, they’ll tend to do less of it. So having a reward actually negatively affects fun for some people.

So if there seems to be a tension in games between people who love achievements and people who seem to hate them irrationally, it’s because having achievements in place actually does negatively impact some people’s game.

I think these different motivations are interesting in a raid environment because ever since raiding was born, there has been an awareness that some people do it because they love it, and everyone else just wants their shinies. And as MMOs continued, I think designers became aware that whilst intrinsically motivated people may be happier, it’s much easier to keep the extrinsic types grinding/ competing indefinitely.

When I first started playing MMOs, although there were grinds, there were also a lot of elements which were just there (with no special reward) so if you thought they were fun, you focussed on those. We were very much dropped into the world and left to our own devices. Since then, I think there has been a shift towards trying to motivate gameplay totally from outside. Via epic items, titles, achievements, and so on. Bloggers tend to view this as making the games more ‘game-like’ and applaud it. Because heaven forfend any player should play a game just for fun. That would be noobish.

(Until something like Minecraft comes along and people reconnect with the actual fun in a game that has no high scores.)

And I wonder how this is affecting gamers who play these games for several years, especially if they start from a young age. What exactly are we training people to do or to be? Do people even want a multiplayer game where you are expected to do things just because they are fun?

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Motivation, Achievements, and MMOs

  1. One of my favorite topics. ;)
    Two of my still and again WoW playing buddies interestingly are on the opposite end of the Spectrum.

    S. likes them, he has this “dailies and achievements give me something to do” mentality that makes me go nuts.
    A. on the other hand hates especially dailies and only does them because he needs to do them to progress in certain reputation or whatever title tracks.

    Ironically, it was me and A. who explored every corner of Azeroth and have the Loremaster achievement for doing every quest in sight. I am afraid we suffer from a certain form of MMO-achievement-OCD despite hating them.

  2. I’m finding it somewhat amusing determining which of my guildies fit into which camp based on how they’re approaching the patch/expansion.

    Last night one of them was on griping about the rested XP reset. I asked if she was in a big hurry to get to 85 and she said ‘I hate leveling’. She’s also worried about her rep in Winterspring, as she’s desperately trying to get the Frostsaber Others are upset that their nice purple gear will soon be made obsolete by quest greens, or they’re fretting about how the Loremaster achievement will change, or if they’ll have to re-explore everything all over again.

    Others are gleefully smacking down elementals in Stormwind and Ironforge even though there’s no real benefit to them to do so.

    I know which group sounds happier.

  3. “An interesting experimental result showed also that if you offer extrinsic rewards for something that an intrinsically motivated person was doing anyway, they’ll tend to do less of it. So having a reward actually negatively affects fun for some people.”

    I could not agree more in my specific case.

    I primarily 2-man dungeons since 4.0.1 dropped and I do stop experience point gains when I want to ensure I will be able to complete a set of dungeons at the appropriate difficulty level. Upgrades are usually equipped after that set of dungeons is completed, again to ensure I will not be well geared for the content.

    I am lucky the wife and two friend are also 2- and 3-man fans and are always available to humour me.

  4. Peoples motivation for what they do and how they do it is fascinating. I think there is a little oversimplification in the examples given between intrinsically and extrinsically motivated MMO players. Going after achievements or PvP titles doesn’t necessarily indicate extrinsic motivation nor does being apart of a “vibrant social community” indicate some intrinsic motivation.

    If you shout to the virtual world that you achieved something, then that would seem to indicate that you have some strong extrinsic motivation for accomplishing what you accomplished. Much like the toons sitting for extended times in Dalaran with their Frostbrood mounts. Those people seem to be demonstrating that there was a strong external motivation for killing the Lich King in heroic mode.

    However, the pinnacle of raiding in Wrath was killing the Lich King. If you wanted to be the “best” raider in the current expansion (because you love raiding) you had to kill the Lich King in heroic mode and as a result you would have received one of the Frostbrood mounts. Not turning on your title or conspicuously flying your mount would seem to indicate that you had a motivation other getting external affirmation. I would think this would be a strong indicator that the motivation for the accomplishment was intrinsic versus extrinsic.

    Both of these raiders would have received the achievement and shiny rewards, but evidence would suggest their motivations were significantly different. The achievements are not indicative of the motivations for why they were achieved.

    Sorry for the extended comment. This is a very interesting topic, to me.

    • It is an interesting topic, and you’ve raised some interesting points, particularly about hard modes. The frostbrood mount, for example, is an achievement based reward (you don’t actually have to kill the lich king on heroic mode, but you do have to complete other hard modes and achievements). So an intrinsically motivated raid wouldn’t bother with it unless they actually enjoyed the gameplay. But a raid probably includes both types of player, plus some of the achievements might involve fun gameplay for raiders, plus peer pressure, so everyone in the guild is cajoled to go along with it.

      But what happens if hard modes aren’t any more fun than normal modes? At that point, the intrinsically motivated players start to wonder why raiding doesn’t seem as fun as it used to be and asking themselves if they want to keep doing it. I think that unless hard modes in Cataclysm are rather more interesting than most of the ICC ones, we’ll see progression guilds struggling a bit with recruitment.

      I do agree that the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic isn’t total and most people probably have some of both. But I also suspect it’s true that most people favour one playstyle over the other. Also, there are reasons to sit around in Dalaran that don’t involve showing off (if you want to hang out somewhere with general chat, it needs to be one of the cities) and choice of mount might be influenced by several factors.

      Having said all that, I don’t use my Kingslayer title on Spinks. I prefer ‘of the Undercity’ :)

  5. What always makes me curious is when the extrinsic players denigrate the intrinsic players for not having the achievements or not playing the Right Way. (Notably, the reverse isn’t nearly as common.)

    As if there is One Right Way to play these MMO things.

    Tangentially, I believe Minecraft is seeing the success it is because it’s unabashedly about playing, not achieving. You can still make grand things and show them to friends, but the game itself simply expects you to be about your own business. There’s a significant lesson for the market there, methinketh.

    And yes, I’m all about the intrinsic play. The extrinsic stuff like loot is just a means to an intrinsic end, and the achievements are white noise. (Though I sympathize with those who find them deleterious, much like how I find forced grouping annoying as a soloist. Stop imposing a playstyle on me, devs!)

  6. One of the pitfalls of game design is that extrinsic rewards are added to get more players to join in with ones who are doing things for intrinsic rewards – but then those additional players have different motives, and act to optimise their extrinsic rewards. For example, the guys who sat AFK in Alterac Valley or wanted to “kill Balinda and lose quick” would drive me bughouse nuts because they’re after maximum Honor for minimum effort, while I want to win the battle. likewise the guys who want to keep running raids that are on farm status instead of trying something new are acting rationally by their own lights – raid on farm equals shinies, new fight equals repair bills. I really think that some things should NOT have extrinsic rewards added to them so that those who want to do the thing for it’s own sake can do so without the reward hunters getting in their way.

  7. First , I think Jamie Madigan would be very proud of you!

    Second, I, for one, don’t at all endorse teh concept of “fun can only be had if there is some tangible award or reward at the end of the purported struggle.”

    One of the things that I loved about Eve Online is that it allowed you to have fun in whichever way you chose. If you didn’t want to engage in large-scale fleet battles, or combat at all, you could be a complete pacifist and yet have a more powerful standing in the world than most veteran pilots. You didn’t get a “reward” for doing one thing or another, it was a matter of choice. Choice based on which career path made the most sense to you and how you defined “fun”.

  8. Pingback: Game By Night » Why Pilgrim's Bounty Was One Of The Best Holiday's This Year

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