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?