How to use rewards in Gamification without killing motivation

How to use rewards in Gamification without killing motivation

In 1984 Pizza Hut launched it’s (in)famous “Book It!” reading incentive program for children. In the program, students who read books according to the goal set by the classroom teacher were rewarded free pizzas from Pizza Hut. Many psychologists criticized the program on the grounds that getting children to read using rewards would reduce children’s existing interest in reading. In other words: extrinsic rewards kill intrinsic motivation. However, in reality the program had no effect whatsoever on reading motivation. Not positively, nor negatively.


Also today, extrinsic motivation is the target of critique from a variety of scholars and quasi scientists. The main tenet is to vilify extrinsic rewards and to glorify intrinsic motivation, all set in a sort of zero-sum game of winners and losers: when extrinsic motivation rules, intrinsic motivation loses.


Is it really this clear cut? What is the story behind rewards and motivation? And what does it teach us about using rewards in Gamification? Let’s have a look what the experts say shall we?


What is motivation?

We normally make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that arises from performing the task itself. So someone may be eager to do a task because doing so gives them a feeling of accomplishment, mastery and/or self-fulfilment.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from outside the individual, and results from the expectation of receiving external rewards such as salary, benefits, incentives, promotions and recognition in exchange for performance. This means the tools of compensation and benefits professionals are extrinsic rewards.

Scientists behind the Self-determination Theory (SDT), like Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, have long espoused the negative relation between extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation. Popular writers like Daniel Pink, have championed this now dominant claim of an undermining effect of extrinsic rewards. In his famous book “Drive” he talks about the “seven deadly flaws” of extrinsic rewards and speaks of their capacity “to extinguish intrinsic motivation” and “to diminish performance”. Pretty stern warnings huh?

Other writers and psychology scholars (like Cameron and Fang) have been less convinced however, and even have championed the case for the use of extrinsic rewards in order to establish intrinsic motivation where there was none to start with or when extrinsic rewards give focused feedback about performance and competence of the user.

So who is right?


600full-all-in-a-nutshell-posterWhat we do know….

Great, so the experts don’t even know themselves what’s correct? What else is new? Well, let’s see what they at least agree on:

  1. Motivation is the sum of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation taken together: there is no zero-sum relation. Even scholars who think that extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation do not hold that the effect overwhelms extrinsic motivation and makes overall motivation negative.

According to DST front man, Edward Deci:

“There is no lack of agreement … about the power of rewards to control behaviour. It is clear that rewards can be used as a technique of control. CET specifically proposes that it is because people are controlled by rewards that they become less intrinsically motivated.”

  1. It is possible for extrinsic rewards to increase as well as decrease intrinsic motivation. If users/employees see rewards as being associated with increased competence and self-control, they can increase intrinsic motivation.
  1. Rewards have no detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation for boring, routine and tedious work. That is because these tasks lack intrinsic motivation to begin with. Jobs with low intrinsic motivation include many in fast-food restaurants, offices, factories, retail stores and call centres. Even professional jobs that are highly intrinsically motivating typically include a mix of tasks that are interesting and boring, and managers do not want skilled employees to ignore the boring tasks. In this case, performance contingent rewards actually tend to increase intrinsic motivation for less interesting work.
  1. Some rewards have positive to neutral effects on intrinsic motivation. Verbal rewards (praise) significantly increase intrinsic motivation according to multiple reviewers from different camps. Rewards that are provided simply based on participation in an organization and that are not contingent on performance typically do not affect intrinsic motivation because they convey no information about employee competence or self-control. Employee benefits and service awards are examples of rewards that fit this type.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the research is that the effects of the reward depend on the social context in which it is provided. If the reward is appropriately implemented, it should enhance, rather than undermine, intrinsic motivation — making the incentive effect that much more powerful than if it relies on extrinsic motivation alone.


When do rewards workArticle Lead - wide6659889513ng48image.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.13ng1b.png1424750991496.jpg-620x349

Gamification projects are often about learning. Whether it is getting to know a new product; learning a language; a novel manner of social interaction or absorbing new knowledge to create environmental awareness.

One key aspect of learning is that it is not always a pleasant activity and involves feelings of anxiety. This is often the case when the challenge faced is greater than the skills thus far accumulated (read the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on this and in particular his epic work “Flow”). The fact that your brain needs to create new nodes to enable learning may physically contribute to your psychological feelings of unease when a new task feels rather difficult. In such scenarios, a combination of extrinsic rewards (points, badges, leaderboards, monetary rewards) may be needed to maintain users’ engagement across periods of learning, especially when complex learning is to take place in a rather short time span.

Secondly, extrinsic rewards like XP give users a sense and measurement of progress, which is an innate motivational drive that all humans share (together with finding purpose and enjoying autonomy or autonomous choice). When users find that rewards give feedback on their performance, it will enhance their motivation (both extrinsic as well as intrinsic).

Finally, the use of rewards is important when people have no initial interest in tasks they get. In other words, people do not have enough information yet to “know” that they are intrinsically motivated in wanting something. In education, where the use of extrinsic motivation has been most under fire, a subtle use of extrinsic rewards to ‘lure’ students into engaging with the subject matter will be much more effective than just waiting for them to ‘stumble’ upon their intrinsic motivation. It seems very much the case that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can coexist.


So what does this mean for Gamification projects?

So in certain circumstances, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can coexist and are at times mutually reinforcing. This does not mean that we should be content with focussing on points, badges and leaderboards to in our Gamification efforts. Far from that. A heavy emphasis on extrinsic rewards has shown to lead to cheating and other ethical misconduct, something we do not wish in the Gamification environments we create.

Also, exclusive and long term focus on extrinsic rewards runs the danger of people adapting to the rewards, wanting more and more of it for the same activity next time or replacing their social or ethical views of their behaviour with market-price related views. For example, volunteers in charitable organizations work less if they receive payment for their efforts, and tardiness in day care centres increases if parents are fined for being late in dropping off their children. In these cases, the reward signals that the person’s relationship with the organization has been transformed from a personal choice into an economic arrangement.


In the end it is all about balancing the right rewards depending on the user or player types that will use our product, as well as situational environment in which our product will operate in. There just is not one-size-fits-all Gamification solution that fits all for all user groups. In addition, it is fine to rely heavily on using extrinsic rewards to bolster initial knowledge and nourish intrinsic interest, as long as you balance your design with intrinsic motivation design as well with an eye for longer-term motivation.


Some Gamification companies have made it their business to sell of the shelf solutions to their customers and they are doing quite well of it financially it seems. However, they are doing their customers a disfavour as their products are, almost by definition, not specific enough to deliver the right motivation and engagement.


Gamification, then, is still and will always be an art form. An intelligent and creative form of human focused design, that crafts strong engagement from the delicate process of balancing extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, with the human core drives of the specific user groups we want to engage with.


We live in an era where, for better or worse, more and more of our economic activity is outsourced or automated. Luckily, good Gamification (by its very nature and in a similar vein as art) is immune from this development. There are some things you cannot automate. Engaging an individual is a case in point.


The Octalysis Group has been creating balanced Gamification for clients and we have achieved consistently high ROIs with large and small clients.

If you want to know more about how to craft a truly balanced Gamification project, contact me or Yu-kai Chou: or

Leave a comment