The Big Gamification Paradox: Intrinsic Motivation Vs. External Rewards

One of the reasons I am fascinated with gamification, is that at its core it touches on a fundamental shift in society. The shift from hierarchical structures to networked structures; from top-down to grassroots. This perspective can help us define where gamification might be helpful and it can help us see where and why gamified processes are not working properly. It is my idea that gamification as a social tool is only viable as far as the social environment in which it is embedded is a networked (i.e. non-hierarchical) structure. Let me explain why.


The Big Question in my mind when it comes to the durability of gamification processes, is whether we will succeed in designing playfully interactive systems that support intrinsic motivation with external rewards. And when you consider the overjustification effect, I have some doubts whether we will be entirely successful.The reason that points, badges and leaderboards are so boring (I think they are tiresome, bland and the reason behind gamifications image as an over-hyped fad) is that by themselves they do nothing to support intrinsic motivation. Any motivation that might be there is quickly and effectively transformed into some worthless need to gain points and climb the leaderboard. Only when the reward system is closely coupled to intrinsic motivation, does the gamified process have an actual chance at being valuable and durable.

This leads us to search for ways to couple these external rewards to intrinsic motivation. To find a solution to this problem we first need to look for these intrisic motivations. What, in other words, motivates people? Luckily, many psychologists have studied what drives the human mind and guess what they really, really want? Power, autonomy and belonging. Or, in my own words: People are driven by having the power to autonomously contribute value to and change the community in which they live. ‘Community’ here can be interpreted as a company, a village, a school, a political party, or any other organization.


Do you see why this is a problem for hierarchically organized institutions? Information in these structures flows down from the top, right? So, if somewhere at the bottom salesman X. is doing his work within a gamified environment, the rewards this process can hand out to him are limited by the overarching stucture of the hierarchical organization. Becasue power and autonomy are mostly stored in the top layers of any hierarchy. So employee X. can sell all he want, but he will only stay intrinsically motivated to perform well if real-life power, autonomy and belonging are his bonus. So ony as long as he can realistically expect to rise in the hierarchy, will he continue to use the gamified process in a productive way. And let’s face it: many people are stuck in their job and they know it. A funky badge or bonus points will not fool them for a bit. Well, it actually might for a bit, but not much longer than that…

In networked structures there is also hierarchy, but it normally created ad-hoc. Every process, every workflow, every project or conversation in a network has its own dynamics. Some might be called hierarchical, some are totally flat, some move somewhere on the line between those two. In such environments external rewards can really dole out power and autonomy, in fact, more or less equal distribution of those is a characteristic of any complex network. Sometimes it is not even clear where in the network something started or where it is going. Allowing such unpredictable processes within an organization asks a lot of courage from a company, because companies are taught to like predictability, risk-aversion and compliance. Many networked structures today don’t have to deal with these old, economically driven notions. Nobody there cares about ‘staying on top’. They just want to feel the power to do what they feel like witin a larger whole.


That’s why I think social gamification holds a lot of promise for the future. It really comes into its own when applied to complex networks of people and it is exactly this kind of organization that is rapidly taking over the hierarchical organization as he predominant way of ‘doing things’ in the world today.

Do you think so, too? Please let me know your thoughts!

p.s. While writing this article, a thought popped into my mind: what if money is an external reward that has sucked our intrinsic motivation dry? Think about it…


3 thoughts on “The Big Gamification Paradox: Intrinsic Motivation Vs. External Rewards

  1. I also find points/badges/leaderboards beyond dull – heck, I review apps for a living and almost never play any games in my personal time, because they seem far too transparent in their empty reward mechanisms. But I suspect that’s not the case with the majority of folks out there, or so the continued massive success of Candy Crush etc. would seem to suggest.

    PItting intrinsic motivation versus external rewards has given me serious food for thought, though. For example, in my recent article on Medium that you read re: exercise, I envision a point system to encourage us to keep fit. And yet, that’s the very reason Fitocracy didn’t work for me – the points felt arbitrary and pointless, whereas the reward of getting stronger was in an entirely different category, seemingly without overlap. I’ll keep mulling over it while putting together my next pieces.

    • I must admit that this whole intrinsic/external issue makes me doubt seriously whether gamification is really a durable practice. Like I said in the end, money is maybe nothing more than an external reward that eats away at our intrinsic motivations. Look where it is taking us… not a pretty sight… and maybe gamification is just a little reminder that life can be meaningful only as far as we see it as a game.

  2. Pingback: Can Games Teach Us How To Live? |


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