Intrinsic Motivation in MMO’s

I watched this video today, and then I ran across Brian Green’s extreme makeover of Legendary Items in LOTRO. As I was commenting on his blog that the only other option for random rare drops seemed to be the grind, I realized something. MMO’s have been all about extrinsic motivation, and nothing about intrinsic motivation.

If you don’t know what that means, watch the talk, it’s a good primer. Or, here’s another example: Take a set of first graders and divide them into two groups: for the first group, put out a big box of crayons and paper, and just let them go at it. Coloring is fun, after all. That’s called intrinsic motivation.

For the second group, put out a reward system for coloring. More coloring, more reward. This is extrinsic motivation.

Ok, now before you read on, try to guess what happens, both initially and over time.

Answer: There’s more coloring for about a week or two with extrinsic motivators, also known as “incentives”. Then no coloring at all. None. Zip. Nada. Phooey!

Does this seem familiar? Does it remind you of a certain “shard” system in a favorite MMO? It does me… I haven’t been playing much over the summer, and I think I just figured out why. I got really tired of grinding shards for armor for my THIRD toon in a row (my defiler is closing in on 80.) Doing the stuff I do has to be fun in and of itself.

I have been known to grind long and hard for very little reward. I can’t tell you how many writs I did in Lavastorm mountains killing goblins, just so I could have the word “Exalted” appear in front of my name tag. That was at 150 faction a pop too. (Kids these days have it way too easy now that writs give a lot more faction points, grumble, grumble. I had to earn it the hard way, in the lava, and it was uphill both ways!)

I came to MMO’s from tabletop games, and most of my games were with very stingy DM’s. We had scorn for “Monte Haul” campaigns with loads of loot. I don’t see it as all that bad these days, but really, focusing on intrinsic goals of the players and the characters were much more important.

As Dan Pink describes, there are three aspects to intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. MMO’s are pretty good at Autonomy. There’s no manager standing over you telling you what to do at every turn. There are lots of NPC’s with stuff they want you to do, and a full quest journal, but you can always say, “screw it today”, and go rearrange furniture in your house and chat with friends.

Mastery can be used, and it’s why I play, and why I play an enchanter class. Button mashing is not what we’re about. At least it didn’t used to be. Locking down an encounter that might end up as a wipe is still very satisfying, because it’s about my skill in targeting, prioritizing, and a sort of juggling. Much is possible.

However, gear and dps seems to dominate. Don’t get me wrong, I think there probably is a mastery curve to doing dps. But you can’t even play unless you have the right gear. And getting that gear means grinding, or getting lucky. I still don’t have a Praetor’s Guard, but running that zone stopped being fun quite a while ago.

Ok, what about Purpose. Purpose is kind of tricking in a persistent-world MMO. You can do quests and see cutscenes where the bad guy is vanquished and that’s pretty satisfying, but you also know that if you start another toon, and run them through, the bad guy will be there waiting for you again.

Here’s a really great application of Purpose as a motivator. Long ago, there was a world-wide event where we put up the griffin towers in Loping Plains and Nektulos. You went there, did crafting or gathering quests, and there was a little tally that showed you how far along everyone had got. When we finished, the tower was up. Permanently. We changed the world. That’s meaningful. We got little tokens in the mail for participating.

Something like that was done for the spires to the Overrealm, too. Culminating in a fight with dragons. But they had to spoil it with extrinsic rewards: house items and titles. Hence, other people were jealous because they hadn’t logged in that weekend and missed it. Honestly, I think the answer is not to have less of these events but to have more, and give out little or no extrinsic rewards for them. The Amish raise barns for basically a big picnic. Purpose, the chance to do something worthwhile and meaningful is powerful. I’d like to see more of it.

5 thoughts on “Intrinsic Motivation in MMO’s

  1. An interesting take on my post. Glad it inspired some lateral thinking!This is related to another discussion I've been having that will result in another post soon: people chase after the loot (extrinsic motivation) instead of enjoying the game (intrinsic). People follow the carrot and avoid the stick instead of having fun.I think one of the problems here is that for whatever reason, even though people do better in autonomous situations, a lot of people like structure. Many people want to go into a quest hub, grab a bunch of quests, and then follow the instructions (or Questhelper arrows) and then get the reward. They like building a character in the proscribed way.The problem comes once people tire of the extrinsic motivators. They're fun the first time, and maybe with a few alts, but eventually you just tire of the hoops. You want to go off the rails, but that's not what's rewarded. So, eventually, you get tired of doing the proscribed tasks. It's hard to follow your own intrinsic motivators if you have to get the extrinsic motivators to do so.Thanks for a thoughtful comment, though. I edited your comment on my site to point to this post; hope you don't mind. :)

  2. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  3. Pingback: Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Permanent Change | Toldain Talks

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