A long-standing distinction in psychology, particularly within education, is that between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivation is rewards and reinforcers provided by someone else, such as a cookie treat or gold star.  Intrinsic motivation arises from an individuals own goals and interests.  The difference is between doing my homework because I want a cookie and doing it because I want to learn.

The impetus behind this distinction is important: you want students to be self-motivated.  If their motivation relies solely on the provision of cookies, then soon as the cookies go away, so does their motivation.  And learning.  That said, I think the distinction, nonetheless, does more harm than good, obscuring the complexities of motivational processes.

Ingesting calories to sustain life is fundamental to the survival of an organism. Millions of years of evolution have designed neural mechanisms to make sure people feel motivated to eat.  Working for a cookie, from this perspective, is pretty intrinsic, arising from powerful internal motivational systems.  Conversely, the student that struggles to write the best essay possible may be internally motivated to ‘do well,’ but does this arise from internal evaluation, ie., “I am satisfied”, or from the need for approval from teacher and peers?  Is being told ‘you are smart’ really any less intrinsic than a cookie?  Could not a student playing a video game for points, redeemable in cookies, be equally motivated simply to surpass his/her previous performance, relatively indifferent to the cookie rewards?  The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, looked at closely, is not nearly as clear as one might hope.  Intrinsically motivated people may often be successful.  Can we really distinguish whether it is some intrinsic desire to do what they do or social recognition or financial return that motivates their behavior?  Or some complex combination of all of the above?

Rather than categorizing motivation into different types, I would argue that ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ reflect different aspects of all motivation.  That is, all motivation is both intrinsic and extrinsic.  The ‘intrinsic’ aspect reflects the need or goal being met by a behavior.  Ingesting calories or producing a work of genius are equally intrinsic, motivated by an internal need.  The ‘extrinsic’ aspect reflects the outcome that arises as a consequence of a behavior.  The cookie and the genius essay are equally extrinsic, both something in the external world that has come about as a result of my behavior and meets some need.  “Reward” arises as an outcome that meets a need.  The need is always intrinsic and the outcome—something occurring in the outside world—is always extrinsic.

We are genetically programmed with a built-in motivation to seek food. We are not programmed with a motivation for large bank balances, getting into Who’s Who, gold stars on our papers or the pleasure of producing a work of staggering genius.  From a neuroscience and evolutionary perspective, these latter types of motivation, far from being ‘intrinsic’ are actually quite extrinsic, while a cookie reward is very intrinsic, the exact opposite of the traditional intrinsic-extrinsic distinction.  From this perspective, the interesting question is how motivational processes, starting with basic intrinsic motivations such as food, water, warmth, become transformed through experience to create complex motivational structures that yield such extrinsic, non-evolutionary motivations as writing a great novel, solving world-hunger or even learning how to do long division.

What does this esoteric discussion of motivation have to do with video games?  It suggest an idea simple in principle and complex in implementation: video games provide an experience that can change and shape motivation.  That is, motivation is not a static given, neither within the player (they are or are not motivated) nor within the game (providing this motivator or that motivator).  Motivation is a process.  The question, then, becomes how does interaction with a video game engage the motivational process and alter a player’s motivational structure?

One of the problems with educational games is that as you increase the educational content, the intrinsic ‘fun’ of the game declines.  This makes sense.  You are adulterating ‘fun’ (intrinsically motivating) with extraneous content that generates no intrinsic interest in the students.  They simply do not care about quadratic equations.  You are also introducing frustration as players have to build a cognitive framework for engaging the game (ie., in essence, the learning).  Grand theft auto does not require this.  The more a game is like learning, the more the motivational obstacles will become apparent.  This, in turn, leads to questions of how to motivate students to engage the educational games, which leads to question about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.  We want students to want to learn, but, alas, many just don’t wanna.  So we must motivate them with extrinsic rewards, but this kind of motivation is viewed as inferior.  And so on.  We can simply reduce the educational content of an educational game, but this has obvious drawbacks.

The challenge is cultivating so-called intrinsic motivation from initial extrinsic motivation.  Start where the player is.  Starting with low content, induce in the player a progressive redefinition of ‘fun’ that provides the motivation for progressively sophisticated content.  As a process, this is not new.  Doing precisely this has been a primary objective of educators for decades: what Vygotsky called scaffolding, the gradual building of skills that progressively increases students’ competence and, ideally, their sense of joy and reward in exercising that competence.  What video games offer is nimble and exquisite control over the types of experience a student encounters in a game that can be explicitly designed to change their motivational structure: motivational scaffolding.

From this perspective, educational video games need to be designed around not just transforming a student’s cognitive schema (ie., knowledge, skills, acquisition of content) but, perhaps more importantly, explicitly designed to shape and transform their ‘motivational schema.’

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