Motivation is a complex concept with a long history in psychology and neuroscience.  I am going to sketch a notion of ‘motivational structure’ in this post and, in a subsequent post link this motivational structure to a part of the brain associated with procedural learning and habit.  The purpose of this is to make an argument about how video games can create a form of ‘motivational scaffolding’ that creates motivation where there was none before.

First, the elements of motivational structure.  The earliest theories of motivation were ‘drive’ theories: hunger, thirst, reproduction and so on.  The basic idea is that a deficit state produces motivation to relieve the deficit, for example by eating, drinking or mating.  Though these theories are generally seen as too simplistic to fully explain complex motivational processes, it is hard to dismiss the general idea that we have certain needs and when these are not met this creates a ‘drive’ to meet these needs.  This need-based view of motivation was elaborated beyond simple physiological needs by Abraham Maslow in his famous hierarchy of needs (see Michael Wu for an excellent discussion of this and other motivational theories with regard to video game design).   In the discussion of intrinsic/extrinsic, I associated these internal need states with intrinsic motivation, or ‘push’ motivation.  In the mid 20th century, an alternative, ‘incentive’ view of motivation developed in which motivation arose not from internal, push mechanisms but from things in the world that become associated with value for the organism.  That is stimuli, such as Big Mac, can of Coke, or a scantily clad body all come to possess incentive value that causes us to engage in behavior to interact with those stimuli and obtain satisfaction.  This is a ‘pull’ mechanism, such as when a picture of a Big Mac makes your mouth water, which I associated with ‘extrinsic’ motivation.  Setting aside abstruse theoretical debate, it should be obvious that both types of motivation must exist and, moreover, there must be a relationship between the two.

Second, the functions of motivational structure.  Though we think of motivation as the thing that makes us want to do things, like play video games, eat Big Macs, surf the internet for porn, I want to give it a concrete function: the allocation of resources.  An organism has a finite number of resources and needs to make decisions to optimally use those resources for its survival and development.  The first and most fundamental resource is attention.  One cannot pay attention to and think about and consider everything all the time.  Example: if you just finished a huge meal while driving you probably won’t notice the endless billboards for fast food restaurants along the way but if you are hungry you will see and think about every single one; this is selective attention.  The second resource is effort/energy allocation.  This has two component: what to expend effort and energy on in the first place (do I study, do my laundry or talk to a friend on the phone) and, secondly, how much effort to expend.

It works like this then: faced with a barrage of stimuli and choices, a motivational structure is a set of associations between these stimuli and, based on previous experience, their potential value to meeting current internal needs.  A combination of one’s current need state (intrinsic, ‘push’ aspect) and the learned incentive associated with stimuli (extrinsic, ‘pull’ aspect) cause us to shift our attention to certain things in the world with which we can interact.  Among those things, we next decide which are more relevant to us at the moment: get to class on time (hate to be late again) or eat quick lunch (I am starving)? Finally, once we have selected a goal, our motivational structure includes cost-benefit analyses that tell us how hard to pursue the goal we just selected.  This is a very simplified conceptualization of motivational structure that is intended as a helpful framework for thinking about motivation.

Motivational Structure: push/pull, drive/incentive elements of motivation denoted in blue. Basic functions of motivation in red. Effect of experience on motivation, green.

What is important to recognize here, and lays the groundwork for the next post, is that although we typically think of motivation as leading to action—I am hungry, so I eat—the motivational structure described above cannot precede experience: it arises from interaction with the world.  So although the common sense notion that motivation shapes our actions is clearly true, it is equally true that our actions and experience shape our motivational structure.  So instead of designing video games based on the notion that we need to find gameplay that ‘taps into’ a person’s motivation, a pervasive belief, we should think about providing gameplay experiences that shape that motivation in the first place: design experiences that create motivation.  But how to do this?  The key is to look in the brain at where action and motivation come together so intimately as to be indistinguishable: the basal ganglia.  In the next post I will talk about what this brain region is generally believed to do and how that might give us insight into designing video games that ‘scaffold’ motivational structures.

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