Focus on… Motivation Theories

Child motivated to play piano
Image by Mister Roberts from Flickr with thanks

With regard to motivation, many often regard ‘intrinsic’ motivation as being ‘internal’ – from within. They similarly conflate ‘extrinsic’ with ‘external’ rewards. The truth is somewhat more complex.

According to Ryan and Deci, intrinsic motivation can relate to either internal or external causes, and the same is true of extrinsic motivation.

For example, a student can practise to play the piano, for the sheer joy of learning and improving skill. This is intrinsic motivation – where some behaviour occurs because it is enjoyable in itself. This is also internal because the impetus comes from the individual themself.

They could also work equally hard, because playing the piano well will win them a place in an upcoming school musical production. The cause of the practising behaviour is internally generated. However they practise for the separate outcome or reward (instrumental value), of getting the part in the play. Therefore, the behaviour is extrinsically motivated.

Finally, the student may practice, purely because failing to practise will mean that her parents will be cross with her. This motivation is both external and extrinsic.

As any parent of a piano playing child will know, it is much more difficult to persuade the child in the last situation to practice, than one in the first. It can be equally difficult to separate a child from some activity which is internal/intrinsic, like playing a computer game.

Combinations of motivations

The situation becomes even more complex when one realises that these combinations of internal/external intrinsic/extrinsic can differ with respect to the same activity. The student may partially want to practise because of the joy of making music. She also finds extrinsic motivation in the prospect of a high grade in their next music exam.

motivation to play piano
Image from Rick Harris from Flickr with thanks

Take also the example of a child who dislikes walking, but has to walk to get to their piano lesson (which they enjoy). They find internal/extrinsic motivation to walk, which derives from the intrinsic motivation of the piano lesson.

Furthermore, the same activity can differ with regard to its motivations, for the same individual, at different times or in different contexts.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan 1985; Ryan & Deci 2000) is a motivation theory that explains motivation as being the result of trying to satisfy three universal, inbuilt psychological needs:

Autonomy When individuals feel that they have chosen freely to engage in a behaviour, they perceive their autonomy as high. This contrasts with situations where they feel pressure from other people or external forces (duty).
Competence – The individual’s perception of level of skill in a specific behaviour. E.g. “I am good at playing the piano”.
Psychological relatedness– Perception of relatedness is high when behaviours allow them to share experiences and form relationships.

Satisfying these needs makes an activity intrinsically motivating. In 2000 Deci & Ryan modified their own ideas about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. They proposed a continuum whereby greater levels of autonomy equated to more intrinsic motivation.

Self Determination Theory proposes that these three needs are universal. However, it allows for individual differences in how people are motivated, because these needs can be socially conditioned. One of the ways that this happens is because people have different intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations (Life Goals).

Other theories can help us to understand how these individual differences may look in practice. In particular, we can look to frameworks of ‘Player Types’.

Player Types

Richard Bartle defined four player types based on his observations of the behaviours of players of MUDs (Multi User Dungeons).

MUD client player type
  • Killers like to impose themselves both on other players and the playing environment. Hackers and trolls display the Killer personality type, as do cheats. However, this group also includes those who want to exert strong influence in a positive way. Killers relish pitting themselves against other players and make formidable opponents.
  • Achievers are similarly competitive but are all about conquering difficult challenges in the game, or set by themselves. The harder the challenge the more satisfaction they will feel when they beat it.
  • Explorers are driven by discovery. They will explore every nook of the game and collect everything they can find. This curiosity also extends to how the game works. These will be the players who discover the Easter Eggs and shortcuts.
  • Socialisers relish the opportunity that the game affords to form relationships with other players. They enjoy spreading knowledge, and will often find themselves as guild managers or in other community roles.

A word of caution

It would be easy to see how these different types might have varying proportions of the three drives of Social Determination Theory. It would also be tempting to use these personas when designing your board game, or gamified call-centre agent application. This would be a mistake. Bartle himself has frequently and publicly talked about how these player types are not applicable to anything beyond the research context in which they were discovered. His argument is that the research may very well be incomplete for games other than MUDs.  I am sure, therefore, that they are even less applicable to workplace gamification.

The terms he uses, however can provide a useful way of referring to, or thinking about certain personality types when designing games or even learning. You can read about the experience of designing for “Killers in the Classroom” in March’s issue of the magazine.

Andrzej Marczewski

Fortunately, Andrzej Marczewski has taken up the challenge of adapting and adding to Bartle’s work to create player types suitable for design in Enterprise Gamification.

Player types hexad motivation

He has six player types:

  • Socialisers want to create relationships with other players and relish the social aspects of the experience on offer.
  • Free Spirits (similar in some ways to Explorers) are creative in their approach and also require Autonomy in order to feel motivation.
  • Achievers find motivation in Mastery (see Competence in SDT). They are seeking challenges which will help them to progress and improve themselves.
  • Philanthropists want to help other without expecting any (other) reward in return. They are altruistic and driven by a higher purpose.
  • Players are very happy to play (or even ‘game’) your game, so long they gain appropriate rewards for doing so. This player is all about what they can get from participating.
  • Disruptors (similar to Bartle’s Killers) want to bring about change to the system, either directly, or through other. This change can be either positive or negative

In this list, the first four seek mostly intrinsic motivation, while the last two are more complex in nature. These require a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

These ‘Player Type’ frameworks can usefully combine with or map onto other motivational frameworks to allow the designer to create experiences which differentiate to achieve optimum outcomes for all participants.



One of the most useful of these is Octalysis. This framework, the brainchild of Yu-kai Chou, proposes eight core drives:

  • Epic Meaning and Calling – The drive to be part of something greater than oneself.
  • Development & Accomplishment – The drive to develop skills and knowledge and overcome challenges.
  • Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback – When people have autonomy to exercise their creativity to find solutions, and receive feedback about the success of their efforts, this drive is satisfied.
  • Ownership & Possession – The drive to make something one owns better. This is the impetus behind accumulating wealth, and also to make collections.
  • Social Influence and Relatedness – The drive for social acceptance and friendship, but also competition and envy. This means we find people, places and events we relate to the most attractive.
  • Scarcity & Impatience – This is the impetus to want something just because you can’t have it. The desire to belong to an exclusive club, or buy something quickly because of a soon-to-end special offer are examples of this.
  • Unpredictability & Curiosity – When you explore every part of a game just to find out what is there, or continue to read a book or watch after to discover what happens next, you are motivated by this drive.
  • Loss & avoidance – This drives focuses on the avoidance of negative consequences. The child who practises piano to avoid being told off, is acting under the influence of this drive.

One can evaluate (or design) each experience based on how much (or how little) it satisfies each of the eight drives. The Octalysis diagram represents this graphically.

Mapping to Player Types

If we combine, say, the Hexad with Octalysis we can start to map a proposed experience, based on what specific player types would find motivating. So for example, the below diagram shows the favoured experience structure for a Free Spirit.

Octalysis - Free Spirit

Learn more about the application of Octalysis to analyse user experience in this article by Dirk van Diepen of the Octalysis Group Duolingo review – how to apply gamification smarter

Editor at Ludogogy
Sarah Le-Fevre is a games-based learning professional who specialises in organisational learning around systemic ‘wicked problems’, and helping businesses spot and exploit opportunities for ethical ‘for good’ innovation. She works with tools such as Lego® Serious Play® and the Octalysis gamification framework to create compelling immersive learning experiences. She is currently writing a book outlining a systems practice approach to delivering impactful learning within organisations.

A real board games nerd, she is considering having her floors reinforced to support the ever increasing weight of the boxes. When she is not designing or facilitating learning games she is the editor of Ludogogy Magazine. Sarah lives in Oxfordshire with her husband, younger daughter, and a beautiful (but very loud) Bengal cat.

Ludogogy Needs You!!. It's a full-time job and cannot continue without support. Please become a patron to keep Ludogogy going and to access some great patron perks
Latest posts by Ludogogy (see all)

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.