Intrinsic Motivation: What Video Games Can Teach Us About Designing Learning Games

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Engagement. It’s the one word you’ll see over and over again reading about gamification, game-based learning, and serious games. It’s the reason we do what we do here at Ronin. There’s an engagement crisis in corporate America (the corporate world, really). With 70% of U.S. workers disengaged on the job, we believe game solutions can help chip away at the problem. Make no mistake, games and gamification are not going to solve the problem; it’s far more complex than that and needs a multi-faceted approach. But they can certainly help.

Engagement, particularly the way the word is thrown around, is a pretty vague term. A dictionary definition reads something like “being emotionally involved,” but it’s easier to understand the term by exploring its implications in more detail. Being engaged on the job means to work without distraction, to be emotionally invested in the outcomes of your work and the company’s fortune.

Think about an activity that you love to do. For me, something I enjoy is brewing beer. It’s a lot of work, but coming up with the recipe and executing it gives me a lot of pride. When I’m brewing, I’m in the zone. I’m checking, double-checking, sanitizing, and stirring. I’m not thinking about anything else, and it’s best not to try to distract me. In a word: I’m engaged.

Another way to look at it would be to say I’m intrinsically motivated. I’m brewing beer because I enjoy it, not for a reward or money. Maybe the beer itself is a benefit, but I could always buy beer at the store. Intrinsic motivation is one of the major concepts in understanding the science behind using gamification and game-based learning as engagement tools. Studying what makes people internally motivated to improve, grow, and develop (essentially what makes them intrinsically motivated) psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed a framework based on Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

The 3 Components of Self-Determination Theory
Deci and Ryan broke self-determination theory down into three components:

  1. Competence - The need to control the outcome and experience mastery
  2. Relatedness - The desire to interact, connect with, and care for others
  3. Autonomy - Wanting to have control of one’s life and its direction

If the goal of using serious games is to engage people and tap into their intrinsic motivations, let’s explore how video games fulfill each of the three components of the SDT (which helps explain in part why people love playing games!).


The ultimate goal of a video game is to beat it! Some games, specifically multiplayer games (online or offline – think FIFA or Madden) don’t truly have an end game, but there’s still a game to win, or a map in which you compete to have the most kills/fewest deaths. Games drive mastery by starting with simpler introductory levels and building in difficulty, giving the player new skills and tools to deal with the increased challenge. You can’t beat the game without learning the skills (moves, use of weapons, strategy) first. The intrinsic  motivation comes from the satisfaction of mastering the game (and the pursuit of mastery as well).

Relatedness is probably best explored through Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG). The biggest and most popular example of a MMORPG is World of Warcraft. Within the universe of these games, there is a great degree of social interaction. Although the stereotype of MMORPG players is anti-social slackers (think South Park), there are many players who play World of Warcraft largely for social interaction (see: Richard Bartle’s player types). Online games often feature guilds or teams, which connect players to each other and give them a sense of belonging. Often times video games include mechanisms for players to heal others as well.

Video games place the player in direct control of an avatar. The player has decisions to make and his or her decisions affect the outcome of the game, whether the player will succeed or fail, and sometimes the direction the story takes. Possibly the best example of autonomy in a video game, that I can think of, is the game Deus Ex. In the game, the player makes choices that directly affect the course of the game. For example, in dialogue with other characters, you select questions and responses that can affect the characters’ willingness to cooperate with you. Additionally, your decision on how to handle missions has implications for the future of the story. There is one point in the game in which if you fail to recognize a suspicious character and neutralize him, another character dies as a result.

Lessons for Learning Games
So far we’ve talked about the employee engagement crisis, its negative effects, and how intrinsic motivation is a key way to get people to engage with their jobs and employers. We looked at what composes intrinsic motivation through the lens of the Self-Determination Theory and finally explored how video games promote competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

That said, our discussion thus far has been limited to games designed for entertainment. However, they still lend important lessons to the design of learning games for the business world. Here are the key things we can learn from video games about cultivating intrinsic motivation:

  • Make it social! Even if the game doesn’t include multi-player functionality, incorporate some social elements – message boards, social media. competition. It’s not realistic or advisable to have a learning game that resembles World of Warcraft, but its popularity demonstrates the ability of games to cultivate social interaction and foster relatedness among employees.
  • Give your players choices. In a learning game, people need to explore and fail to learn. Let employees take (guided) control of their learning by empowering them with the ability to make decisions. Offer multiple levels and starting points. Give the player options in the gameplay that provide the learner with a sense of autonomy – an example would be
  • Build confidence in  your learners through mastery. Make sure the game has substance and not just style. If it doesn’t help your employees feel more knowledgeable and better prepared for their jobs, it’s not working. The important thing is not just that employees beat the game (although that’s they key to learning the content), but that beating the game contributes to real learning.


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