I know extrinsic motivators can lead to surprisingly, the complete opposite effect, demotivation, but I have never experienced it myself until I became an avid player of the hidden object mobile game, Secret Passages. Games, of course, have loads of extrinsic motivators like enthusiastic praise, achievement badges, and quest rewards. Could it be that the very same mechanics used to hook initial players can lead to waning interest in the long run?
Psychologists know that extrinsic motivators can decrease intrinsic motivation, i.e. whatever held your interest in the first place. Displaying intrinsic motivation, a student practices violin to get better at playing violin. Some might call this doing something for the love of it. It's also called DIY learning and self-directed learning. Paying $10 to a student to practice violin would be an example of extrinsic motivation. Soon, the student begins practicing for the $10 rather than for the joy of it and won't practice without that incentive. Sure, extrinsic motivators have their uses, but you can bet that student won't make it to Carnegie Hall without a desire to excel at violin playing.
Likewise, players can have a burning desire to master a game and they don't need a bribe. Granted, that can be hard to do with a game that's more like a game service, incomplete and ongoing rather than a finite product, but a player can still race through all the content that does exist. I've seen players finish in a day what took content developers a couple months to implement. That's why some content may seem grindy because it's designed to keep players at bay, away from the finishing line.
Secret Passages did have its repetitive moments. I like hidden object games, though I wouldn't say I love them. Hidden object games supposedly do well because our short-term memory fades and we can redo the same puzzle over without it boring us to tears. I played Secret Passages incessantly not only to explore the content and level up, but also to analyze its design. Since Secret Passages was an ongoing work-in-progress, some things didn't make sense until the features arrived. There was one feature, though, that had no gameplay advantage and thus, I ignored it. This feature disappeared some time later, perhaps due to analytic data. I never did level everything up completely, but I did unlock all the puzzles, at least the ones where I didn't have to gamble or pay.
In fact, even when the quest told me to gamble, I had the strength to simply abandon the quest. I think for some people, this is harder than you would think. People have this innate desire for completion. There's satisfaction in completing a quest and getting the rewards. As game designers, the quest feature sounds good because it gives a reason for players to come back to the game. We're designing for retention.
Before, I was self-directed, pursuing my own goals, and even though I had to wait for my energy to replenish, I came back to the game. With the daily quests, I did come back to the game, but I soon realized that I was only playing for about 15-20 minutes a day whereas before, I was playing for couple hours spread out throughout the day. Each morning, I would look at the daily quests, complete them, and then never look at the game until the next day. At first, I thought of those 15 minutes as my break time, but then I started to think of it as a waste of time. There's other games to play, after all! So, one day, despite my accumulation of various in-game currencies, badges, and so forth, I deleted the game.
A few months later, I reflected upon this action and realized that playing the game for quest rewards had turned into my demotivation. Had I simply been turned off because I had exhausted the content? What do you think? Is this an example of extrinsic motivation decreasing intrinsic motivation?
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.