When crafted well, games create an experience that can make the player go "Oh, wow!" They feel a balance of both competence and challenge, familiarity and wonder. When that occurs, engagement should naturally follow. But these days, it isn't uncommon to see extrinsic motivators being used in kids games. The player completes an activity, and is rewarded with a sticker, or other virtual item. But why? Can't we let kids just enjoy the game? If the game is good, wouldn't the child already be motivated to play it?
Some people believe that motivation is something we have to give a child. Take a look at this parent review of the iOS app First Words: Animals:
If the child "loves it," why is it necessary to provide additional motivation? And what effect would that have?
Extrinsic motivation’s effect on behavior has been studied for decades. Chris Hecker discussed this at length in his 2010 GDC presentation, "Achievements Considered Harmful?" Video of the talk is behind a pay wall, but you can read a summary and see slides on his blog. Hecker cited meta-analysis that reviewed hundreds of these studies. (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999) The findings they agreed on were:
- Expected rewards decrease a person's intrinsic motivation.
- Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases intrinsic motivation.
Preschool children in particular have been the subject of several studies. Turns out, you can wreck a child's love for drawing, if you tell him you'll give him money for each drawing he completes. Suddenly it becomes all about the money, and when that incentive is gone, what is the point?
What about those sticker reward pages we see in kids apps and web games? Sure, preschoolers love stickers, and virtual stickers are no exception. But when you offer a reward for doing a task, you send a message that the task isn't worth doing for its own sake. You've created a situation where the reason to do the task is to receive the reward. The focus has been shifted away from any joy or satisfaction that might have been in the activity itself.
It isn't enough to say "Well, some kids like the stickers. If a player doesn't like the sticker, that kid can ignore it." You've established the dynamic of the whole interaction. Educational games that hook players with real learning and real discovery don't need no stinkin' badges, to borrow a phrase from Jane McGonigal. Your sticker still draws attention away from the inherent satisfaction of the activity.
Of course, extrinsic motivation isn't always a bad thing. It can provide incentive for dull, but necessary tasks. If the goal of a program is to get players to do the chore of memorizing vocabulary words or multiplication facts, or perhaps to practice forming a letter of the alphabet, then sticker rewards or achievement badges might be highly effective. But these aren't really learning games. They're mastery or practice games. It's rare to see something accomplished in these types of games that hasn't been done before, or couldn't be done more efficiently with traditional classroom supplies, like index cards.
If you're designing a game that incorporates stickers or achievement badges, take a close look at the second bullet point above and see if they could be made more effective by placing them in unexpected places, or writing them to be directly relevant to the subject matter at hand.
In designing educational games, we should create experiences that bring out the natural fun of learning, and carve away anything that stands in the way of that. This is why design is difficult. It's all about determining where that balance of player confidence and challenge lies.
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Photo credit: Paul Mayne. Shared via Creative Commons license.Tweet