Mar 13, 2010


When I mentioned Lee Sheldon's experience point grade method in my 2010 DICE talk, I really thought of it as an unusual experiment. Then Joseph Lui sent me this link to uboost! It's a system that allows teachers to award points to students for good grades, or, well, pretty much anything. The points can be used to buy virtual goods for avatars or virtual pets, or for real world prizes and gift cards. Maybe this is a good way to enhance motivation in school? Or maybe, as some research suggests, this will actually backfire terribly, actually decreasing student motivation. Exactly when external rewards increases and decreases motivation is kind of mysterious -- because it is clear that depending on the circumstance, it can have either effect. I need to study the research more, to understand what the drivers are. Jesper's article doesn't make it clear to me. I've heard Chris Hecker talked about this some at GDC 2010, but I wasn't able to see the talk -- I'm hoping to catch a recording of it. Anyway, if you think you understand when extrinsic rewards help, and when they hurt, I'd love to hear about it!


  1. PS: I just ordered this book, that Jesper suggests -- sounds like a good guide to this research. If it has anything useful, I'll post about it here.

  2. In related news, this made me laugh.

  3. I can only recognize a few cases where they hurt.

    1: They tend to be expensive to implement and thereby steal effort from the experience design.

    2: If they are not interesting to the user the intrinsic rewards of the design lose quite a lot of appeal.

    3: If they are the goal for the user it is too easy for the user to make a rational calculation which comes to the conclusion that it is cheaper to ignore the game and buy the reward for cash.

    However, these three are just a scratch on the surface and a bit too obvious. Turn them around and you'll see a few positive uses.

    - Cheap production of the reward.

    - Narrow target audience.

    - The message your game teaches competes with a very expensive process which motivates spending on the consumer rather than the process.

  4. As this New Scientist article points out, psychopaths are motivated by even different things, and we all have a little psychopath in us apparently.

  5. uBoost publishes a quarterly whitepaper reviewing theory and practice. tp://

    “When a learner earns rewards for attaining high standards, this creates a positive feedback loop, which increases interest and involvement, leads to high personal evaluations of performance, results in increased competence, and builds intrinsic motivation.”
    Cameron, Pierce, Banko, & Gear, 2005; Hidi, 2001; Jinks & Lorsbach, 2003.

  6. I haven't read Punished by Rewards, but I've read a lot of other stuff by Alfie Kohn. He's great.

    His basic point is usually that intrinsic motivation is good and extrinsic motivation is bad.

    This is tricky, because extrinsic motivation will sometimes produce desired results in the short term. Over the long term, though, people tend to resent the feeling that other people are controlling their lives.

    Perhaps this explains why I can be compelled to log in and play these Facebook games every day, but it leaves me feeling kind of crappy.

  7. While the idealist in me would like to think intrinsic motivation is enough to motivate future generations, the realist in me thinks
    otherwise. Assuming that education is primarily to prepare students to become productive members of society, what percentage of people actually end up finding
    something they find intrinsically rewarding? Of that minority, how many can actually make a decent living out of this something? Of that subset, how many would continue doing what they were doing if their wages went down by 25%? 50%? even 100%? The reality of our world is that our lives are run on both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

  8. Finally, a recent, rigorous, scientific, substantive study on extrinsic cash rewards. Seems like they work optimally under these conditions:

    * awarded for incremental behavior towards goal/result and not for the outcome itself

    * awarded for behavior that student knows how to perform (basically award them for practice)

    * recognized immediately

    * works better on kids,8599,1978589-1,00.html

  9. (Disclosure--uBoost's recognition platform was used by Harvard's Roland Fryer in each city but Dallas)

    This research, as detailed in Time, showed tremendous results (equivalent to 5 months of additional schooling) for students with behavior problems.

    We all do things because we care about what others think. "Recognition" programs are successful when they focus on the behaviors that correlate to desired outcomes not just the outcomes themselves. Recognition needs to be relevant, immediate, specific and public when possible.

    Rewards are a form of recognition but definitely not the most effective in all circumstances. Focusing on enabling relevant recognition across all constituencies that impact a student is just as important as appropriate content and effective teaching.

    A student can't develop a love of learning or intrinsic motivation for a particular subject unless they believe they can become competent in that subject matter. We can encourage the development of self-esteem and self-confidence in our children by looking for opportunities to catch them doing something right and then celebrating that incremental achievement.