Sixteen ways to motivate

7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The 8 Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution. I’ll be the first to agree that including an arbitrary number in a headline makes an article sound like something that you’d find in the bargain bin of your local bookstore, but in this case there’s a rationale. In a series of studies from 1995 to 1998 that investigated fundamental human drives/motives for action (status, hunger, sex, etc.), Dr. Steven Reiss and colleagues started with a list of “every motive they could imagine,” including hundreds of possibilities drawn from psychological studies, psychiatric classification manuals, and other sources. They whittled this down to a mere 384, and distributed a survey designed to measure the importance that survey-takers assigned to each motive to over 2,500 people. Plugging the results into a factor analysis to find out how many distinct underlying dimensions were necessary to account for the majority of variance yielded 15 distinct clusters of motives that people rated as of particularly high importance. (They added one more in 1998). In no particular order, they are:


Reiss' 16 Fundamental Motives

Modified from Multifaceted Nature of Intrinsic Motivation: The Theory of 16 Basic Desires, Table 1.


This is at odds with the reigning approach of dividing motivations up into extrinsic vs. intrinsic, and is much messier from a theoretical perspective. But as the psychologists who conducted the studies argue, there’s no reason to expect that an adequate theory of something as complex as human motivation should be anything but messy. We have over 50 distinct cortical regions, over 100 different neurotransmitters, and thousands of proteins. Why not at least a handful of innate motivational categories?

Certainly, the theory has its flaws. There is ample evidence that people don’t have a good grasp of what really motivates them (which puts limits on what we can learn from surveys), and the theory doesn’t do justice to fact that our reactions to "things we want" vs. "things we want to avoid" are subserved by different neural systems. But it certainly provides an interesting perspective. Many designers were astounded at the popularity of Farmville, whose key mechanics flew in the face of received game design wisdom, and Zynga’s continuing demise has been heralded by some as proof that the intrinsic motivation provided by a good game ultimately trumps the extrinsic motivation of praise and badges. Maybe so. But it’s also possible that the motives that Farmville's core mechanics tap into—accumulating items (Reiss’ “saving” motive) and the desire to give a Green Whatsit to someone who gave you a Blue Doohickey (reciprocal altruism, which falls under Reiss’ “idealism” motive)—are not inherently ‘worse’ than other motives, just hard to sustain in the long term in the absence of other motivating features. Arguably, many good MMOs take ample advantage of both of these motives and many more besides.

My previous post highlighted some of the difficulties of designing intrinsic motivators into a game. Even if the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction is a meaningful and important one to make, the difficulties of navigating this space in a real-world game may make multi-factor theories more useful to game designers in practical terms. In particular, they can be used as “lenses” in the sense of Jesse Schell in The Art of Game Design, which contains 100 thought-provoking lenses through which one’s game can be viewed and improved. One can imagine developing corresponding lenses for each of Reiss’ fundamental motives (e.g. “The Lens of Independence: Does my game make people feel autonomous? Do players have a sense of control over their actions? Do they feel free to select from meaningful choices?”)—and in fact, Schell’s list already includes several that are relevant to some of the motives above (The Lens of Competition, The Lens of Cooperation, The Lens of Needs, The Lens of Control, The Lens of Community). (Drawing up lens cards for Reiss’ remaining motives, and designing a game that satisfies the motives of “desire to eat,” “desire for sex,” and “desire to raise own children” is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Although most designers already have a sense of what motivates their audience, focusing one’s attention on the sixteen dimensions that have emerged as particularly important in large-scale studies of human motivation may be a worthy endeavor, if for no other reason than to identify which motives one’s game already addresses best, and to evaluate whether ramping those up even more would improve it further. In addition to features that conventional wisdom suggests are motivating to players (rewards for skill development, compelling narrative, gradually increasing difficulty, etc.), ’16 Basic Desires’ theory may inspire further ideas for underappreciated features worthy of consideration.

Sixteen ways to motivate by Gabriel Recchia, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

23 Responses to “Sixteen ways to motivate”

  1. Lauren says:

    Very interesting, thank you for putting this together for us! I'm curious about the tension between some of these motives that causes the pursuit of one to actively work against others; for example, independence, acceptance, status, and social contact have a fundamental tension between them (we explore this a lot in linguistics in the tension between positive and negative face in social interaction). I can see a tension between vengeance, honor, and loyalty too.

    Do these authors have anything to say about those tensions? The conflict between these tensions is something that I can observe happening both for individual gamers and in gaming communities all the time -- e.g. the desire to compete (Vengeance) working against compassion (Idealism) in that nobody wants to bring a bad player to their events because it will slow them down. (The tension is exemplified in this recent phenomenon in World of Warcraft: )

    Just curious if that is explicitly addressed anywhere in these discussions!

    • Gabriel Recchia says:

      That's a really interesting point (and link--thanks!) I certainly haven't read everything on this topic, so people may have explicitly addressed it elsewhere that I'm unaware of, but the most relevant thing to that I've seen is that this gets treated like a trait theory: there's tons of individual variability, such that some individuals are very strongly driven by some of these motives, and very weakly by others. The authors believe the variability is innate/genetic, but it may be that it's due to the tensions between motives that you just point out: practically speaking, it's tough to value incompatible goals equally and still be happy, and so people may deal with this by increasing the importance that they assign to some goals (consciously or unconsciously) and devaluing others.

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  19. 中新网12月8日电 据西南财经大学网站消息,西南财经大学今日发布关于“男子大闹赴美航班遭拘 疑为西南财大知名教授”网络报道的情况通报和处理意见。处理意见显示,根据学校与卢勇签订的聘用合同相关条款,学校决定从即日起解除聘用合同关系。通报称,12月7日晚,有网络媒体发布了一条“男子大闹赴美航班遭拘 疑为西南财大知名教授”的新闻。学校对此高度重视,及时了解相关情况。卢勇,现为美国宾州州立大学副教授,2015年8月西南财经大学聘其为海外短期讲座教授、互联网金融研究中心特聘主任,每年来校从事教学和研究工作4个月。西南财经大学表示,坚持立德树人,高度重视师德师风建设,对违反师德师风的行为零容忍;坚持依法治

  20. 羊城晚报讯:盗走后视镜,小偷竟然在现场留着有电话号码和微信号的小纸条,声称只需花300元就会找到后视镜。记者21日从禅城警方获悉,警方18日破获了这一系列盗窃豪车后视镜案件,先后在广州和顺德抓获嫌疑人王某和刘某,两嫌疑人已被刑拘。12月15日早上,宝马车主李先生到雾岗路段取车,发现电动后视镜竟然在无人操作下打开。他觉得事有跷蹊,仔细查看,两面后视镜都被撬盗走了。“零部件很贵,再买要上万元。”李先生心生郁闷,坐到车里正准备报警和请保险公司到场,却发现驾驶位车窗夹着一张小纸条。“纸条上面留着电话号码和微信号,索要300元给回后视镜。”李先生拨通纸条上的电话,对方承认就是他盗取的后视镜,称后视镜藏在

  21. 很多时候,申建军(化名)需要女儿的帮忙,来排尽尿袋。胡健摄因为尿管会漏,申建军(化名)需要时常带着大号成人纸尿裤。胡健摄 自动播放开关 自动播放 老人本是腿骨折 医院治疗竟把生殖器给治没了 正在加载... 中新网忻州12月23日电 (胡健)刚过花甲之年的申建军(化名)不会想到,普通的一个骨折手术竟让他永久的失去了生殖器。在以尿管和尿袋度日的一年多里,他感觉“生不如死”。距离这场意外已过去14个月,造成此次医疗事故的院方依旧“无动于衷”。记者22日在山西省忻州市区的一处民宅里见到了申建军,精神矍铄是这个61岁老人给人的第一印象。走进屋内,一股难闻的味道扑鼻而来。老人居住的屋子四季常开着窗

  22. 星月菩提 says:

      2016年1月16日下午,重庆万达艾美酒店携手收藏天下将艺术盛宴带入重庆,打造重庆艺术领域的又一创举。   此次《意境艾美》邀请了众多著名艺术家到场献宝,也得到了重庆市文化家活动中心、重庆南岸区旅游局以及重庆优质媒体人的高度支持与关注。在活动中重庆万达艾美酒店总经理Mr. Kiefer表示,艾美酒店的品牌文化本身就是把当地的艺术文化巧妙的与国际接轨,为旅客们带去不一样的入住体验,同时Mr. Kiefer也希望通过此次合作带给重庆市民们更多的文化、艺术活动。今天的签约仪式只是一个开始,未来重庆万达艾美酒店将开展更多的艺术活动,期待大家的参与。   随后重庆万达艾美酒店业主代表吴哲先生与

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