Are badges extrinsic rewards?

Many fans of the “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose” theory from Daniel Pink say that Gamification does not work because it relies only on extrinsic rewards. Daniel loves to cite the results of the MIT study about rewards in his book called “Drive” where the money prizes actually made the participants perform worst. Practically everyone in the Agile community knows that intrinsic rewards are better than extrinsic ones for complex tasks, like software development.

Extrinsic rewards. These are rewards that come from outside. The most prominent extrinsic reward is money. Every paid job in the world has an extrinsic reward, be it salary, tips, commission, benefits, stock options, bribes, table scraps or some combination thereof. An argument could also be made that power (or authority) is an extrinsic reward.

Intrinsic rewards. These are rewards that come from within. Intrinsic rewards are things that make you feel good. The funny thing is, for some people, money is an intrinsic reward, for some people, money is a life-purpose. But for most people, a real sense of purpose comes from other things.

But there is a gap here: the MIT study is limited to money. What about other kinds of extrinsic rewards, like badges? A badge is a visual representation of an achievement –  something you have worked hard to get.  If it is a certification, it may remind you of hours of study, dedication and knowledge accumulated. When you see that, you feel satisfied and intrinsically motivated to get the next one. But a badge is something external and it should be extrinsic. What!? You can see that the separation between intrinsic/extrinsic is very limited.

The fact is that […] if someone wants an extrinsic reward badly enough, it can become intrinsic and authentic. Once internalized, it has the same potential to motivate as other kinds of innate desires. This is certainly true of concepts like fame (or wealth), and seemingly does not rob people of their individuality or determination . (Gabe Zichermann). 

Extrinsic rewards are not that evil

We know that in certain circunstances extrinsic rewards can become demotivating. According to Tony Ventrice, there are two ways to deal with this:

  • Make the task simple (not always an option);
  • Don’t make about the reward.

The second approach is the heart of Gamification. It is not about the reward, it is about the journey. Gamification makes everything visible, including progress and growth. By visualizing your goal and how close you are to it, you become motivated. In this case the reward is not the objective itself, but a measurement of it. Actually you don’t want the badge (extrinsic), you want the experience from achieving it (intrinsic). You can see that the badge is just an excuse for doing something that you are already intrinsically motivated to accomplish.

Gamification is not about extrinsic rewards, it is about aligning an organization’s objectives with a player’s intrinsic motivation. The extrinsic rewards then move the player towards the journey of mastery through game elements that create engagement.

Agile Gamify



Davi Gabriel da Silva

Davi Gabriel da Silva is an Agile Coach, Consultant, Trainer, Writer and Software Developer. He helps companies and teams to improve their work environment through the application of game elements, coaching, training, and mentoring.

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1 Response

  1. May 24, 2015

    […] Yes, Gamification is a Real Thing – Revel MarketingAchievements | Faculty Knowledge BaseWhich rewards are the best motivators? – CAAre badges extrinsic rewards? | Agile Gamification […]

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