I think I just had a bit of a breakthrough in my thinking about intrinsic vs extrinsic.
First, though, cleaning up some of my vocabulary.
Intrinsic Reward Value
I’m not going to use the phrase “intrinsic reward” anymore. I don’t think “reward” is the right way to think about it… it’s more of an intrinsic value than a reward, right?
Intrinsic Value vs Intrinsic Signifier vs Extrinsic Reward
Let’s say that you value exercise, and are interested in living healthier. In addition, you enjoy the “high” you get from running, or from a tough workout. The workout itself is the intrinsic value. If you get points or badges for the workout, I think it’s better to call them intrinsic signifiers than extrinsic rewards. Here’s why. When you do something of intrinsic value, you get some reward in that thing that doesn’t need to be represented by anything other than the thing itself. Enjoying a good run, for example, has intrinsic value (if you’re do in fact enjoy such a thing). If you are playing a game that encourages you to do things that have intrinsic value to you, I think you need to call them intrinsic signifiers because they represent (but don’t replace, or distract from) the intrinsic value in the thing you’re doing.
Intrinsic signifiers are different from extrinsic rewards. An example of an extrinsic reward would be if you got a free donut from the Nike Bakery every time you went on a run. The donut becomes something that motivates completely separately from the run itself, and is therefore extrinsic. It’s OUTSIDE the sphere of the original value that the activity gave in itself. I think it’s really important to make this distinction.
Another example… say that you get a point or badge or special token for each new business contact you make at an event. Assuming that business contacts have a value in themselves, outside of the game, those points/badges/whatever are intrinsic signifiers. HOWEVER, if you can turn those points/badges/whatevers in and redeem them for X% off of your subscription to the Economist, or something, then the X% off the subscription becomes an extrinsic reward. The act of redeeming, or substituting one thing for another, is what makes it extrinsic.
So long as your rewards represent the intrinsic value of the action you get them for, and have no value outside of what it signifies, then it’s intrinsic (either of direct value, or pointing to the thing of direct value).
This is important to me because it opens up a whole new understanding for me about the value of virtual points. The fact that points/badges/icons are virtual is what allows them to remain of intrinsic value, rather than being dirtied by the substitution/replacement quality of most non-virtual reward systems. Virtual points might be better at motivating than real rewards in the real world, and might be immune to the problems that are mentioned in Drive, and Punished By Rewards, simply because they aren’t extrinsic.
Another way to label them other than intrinsic signifiers, perhaps, is virtual rewards. They are empty in themselves, and that’s a good thing.
Someone who knows more about this stuff might be able to point out flaws in this line of thinking. Please do, if you are such a person.
But, if I am thinking about this correctly, it confirms a hunch that I’ve had for a while, that points/badges/etc are value-less in and of themselves. They gain their value from the intrinsic rewards (or lack thereof) that they point to. Getting the Swarm Badge on Foursquare is only valuable insofar as it is valuable to be at a big event, and to feel like you belong to such an event. If you gain no intrinsic value from that experience, the badge is worthless. If you do gain value from it, then it has that much value. And, in what explains the magic power of the whole phenomenon, the badge is actually the most tangible and real representation of the otherwise intangible, intrinsic, value of the experience.
Getting the virtual badge makes it feel more real.
Intrinsic signifiers, because they are digital, and have a concrete form, allow us to detect, appreciate, and remember the intrinsically valuable experiences in our lives better.
And that is what gamification of life is all about.