Part 3: What motivates volunteers?

Marcus Winter's picture

This is the third part in a series of blog post discussing findings from our literature review about complex game-based crowdsourcing. Today we'll look at what motivates volunteers to take part in crowdsourcing projects. (Check out Part 2: Play a game?)       

Part 3: What motivates volunteers?

Motivations to participate in crowdsourcing projects tend to differ widely, reflecting the diversity of volunteers and the broad range of topics and approaches. For light-weight peer production [1] employing casual games, motivations may include altruism, validating procrastination, stress relief, cognitive exercise and fun [2], while motivating factors in heavy-weight peer production may include self-expression, creative satisfaction, a desire to establish one's online reputation and a wish to strengthen one’s self-esteem [3].
A high-level discussion of motivational factors in peer production is provided by Rafaeli and Ariel [4]. One recurring theme in their discussion is the distinction between "intrinsic motivation" and "external rewards" [5], a concept which resonates with Hars and Ou's [6] distinction between motivations innate to an individual's psychological makeup ("internal factors") and motivations originating from the environment ("external factors"), and Peddibhotla and Subramani's [7] distinction between "self-oriented" (e.g. fun, self-expression, personal development) and "other-oriented" (e.g. social affiliation, altruism, and reciprocity) motives for contribution.

Dunn and Hedges [8] point out that most individuals taking part in crowdsourcing projects have multiple intrinsic, extrinsic and altruistic motivations, but that there is usually one dominant motivating factor which is often based on genuine interest in the subject area. 

  • As an example for intrinsic motivation, Dunn and Hedges cite research which found the top motivation for participants in the popular Galaxy Zoo project to be a personal interest in astronomy [9]. Similar findings were reported for the Stardust@home project where volunteers cited enjoyment and enthusiasm for the goals of the project as their main motivations to take part [10]. Intrinsic motivations can also relate to the activities carried out by volunteers, e.g. enjoyment when working outdoors in a natural environment was found to be an intrinsic motivation of volunteers in a conservation project [11].
  • An example for altruistic motivations can be seen in projects with strong advocacy goals, where volunteers often cite a wish to help protected species and habitats as their main motivation [11, 12].  Altruistic motivations also play a part in projects without advocacy goals. For instance, a large group (13%) of volunteers in Galaxy Zoo say their primary reason for participation is to help [9]. 
  • Extrinsic motivations often refer to rewards volunteers can expect from their participation. These can include symbolic rewards such as points or badges, as well as psychological rewards such as the feeling of being part of a community, which is cited by many reports on crowdsourcing as an important motivation to participate [8].   

One particular motivation mentioned by volunteers in many different projects is fun. Prestopnik and Crowston [13] suggest that the more fun a project promises, the more people will join, and the more fun a project actually involves, the more motivated volunteers will be to continue or expand their participation. Curiously, using fun and humour to motivate participants was one of the key audience comments at our recent UKMW13 presentation. Ideas how this translates into game design would be greatly appreciated - suggestions on a postcard or in the comments please. 
Catch up on Part 2: Play a game? 
Check back next week for Part 4: Thanks...but is it true?  


[1] Haythornthwaite, C. (2009). Crowds and communities: Light and heavyweight models of peer production. Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference On System Sciences, pp. 1–11.
[2] Ridge, M. (2011a). Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections. In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.), Proceedings of Museums and the Web 2011. Retrieved from:
[3] Benkler, Y. (2004). Sharing Nicely: On Shareable Goods and the Emergence of Sharing as a Modality of Economic Production. Yale Law Journal, 114, 273-278.
[4] Rafaeli, S., and Ariel, Y. (2008). Online Motivational Factors: Incentives for Participation and Contribution in Wikipedia. In A. Barak (Ed.), Psychological Aspects of Cyberspace: Theory, Research, Applications. (pp. 243–267). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
[5] Deci, E. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum Press.
[6] Hars, A. and Ou, S. (2001). Working for free? Motivations of participating in open source projects. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 6(3), 25-39
[7] Peddibhotla, N.B. and Subramani, M.R. (2007). Contributing to Public Document Repositories: A Critical Mass Theory Perspective. Organization Studies, 28(3). Sage Publications.
[8] Dunn, S. and Hedges, M. (2012). Engaging the Crowd with Humanities. A scoping study. Research Centre for e-Research , Department of Digital Humanities. King’s College London. Available
[9] Raddick, M. J., Bracey, G., Gay, P. L., Lintott, C. J., Murray, P., Schawinski, K., Szalay, A. S. and Vandenberg, J. (2010). Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers. Astronomy Education Review, 9(1), 1-18.
[10] Nov, O., Arazy, O. and Anderson, A. (2011). Dusting for science: motivation and participation of digital citizen science volunteers. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference (iConference '11). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 68-74.
[11] Grove-White, R., Waterton, C., Ellis, R., Vogel, J., Stevens, G. & Peacock, B. (2007). Amateurs as experts: harnessing new networks for biodiversity. Lancaster University, Lancaster. Available
[12] Bradford, B.M. and Israel, G.D. (2004). Evaluating Volunteer Motivation for Sea Turtle Conservation in Florida. Technical Report AEC 372. Institute of Agricultural and Food Sciences, University of Florida. Available
[13] Prestopnik, N. R. and Crowston K. (2011). Gaming for (citizen) science: Exploring motivation and data quality in the context of crowdsourced science through the design and evaluation of a social-computational system. Proceedings of the IEEE eScience Conference, Stockholm 2011, pp. 28-33. Available