Game Development Reference
First, extrinsic rewards fail in games because the work is so hard to
judge from the outside. To give someone a money carrot for doing some-
thing well, we have to know when this person has done a good job and
when he's done a poor job. In pig iron handling, this is easy to see—all we
have to do is count the metal ingots on the train. But in games, it's very hard
to see the quality of effort someone is putting out. Different developers'
contributions are mixed together in complex ways, and game devel-
opment is so uncertain that even good work can lead to disaster after a
stroke of bad luck. Good risk-taking designers may even look worse than
risk-averse slackers, as some of their attempts inevitably fail. So there's
no way to reward performance, because there's no good way to measure
The second reason extrinsic rewards don't work on game developers is
because they displace our intrinsic love of the work. Good developers need
money, but for many of them this isn't even half of their reason for work-
ing on games. The majority of their motivation is much more human.
They want to create something great, to present it to the world, and per-
haps be recognized for it. They want to make progress in hard problems.
They want respect, authorship, and autonomy. In day-to-day work, they
might not think of any higher goal than not letting down their fellows.
The money is just there to keep the family fed. Making pay conditional
on some measure of output can easily destroy the intrinsic motivation
to do the work for its own sake. It makes people forget they're working
for love and start believing they're working for money. This is similar to
how in-game rewards can displace the intrinsic enjoyment of play. It's
why high-priced lawyers won't offer services to needy retirees for $30 an
hour, but they will offer them for free, and strangers will help you unload
a sofa from a truck for free, but never for one dollar. Paul McCartney was
right—you can't buy me love.
The negative effects of extrinsic rewards are most powerful in creative
tasks. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile ran a years-long
study of creativity in real workplaces. She collected 12,000 daily journal en-
tries from 238 creative workers in seven different companies and searched
for correlations between emotions, events, and creative output. Most work-
ers most days reported that extrinsic rewards hadn't motivated them at all,
and the people who were most interested in money weren't very effective
at being creative. Overwhelmingly, respondents felt most driven by chal-
lenge, community, a feeling of comradeship with coworkers, and a sense
of ownership—all of which are obscured by monetary rewards.
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