Love Over Gold

My first bit from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus is one of the hardest to quote without going to great length. He cites Edward Deci’s experiment with a puzzle game called Soma. Subjects were shown the Soma puzzle pieces along with how they could be reconfigured to make new shapes, given some sample shapes to make, and then given a break.

During his absence from the room Deci observed the subject through a one-way mirror for exactly eight minutes. The subject’s behavior during that break was the experiment. … Even with [a variety of distractions] readily available, many of the students kept playing with the puzzle on their own, spending on average about half of the eight minutes working on it.

[Deci had the students back for a second session. Half]…were told that they would be paid a dollar for every shape they assembled [$5 today, after inflation]. … The paid subjects, who now thought of the cubes as a potential source of income, experimented with them, on average, for a minute more of their break time than they had previously. Deci then ran a third session, where he simply repeated the experiment exactly as he had run it initially: all the subjects were asked to assemble shapes, with no pay for anyone. In this session, even though each subject received identical instructions, the ones who had been paid in the previous session showed markedly less interest in the shapes during the break than in the session where they had been paid; their average time spent dropped by two minutes, which is to say it fell twice as far, when the payment was removed, as it had risen when the payment was added in the first place.

Which is to say that rewarding our inner Achiever can reduce our interest in the game. Do you play multiple alts and switch when one runs out of rested xp? If there is a daily quest to X, how much X do you do after the daily quest runs out? Even if you really like X, you know you are a sap who is doing it for half pay after the bonus runs out, when you could be getting the daily bonus for some other, perhaps almost as good Y.

Clay Shirky goes on to cite the famous study finding that putting a small fee for picking up children late from daycare increased lateness. Parents previously thought of it as a shared social contract, but after adding a monetary factor, it became a low-cost purchase of a little extra daycare. I have read disputes with the replicability of this study, however, so I am not sure of how much trust to place in it. Either study is an example of love working where gold may not.

: Zubon

9 thoughts on “Love Over Gold”

    1. The relevant journal charges for access, and I have not Googled around enough to find a posted copy. Citation: Edward L. Deci, “Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Reinforcement, and Inequity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22.1 (1972): 113-120.

  1. I heard a short item on BBC Radio 4 only last week that referenced the “fee for lateness” concept. Unless I completely misunderstood the point of the piece, they were saying that charging a penalty fee had substantially improved parental timekeeping, rather than the reverse.

    The crucial factor, however, was that the penalty fee charged was exceptionally high. Parents were being charged £5 for every minute they were late collecting their child. One parent specifically mentioned having been ten minutes late and having to pay £50.

    All the parents interviewed clearly saw the penalty fee as a major incentive to arrive on time (personally I would have seen it as a major incentive to take my child to a facility that didn’t charge a penalty fee, but these parents seemed astonishingly compliant, but I digress…)

    I wish I could remember the name of the program, which is probably still available on iPlayer, but I switched on after it had started and didn’t pay that much attention.

    The problem that I see in extrapolating from this type of artificial, experimental situation to something like playing an MMO is that some people find the tasks within the MMO intrinsically rewarding, separate from the actual “reward” offered. For example, I really, really like beating up gnolls. If a repeatable quest has gnolls as the target I am far more likely to go back and do it repeatedly regardless whether or not there are other incentives or disincentives offered. If, on the other hand, the exact same quest involved wolves instead of gnolls, I would only do if and when the reward was worthwhile, as killing wolves has no intrinsic entertainment value for me.

    That’s just one example. In MMOs there could be so many factors in play that affect one’s willingness, or eagerness, to persist with a repeatable quest beyond the point of optimum returns. It could be a zone that has attractive scenery, or the mobs involved in the quest could have an amusing sound-sample or funny death animation, or the quest could offer the chance of repeated use of skills that are entertaining in and of themselves (anything that involves kiting works for me, for example).

    Maybe Achiever types don’t come up against these kinds of motivations, but they certainly often color my gameplay choices to a much more significant degree than the material reward offered.

  2. Why is this surprising? The first example was play: the second transformed it into work: pay for objective met, real life pay. Once you transformed it into work, of course people aren’t going to do it for nothing. Work is money for a service, and games aren’t, because any incentives are self-derived or intrinsic to the game.

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