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In this Leadership piece reprinted from my company website I talk about different methods for motivating game developers. The material draws largely from Daniel Pink's excellent book, Drive.

Keith Fuller, Blogger

January 13, 2012

5 Min Read

[Each day during the month of January 2012 I'm posting a new article on various aspects of leadership in game development. These can all be found on my Fuller Game Production website. This specific article can be found here.]

What Four Decades of Scientific Research Can Teach Us About Motivating Game Developers


One of the best books I’ve read in a long time is Drive by Daniel Pink. It came recommended by numerous industry contacts so I picked it up in preparation for a holiday trip and almost finished it before the trip began.

In a nutshell, the author draws upon the findings of scientific research dating back several decades to illustrate, essentially, what modern business is doing wrong to motivate workers. More importantly, Pink talks about many ways we can improve our business practices and instill far greater motivation in the workplace, resulting in higher productivity and increased employee retention and satisfaction. A significant number of his suggestions are a) counterintuitive to contemporary business thought, and b) directly applicable to game development, so let me describe some of his findings and the insights they’ve given me about our industry.

During the 1940’s, right here in my town of Madison, Professor Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin performed some intriguing studies on rhesus monkeys (presumably because they were easier to coax into the lab than human students).  Harlow introduced the monkeys to a simple physical puzzle involving hooks and latches, recording the time it took them to solve the contraption. After just a couple of weeks the monkeys were not only cracking the code more and more quickly, but they were exhibiting signs of focus, determination, and enjoyment in so doing. This was revelatory in that no reward of any sort – food, water, affection – was given as a result. This led Harlow to write:

“The behavior obtained in this investigation poses some interesting questions for motivation theory, since significant learning was attained and efficient performance maintained without resort to special or extrinsic incentives.”

In short, this was the beginning of the study of what Harlow called intrinsic motivation, the theory that people might not only solve puzzles but perform actual, real world work simply because they found it gratifying.

All well and good for the monkeys, I hear you say, but what about humans? What makes anyone think they might find superior performance through intrinsic motivation? A researcher by the name of Edward Deci had that very question.

In 1969 Deci performed an intriguing study using a popular puzzle of the day known as the Soma cube – kind of a 3D Tetris predecessor. Times had changed in the two decades since Harlow’s work and Deci was able to gain access to humans instead of monkeys. Long story short, in testing the puzzle-solving times of groups of students using different reward schemes Deci found the following:

“When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity.”

Wait. What?

“One who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students, etc., should not concentrate on external-control systems such as monetary rewards.”

It is at this point that the savvy game developer will have confirmed that Mr. Deci was pants-on-head crazy. If we don’t focus on monetary rewards and external controls like late-night pizza and comp days and bonus checks, how on earth would we get the next Call of Duty out the door in time for Thanksgiving 2012?

Perhaps the study material is flawed. We’ve examined 1960’s-era students performing puzzles, but we haven’t looked at an Information Age project being worked on by highly-skilled programmers. Not to be undone before even reaching chapter 2 of his book, Mr. Pink thought of that. Consider…

In the time of Windows 95, Microsoft paid untold numbers of writers, artists, and programmers to create the electronic encyclopedia called Encarta. This project boasted pretty much every piece of knowledge on the planet and was shipped on fancy-dancy CD-ROMs (though it was eventually made available online, too). You can imagine that the workers involved were quite well compensated for their effort, but extrinsically so.

Shortly thereafter, the creation of another electronic encyclopedia got underway. This product was made possible by the work of thousands and thousands of people. The end result of their labors was made available to the entire world at no cost, and they contributed for free. Because it was fun.

Earlier today when you had to know the name of the actor who first voiced Tony the Tiger on Frosted Flakes commercials, did you use Encarta or Wikipedia?

If your own answer to that question wasn’t telling enough, go use Google and look up “Encarta”. The first link is to a Wikipedia entry. If you like, you may also Google irony.

“But Keith,” says the producer or art lead or studio director who fought tooth-and-nail through 771 words to get this far. “How does all of this apply to game development?”

For that, dear reader, you must tune in tomorrow. In the next action-packed Leadership Month post I will bring this discussion into focus with personal experiences of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in game development, as well as some examples of how you might pursue intrinsic motivation as you lead people at your studio. [when I wrote this article, "tomorrow" meant January 5th, a post you can find here]

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