External Rewards: Responses to Jesse Schell’s DICE lecture

Posted on: April 27, 2010

There’s an excellent compilation of responses to Jesse Schell’s 2010 DICE lecture called Critical Compilation: Jesse Schell, ‘Design outside the Box’.

The majority of the responses are quite negative and my impression that this is largely as a moral judgement on the imagined future where people brush their teeth because they’re given a reward rather than because it’s a good thing to do in itself. One of the most vehement responses from David Sirlin, titled External Rewards and Jesse Schell’s Amazing Lecture argues that it isn’t the external rewards themselves but who designs the reward systems and what their aims are:

While it’s true that skilled designers could use all this for good once sensors and points take over our real lives, it seems almost certain that they generally won’t. If Facebook is any indication, they will simply create the most effective mental viruses that drive whatever commercial behavior they want, with little regard to the victims (consumers).

I agree with this partially, but I still believe that, as with real-life contests such as the Balinese Cockfight and other efforts to change everyday behaviour through games, the rewards systems that work best are the ones that reinforce some underlying need rather than just giving you a nice badge for performing an action. Recent theories as to the success of Farmville highlight it as a web of social obligations – which may or may not be a good thing, but it certainly isn’t a simple reward system.

I don’t doubt, as David Sirlin says, that “people absolutely are driven by external rewards”, but I think the drive is much more powerful if they’re reinforcing of desirable behaviour rather than as standalone system with only its own end in mind.

As a contr-argument to external reward systems, Jesper Juul (author of “A Casual Revolution“) argues that external rewards can often be a demotivator:

A famous 1973 experiment (“Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward“) showed that when nursery school children consistently received external rewards for drawing, they lost interest in drawing and began drawing less.

Although there is an interesting addition of a surprise reward that increases time spent drawing even over unrewarded time. (Graph from here.)

An interesting point from Juul is that rewards may have a different relationship with a task, depending on whether it’s something pleasant or unpleasant. “I can’t claim to be an expert on the psychology here, but it does seem that external rewards may have a kind of reversal effect: If you dislike the activity, external rewards make it more attractive, but if you like the activity, external rewards make it less attractive.”

I’m not sure it’s as black-and-white as this and it brings me back to my own (almost completely unsubstantiated) theory that a reward system that reinforces underlying motivation rather than simply rewarding the physical manifestation of it would have much better results. i.e. Don’t reward the activity (time spent drawing), reward the psychological need that the activity is designed to satisfy (creative expression).

2 Responses to "External Rewards: Responses to Jesse Schell’s DICE lecture"

[…] “points for brushing your teeth” type examples used in the DICE talk, as I’ve previously posted, and Jesse goes into more depth in this video. Of particular interest was a […]

[…] short summary is that satisfying game experiences need to tap into intrinsic needs, as many others have mentioned before. But “Getting Gamification Right” is worth reading through to get the full […]

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