Rewarding Behaviour

While browsing through hot-shot Cambridge lecturer and security expert Markus Kuhn’s homepage, I came across these two articles about the detrimental effects rewards can have on performance: For Best Results, Forget the Bonus and Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator.

While some may view these articles as part of the backlash against behaviourism, I do think they raise interesting points, especially in the context of massively multiplayer online games.

For example: ‘rewards rupture relations’. When a multiplayer game offers only a few high value prizes, there is little reason for players to co-operate with one another. This can prevent communities from forming, which in themselves can provide a great deal of entertainment and value to players.

‘Creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if task is done for gain’. If you are taking part in an entertaining game that is offering a prize of (say) a million dollars, it will be difficult not to view the game as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Studies have shown that creativity, risk taking and enjoyment decrease when a reward is offered for a task, even if the task was originally interesting. Perhaps this is because when a reward is introduced, people focus narrowly on it and try and achieve it quickly and safely. After all, there’s no point taking chances if there’s a million dollars at stake, is there? And if you want to be sure to have a real shot at winning, you might feel you have to ignore the ‘frivolous’ aspects of your task and make sure you are completing the task as proscribed. The game becomes a job to accomplish.

I don’t believe that high value prizes on massively multiplayer online games have any use other than briefly attracting someone’s interest. Offering such prizes belies an ignorance of their delayed effects. All the successful MMORPGs – Everquest, Lineage, Ultima Online, and now The Sims – do not offer players any kind of significant prize, and they appear none the worse for it.

Not all rewards are detrimental, of course. It really does depend on what you want to accomplish. If you want to attract attention to your new product – if all you want is publicity – then it’s perfectly fine to stage a competition with a big prize to promote it. But if you want people to subscribe to your game and play it for an extended period of time, it may not be such a good idea.

Still, sometimes it may be useful to reward players in a massively multiplayer online game, simply to give them recognition. However, it is clearly vital to ensure that players do not perceive the rewards as the ‘point’ of playing the game – or else you start to head down a path that could see them leaving as they find they aren’t enjoying themselves any more.

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