Work Harder, Hard Worker

cartlifeA few weeks ago, par­tic­i­pants of the Twitter games-crit cir­cle took a col­lec­tive moment to pay spe­cial atten­tion to the extreme­ly hard work put in by some of its most pro­lif­ic con­trib­u­tors.  These peo­ple are heroes, role-models, Important Voices.  As a nat­ur­al exten­sion of this, there seems to have been a slight awak­en­ing tak­ing place regard­ing just how under­paid many of the favorite critics/indie developers/designers/freelancers are.  This is not a prob­lem of read­er­ship, of traf­fic, of qual­i­ty or cred­i­bil­i­ty.  Is it just that peo­ple who like to write about games sim­ply can’t make a career of it, that it’ll always be seen as just a point­less hobby?

Not like­ly.  Survey says gate­keep­ing.  There’s a sys­temic sense of dis­com­fort sur­round­ing minority/independent/generally dis­sent­ing or con­trar­i­an voic­es.  It’s not that the pay­ing jobs aren’t there, or that there’s zero mar­ket.  Videogames and things hav­ing to do with videogames are pop­u­lar, and “pop­u­lar” is a syn­onym for “money” for some­body, some­where.  The prob­lem is that the jobs that do pay ade­quate­ly are often given to pre­dictable, mod­er­ate voic­es, the ones who can be trust­ed to say the Right Things at the Right Time and Not Rock the Boat.

This is a prob­lem, espe­cial­ly in a field which relies on crit­i­cism.  Perhaps the whole point of paid crit­i­cism is to make sure that the rel­e­vant voic­es, the ones whose lives are touched by the art they con­sume, are pre­served against silence and allowed to shape the future of media.  Now that this prob­lem is back in the spot­light, we can hope for some change to occur.

But not all at once.  Social change is rarely a mat­ter of rad­i­cal, sud­den epipha­nies, and when it is it can often lead to vio­lence, chaos, and, even­tu­al­ly, total­i­tar­i­an­ism.  Almost no one’s idea of a good time.

So why con­tin­ue?  Why do we still have all these peo­ple spend­ing their mea­ger earn­ings on host­ing ser­vices, trips to con­ven­tions, games, and tools for mak­ing games?  Why don’t they just give up and pri­or­i­tize civil­ian employ­ment?  Demote the hobby-level earn­ings to hobby lev­els of impor­tance?

There’s one inef­fa­ble, invis­i­ble force which seems to guide pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of any sort, and it’s impor­tant that we inves­ti­gate the source of all this exem­plary prod­uct.  I’m talk­ing, of course, about MOTIVATION.  *trum­pet fan­fare*

Motivation, of course, refers to what motives we have to work hard.  What are they?

In his lec­ture “Drive,” as deliv­ered to the Royal Society of Arts (it even has one of those neat scrib­bly videos), Daniel Pink rejects “extrin­sic” mod­els of moti­va­tion, based on rewards and pun­ish­ments (usu­al­ly some­thing like work hard­er = earn more money/prestige, slack off = “dis­ci­pli­nary action up to and includ­ing ter­mi­na­tion”).  Instead, he builds a case for think­ing about moti­va­tion in terms of “intrin­sic” ben­e­fit: how work meets our needs for self-sufficiency (“auton­o­my”), chal­lenge and pay­off (“mas­tery”), and mean­ing (“pur­pose”).

To build his case, Pink sum­ma­rizes a cou­ple of stud­ies in which the vol­un­teers were asked to per­form either man­u­al or cre­ative tasks.  Each group was also promised a mon­e­tary reward attached to per­for­mance each time a task was com­plete.  If they per­formed poor­ly, they would be given a small amount of cash, but if they did excep­tion­al­ly well, they would get a large bonus, with the amounts dif­fer­ing each time the exper­i­ment was run.  Those who per­formed the sim­ple labor did what you might expect: the larg­er the amount of money on offer, the bet­ter they did on aver­age.  However, when this frame­work was repli­cat­ed with a task involv­ing cre­ative think­ing, the oppo­site was true.  The lower the reward, the bet­ter the per­for­mance.  This seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but this has been repli­cat­ed sev­er­al times since the orig­i­nal study at MIT, with the same results.

So, what?  What does this mean for peo­ple who hold or wish for jobs doing some­thing more com­pli­cat­ed than sack­ing gro­ceries?  Do those sorts of peo­ple just not like money?

Pink extrap­o­lates: “[M]oney is a moti­va­tor at work but in a slight­ly strange way.  If you don’t pay peo­ple enough, they won’t be motivated…[T]he best use of money is to pay peo­ple enough to keep the issue of money off the table.  Pay them enough that they’re not think­ing about the money and they’re think­ing about the work  (empha­sis mine).”

So, sur­prise of sur­pris­es, when some­thing you’re doing is tied to the reward, the money, and noth­ing else, you’re going to invest as lit­tle time in it as pos­si­ble in order to get by, and get to the good stuff, the real sources of moti­va­tion.  So what are those?

First, we have the need for self-sufficiency.  We need to feel as though we’re capa­ble of autonomous cre­ation.  Being able to look at a finished/published/released work, name attached, leads to feel­ings of per­son­al ful­fill­ment.  Of course, this doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean “hap­pi­ness” (tem­po­rary emo­tion­al high), or “sat­is­fac­tion” (hav­ing one’s needs met ade­quate­ly), which helps to explain why peo­ple are so often will­ing to sac­ri­fice health, fun, well-being, and socia­bil­i­ty for the pay­off of see­ing a cre­ative work to com­ple­tion.  People who come home from a dis­sat­is­fy­ing, under­pay­ing day job (for exam­ple), only to clock as many or more hours writ­ing, research­ing, paint­ing, or what-have-you, are seek­ing a sense of ful­fill­ment they’re not receiv­ing from their jobs (even if their jobs do actu­al­ly pro­vide hap­pi­ness and sat­is­fac­tion).

Another aspect of the “day job” is that, even in noto­ri­ous­ly tricky fields like teach­ing and social work, even­tu­al­ly the work­er is able to antic­i­pate the day’s like­ly chal­lenges, and quick­ly moves into an “uncon­scious com­pe­tence” level of per­for­mance.  While it’s nice to be able to accom­plish a task con­fi­dent­ly and thor­ough­ly, the fact remains that we need the strug­gle and the sub­se­quent pay­off.  In fact, we crave it.  The very core con­ceit of video gam­ing plays on this human desire for chal­lenge.  We’re given a task to accom­plish and have to learn a spe­cif­ic skill set to accom­plish that task, after which time we’re reward­ed for it.  The clever­est of RPG sys­tems (Blizzard is par­tic­u­lar­ly good at this with World of Warcraft and the Diablo series) are very care­ful about plac­ing rea­son­able rewards through­out the expe­ri­ence, hook­ing play­ers for months or years on the goal of reach­ing the next tier, get­ting to the next lev­els, achiev­ing the next best haul of loot from a raid.  The same is true of work.  Over time, we grow incred­i­bly bored with doing the same thing (or sets of things) over and over, and begin to seek high­er lev­els of respon­si­bil­i­ty, and new expe­ri­ence.  When the work­place sys­tem fails to accom­mo­date, we turn to cre­ation.

The last aspect of moti­va­tion is “pur­pose.”  We want to be able to influ­ence the world around us, Change Lives, Be Big Damn Heroes, all that good stuff.  While it’s true that the world needs main­te­nance peo­ple, san­i­ta­tion work­ers, and cooks, it’s hard to feel that one is mak­ing a dif­fer­ent while slav­ing over a hot grill, even if one is ade­quate­ly paid (not like­ly in the hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try).  Whether we turn to a prac­tice of faith, vol­un­teer for non-profits, or help to cre­ate a com­pre­hen­sive, suf­fi­cient­ly self-critical media, there is a press­ing need to leave a lega­cy, make a mark, or what­ev­er cliché suits you best.  We all do real­ly want to change the world, and are pre­pared to sac­ri­fice a great deal in order to feel as though we’re mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

There’s a cul­tur­al lie (we have quite a few of those in this coun­try) going around, per­haps because of the will­ing­ness of peo­ple to cre­ate great things at great per­son­al cost, that there’s a nec­es­sary cor­re­la­tion to be found here.  In other words, there are many peo­ple who believe that unless there’s a trau­mat­ic per­son­al strug­gle asso­ci­at­ed to pur­pose­ful action as a cost, such action will cease to exist.  This is a trou­bling masochis­tic notion, and far from the truth.  What we real­ly need to be exam­in­ing is why such tri­als are nec­es­sary to gain a sense of ful­fill­ment.

Of course, we’ve already talked about the rela­tion­ship between chal­lenge and ful­fill­ment, but chal­lenge doesn’t have to equal suf­fer­ing.  The fact is that the mod­ern, neo-capitalist work par­a­digm actu­al­ly encour­ages and pri­or­i­tizes suf­fer­ing and incon­ve­nience.  Unless you’re hurt­ing, in seri­ous pain, you’re not work­ing hard enough.  If you want to reach a point of self-actualization on top of that, you’re just going to have to be pre­pared to deal with that much more mis­ery.

This expec­ta­tion, cou­pled with the sheer amount of effort required to get by on a low wage, has cre­at­ed a plight of the “work­ing poor” which has come to typ­i­fy increas­ing­ly large parts of the United States.  Entire com­mu­ni­ties are dom­i­nat­ed by a hand-to-mouth sur­vival modal­i­ty.  For them, self-actualization is an unten­able dream, or else a mat­ter of poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous sac­ri­fice.

This state of hope­less­ness is illus­trat­ed most poignant­ly in Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life. Subtitled “a retail sim­u­la­tion for Windows,” Cart Life looks and plays like a souped-up ver­sion of Lemonade Stand, with the fre­net­ic speed of Diner Dash and some role-playing ele­ments thrown into the mix as well.  The fast-paced music and con­stant visual-auditory reminders of hunger, thirst, addic­tive urges, and the ever-present needs of loved ones cre­ate an intense­ly pres­sur­ized envi­ron­ment for the play­er, a race against the clock for sur­vival, with the poten­tial to thrive always just over the hori­zon.  There’s never enough time, and some­thing good always has to be sac­ri­ficed in return for ensur­ing imme­di­ate sur­vival.

Playing through Cart Life is a nos­tal­gic expe­ri­ence, adopt­ing the Throwback 8‑Bit aes­thet­ic so pop­u­lar with indie titles.  The pix­e­lat­ed, black and white scenery serves to under­score the bleak­ness of under­class life, and the shad­ows of pover­ty.  The prim­i­tive style also serves as a reminder that the poor often get by on last year’s (or last decade’s) tech­nol­o­gy.  It’s your respon­si­bil­i­ty to get to work every day, make sure that your cus­tomers are happy, that you have enough sup­plies, that you’re bud­get­ing prop­er­ly, that you’re charg­ing enough, etc.  Cart Life makes you do more than just man­age your retail out­let, how­ev­er.  You’ll find your­self hav­ing to remem­ber court dates, when bills are due, when to pick up your kid from school, to grab some food for your beloved cat; the list goes on and on end­less­ly.

Far from just being busy, the game makes a point to show us what it looks like to have no cre­ative out­let, no time.  In the real world, peo­ple do (again) make sac­ri­fices in order to “make time,” a skill which many of us learn early on.  In Cart Life, how­ev­er, any time not spent on the imme­di­ate task of sur­vival and day-to-day life man­age­ment is time wast­ed.  One of the most depress­ing recur­ring scenes in the game is Andrus Poder’s nude back­side in the show­er, which is pre­sent­ed along­side a sta­tis­ti­cal break­down at the end of each work­day.  His every fold is vis­i­ble from behind, his head is slumped down under the stream of water, hand up on the linoleum to sup­port him­self.  Here is a recent immi­grant with hopes, dreams, a love inter­est (both here and back home), a cat; okay, a whole per­son, in his only moment of daily quiet repose, reduced to a naked, exhaust­ed work­ing ani­mal.

As indie lumi­nary Porpentine men­tioned in a recent inter­view, “you can’t sup­port mar­gin­al­ized artists only through sin­gu­lar acts of recog­ni­tion or through praise. You have to give them jobs, you have to reform their day-to-day sys­tem­at­ic exis­tence, you have to make it worth­while and healthy to be them.” We are respon­si­ble for meet­ing the needs of those whose work we patron­ize, there­by becom­ing par­tic­i­pa­to­ry in the work process our­selves.  In an age of Free Information, Entertainment, and Games for Everyone it’s hard to remem­ber that for every free thing you take in, some­one has to make some­thing for free.  Now, that’s not a bad thing.  Some devel­op­ers and artists (like Porpentine) find it impor­tant and nec­es­sary to release their works for free, but there are ways, such as Patreon, where­by they gar­ner essen­tial sup­port from fol­low­ers.  Sometimes this type of sup­port helps a lot, but it’s rarely, if ever, the big bucks.

Now, I’m not real­ly try­ing to say “give all your money to Porpentine” (though that’s not a ter­ri­ble idea!), I’m say­ing that we ought to think about what we put into the sys­tem from which we con­sume con­tent on a daily basis.  It’s very easy to oper­ate almost total­ly in a con­sumer modal­i­ty, and for­get our own com­plic­i­ty in the mar­gin­al­iza­tion and pover­ty of artists.  By let­ting our own efforts flow into the sys­tem, we also open a chan­nel for more imme­di­ate and enrich­ing expe­ri­ences for our­selves.  Back to the def­i­n­i­tion of a health­ful­ly moti­vat­ed per­son: some­one who isn’t think­ing about the money, isn’t con­sumed with sur­vival.

Perhaps, with enough coop­er­a­tion, large and small, from read­ers and play­ers to more well-known crit­ics and inde­pen­dent devel­op­ers, we can cre­ate an envi­ron­ment in which we’re all, instead, think­ing about the work.

Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Gotzon was a contributor to the Ontological Geek from 2010-2013, and had more fun with it than Super Smash Bros. (most of the time) and the entire Halo series (all of the time). He can be still be found occasionally sharing Dungeons and Dragons memes on Twitter @AP_Gotzon.