A 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.