How and why you should do rewards differently
There are many structures and methods that can inform you how you should approach your rewards system. Unfortunately, there isn’t one right system that fixes everything, if there were then standardization and automation wouldn’t have become a problem. No, you will need to look at which is right for you and your players. To get you started, I will go through a few that may help you down the right path for what you require.
What we need to make clear first, before we embark on our journey for finding the right path, is that rewards, anticipation, and motivation are all intrinsically linked. You cannot discuss, develop and enact one without the other. That said, many of the concepts that we will explore are essentially discussing motivational needs and wants and the anticipation of getting those needs and wants.
Therefore, the first one that links so nicely into this is (possibly) everyone’s favorite: Maslow’s Hierarchy. The various tier’s in Maslow’s Hierarchy can be seen as a way to easily break up what type of rewards require what level of automation. Unfortunately, this assumption is wrong. Modern society has developed to a point where the tiers are cannot be seen as an order of priority but rather than the tiers show the different variations required and how small the audience for standardization gets with each ascending tier.
If you add in Alderfer’s ERG theory and parts of Drive-Reduction theory, then you may start getting closer to a framework for rewards that fit more closely to how society is structured today. Though be careful with Drive-Reduction theory as it does not wholly explain the complexities either in most modern societies.
The next framework that is a definite favorite for a lot of people who create gamified environments is B.F. Skinner and Skinner’s box. What Skinner demonstrated was that rewards, even uninteresting ones, can become intensely interesting if they varied and delivered with an unpredictable pattern. This is one solution behind automation, but the rewards still lack soul, and the activity then becomes more about the anticipation rather than any worthwhile desired actions. The main danger with variable rewards is the danger of addictive behavior.
Skinner’s box has the inherent problem that what it creates within you players is a sense of exclusivity, or rather then sensation to avoid a perceived loss or to avoid exclusion, which if they fail can lead to negative emotions, such as distress and anxiety. These breed negative motivation to avoid those emotions.
A third framework concept is Incentive Theory. Traditionally thought of as one purely directed at Extrinsic reward motivation, but it can be altered for intrinsic use. We won’t require that for this as we are mostly dealing with extrinsic situations. The beauty of this framework is that there is conceptually a very clear distinction made between the positive rewards, which pull people towards them, versus the negative rewards which push people away from them.
As with the previous frameworks, it will help inform you more about how rewards can be better personalized and what emotional state they cause, such as euphoria or distress. The benefit of adding greater emotional weight to a personalized reward is that the individual also adds their own perceived weight to the reward. Making it more valuable in their eyes due to the investment they’ve made in acquiring/achieving it.
In essence, the final theoretical framework that I will suggest, the Expectancy Theory from Victor Vroom, fit in with this quite well. Within this theory, motivation is seen as a function of expectancy, instrumentality, and valence. Of importance here is the final attribute in the equation; valence, it denotes the perceived weight of a reward. If the reward is seen to be of too low worth (even if completely unknown), then no matter the expected effort of performance or the strength of whether that performance will be rewarded, will not motivate anyone enough to do the desired action.
This does bring us to the point that rewards must always be within reach, perhaps initially out of reach, but always with sufficient effort, they can be achieved. This is part Lev Vygotsky’s theories around the Zone of Proximal Development. Where the sensation of achievement, and motivation, are linked to the challenge inherent to the expected perceived reward. In other words, something this out of reach is demotivation and not worth the reward, and something that is easily within reach is equally demotivating and not worth it. It must be challenging, and the reward must be authentic and specific to warrant the challenge. A standardized reward would kill all motivation in such a situation.