I’ve recently become addicted to an iPhone/iPad game called Tiny Tower.  In this quick-fix game, your goal is to manage a tower of residents and shops such that you can build and build upwards into a huge tower.  There’s no winning scenario – literally the sky’s the limit, as long as you keep stocking your stores, getting more residents, and hiring construction workers for the next floor.

If you look closely, you can see my weekend in there.  (Tiny Tower)

The strange thing about these task management games is that I’m willing to spend a ridiculous amount of time playing it.  Ordering supplies, assigning people to work, and waiting for customers to show up are generally not things people do for fun.  So why do we bother?

Because it’s rewarding.

Games motivate us to do mundane tasks over and over again for some reward.  My husband, for example, likes to play games for the achievements.  In Tiny Tower, for example, you get a little achievement badge for building a 25-story tower.  Even though the achievement is nothing more than a title and an icon within the game, it gives him a sense of accomplishment, especially vis a vis other players who haven’t got that far.  Ranking systems (e.g. “I’ve got the highest score among my friends!”) does the same thing.  These kinds of rewards give individual bragging rights and a goal to accomplish.

I, on the other hand, have never particularly cared for achievements and rankings.  I do, however, love collecting things, and within Tiny Tower, there are fun costumed characters that randomly show up and might decide to take up residence in your tower.  Although you can buy these characters with in-game money, my goal is to collect as many as possible without paying.  (I currently have a mobster, guy in a dragon suit, and mad scientist, in case you were wondering.)  Collecting stuff motivates me.

Perhaps we in the working world can take note of this behavior.  Human beings are motivated by lots of things – bragging rights, completing a collection – and will even do the most boring tasks (i.e. clicking on a screen all day) in order to get it.  Oftentimes, managers try to motivate employees with money, but as Daniel Pink notes in Drive, there are often less expensive and more intrinsic ways to get people to finish their tasks.

-Deborah Fike

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