“We’re Born to be Players, Not Pawns”

I was reading Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and I came across something new. Or, maybe it just seemed new the 2nd time. Whatever the reason, I had one of those, ‘holy cow!’ moments that sends chills up my arms. His words inspired me to realize something new. Something I want to share. Here’s what I learned.

Many of the self-help management books of the 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s like to stress the importance of ‘learning to delegate.’ It’s a simple idea that is a part of management-101 courses everywhere. On the surface, the idea seems pretty sound. After all, managers have a lot to do and they can’t take everything upon their shoulders. There’s not enough time in the day – you’ll be overburdened and burn out. Therefore, as a manager, the first thing you need to learn to manage is your own time. Somehow, this idea then leads to the conclusion that managers should spend a lot of time learning how to delegate to subordinates. Pick through your tasks and assign them to your people and tell them how you want it done. Then, setup measurement and tracking systems and make sure everything happens accordingly. Setup meetings and agendas that help inspire people to achieve your goals. After all, as the manager, you are the visionary and the leader and that makes it your job to delegate.

So, that’s the old school of thought. I’ve seen this explained in a dozen ways. But, today, I had an inspiration. A bunch of ideas that had been bouncing around my brain suddenly congealed into a single revelation. I realized that there is something profoundly flawed with the idea of ‘Learning to Delegate’. It’s not that there isn’t some kernel of wisdom there, it’s that it completely and deeply misses the much more powerful wisdom of, ‘Learning to Empower.’


Empowerment? “What’s he talking about? Empowerment? That’s idealistic blubbery!” After all, by its very definition, in order to empower your employees, you have to sacrifice control. Empowerment means that my employees can take on actions, make decisions, act with authority, and do whatever they think needs to do, however they see fit. “If I sacrifice control, how will I make sure things get done? That’s crazy talk and scary, that’s what that is.”

But, it’s only scary because there’s a flaw in the underlying assumptions. The idea of learning to delegate assumes that people don’t want to work and are only productive when you setup a system of rewards and punishments. Carrots and sticks. Measures and rewards. “That’s how it works. … Right?”

Fortunately, no. Over the last 20 years, this idea has been well and thoroughly debunked. In fact, many of the advances in modern psychology directly refute this flawed premise. Daniel Pink refers to this old-school way of thinking as ‘Motivation 2.0’. In his book, Drive, he describes how Motivation 2.0 became popular with the rise of factory labor. It came along with the idea that an assembly line is just a machine made of human parts. Oil the machine with rewards to keep it running smoothly.

But Pink isn’t the only one. In fact, the advances in psychology come from a wide range of sources. From Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, to Edward Deci’s Intrinsic Motivation, to Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice, to Pink’s Motivation 3.0, and finally, to Seligman’s concept of Well-Being. Here’s the cliff-notes version: we are most creative, most productive, most engaged, and most happy when we are doing activities that challenge us, allow us to exhibit mastery, and are within our control. (Hey!  that sounds a like a typical night playing video games!)


With that in mind, let’s look again at the phrase, ‘Learning to Delegate.’ Underlying this expression is the belief that ‘I am in control of everything and I must delegate tasks to my subordinates or we will fail.’ Now, compare that to the phrase, ‘Learning to Empower.’ At the heart of this expression is the idea that ‘I want to help my subordinates learn that they are responsible for all of our success, so they are in control and can use their skills to make stuff happen.’  These two ideas are not the same. Not the same at all.

In hindsight, it’s been kind of fun applying this to game design and development. The realization of ‘learning to empower’ is something I can directly apply to both managing game projects and game design. For me, the implication is that managing game projects isn’t about delegating tasks, it’s about empowering teams to achieve success! And, game design is not about delegating tasks to players. It’s about empowering them.

After all, “we’re born to be players, not pawns.”   (Pink)

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