Why Indie Game Devs are Like Preachers (Sometimes)


A while ago there was an interesting debate on a gaming forum I read - somebody had donated to a Kickstarter for an indie game and felt burned when the recipient spent some of the money on stuff for themselves.  Game devs responded with peculiar intensity - they have to live same as anyone else, don't they?  They argued that if that money supports them full time so they can develop the game, then it shouldn't matter WHAT it's paying for.  The emotions were running high, shall we say.

What was most interesting to me about this debate is that I felt like I like had it before, but in a completely different context - a church budget meeting.  Some members at the church I was going to at the time were upset that they were paying so much money to one of the staff when we were having trouble making budget.  Every line item on the church budget was heavily scrutinized to make sure it was legitimate, and if it was deemed otherwise, a surprising amount of anger was unleashed.  Why such an intense reaction to this stuff, I wondered.  Why so emotional?  

Certainly, we don't care "where the money goes" when we buy a pizza or a couch.  The pizza delivery guy can spend it on whatever the heck he wants - we got our pizza.  But for churches, non-profits, and (evidently) Kickstarted projects, suddenly the money we give comes with a lot of strings attached.  Why should that be?  When we donate to a church or a non-profit, you might think that it would increase our sense of goodwill and charitable-ness, but then you would be dumb.  Instead, the fact that we "donated" the money has all sorts of implications.

It might seem like people perceive donations differently than people perceive purchases.  I would argue, however, that people perceive them in exactly the same way.  This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on the situation, but it seems clear enough to me that it happens.  

People don't give money without expecting something in return.  When we purchase something, we get the thing we bought, and the transaction is complete.  When we donate toward something, we might think we are selflessly giving towards a good cause, but in fact, we are purchasing something - perhaps the good feeling of having supported a cause, perhaps goodwill from others, perhaps progress towards some moral end - but it's seldom 100% altruistic.  Otherwise, why would we be so upset when a non-profit doesn't deliver 99% of our donation directly into the hands of starving children?  Or when a preacher takes his family to Disney World?  Or when a game developer uses Kickstarter funds for general life purposes?  Our donation actually was a purchase of something - and certain things can make us feel like we've been cheated out of what we purchased.  "I didn't put that check in the collection plate so you could live the high life," and so forth.  

Now, for the record, this may or may not be a bad thing.  This instinct may help us keep churches and charities and Kickstarter recipients honest, but it can go too far, I think.  We seldom understand all the economics at play.  If I demand that my preacher live on a pittance, he may decide to go somewhere else where he and his family don't have to live like paupers.  And so on.  Our desire to not feel "cheated" out of our "donation" can be destructive in some ways.  Maybe that non-profit is able to do so much good precisely because it pays the best and brightest a living wage to do its work (or maybe it's a racket - but you can't assume either way!).

The fact that we feel the same way about donations to completely non-moral/non-charitable entities like game developers is interesting to me, because it shows that this instinct really isn't theological in character - it's not that we have some special ideas about preachers per se.  We have some special ideas about our money when we donate it, no matter who we donate to!  It's all about economics and services rendered (or not). 

So if you accept donations for any reason whatsoever, just don't be surprised when people act like it's not your money to do with as you please.  And if you donate, be aware of what you feel you're really purchasing, and whether or not that feeling is fair to the organization you're donating to.