In his excellent, exhaustive (though ultimately inconclusive) GDC 2010 lecture “Achievements Considered Harmful?” Chris Hecker raises the issue of extrinsic rewards, specifically platform achievements/trophies, and asks whether they might be having a negative effect on the industry as a whole. (Chris is sort of the unofficial conference gadfly and often uses his talks to generate further debate.) After an overview of the current backlash against behavioral psychology, he explains that while the literature is extensive and often contradictory, most researchers agree that “for interesting tasks, tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation.”
Since “fun” seems like an intrinsic motivation, he warns of a “nightmare scenario” where Achievements and other extrinsic rewards are added to a game that is already fun, destroying the intrinsic motivation of the player while simultaneously pushing designers to add even more extrinsic rewards like digital drug dealers until every game becomes a Skinner Box.
Of course, Chris acknowledges that more research must be done to determine the likelihood of this “worse case” outcome, and ends his lecture with a call for more psychological investigation into gaming and gamers. I propose that the situation is less dire, but that Achievements are potentially threatening for a completely different reason than the ones Chris suggests.
First, let’s take a look at one of the classic psychology experiments performed by Edward Deci as far back as 1969 that demonstrated how extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic ones. Two groups of test subjects participants were asked solve puzzles (called Soma Cubes) on three consecutive days. The first day, each group was asked to solve three puzzles in an attempt to instill an intrinsic motivation by showing that the puzzles were fun because they fulfilled the need to demonstrate competence, especially in front of a judgmental audience of scientists.
On the second day, one of the groups was paid a few dollars for each puzzle they completed, adding an extrinsic motivation for them, but not for the unpaid group. At this point, the need to look smart and competent was replaced for the paid group by a much more powerful need for financial gain.
On the final day, neither group was paid to solve puzzles. The participants that had never been paid worked just as hard as previous days, their need for competence was still being met, but the group that had been paid was now unmotivated and quickly abandoned the puzzles. Their need for financial gain was no longer being met, and their natural tendency to avoid losses made the puzzles seem pointless.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Rewards
Part of the difficulty of interpreting the results of this experiment lies in understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic. Especially since extrinsic seems to carry negative connotations. Extrinsic does not mean “external to the player,” all needs are met by an external good. Extrinsic doesn’t mean “materially beneficial or useful,” almost every need is directed at accomplishing some goal. Extrinsic certainly does not mean “bribery” or “added with an immoral ulterior motive,” all rewards are intended to meet needs more effectively, and there is nothing selfish about achieving an aspiration.
An extrinsic reward is simply one that is “separable” or “nor part of the essential nature” of the activity used to obtain it. Since making money isn’t an inseparable aspect of solving a puzzle, it can be removed and suddenly puzzle-solving fails to meet the money-making need. At some point, parents will stop buying their children pizza for reading books, because pizza is not part of the essential nature of reading. This lack of reliability is the true source of the demotivating effect. And it is made worse when a reward appears to be intrinsic because it is “tangible, expected, and contingent” but is ultimately extrinsic and unreliable.
Every single Xbox 360 game is required to have Achievements. They are inseparable from the activity of playing Xbox games. Achievements are no longer an extrinsic reward, they are part of the essential nature of console gaming. (And increasingly part of PC and mobile gaming, as well.) This means that even Chris’ nightmare scenario avoids the demotivating effects described in the psychological research. If a player’s needs are met by demonstrating competence, gaming will continue to be appealing. And if their needs are met by collecting and investing in Achievements, gaming will continue to be appealing because we have an unlimited number of Achievement points to distribute.
Well… actually, Microsoft, Sony and the other platform holders have an infinite number of Achievements to dispense, and that is the real nightmare scenario for game developers…