Achievements Considered

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.

Actually, "Operant Conditioning Chamber" sounds even more nefarious

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.

Need Replacement

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.

Objective judgment is the worst!

Did you see him solve that puzzle?

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.

Cheevos

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…

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Shorting the Fun

Betting Against the Bank

A dizzying array of factors fed into the current global financial meltdown.  Sub-prime mortgages, anti-market regulation, credit default swaps, a real estate bubble, global conspiracy, global warming, alien sabotage… the list is endless.  But when it comes to the collapse of specific commercial institutions like Bear Sterns, it is pretty clear that short-selling accelerated or even guaranteed their failure.

A short sale (or shorting for… uh… short) is when an investor sells stock borrowed from a third-party with the intention of re-purchasing the stock and returning it at a later date.  If the stock goes down during that time, the investor gets to keep the difference as profit.  On the other hand, if the stock goes up they have to buy back the stock at the higher price and risk losing a great deal of money.  In March 2008, Bear Sterns (a global investment bank) became strapped for cash because it had over-invested in mortgage-backed securities and the bottom fell out of the housing market.  They might have been able to borrow the money to cover themselves, or at least gotten a bailout, but so many investors were short-selling Bear Sterns stock that it looked like collapse was inevitable.  This self-fulfilling prophecy ended with the company being sold to JP Morgan Chase a few weeks later.

Down with arrows!

Winning the race to the bottom

Shorting the Fun

Designers do the same thing, only instead of bringing down financial institutions, they bet against their mechanics and doom their game to mediocrity.

Take a Sniper Rifle, for instance.  Long and sleek, capable of putting a bullet through the head of a distant enemy faster than they can hear the sound of it being fired.  It has everything going for it.  Lethality to make it feel potent.  Precision to give it a high skill-ceiling.  A steady cadence with plenty of anticipation; each shot counts, but a miss isn’t a disaster.  Usable beyond the range of any counter-attack, even the hanging contrail it leaves behind is a testament to the thrill of each shot.  A designer couldn’t ask for a more perfect example of flow.

Then why do the Sniper Rifles in so many games suck out loud?  It just isn’t that hard to make a satisfying Sniper Rifle, so how do so many designers mess it up?  The surprising answer is that most Sniper Rifles probably started out fun, but at some point in development a designer got nervous about game balance and began to hedge their bets.  They made it less accurate, or decreased the damage, or added some weakness like an unstable crosshair or a really long reload time.  They were so afraid that they wouldn’t be able to make the Sniper Rifle work with the rest of the game, they shorted it and ended up losing a great deal of potential fun.

Still not a good idea...

Not to be confused with "fun shorts"

That’s how you get a Sniper Rifle that takes three shots to kill someone.  Or a tank that drives two miles an hour.  Or a spell that costs so much mana your mage can never use it in a fight.  Or any awesome and fun element with a crippling weakness that makes it all but useless.  Designers sabotaging their own games because they lost sight of what made something worth including in the first place!

  • Adding a Weakness – It may seem like the best way to balance an element that is too strong is to give it an equally large weakness, but it just doesn’t work out that way.  Either the weakness will not be enough, in which case you will have an element that is still too powerful and no longer fun to use.  Or it will be more than enough, in which case you will have designed an element that has a weakness as its defining feature instead of the original aspirationI would play as the invincible ninja character, but he has taken a vow of pacifism and doesn’t have any punches or kicks.
  • Creating a Counter – Another common way to address an overpowered element is to design a second element whose sole role is to counter the first.  Not only is this second element probably not fun on its own merits, but everyone will be saddled with choosing an option that they secretly hope they don’t have to employ, just to prevent everyone else from choosing the fun option they desperately want.  I will choose the unenjoyable anti-tank mine so that nobody else can have fun using a tank.
  • The Old Switch and Bait – Many games, especially those looking for a sense of progression, will initially introduce the player to a hobbled version of an element, and then unlock the truly fun version as a reward.  Of course, this ignores the fact that players usually won’t invest in a game that isn’t fun, and even if they do eventually earn the right to have fun, a vast majority of their experience will have been struggling through a crippled, unenjoyable game.  If I kill 300 more rats with this blunted shovel maybe I’ll get to use a real sword!… in this game that is ostensibly about swords.
  • Death of a Thousand Tweaks – Perhaps the most outwardly reasonable (and therefore the most nefarious) way of shorting fun is to make an endless series of minor changes, each one leaving the element a little less fun than it was.  Slightly less accurate, a touch less damage, a little longer reload, a smidge more recoil, a fraction less range, etc.  In this parody of the tuning process, the element gets gradually less fun until it is “unfun enough” to be included.  The problem is that tuning is more delicate than balance, so the element will lose the qualities that made it fun long before it becomes fair.  It will also leave players frustrated; if only this gun had been tuned better it would be really fun!

So, ignore the analysts and the pundits!  If an element or mechanic has the tiniest spark of fun, a designer’s job is to protect and nurture it, not smother it because it might out-shine the rest of the game.  No matter how tempting, there are always better options, so don’t short the fun!

So what are the alternatives to shorting the fun?



Definition: Fun

If you are not a game designer:

Fun

(see also: Enjoyable, Cool, I Like It)

Something that I think is cool;

something that I imagine other people would think is cool, if a designer would just listen to my idea

If you are a game designer:

Fun

(see also: Blah Blah, Nice)

A completely meaningless term that should never be used;

except when describing the job responsibilities of a game designer to someone over 40

If you are a game designer writing about game design:

Fun

The positive emotion associated with fulfilling a common teleological aspiration



 (I realize this definition may itself need some explanation.)

Human Needs 

One way of understanding human behavior is to look at our needs.  If you assume that people are basically reasonable and that they are motivated to act in a way that fulfills their needs, then you can categorize different behavior based on the need that it satisfies.  The most well-known example of this technique is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s like the Food Pyramid of human desires.  Unfortunately, neither the Hierarchy or the Pyramid are based on solid scientific research, so they tend to be misleading.

A more rigorous categorization of needs has been put forth by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester.  They have researched people’s need for self-determination, specifically their needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.  They have even applied this theory to games with fascinating and practical results.  (If you are interested in this topic or their research, I recommend reading Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.)

When our needs are being met, we describe the resulting emotion with a variety of terms.  Satisfying, Fulfilling, Relieving, Gratifying, Pleasurable, and Fun.  Each of these emotions is specific to the type of need that is being met, so if we can determine which kinds of needs result in fun we will be closer to defining the word, and have a greater understanding of our goal as designers.

The Need for Fun?

An immediate objection springs to mind against linking fun to needs.  Despite what you told your mom when you were a kid, you can’t die from fun deprivation.  How can fun be related to needs if you don’t actually have to have it to survive?  Well, psychology doesn’t make a distinction between needs and wants, in fact a better term might be desires or appetites.  However, this does bring up an important distinction that will help narrow down what sorts of needs result in fun when they are satisfied.

Some needs produce a negative emotion when we lack them, but are virtually forgotten once met.  These needs are requirements.  Carbohydrates, for example, are a requirement.  If you don’t have any, you will experience wracking hunger pangs, but if you have a sufficient supply you no longer think about them.  Other needs are just the opposite.  When these aspirational needs are not met, they rarely bring themselves to mind, but when they are fulfilled we experience a strong positive reaction.  Pancakes, for instance, are an aspirational need.  Nobody suffers greatly when pancakes are not available, but everyone enjoys them if given the opportunity.

I have a need for charts

Indisputable Proof

Having made this distinction, it’s clear that fun is the result of satisfying an aspirational need.  Much like pancakes, fun experiences are not required for survival, but we still enjoy them when they are offered.  However, this category is still too broad.  Pancakes are delicious, but not necessarily fun.

Even sad Pancakes make me hungry

Sorry Pancakes. We still love you.

The Need for Greek?

One characteristic that is unique to fun experiences is that they require participation.  Many needs can be met by an external source, the way a mother provides for the needs of a baby.  These kinds of needs are often physical objects: food, water, a place to live, a large screen TV.  But they can even be psychological needs like the desire to have the respect of one’s peers, or the need to know how something works.  These needs are ontological needs, meaning they are ends in and of themselves, they exist for the person.

Needs that result in fun are very different.  One person cannot play or learn or rest for another person; they must do it for themselves.  These teleological needs are met when we allow ourselves to be the means for some purpose beyond ourselves.  That purpose may or may not be useful; work can be as fun as play, even though it also provides for many other needs.  They key component is participation.

Every individual values needs differently, but with both of these axis we can arrange all needs into four quadrants: 

I have a need for greek words

Incontrovertible Evidence

The Need for a Conclusion

Now we have a sufficiently narrow range of needs that result in fun, specifically those in the upper-right quadrantThese needs are aspirations because we get a positive emotion when they are met, but do not necessarily suffer when they aren’t, and they are teleological because they allow us achieve some potential end and require our participation.

It remains to be seen if this will prove itself to be a useful definition, but at least it is more specific than “I know it when I see it.”

Fun and Games and Hardcore Pornography

In 1964, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a certain French film called Les Amants wasn’t just risqué, it was obscene, and banned it from being shown in the state.  They were reversed by the Supreme Court in  Jacobellis vs Ohio, which is known not just because it restrained the ability of government to censor artists, but because of the reasoning used by Justice Potter Stewart in the case.  He argued that the Constitution protected all forms of expression except hardcore pornography, writing:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

This arbitrary and vague definition held for almost ten years until it was replaced with the “community standards” criteria that are used today.  During that time it was notoriously useless as a law enforcement tool.  Police and prosecutors could not use this subjective standard to determine which material to ban and which to allow.  They were constantly having to wake up Justice Stewart in the middle of the night, show him some dirty pictures and get a verdict.

Phallic is in the Eye of the Beholder

Obscenity or Obelisk?

Unfortunately, most designers have a similar working definition of important concepts like fun or gameplay or balance or immersion.  How can you be a game designer if you don’t even have an intelligible description of what a game is?  “I know one when I see it” isn’t good enough if your career depends on your ability to create experiences nobody has ever seen before.

Definitions are difficult because they often prove inadequate when you try to actually use them.  This is especially true in game design because it is such a young industry.  It is rife with definitions that sound good, but are flawed for a variety of reasons:

  • Resorting to merely supplying synonyms.  You can’t define fun as “an enjoyable activity” or “the entertainment value of an event.”  Those are just thesaurus entries.
  • Simply describing the characteristics or effects.  If you define a game as “something people play” or “a contest with rules” you haven’t provided any insight into its essential nature, you are just dissecting it’s parts.  It’s like defining a human as “some bones and organs inside a thin layer of skin.”
  • Defining too broadly.  A vague definition will include too many confusing counter-examples, so any decisions based on it will be similarly fuzzy and subject to error.  (“I know it when I see it” is an example of this.)
  • Defining too narrowly.  Often a designer will have a single insight about a concept, and elevate that one aspect to the level of a definition.  This narrowness creates a blind spot that will conceal possible innovations that fall outside of those artificial limits.

In order to be useful, a definition must provide enough insight and specificity to help make practical decisions regarding the term being defined.  When people agree on a definition, they should not only be able to use it to communicate accurately, it should in some way guide their thinking and establish a standard against which they can judge their work.  Given a sufficient definition of the ideal game, a designer should be able to objectively evaluate their game, and then improve it.