Definition: Role

Role

The features, mechanics, situation and purpose which define an element’s function in a game

According to Aristotle, we can claim to have knowledge of something only when we have understood its causes.  These causes come in four types: the material cause – the matter of which the thing is made, the formal cause – the pattern or idea which that matter takes, the efficient cause – the motivation which formed the matter, and the final cause – the purpose for which it is used.  Once we understand all four causes, we know an object fully.  In game design terms, once we can explain all four causes, we know an element’s role.

The Material Cause

Video games are not physical objects, so technically they don’t require a material cause.  However, they do have underlying components that make their existence in the game possible, like models, textures, effects and sounds.  They also require other engine features like physics, particles, etc.  Some elements even require completely unique features, and explicitly specifying these features is important to defining the role.

The Formal Cause

This aspect of a game element is what we traditionally think of as “design.”  The form of an element is the pattern that it follows and the systems in which it operates – the game mechanics that constrain it.  Aristotle is referring to the Platonic idea of an object, but in-game design this is the Paper Design.  Just as in Plato’s theory, real life cannot match the perfection of the world of ideas; the in-game experience will never realize the paper design exactly, but it does provide an objective standard.  Much like a craftsman making a chair is attempting to create a material version of the ultimate idea of “chairhood”, the designer tunes an experience to get as close as possible to the original game design.

The Efficient Cause

Often called the “moving cause” because it provides the motivating force for an object, the efficient cause is closest to our modern concept of “cause and effect.”  In game design, the efficient cause is always the player and their desires.  A game element that does not have a corresponding player desire will never be used (at least not without coercion) so it is crucial to identify and meet those needs.

The Final Cause

The most important cause, at least to Aristotle, is the purpose for which an object exists.  In a game, this is especially true because games are fundamentally about using tools to solve problems, and game elements are usually classified by the types of problems they solve.  This is why it is so important to limit an element’s power so it is only effective for its designated role; if an element is an effective solution for multiple types of problem it becomes difficult to tell what its purpose is intended to be.  This is also why a problem should be presented before or at the same time as the solution, or else the player will not have a way to categorize the solving element.  This purpose is communicated to the player through affordance and reinforced by rewarding feedback.

Taken together, these four causes define an element’s role.  The features that allow it to exist.  The mechanics that give it a form and constrain its use.  The situation that creates the player’s need for it.  The purpose for which the player will use it.  Once a designer understands all four causes for an element, they understand an element well enough to implement it successfully.

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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…

Rewarding Play III

Now that we have seen how games meet a player’s needs through gratification and rewards, how can a game be improved to do a better job of meeting those aspirations and therefore appeal to more players? There are four aspects of how a need is met that make it more likely.

Expected

Would you rather have $50 dollars or a 50-50 chance at winning $100? Study after study confirms that humans are pre-disposed toward the “safe bet.” In fact, the most famous studies show that people will choose a more certain payout over a chance at a much a larger payout, which is why this tendency is called the Certainty Bias. Players, being mostly humans, will prefer games where they have an expectation of meeting a need, rather than just the possibility of it. So, a singleplayer campaign is a better place to meet the need to demonstrate competence because the AI enemies are guaranteed to eventually take a dive and let the player win. (At least in a well-designed game, they will.) However, success in multiplayer is always uncertain, and so it is less appealing to players looking to demonstrate competence. If a designer knows which need their game is intended to satisfy, it is often possible to make those rewards more certain without cheapening them.

Efficient

The human brain is a fantastically efficient decision-making instrument, capable of analyzing complex models of the world and making subtle strategic decisions, all while using less energy than an average low-watt light source. (Which is why you should take “dim bulb” as a compliment to your biological optimization.) We will always prefer activities that fulfill the most needs for the least effort, known in psychology as “laziness.” The processed sugar in a few M&Ms provides as many calories as a double-handful of broccoli, and we all know which one our taste buds tell us is better for us. Broccoli's mortal enemy Players evaluate games in the same way. If two games both satisfy the need to defeat a human opponent, but I am already good at one of them, I’m probably not going to sacrifice efficiency by trying out the new game. Which leads to a small number of franchises dominating the multiplayer community, with new games getting little or no traction. If a designer understands which aspiration they are fulfilling, they can make their game more efficient at it than their competition.

Essential

The current vogue in behavioral psychology is to rail against the dangers of extrinsic motivation. The primary argument is that if an activity is interesting on its own, encouraging the activity by adding an extrinsic reward actually decreases the activity’s intrinsic value, so maybe designers should stop reflexively dumping achievements and trophies and levels and loot into every game. Since games cater to aspirations, not physical needs, and since they are exotelic activities without a concrete result, it is nearly impossible to determine the difference between an intrinsic reward and an extrinsic one. The issue is often over-simplified as “external rewards are bad,” meaning external to the player themselves, but since all needs involve an external good paired with an internal lack, every reward is cast in a suspicious light.

Urine Trouble Now!

Ill just hold it...

For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can sidestep the issue entirely by appealing to practical concerns about schedule. If a game is fun early in production, it is meeting some need through its essential gameplay, the core of the experience. Rather than add non-essential systems and rewards (incurring non-essential costs and delays) it is a better production decision to focus on improving those essential activates. Any motivation caused by an essential activity can be assumed to be intrinsic to the game and therefore safe from demotivating side-effects.

Exclusive

The absolute best way to meet the player’s needs better than the competition is to not have any competition! Find a need that is going completely ignored by the market, and then craft a game specifically targeted at that aspiration. Admittedly, this a risky and difficult proposition, but nearly every major gaming franchise has been successful because they created a new audience by fulfilling an unmet need. If you are fortunate enough to be working on a game like this, it is even more important to understand the unspoken desire you are fulfilling and hone your game to be even more effective, or some other developer will.

Rewarding Play II

The primary difference between gratification and reward is the timing of the need fulfillment.  If the need is satisfied during the activity, then the player experiences gratification.  If the need is satisfied as a result of the activity, the player feels rewarded.  A well-designed game will satisfy the player’s needs through both methods at the same time, but many needs are more sensitive to one or the other.

Gratification

The need to demonstrate competence, especially competence under low-pressure circumstances, is an aspiration best met through gratification.  Because competence is theoretically achievable by every player, it feels hollow to follow a demonstration of competence with praise, loot, or some other form of reward.  Successfully following instructions and getting through a tutorial hardly seems like much of an Achievement.  In fact, by the time the reward is awarded, the player’s need to display competence has already been met, so the reward feels like an afterthought, the over-enthusiastic encouragement of a parent at a soccer game.

Don't ask to see the "A"

Thanks for the support, Dad

Gratification, on the other hand, happens at the moment of execution and amplifies the player’s experience of meeting their need for competence.  The audible pop as an enemy’s head explodes from a headshot, the giant red number floating up after a critical strike, or even the silence of a battlefield after the final attacker is defeated, all of these enhance the moment of success.  They make it more gratifying.  Even activities that take virtually no skill at all, but only require the player to do an obvious, trivial task, can be made gratifying by the right sounds and visuals.  In some games, the  “Press Start” screen is empowering and need-fulfilling.

Rewards

Some needs are better met by rewards.  These can either be something the player expects and has been building toward, or an unexpected acknowledgement of something the player has achieved, but are always awarded after the activity is finished so the player can fully appreciate them.  Usually it is a good idea to slow the pacing and provide a lull for them to bask in their accomplishment.  Rewards generally ought to be something useful, but since they are highlighting the fact that a need has been met, they can simply be a trophy signifying that event.

The shortest distance between three heads

Worth an achievement

Although it is very similar to demonstration of competence, the need to demonstrate excellence is better suited toward rewards than gratification.  Perhaps the method that a player used to get the final kill in a multiplayer game wasn’t that special, and there is no need to add spectacle to enhance the death itself, because the real reward is a slight delay followed by the announcer saying “Team Eliminated” and the winner’s rank going up.  Picking up the loot from a downed boss doesn’t need much in the way of effects and sounds because the items themselves are the rewards for an excellent display of skill.  Xbox Achievements and Playstation Trophies are better used for rewards for excellence precisely because they aren’t that gratifying and feel awkward when awarded for more mundane accomplishments.

[To be continued]

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.”