I wanted to write a response to Jesse Schell's DICE talk, but David Sirlin said everything I wanted to say, better and more concisely than I would have. If you've watched or heard about the Schell talk on the future of game design, do read Sirlin's response. To picture the best game designers of the coming generation throwing their talents away on building false reward structures to manipulate people's behavior, as Schell encourages, makes me cringe, and Sirlin rightly voices why.


Nathan said...

I agree as well. After listening to the talk my thought was: In Schell's future, who is going to have the mental fortitude to resist external rewards and act based on internal rewards?

My other thought was that I don't think we want to be playing all games all the time. It seems a bit stressful to me.

Diego / Kimari / IndigoStatic said...

My first thought was that this could be a very strong potential tool for incentivising the use of things like public transport, recycling, brushing your teeth and so on. But I inmediately started to cringe at the "tricks" companies could pull off, especially in the advertising space. Boy, if you thought ads were annoying just wait a couple of years! *cringe*
But then again, this will probably take off, then it will get oversued and then people will just get sick of it and start to reject any "point based" program that didn't seem to encourage good, constructive behaviour.
At least I hope so.

Joel McDonald said...

Woh, woh, woh--maybe I need to re-listen to the talk again, but I'm pretty sure Schell wasn't being prescriptive in his description of this new (and scary) direction for game design. If anything, it seemed like he was more trying to reveal to us the road we're heading down so that we as game designers can make informed decisions about it.

John Krajewski said...

That is a very cool walk through a potential (inevitable?) future of social games. It's definitely a powerful force, this psychological manipulation, and it brings up serious questions about the morality of using them (questions that will of course be ignored).

My take on it is that it will become so saturated and ubiquitous that people get inured to it and it will become less effective, in the same way that traditional advertisements are today (more or less).

WorldMaker said...

I'm not sure that Schell gives the topic justice, but I think you may be overreacting to the basic implications. (I think Jane McGonigal does a better job of explaining the concept.)

The idea is (hopefully) not to game-ify everything for the sake of games/addiction, but to bring game design concepts back to reality and apply them to solving real problems.

I think when coming from that angle, there is a lot of good to be said for that as a philosophy.

One recent example is that I saw a doctor on The Daily Show describing the research that resulted in a new checklist for surgeons. The research found that the simple act of double checking a checklist was a huge way to reduce complications from surgery (infections, in particular). However, they are having a hard time getting buy-in from surgeons to use, even with the statistics backing them up... Surgeons are professionals and feel that requiring a checklist is something of a sleight on their professional skills.

I'm left wondering what would happen if all they did was repackage the idea as a "Quest Log", and maybe even provide some silly extrinsic reward for following the quests ("surgeon points"). Suddenly its not some "beauracratic burden", but a "fun way to keep score", and at the end of the day it still saves real lives.

"Game designer saves lives" sounds like a good goal to me, and that's just one simple example where game design can be applied to real world problems.

Unknown said...

There was also a Jonathan Blow talk about achievements and MMO-like reward structures as the "McDonald's of games" (http://braid-game.com/news/?p=129), and there's a scheduled Chris Hecker talk at GDC about the bad side of achievements (I am hoping to go). I think there will be a fair bit of backlash against the grim future Schell points to.

And make no mistake, it will be a grim future - it might start as "20 points for brushing your teeth!" but will quickly become "30 points for brushing your teeth with new Crest(tm) Special Whitening Paste!" And I echo the concerns of the earlier poster - people becoming (even more) disinterested in doing anything that doesn't provide an immediate reward of some kind.

But can we do anything to stop this future?

Steve gaynor said...

Johnnemann: As far as stopping this inevitable future... I don't know if it's actually that inevitable. I mean, Schell painted an intentionally hyperbolic version of the scenario, but I really doubt we're ever going to get near this level of permeation into everyday life-- we could have TVs and internet connections in our refrigerators now if we wanted, but people don't actually want that. The day when micron-thin video screens and wifi connections ship with a box of cornflakes is that much less likely. These external reward systems will probably continue to spider out, but only to the point that more of our everyday lives move online, as opposed to the internet spreading out into the physical world.

So what realistically might happen? Well... the stuff that's already happening: buy nine Starbucks coffees at Safeway, get the 10th free. Point accrual for patronizing various websites, especially those under the same company's banner. Localized stuff like your shoes containing a pedometer that uplinks to the web and scores you for physical fitness (as a way of driving sales of the shoe and brand awareness via frequent visits to the company's website.) Etc.

Feasibility of anything non-purchase-based is a problem. How do you actually judge whether cornflakes are eaten? Is our digestive system being monitored? How do we know that an ebook was actually read and not just clicked through for the point score? How do we know that it's your kid that played that piano sonata and not you? Basically it brings the problems of hacks and exploits into the real world, and we have enough problems with those already in 100% controlled, predictable virtual environments. Either that or it just scores you for buying stuff, which what we already do, and plenty.

And then there's the problem of incentivizing stuff that's inherently beneficial-- public service, reading respected literature, using public transportation. Most of the time these activities don't need to be incentivized-- the participant already does them because they know they're good for themselves or someone else-- or else they're too much of a pain for pointless points to be effective. If you don't ride the bus to work already, you probably already have a good reason for it-- there's no bus route between your home and work, you ride your bike, you work late-- and getting Bus Points isn't going to change that. Anyway, how do you judge that someone's ridden the bus X number of miles? My guess would be how many passes you've bought. So back to points for purchase.

So, anyway, I think this kind of stuff will always be pure commercialism, pure advertising, pure consumption encouragement. Beyond that, I don't think of it as "game design" by any real measure. As Schell admits, it's much more based on understanding and exploiting human psychology towards targeted compulsive behavior. So to encourage young game designers to get into what I predict will actually be a fairly limited, manipulative field of advertising is pretty distressing in my mind. Design games if you want to design games. Give people points for buying things if you want to work for an advertising agency. But don't confuse one for the other or try to ennoble empty reward structures by implying they might be used for the greater good.

To answer your question, abstain.

Simon Parkin said...

I'm not sure it's so easy to separate the two, Steve.

There's a sense in which external reward systems are, in many cases, an externalising of manipulative design that has been present within videogames forever.

How many RPGs reward mere perseverance (a.k.a. repeat patronage) over mastery? If I play a game to unlock a new outfit, or raise a character level without learning or improving at the game, are the systems pulling me back into the game so different to the ones we're talking about here?

Moreover, often you need the more immediate and 'emptier' reward structures to pull the player into the game deep enough that they start to perceive the more satisfying rewards that come with mastery.

E.g. a player might initials play Street Fighter IV because they want to unlock Ryu's third costume or Chun Li's fifth taunt, superficial rewards. But these low level incentives make the player invest in the game for long enough that they then catch glimpses of the more satisfying rewards higher up the branches of the tree: mastery of the game's systems that aren't quantified in unlockables or numbers, but in competitive play.

Steve gaynor said...

Simon: I think there is a clear distinction there. For one, you're describing systems that take place within a self-contained experience. Schell really is talking about how the most manipulative aspects of the phenomena he highlights can be applied to everyday life, outside of a clearly-defined frame.

Considering the merits of these kinds of grindable systems within a self-contained game is worthwhile as well; certainly they can be equally questionable if their intent is addictive (see slot machine loot drops.) But I think you pull mastery into the equation as only one possible "legitimate" alternative; I think all that's really important is for the player to be engaging with the game based on the value it inherently offers, whether that be exploring a world, hearing a story, building up a powerful character, examining new systems of interaction, etc. The thing about the empty point systems that Schell describes is that they have no inherent value; they are a means to an end. The means are hollow and the ends are highly suspect.

Unknown said...

Steve: Sure, the technical aspects are tricky for some things. But I wouldn't underestimate the increasingly mobile, connected world we find ourselves in. There are already people doing this for location: http://foursquare.com/ (Earning points and badges for checking in from various locations via GPS-enabled phone. There's even a King of the Hill game encouraging people to spend more time in places). Some things are harder to track, sure, but phones are definitely eager to help track everything.

I also think it'll be more subtle than what he paints in his talk. I also don't think game designers (or who we think of as game designers now) will end up working on it. I do think it's coming, though.

Nels Anderson said...

In case you didn't see Jesper Juul's response, it's got some good research in it. Basically, he cites psych studies that show exogenous rewards can help motivate things you don't want to do, but actually demotivate enjoyable tasks.

Rewards recontextualize motives. It's likely one will either start engaging in beaviours just for the reward and stop when that reward is earned, or realize the reward isn't worth it and stop all together.

So, game-ifying exercise and eating well? Probably awesome. Game-ifying mastering the piano or reading Ulysses? Probably not.

JP said...

As a possible future, it's only as inevitable as we, the people who make games and comment on cultural development, decide it is. I hate when people raise the idea of these developments as something we have no control over, that we should simply submit to now.

Games can be so good at helping people learn how to think and act autonomously; it's disgraceful that we assent to the opposite of that just because we think it will earn mad cash - Schell's obvious money-lust over the sheer size of facebook's market share at the beginning is super distasteful and really sets the tone for the entire thing.

Jesper Juul's response is definitely worth reading, and it sounds like Hecker's achievements talk will cover similar ground. I had a blog post on this spinning years ago, and it's so simple I hardly thought it necessary. As game designers we can offer people interactions they can find intrinsically meaningful. When you do something in a game and you're not showered in reward feedback candy, it's now up to you to decide what its value is. If designers create interactions that they find satisfying in the absence of an extrinsic reward, there's a good chance many players will enjoy doing it for its own sake.

Rewards make people do things. Rules simply make things possible. The latter is an inseparable part of our art; the former is a tool to be used thoughtfully and responsibly in pursuit of that.

Harvey Smith said...

I just assumed Schell meant this as a Swiftian "Modest Proposal."

Bez said...

Reward fatigue is on the way.

The more games I play, the more I notice I'm being drawn in to play more than I naturally would. I come out of those experiences feeling cheated of my time as I put up with rushed out controls schemes and awkward plot lines, whispering to myself that it'll all be worth it for the gamerpoints. It never is. My massive gamerscore is an indelible mark of shame... An AA membership with global corporate backing. I even have my XBox blogging the days I fail to play games. Stick and carrot in perfect harmony.

Developers have the psychology of skinner boxes down pat. There's no real challenge to keeping a suggestive player hooked. One's born every minute. When directly faced with the issue, no game developer really wants to admit that that is what they're reduced to: 21st century one arm bandits.

It's just that there's so many pressures in mainstream development to create a successful game in the classic sense. Bums on seats. Pads in paws. The more hours of play time you get people logging, the "better" the game must be.

It becomes so much easier to make something which overtly begs you to keep playing it than to spend time creating well formed systemic mechanics with wonderful kinaesthetics which naturally entice you to explore their emergent depths.

And players tend to see addiction as a quality! Addiction fallacy: if you play a game a lot, it must be good.

Obvious NO.

Addiction fallacy can't last forever. It's short/mid term thinking. It'll backfire*. An interest based solely on meaningless rewards eventually reveals its own emptiness. People slowly bleed from these games as they realize they've been trapped in a psychological whirlpool.

And when they're free from that, then they're free to waste their insectile lives on books, booze, film, music, dance, shenanigans, and life.

*Just like gambling has backfired... erm? I could be wrong there. But with gambling there is atleast the chance of actual monetary gain? But then one could argue that money is as abstract as any arbitrary point system..1..11?

This post brought to you by: generic white wine.

Steve gaynor said...

Harvey: my expectation is that that would be charitable hopefulness on your part. If not, then Schell was being exceptionally subtle in the writing and presentation of his talk.

Keith D. said...

The idea of a point-based reality has been percolating in my brain for awhile now, and it's refreshing to see Schell start a really provocative conversation on this topic that seems to pique many people's interest.

I highly recommend the book "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross as an engrossing look into such a scenario. It made me question many of the little things I do that seemingly add up to meaningless fulfillment.