Jesse Schell gave a great talk at DICE earlier this year on “design outside the box”. There are pretty good writeups by Kris Graft and Kim Pallister, and his slides are available, but if you’re at all interested, I recommend just watching it: his presentation style is very entertaining and engaging.

The talk was all about how video games (and other sorts of games, too) are moving away from their traditional confines and are appearing in all sorts of surprising real-world settings. Given that I love games in general and video games in particular, one might expect me to find this super-exciting: I should see this as a way in which our culture could become even richer! (See, for example, this Jane McGonigal interview.) And the video game blogosphere might largely be expected to react the same way, too.

The talk did, indeed, get a huge amount of discussion in the blogosphere (I’ll include a bunch of links at the end of this post), but the tone of most of those articles wasn’t so positive: while people generally thought that it was a very good talk, they also thought that it was a very good talk about a potential dystopia. I suspect there are a few different reasons why the talk got that sort of reaction, but certainly one of the main reasons is the last part of Schell’s talk, in which he painted a world full of organizations trying to convince you to take actions based on receiving points. (And you don’t have to stretch to see this as a dystopia: in his GDC microtalk, Schell himself described that as being akin to Brave New World.)

Extrinsic Motivators

More broadly, much of the discussion focused on the problematic nature of external rewards. As a long time Alfie Kohn fan, I’m pretty dubious about external rewards (or “extrinsic motivators”), for many of the reasons that Jesper Juul gives.

Which leaves me conflicted: I love video games, I don’t like extrinsic motivators, but here we have a talk about video games penetrating broadly through society that is being read widely as linking the two! I don’t enjoy cognitive dissonance more than anybody else; what should I do to resolve this?

There are a few options here. Probably the most attractive is to say that games aren’t all about extrinsic motivators, that (for example) only bad games are. There’s probably some amount of truth to that, but less than I would have expected going in. Let’s set aside video games for the moment, and talk about my favorite game of any sort, namely go. This is a game that I think is an inexhaustible source of richness and depth, and even on a superficial level I think that the layout of stones on a go board in a good game has real beauty of its own. Yet, if I were given a go board and a set of go stones and told to make something beautiful, I wouldn’t be particularly likely to try to follow the rules of go to do so: I would only be likely to make go-like patterns on a go board if I wanted to win a go game. (Either a game I was playing right then, or a hypothetical game that I might play in the future that would be informed by my investigations on the go board now.)

So, while there’s a lot of intrinsic motivation in my desire to play go (love for beauty, love for problem solving, wonderment at the layers upon layers of higher-order concepts that emerge from such simple rules), there’s extrinsic motivation there, too: the winning conditions are one example, as is the fact that I play in tournaments and got excited when my AGA rating made it up to 1 dan and bummed when my rating slipped back to 1 kyu.

And, of course, this mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators within a single game isn’t exclusive to go. I’m growing increasingly tired of the combat in games where I’m primarily interested in the environmental or narrative hooks. So, I have an intrinsic motivation which certain aspects of the game satisfy (the stories, the cities), but the mechanics fulfilling that intrinsic motivation serve in turn as extrinsic motivators to get me through other aspects of the game (slogging through repetitive combat).

To make game designers’ jobs worse, the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators isn’t universal across their audience! If I’m playing a narrative FPS, I may feel that I’m slogging through the shooting because it’s the only way to progress the plot; an FPS fan, however, may be going to the kitchen to fetch something to eat during the cut scenes, waiting until he or she can get back to shooting stuff.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of all of this. I guess one lesson of the go example is that one level of extrinsic motivators is fine, even good: it can give you the structure to make something a game instead of an activity, and as long as accepting that structure opens up a range of experiences that satisfy your intrinsic motivation, great! But once you open up extrinsic motivators on top of extrinsic motivators, experiences get a good deal bleaker. My problem with most JRPGs isn’t just that I have to fight through battles to advance the plot, it’s also that I’m applying the same strategy over and over again in battles: so I’m only pressing the buttons out of the extrinsic motivation of getting through the battle, and I only want to get through the battle out the extrinsic motivation to advance the plot. (Which I am intrinsically motivated to do!) And of course it gets worse if games (as frequently is the case) add a third consecutive layer of extrinsic motivation: maybe I’m only going through battles to advance my level or to be able to buy new loot, which aren’t (for me) intrinsically rewarding. In fact, I’ll propose that as my definition of grind: three directly nested game mechanics that function as extrinsic motivators for me.

This desire to avoid consecutive extrinsic motivators almost sounds like my old friend Alternating Repetition, this time between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, though I guess the analogy breaks down somewhat because we’re changing levels of scale while going down the motivation chain. (Also, I don’t see anything inherently bad about having consecutive layers of intrinsic motivators, if that makes sense in a game context.) And the main tool to get layers of intrinsic motivation is, I suspect, my recent obsession of Strong Centers: going back to the RPG example, make the battles strong enough to stand on their own (which seems to be the secret behind the appeal of Demon’s Souls), strengthen the appeal of exploration itself (Etrian Odyssey), make the cut scenes good enough that even people who are there for the fighting will be happy to watch them, make both fighting and narrative elements strong enough to appeal to people who come to the game for one of those are happy to stay for the other (Mass Effect 2, see Christina Norman’s GDC talk).


The above discussion of extrinsic motivators considers them inside core video game gameplay; but many of the followups to Schell’s talk discussed extrinsic motivators outside of the core gameplay, typically using Xbox Live achievements as an example. (Almost always a negative one.)

And, indeed, achievements seemed to me unambiguously like extrinsic motivators when I first encountered them; now, though, I’m not so sure. Many achievements do seem to me to be extrinsic motivators: taking Mass Effect 2‘s achievements as an example, “Power Gamer” acts as an extrinsic motivator (though not one that’s been effective enough to get me to earn it!), and I spent a while thinking about how I would react to “Paramour” and “No One Left Behind” in that light. (I ended up deciding that I wouldn’t go out of my way to earn either of them, but then Thane won my heart and I made the right choices on the final mission so got them both after all.)

Other achievements, however, didn’t act that way for me. The story progress achievements were simple checkpoints from my point of view: there was never any real question as to whether or not I was going to make it through the whole game, so they just served as a bit of punctuation. (And added a bit of fun looking at my friends’ profiles and seeing how much faster than me they were going.)

And then there’s the combat achievements: these did affect my gameplay, but in general not in ways that I think of as extrinsic motivators. The clearest example here is “Tactician”: my character didn’t have any biotic powers, and I wouldn’t have thought to experiment with combining biotic powers if the achievement hadn’t been there. But it was there, and it served to open up my eyes to some new tactical possibilities that I hadn’t considered before. (And then I closed my eyes after experimenting with it a few times.) So that achievement served to make me aware of an area of the gameplay space that I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise; to use an education analogy, it’s like the difference between a professor telling me that I have to study something to pass an exam (extrinsic motivation) and a mentor suggesting that I look into an area that I hadn’t studied before because it fits in with my interests. I don’t think that the majority of achievements act this way, but Mass Effect 2 certainly isn’t unique in that regard—I could post to examples in The Beatles: Rock Band and Burnout Paradise as well.

And, as with the earlier example of in-game extrinsic motivators, these aren’t clear objective categories: an achievement that serves as an extrinsic motivator for one person can serve as a neutrally-marked progress meter or mentoring for another person.

A great talk; I will repeat my exhortation to watch the video. The combination of extrinsic motivators and video games certainly gives a lot to think about; I hope I’ll be able to understand their interplay better in the future.

Other Writings

Some blog posts that other people have written about Schell’s talk:

Post Revisions:

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