What videogames almost always give me instead are labor that I must perform for an extrinsic reward. I want to convince you that not only is this not what I want, this isn’t really what anyone wants.
I should quickly mention that I have no problem with games being digital; in fact, I think that computers offer us incredible potential for game design. Instead, when I say “anti-videogame”, I mean that I am opposed to the way we do things now.
Games as Disciplines
I recently read an article by Max Seidman titled “The Psychology of Rewards in Games“. It starts out as a decent elementary introduction to some basic behavioral research, introducing us to the Skinner box and the “Overjustification effect“, but then quickly turns into a full-on, straight-up endorsement of the status quo (why anyone writes an article whose thesis is “everything we’re already doing is A-ok!” is beyond me).
It occurred to me, though, that all his talk about “rewards” was rather central to my problem with the way that we – and by “we” I mean, modern videogame designers – tend to think about the problems of game design. It seems to me that considering thematic/narrative elements and the patterns for distribution of extrinsic rewards make up a combined 95% of the effort of a modern videogame designer. “What’s cool about our world/characters”, and “how are we going to manipulate the player into playing more?”
Of course, you could say that all art is manipulation. However, good art is manipulation for a purpose. A great novel manipulates your emotions to express some controlling idea. Art, like anything else, has a purpose, and its purpose is enrichment.
And “enrichment” doesn’t have to mean that it teaches you some great moral lesson, some history, or philosophy. It could be something as simple as “the way two lines intertwine” as in abstract art, or the graceful oblique harmonic motion of a song.
As story doctor Robert McKee says, art’s purpose is to say, “life is like this!”, and that’s what we do. That is what I mean by enrichment, and that is something that games do all the time, through the rules alone.
A game’s ruleset is a prescribed world, a special world that is designed and framed – much like a landscape painting, or photography – to allow us to make observations. The principle of “strategy” itself could be described as a collection of observations about this prescribed world. Beware when you X, for Y is often the result.
The nature of enrichment that games, on their purely mechanical / rule-based grounds alone provide is often more abstract than the kinds of enrichment that we get from narrative media, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less profound or important. Ignoring the obvious physical benefits, a tennis player gets a tremendous amount from building his discipline.
Playing a great game, engaging with a great ruleset, is often a profound experience. Even after making a winning move, our imagination ignites with wonder: could there have been an even better move? What if it had gone differently? Just what am I capable of?
For a moment, I will divide all videogames into two categories: “the compulsion app” and “the discipline app”. EDIT: Note that for now, I’m excluding systems which are clearly focused on being puzzles, contests and bare interactive systems. In reality, there aren’t many videogames that get excluded this way anyway.
Compulsion App: You will complete a number of mundane/no-brainer chores such as running down linear corridors, replacing your +1 sword with a +2 sword, pressing A when the game tells you to press A, collecting 12 jubileejoos, pushing a block so that you can jump up to a window, or mashing buttons to kill all enemies on screen. Grinding. A game that you would never play without the extrinsic motivator.
In exchange for this, you will be given some kind of extrinsic reward, such as cutscenes, spectacles, achievements, some in-game-resource, or simply having Beaten the Game.
The Discipline App: You will engage with a dramatic, dynamic, deep, interesting system which will force you to use ingenuity, creativity, focus. No extrinsic reward will be given, because the system itself is its own reward. A game that you play for the sake of playing the game itself, not for any extrinsic reward.
I have a hard time believing that anyone – given the choice – would choose the compulsion app over the discipline app, if they were really aware of what they were. Most people don’t like doing chores, and what the compulsion app gives us in return is almost completely useless to us.
The issue is, we’re often not given the choice, or at least, most people don’t realize that they have a choice. Videogames – particularly those high on fantasy simulation like Zelda, Metal Gear and Final Fantasy – have achieved a kind of rock-star status that made it difficult for many people to question their identity.
Of course, we’ve always really had a choice. Most sports, boardgames, and many kinds of multi-player videogames have always fallen into the Discipline category. However, with a few exceptions (the Madden series for example, and more recently, League of Legends), almost all videogames are distinctly Compulsion. And recently, we’ve even had annoying examples of clearly Discipline games that have become Compulsion games, with all kinds of unlockables and a dramatic lowering of skill ceiling.
The problem is, Compulsion Apps are the norm. They are what people expect, and they’re what people are “primed” to like. They grew up with “leveling up” and “collectibles”, and it helped that these Compulsion Apps looked and sounded freaking awesome. High level production and cutting edge technology was – and are – truly great elements of these systems. Like every good lie, there’s a kernel of truth in there, and the music of Final Fantasy VII is a huge, beautiful, golden kernel.
This is why the boardgame Renaissance of the last 20 years hit me so hard when I discovered it – in Europe, you have a mainstream movement of Discipline apps being built, and it’s slowly *too creeping into our world.
I know that just about everyone would enjoy a good, well-made Discipline app more than they would enjoy a Compulsion app, if presented in the right way. It’s not just that they would enjoy it more, either. It’s that they would get something out of it. It’s that this thing would become a part of who they were Like a person who plays tennis or the guitar, it becomes a part of your personality and identity, and it’s a channel that you reliably use for enrichment.
So besides writing articles and books, teaching classes, doing lectures, what else can I do? I can make games that are examples of it. Specifically, I want to make games that are Discipline apps, but have all of the great production values and accessibility of the modern Compulsion app. Discipline apps don’t have to be dry and ugly, and I hope we’re demonstrating that with Auro.
But I’m obviously just one person, and I have no illusions about the fact that the amount of impact I can have on the direction of the world of videogames is pretty close to – but not quite – nothing. There are a lot of huge hurdles that are between our current situation and a world where people understand the realities of compulsion apps, but probably the biggest one is the following:
Smart people’s acceptance of grinding.
This reminds me of an person making excuses for his/her abusive spouse. I’ve met people who are perfectly smart – some probably smarter than I am – who totally understand how these Skinner-box-esque games work, and they they go ahead and play stuff like Diablo anyway. And not just play it, but actively try to convince others to, as well. Numerous people tried to make me play Diablo 3 when it came out.
This, even when it takes a ton of time to play, and yields you nothing but meaningless extrinsic rewards like XP points, gold, and loot.
My explanation for this phenomenon is that people are again, primed to like these things. They grew up with it, and formed identities around being a person who engages with these things. They’re invested, both culturally and even financially.
Further explanation is just the simple fact that most people feel primarily compelled to play new and expensive games, and when you’re in that milieu, it’s pretty difficult to find Discipline apps at all, and the ones that do get made aren’t very good. This is due to a self-perpetuating loop: there’s no demand for Discipline apps, so people don’t make them often. People don’t make them often, so when they do, they aren’t very good at it. The apps aren’t very good, so people aren’t as drawn to them.
We all need to stop accepting and making excuses for grinding. Value your time. Understand that you don’t have to choose between having fun, and being enriched; they can be achieved at the same time.
Further, game designers need to start thinking about games as systems, as disciplines. I provide a lot of resources for thinking in this way on my site, but I would again refer you to European “designer boardgames” of the last 20 years as examples.