Anti-Videogame Manifesto: Games As Disciplines

MV5BMjA5MDE5NjU5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzcwMDYwNw@@._V1._SX640_SY427_What I want is systems that have intrinsic rewards; that are disciplines similar to drawing or playing a musical instrument.  I want systems which are their own reward.

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 observationsThe 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?


Extrinsic Rewards

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.

Check out Through the Desert by Reinzer Knizia sometime.

Check out Through the Desert by Reinzer Knizia sometime.  Beware the iOS app though, it’s… pretty badly put together, tragically.



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.

No matter how good they make it look, it's still "an object comes on screen and you click on it until it goes away"

No matter how good they make it look, it’s still “an object comes on screen and you click on it until it goes away”

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.

  • Nachtfischer

    Great read as usual!

    I recently wrote a (German) article that translates to “Games: More Than A Pastime”. It argues that specific games (pretty much the ones you call “discipline app”) can become much more than just “time-killers”. While trying to convince some people that WoW, Diablo and now Hearthstone are FULL of time-wasting crap, I gave it to them to read. The only viable non-gibberish reaction I got was: “Well, when I play a videogame I want to relax and turn my brain OFF. So grinding is like the perfect thing!”

    I guess you can’t argue with that. Grinding does indeed put your brain into an almost complete “idle state”. These players just don’t look at games as we do. BUT: If you’re playing Diablo 3 for 30 hours per week, I don’t think that’s an excuse anymore. Do you really want your brain to be “turned off” for such a long time? I think from the amount of time invested it becomes clear, whether there is compulsion going on or simply some “relaxation”.

  • Bieeanda

    Once, when my housemate asked why I’d returned to World of Warcraft again (again– for at least the second time) I bleakly joked, “It only hits me when I make it angry.”

    ‘Compulsion’ games are like a television show, or a book, and are consumed in a similar way: they’re basically a pre-packaged experience, one that can serve as a touchstone for friends. It’s meaningless in the long run, but so is watching a season of Survivor. I’ll play something like Borderlands 2 because it’s immediately entertaining, but you won’t catch me grinding for specific loot drops, or thrashing my way through the increasingly absurd retreading of content at higher difficulty levels.

    Part of the problem with games as disciplines, I think, lies in finding systems that are going to have broad appeal. Personally, I have a very low threshold of frustration, so I’m a hard sell to start. I like the aesthetics of fighting games, but have no interest in learning complex button sequences. League of Legends and similar MOBAs are daunting not only because of the steep learning curve, but because like many online games they’re a cesspool of grief-play, obscenity, and abuse that’s only magnified by the frustration of mastering those skills. A guitar doesn’t seethe with impotent rage when you play a note wrong.

    I’ve been told that when playing Dark Souls, losses are your fault, but you start to spot where you’re fouling up after a few tries. Not really my thing: hand-eye isn’t great, and I didn’t grow up with a console controller in my hands. Still, it seems like a decent example of a twitch-based ‘discipline’ game. I’m having trouble thinking of potential examples that are slower-paced, and not either opaque or so laden with interactions and statistics that it might as well be. Civilization? Perhaps. I’d hesitate to suggest the new X-COM: its strategic layer is definitely reliant on skill to use effectively, but the game’s progression is such that it can be very difficult to determine precisely when or how you made your critical error, and require starting over hours into a scenario.

  • drben

    Thanks for the article, I’m entirely sympathetic to your central point. However, I have a couple of big issues:

    Firstly, you misunderstand Skinner’s work. This is totally excusable since it is rampant within these game design discussions. Even the article you link to. Behavioural psychology is not concerned with motivation, only stimulus and effects. Subjects are “black boxes”, the internal workings of which are not of interest. So, fun, intrinsic reward, aesthetic value, are simply not of consideration since they are impossible to quantify and measure (“This game needs 20 more units of fun!”). This does not mean Skinner hates fun and art – this is the game designer’s responsibility. In his work he recognised the value of subjective aspects in terms of reward (see the way art is valued in Walden Two). To put it another way, when the rat presses the lever and gets the food, how do you know that it is not because the rat has a deep appreciation for the craftsmanship of the lever, and the fine engineering of the chute mechanism? It isn’t important to Skinner. We are lever designers and chute engineers despairing because our craft is so misunderstood.

    Secondly, I get the idea, but your two categories are not mutually exclusive. Diablo 3 actually serves a good example here – the core gameplay experience itself is intrinsically valuable to many many people. Grinding is fun. The real-money aspect is where the extrinsic rewards come in. The +1 swords,etc., are all intrinsic. There is complexity there and to dismiss the game out of hand is unfair. You don’t get to decide what other people find fun. What exactly is wrong with someone playing a game just to get the achievements, or just to socialise?

    You mention euro-games as examples of “discipline” games, and I’m always pleased to talk boardgames, but again I’m not sure they are a great example. Through the Desert has victory points, and “achievements” (longest caravans, enclosing spaces). Placing camels on the board is not intrinsically rewarding at all, out of the context of wider strategy (apart from aesthetics, kinesthetics of the beautiful components I suppose). Just so with grinding games.

    Finally I wanted to quickly say that using domestic abuse victims as an analogy is hugely inappropriate. I think cognitive dissonance is the term you are after here. I disagree again, but will leave that point unargued.

    Thanks again for the article, I found it really made me think hard. In general I feel much the same way as you – I dislike grinding games, I love the intricacies of board games, however surely this is just a matter of taste? As game designers, are we not wired to find uncovering and experimenting with mechanics rewarding?

  • drben

    Have you played Divekick yet? It is supposed to be a distilled introduction to the play aesthetics of fighting games, with only two buttons. Seems interesting but I haven’t picked it up yet.

  • Keith Burgun

    I actually do understand what you’re saying about Skinner’s work. Not sure where you picked up otherwise?

    >>”Grinding is fun.”

    This statement only works because of the ultimate vagueness of the colloquial word “fun”. What do you mean by “fun”?

    In TTD, Victory points are an intrinsic property of the system, same with longest caravans. Those aren’t achievements by any reasonable definition of the word. It’s like saying that capturing the king in chess, or getting a field goal in football are “achievements”.

  • Keith Burgun

    I agree with you completely on LoL and on fighting games. So it’s like what I said in the article: we don’t have a lot of *good* discipline games right now. One I would recommend highly, though, is OUTWITTERS on iOS.

  • Keith Burgun

    Yeah I guess if people want to turn off their brain and NOT be enriched, that’s one thing. I might suggest that such a person should probably change occupations and/or get therapy though. I can’t imagine that such a lifestyle could result in a happy/fulfilled person.

  • Nachtfischer

    Right. To clarify a bit more: The important part in the definition of “achievements” (as they’re used in today’s videogames) is that they do NOT affect the system in any way. For example, getting a “+2 sword” to replace your “+1 sword” is not an achievement, because it has an impact on your damage value INSIDE the system. A meta-message popping up when you find the sword (something like “You have been awarded the sword finder trophy!”) however IS an achievement and its only effect goes to the OUTSIDE.

    I see where the confusion about “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivators comes into play here. The thing is, the “+2 sword” is an object intrinsic to the system, but it’s not interesting replacing your “+1” with a “+2”. It’s a no-brainer. However, you do this and similar things (like leveling up, grinding in general) to achieve an extrinsic reward. Cutscenes for example have NOTHING to do with a given GAME system. In a good game, the decisions you have to make are so interesting, that excelling in makeing these decisions IS the (intrinsic) reward.

  • Nachtfischer

    Super Smash Brothers also did away with most of the stupid “move memorization”. It’s really not good game design if you have to go through tons of learning crap before you can start to creatively(!) interact with a game. But that’s not an inherent problem of discipline games at all. In fact, probably the core challenge of good game design is making the system “easy to learn, hard to master”. And a system doesn’t need to be less deep if it has less “stuff”. See Outwitters.

  • Jack Hackett

    Your argument is extremely binary and constructed with inherent bias. Are you suggesting Halo 4 is a game of compulsion? What about the people who play competitive multiplayer halo 4 relentlessly? I think it’s more likely they’re playing it for the skill-based competition than for the meaningless points involved.

    I’d have been a lot more convinced if you’d been more balanced here. Game systems are demonstrably more effective when they’re structured around deep mechanics which provide emergent gameplay. But your distinction of compulsion games being bad because they yield “nothing but meaningless extrinsic rewards like XP points, gold, and loot” seems like a false separation. I didn’t like Diablo III, but it definitely had skill-based elements (I certainly died a lot) and I drew pleasure from my success when I did well. Even pathetic cash-grabs like candy crush have elements of your ‘discipline’ category within them, and most games make some attempt to appeal to it. FPSs all have huge so-called ‘discipline’ elements; ditto for every modern strategy, simulation, or fighting game.

    In essence, I’m suggesting that you’re creating a false dichotomy here between cheap/easy skinnerbox pleasures and ‘serious’ games, when in fact almost every game is on a sliding scale. You don’t have to play Carcassone to draw pleasure from a game’s mechanical structure, and I don’t think you can definitively divide games based on whether they give pleasure just via emergence or progression.

  • Nachtfischer

    Halo: The article probably meant the single-player mode.
    Diablo: What does it mean, that you “did well”? Did you gain SKILL as a player or did your character gain “skill” (i.e. did the numbers go up)? Did you play better or were you just patient enough to endure a little bit more of the grind? I can’t tell, you can’t tell, nobody can. And that’s a huge problem for a game looked at as a discipline.
    Candy Crush: If I get a really amazing high score, did I get it because I played so well? Because I learned something and have gotten better at the game? Or was it because the randomness was particularly kind to me during this playthrough? Who knows?

    You are right, that there is skill SOMEWHERE in these systems called “comupulsion games” by the article. The thing is, they are dominated by the extrinsic motivators, by the induced compulsion. Their viability as a discipline is, if not completely destoryed, at least hurt by the “compulsion layer”.

    By the way, Carcassonne is not really a good game.

  • Dasick

    I believe that most online communities are so horrible because their games are as well. Consider this – an average match of league takes 45 minutes. But because of how snowbally the game is, most games are ‘won’ before the nexus is destroyed, and it’s so easy to blame your teammates for ‘feeding’. So after 20 minutes of actually playing, you’ve got 15 minutes just acting out a foregone conclusion. Of course this is going to make people mad and bitter.

    Personally, I’ve always had good luck finding good communities when playing shooters on a PC. There are plenty of highly populated dedicated servers that have very strict “no BS” policies, and use the banhammer with extreme prejudice. But some of the older games, like modern Counter-Strike (especially after all the kids moved on to CoD) also tend to have more mature, srs bzns players.

  • Dasick

    When I want to turn my brain off I just do work around the house. Not only is it as effective, it’s cheaper and has a larger positive effect on my life.

  • Keith Burgun

    I’m not suggesting anything about Halo 4, actually. I’ve never played it. The thing at the end of the article was just a funny thing. But yeah, probably the single player is almost certainly a repetitive chore. Multiplayer, on the other hand, is probably a discipline.

  • Keith Burgun

    Right, actually both Carcassonne and Candy Crush have a similar problem in that you can’t trust the game’s output at all because they’re so random. Candy Crush much more so, of course, and Carcassonne is definitely *more of* a discipline than most videogames.

  • Erenan

    Because you have written so much about the distinction between games, contests, puzzles, etc., it might be useful to clarify that you are not saying that videogames that are games are discipline apps and videogames that are not games are compulsion apps. The reason I say this is because this was my first reaction. Perhaps that is my own fault, but when I approach something written by Keith Burgun, I unconsciously come to it with my existing knowledge of what you have written previously. This mostly means the distinctions between different kinds of interactive systems.

    It can be a very enriching experience to solve a well designed puzzle, for instance, and while solving a singular puzzle once isn’t a discipline exactly, it’s also not something that you could describe accurately as being characterized by compulsive behavior. Let’s take Braid, for example. It’s not a game. It’s a puzzle. But I don’t think many people really sit around solving the puzzles again and again and again to collect extrinsic rewards. Um… I guess my point is that “compulsion vs. discipline” doesn’t quite cover all the bases, or at least it might be confusing to think of an enriching puzzle as a discipline. “Intrinsic vs. extrinsic” seems much more useful to me, as long as you are focusing on the specific elements of a videogame that offer intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, rather than on the whole videogame at once. If you want to lump everything into two categories, you’d better establish some specific, objective criteria for those categories. I suppose you have done this, but it might be good to make it clear that you mean “this is the kind of gameplay that predominantly characterizes playing this videogame” and not “this is the only kind of gameplay that is present in this videogame.” The reason I suggest this is because commenters are already doing the “b-b-b-b-but there IS skill in Diablo!!!” thing that you love so much. I doubt that you’d say it’s a valuable way to spend your time to respond to a dozen people individually explaining to each one that it doesn’t really affect the point you are making.

  • Erenan

    When I want to turn my brain off, I drink a Coke and sit down and just relax. Or I go to sleep or something. Doing stuff is for engaging your brain. Not doing stuff is for disengaging your brain.

  • Keith Burgun

    Well, it’s not exactly the case that videogames that are not games = compulsion apps, though. Minecraft – a bare interactive system mostly – is not a compulsion app really (well, maybe partially). Garry’s Mod isn’t a compulsion app at all. I also don’t think Professor Layton is, since it’s mostly good puzzles, which are of value.

    The thing with most videogames is that they are *bad* puzzles – lock-and-key exercises of putting the square peg into the square hole. Chores.

    Puzzles aren’t disciplines, you’re right, but they do have their own intrinsic value. People do puzzles just to do good puzzles. I guess I’ll make a note to say that it is not the case that it’s EITHER a discipline OR a chore.

  • Logo

    How do you reconcile this article with the fact that “victory”, score, time, or ladder ranking are just as extrinsic of a reward as leveling up or obtaining a new loot item? Even in Auro you’ve set it up such that the primary motivators are score and victory.

  • Erenan

    All exactly correct, and this was my point. I wasn’t saying that non-games are compulsion-oriented by virtue of not being games. I was saying that was what my mind instinctively assumed YOU were saying, since “games vs non-games in the videogame industry” is such a recurring theme in your writing. But then I realized that wasn’t what you were saying at all, yet I figured others might be confused the same way I was at first. Perhaps it’s just me. I don’t know. And I’m sorry if I wasn’t totally clear.

  • Keith Burgun

    That’s easy. The “goal” of a system is not extrinsic, it’s intrinsic. So, victory is always intrinsic. Score is intrinsic, assuming it’s what determines victory/defeat.

    Most people don’t understand how a game system of rules actually has no meaning *without* a goal. What does a point of damage mean in a fighting game if reaching zero isn’t the goal? The answer is “nothing”.

    Think of a goal as similar to a climax in a story. All of the elements in the system revolve around this crucial element; it’s like an anchor that gives everything else its meaning. An in-game action only has meaning RELATIVE TO the goal.

    I think I can give you that ladder ranking is extrinsic, and that’s why it’s often problematic, with people exhibiting weird behaviors in-game sometimes to fulfill some kind of metagame ladder quota.

  • Waha

    There are many opinions on game design that are misguided or wrong because people fail to understand that there isn’t one type of “fun” to be had from video games. Games can be played for a variety of different reasons, and no reason is worse than another, because who are we to judge how much “fun” a person is having and whether that “fun” is less “fun” than other type of “fun”? This video drags on a lot but simply looking at the list of aesthetics gives a good idea of what I’m trying to say.

    When you’re talking about games as disciplines, you’re actually talking about only one of the reasons why people play games, which is challenge. I like challenging games a lot, and story-driven games not so much, but I wouldn’t say that people who play a game for the story are doing it wrong.

    When you present the choice between a compulsion app and a discipline app, you’re omitting a big part of the equation. What if the compulsion game allows the player to experience a vast fantasy world? What if the player can play it with other people, socialize and form friendships? Games offer different things, not just “fun”. “Fun” should not even be used as a word to describe games.

    But I get what you’re saying and I agree. When I’m looking for an interesting game, a challenging game, I look for “discipline” games. My favorite games are mostly discipline games. You’re right in this sense. But sometimes people enjoy games in other ways (and I usually don’t hesitate to point out that people are stupid for enjoying thing X but in this case I think their enjoyment is valid, maybe not for all of the aesthetics that the video lists though. Submission (turning brain off) is pretty dumb and a sense-pleasure focused game is good for about an hour at most).

  • Erenan

    “…who are we to judge how much ‘fun’ a person is having and whether that ‘fun’ is less ‘fun’ than other type of ‘fun’?”

    We are human beings, a species of intelligent life living on Earth with the ability to evaluate the relative values of certain behaviors and certain created things (such as games or art) according to a variety of objective and subjective criteria. For instance, I can explain to you why I think saving up a college fund for my children is more valuable than blowing the cash on a sports car. I can explain to you why I prefer Ashkenazy’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition over Ravel’s. I can explain to you why I prefer Metallica’s Master of Puppets over …And Justice for All. And I can explain to you why I prefer to play Outwitters over Puzzle and Dragons (one is a deep strategic game that rewards me intrinsically when I make good choices, while the other is a shallow themed slot machine that rewards me extrinsically and quite arbitrarily when I accidentally score a big combo with the right colors for the enemy I’m trying to kill).

    We are capable of making these kinds of value judgments. In fact, I think it’s important for the progress of humanity that we are able to do it. Why shouldn’t we do it, then?

    The point is that Keith has opinions about what things are good and what things are bad when it comes to game design. He should feel free to express his opinions, because discourse is how the industry can progress in an organized and directed manner towards a positive goal rather than arbitrarily towards some random point in instinctively designed videogame space.

  • Erenan

    FYI, I think your ADDENDUM got chopped off halfway.

  • Keith Burgun

    Ooh, thanks. Fixed.

  • Logo

    Your answer is you saying nothing more than, “it’s not extrinsic because I say it’s intrinsic”, but that’s insufficient because leveling up and loot drops, which you claim are extrinsic, are indistinguishable from the bare bones reasoning you give for calling obtaining a score or victory intrinsic.

    Score especially is extrinsic because any score is a ‘win’ unless you’ve played the game before and have a goal, separate from the game mechanics, to surpass that score.

    It’s arbitrary and, if anything, backwards as there are game external motivations for wanting victories or high scores (bragging rights, tournament wins, etc.) while items and levels generally have no greater relevance.

    Amusingly Auro has leveling up in the way of gaining new spells by the way. Under your strict no extrinsic motivators it would make the game qualify as compulsion. Likewise Outwitters uses the Starcraft league system which is used pretty much entirely to create a stronger extrinsic reward structure for ranked play over a typical ELO score system (seeing as the entire league system is just a cover over an ELO system).

  • mcaron00

    I completely agree with you on the fundamentals. Too many games treat their users as willing participants in a zombification experiment.

    I do think however, that a few games built around extrinsic motivation offer enough depth for players to develop their own intrinsic motivation. This depth can come in different forms: skill combinations, human opponents, play styles.

    These forms of depth allow players to experiment, explore and interpret the ruleset for themselves.

    Unfortunately, too many games nowadays want to give an advantage to the player who pays, over the player who tries to master the game. This circumvents the rules of good game design altogether, if you ask me.

  • Erenan

    I think the point of the article is not really “extrinsic rewards are bad” but rather that it is poor game design when you just slap a bunch of extrinsic rewards onto a game to keep players hooked on gameplay that in itself is actually quite bland and boring

    However, in the case of games that offer both extrinsic rewards and intrinsic depth in the gameplay, I think it is a good idea to ask whether the extrinsic rewards really add anything positive to the play experience and whether the game might actually be improved by stripping out the extrinsic rewards and rebalancing the game design in their absence. I think it’s at least worthwhile to ask these questions.

  • Erenan

    Careful. What Keith is saying is that the use of extrinsic motivators to keep players hooked on mundane or trivial gameplay “choices” is not an interesting design. The existence of score and victory in Auro doesn’t mask shallow gameplay. The game is designed to have rich rewarding gameplay based on non-obvious choices. Score and victory are components of how that gameplay functions, not a reward that keeps players clicking on yet another identical monster until it dies (pushing the lever to get a pellet).

    In a sense, Keith is just saying that game designers need to be less lazy in actually designing game rules that don’t require external motivators to make them worthwhile.

  • Waha

    My point was not that comparing game design choices is wrong. Looking at the specific sentence you quoted, it may seem like I’m against comparing games due to “fun” being an abstract thing. But that’s not the point that I was trying to make. The point I’m making with that quote, and with the entire rest of my post, is that there are different types of enjoyment that can be derived from games, which simply can’t be compared. For example, how do you compare how much fun someone is having playing a strategic thinking game versus playing a simpler game, but with a more interesting story. You can’t compare the enjoyment of thinking about strategy with the enjoyment of a story. They’re different things.

    This article ignores every aspect of games other than the depth of their mechanics, and is entirely correct in saying that interesting mechanics are better than not interesting mechanics. The problem is that it says that games based on extrinsic motivators aren’t worth playing, which is completely wrong.

  • Erenan

    But that’s not quite what the article is saying. It’s saying that games based on laborious and uninteresting interactions (grind/no-brainers) and which get players to be willing to muscle through those boring interactions by using extrinsic rewards are less enriching as art than games designed specifically to enable the intrinsic motivation a player can have for making real decisions within a game system. The focus here should not be on extrinsic rewards. It should be on fundamental gameplay. What Keith is saying is that if your gameplay is well designed and well implemented, then no extrinsic motivation is necessary to get people to play your game. But if extrinsic rewards are needed to make your game appealing to potential players, then as a game designer you haven’t done a very good job, because your gameplay is boring.

    Having said all that, I still don’t see why we can’t compare the way people engage with their games. If you find it fun to play a game that is very grind-heavy but which provides extrinsic rewards, then for what reason can’t I comment upon the psychological implications of this? I think playing slot machines is a poor way to spend your time. I also think grinding so you can get that new cosmetically different hat is a poor way to spend your time. Why am I not allowed to express that opinion?

  • Waha

    If we take a game like Skyrim for example. A big appeal of Skyrim is exploring a large world and the feeling of adventure. The mechanics of the game are quite simple though. Is “exploring a large world” an extrinsic reward, or intrinsic? I’m not actually sure. It’s not part of the game mechanics, yet it’s such an important part of the game. Surely “exploring a large world” is a worthy reward for playing a game, even if it does have simple mechanics.

    “if your gameplay is well designed and well implemented, then no
    extrinsic motivation is necessary to get people to play your game”
    If extrinsic motivation means something like achievements, then yes, I totally agree. However, if you define interesting mechanics as the intrinsic reward for playing a game, you’re lumping every other reason for playing a game under extrinsic. And that includes A LOT more than achievements and similar superfluous things. Perhaps my disagreement is unnecessary, because when the article talks about extrinsic rewards, it clearly means achievements and similar things. I keep saying that the intent of this article is perfectly correct. My only problem is that it accidentally implies things that it probably doesn’t mean to imply – that we should avoid all extrinsic rewards – when in fact it means we should avoid achievement-style rewards. I would argue in favor of certain types of achievements but I don’t want to make this too long.

    “Why am I not allowed to express that opinion?”
    Of course you’re allowed, I don’t think I said that it’s wrong to do so, or at least I didn’t mean to imply that. You use the example of a grind-heavy game so let’s take a generic MMO as an example. This MMO has shallow mechanics and mostly extrinsic rewards. Your opinion that the time spent playing this game is wasted based on the fact that the mechanics are shallow and the rewards are extrinsic. I propose this counter-argument: The time is not wasted because while playing this game the player gets to compete with other players and gets satisfaction from beating them at certain tasks. Furthermore, the player takes part in a lot of social interaction and gets to enjoy playing with a group.

  • Erenan

    Okay, I guess I don’t really disagree with you on a basic level. I don’t think anyone really said that solid gameplay mechanics are literally the only way to have intrinsic rewards in a videogame, nor that every other possible reason for playing a game would have to be considered an extrinsic motivator. I disagree that the article accidentally implies that, but I can see how you might get that from it. Anyway, that’s probably about as far as this needs to go.

    However, I do want to explain that the reason I reacted as though you said I shouldn’t express that opinion is because you used the expression “who are we to judge” which in my interpretation usually implies something like “opinions about this topic are inherently invalid and it’s therefore a mistake to have them and even worse to bring them up.” Obviously, you didn’t say that, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I just want to identify the place where I got confused about what you were saying. Sorry if the escalation of a misunderstanding was on me.

  • Keith Burgun

    With a compulsion app, you play FOR the “points”.

    With a strategy game, you play for the act of playing (more specifically, for understanding), but said playing can only exist in the pursuit of “points” (or whatever the goal is).

    It might be worth asking yourself if you are really trying to equate getting points in Football as similar to collecting rare loot drops in Diablo.

  • Sam

    I was just thinking of Super Smash Brothers as a fighting game without complex button presses. The only REAL barrier to playing well is, in my opinion, L-cancelling. It’s not a hard move to do, but disciplining yourself to do it is incredibly difficult. (For those that don’t know, hitting a shield button within 7 frames of landing an aerial attack cuts the landing lag time in half — it is one of the first advanced moves that any player learns). L-cancelling is very unnatural, and until you’ve learned to do it, a player who consistently L-cancels is at a huge advantage. There is never any situation where you should not L-cancel, so it is not like you are even making an interesting decision when you do it — it’s just adding more things for your fingers to do.

    Some players defend L-cancelling with the argument that in the heat of a tournament, one strategy might be to pressure your opponent into making an input mistake. Perhaps they have a point, but I always felt tactical mistakes are more meaningful than input mistakes.

  • Erenan

    By the way, I wanted to say that I think the reason for the article is made clear by this paragraph:

    “The use of variable ratio reward schedules in game design is often panned, however, for being ‘nefarious.’ Detractors’ reasoning goes: if the game designers had chosen to use simple fixed reward schedules (where for each action there is a promised reward), the players would play a certain amount. With variable ratio reward schedules, the players are more active. Thus, the game designers are ‘tricking’ the players into playing more than they really want to, and usually also spending money.”

    Apparently, the writer felt that the status quo is being challenged enough to warrant an article defending it. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. Not really sure.

  • Lube

    I can see how Diablo and WoW are discipline apps, but what about Hearthstone, why do yout think it has the same characteristics that this former two?

  • Keith Burgun

    None of those are discipline apps, if you ask me. They are all gambling/compulsion machines. Probably hearthstone less than the other two, and WoW has a few systems *inside it* that are more discipline-app-ish, but as a rule, Diablo is about as far as you can get from a discipline app.

  • Nachtfischer

    Hearthstone is a shitty discipline app with TONS of compulsion enforcement crap poured all over it.

  • pra

    Just wanted to say keep writing more articles like these. Your perspective is very interesting and has rethought my game idea of game design.

  • Keith Burgun

    Thanks. Will do!

  • disqus_lP8kmOoDYL

    “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.”

    I’m not too sure about that. You seem to be under the assumption that people are looking for enrichment opportunities or even that when someone interacts with a video game thing they want to play a game in the first place. Honestly, I think that most people that play video games aren’t looking to play games at all. For example, my friend will buy any AAA game that “looks good”, play through it and tell me either “it was ok” or “it’s really overrated it was just ok”.

    If he ever plays a video game that demands he learns the rules for he’ll drop it because he doesn’t want to dedicate the time to learn it. Funnily enough, he buys (sometimes plays) tons of board games and prefers to watch TV over playing video games nowadays because television doesn’t demand so little of his attention he can sleeve cards and punch chits.

  • dis_pear

    1. What you call Compulsion and Discipline often – even, nearly always – exist in the same game.

    2. Your definition of extrinsic reward is overly broad. What you consider an extrinsic reward may be intrinsic to someone else. Consider the case of a player who is feels a close connection to the characters in a game. Such a player, when watching a cutscene, would experience a release that could feasibly broaden the player’s horizons.

    Shallow extrinsic rewards that aren’t properly tied to the game’s core are the real problem.
    Bad: I clicked enough bad guys in Diablo so I got a new sword that lets me click bad guys HARDER
    Good: I hit the boss enough in Bloodborne so I got a new cutscene that lets me puzzle out the story in a similar way as puzzling out the combat

  • Keith Burgun

    1. These days, yes. I’m saying it would be better if they didn’t.
    2. That’s still not intrinsic. The story stuff, theme, is extrinsic to the actual interactive system.

  • dis_pear

    Thanks for the reply.

    1. I don’t think overlap was addressed at all in the article.

    2. That the system and the story are divorced in the vast majority of modern video games is a tragedy, but it shouldn’t be assumed. See Gravitation for an example of a story emergent from mechanics.

  • איתמר

    If you rephrase it that way (which is not the wording in the original article) then I take issue with Keith’s assertions that “almost all videogames are distinctly Compulsion” – that’s bullshit, especially as I doubt Keith has done any sort of enumeration and classification of “all games” “all new games” or even “all available games on platform X in year Y”.

  • איתמר

    I’m sorry, but that’s such a non-committal response. A lot of the action and “gameplay” (hate that word) in FPSs such as Halo are exactly the same whether it’s the single-player campaign or a multi-player match. If they’re largely the same, how can you call one mode a “compulsion game” (CG) and the other a Discipline Game (DG)? is Halo 4 suddenly two games in one? a Siamese twin of a game?

    It goes back again to the false dichotomy you’re espousing between CGs and DGs: In reality not only are games spread on a spectrum between the two extremes, but nearly any game has extrinsic and intrinsic qualities to some degree. (Yes, even Auro).