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Games aren't necessarily more compulsive than any other activity of human consumption--the difficulty is sorting out what motivates players in the first place

Taekwan Kim, Blogger

August 13, 2015

8 Min Read

I spotted the report earlier yesterday on Mr. Simon Parkin's new book and was reminded to revisit Mr. Keith Burgun's post on "psychological exploitation" in games. Some new comments had cropped up, with the following from Mr. Rickard Elimaa.

"I think some people need to realize what this article boils down into:

Do we design games to make people enjoy the activity, or do we design them to play for the reward?

There is a clear difference between intrinsic rewarding activities and extrinsic rewards for doing them. The first lets people do the activity for the fun of doing it, and it's totally fine to do it to spend time; to 'waste' time; to fight boredom; to activate yourself; to get a sensation out of the activity, or feel stimulated in mind and soul.

I know some people don't differentiate extrinsic from intrinsic rewards. Well, if you can't/wont do that then you don't have anything to get from this discussion."

Not to be antagonistic here, but I feel that this comment rather embodies the problematic assertions at the heart of Mr. Burgun's post and the whole trouble with what it means for a game to be a "waste of time" or not. (Please refer to that post for context and continuity.)

Frequently in these discussions, there is an unquestioned assumption that a clear and universal distinction exists between intrinsic and extrinsic values, and that one is necessarily better than the other. However, sorting and balancing this out individually is, to my limited understanding, precisely what individuation and psychological development are about. The answers we come up with are not the same for everyone, and they probably shouldn't be. (This in fact is the valuable thing about games, that games are a relatively safe place to do this sorting because, by intention or not, they almost directly force the player to evaluate intrinsic needs against extrinsic ones.)

Again, I don't mean to put him especially on the spot, but Mr. Elimaa's comment seems to highlight the very difficulty of cleanly separating these two orientations. My understanding of his comment (and I could be entirely off on this) is that games that have players chase extrinsic goals are destructive, and he writes this in support of Mr. Burgun's observations.

But the games discussed in Mr. Burgun's post are all theoretically intrinsic in their rewards. There are no monetary rewards being chased, and mostly no leaderboards to top. They also mostly happen to be single player games, so there's not even a built-in social component to them besides the "imagined community" the player engages with in single play. The only thing that can explicitly be encapsulated and externalized in these games is how much in-game measured progress a player has to show for her time, which actually is used as a primary argument against these games in that post: that, at the end of the day, players have nothing to show to the outside world despite how much time they have spent in them.

Taking this line of thought to its conclusion, the fact that we inevitably have to engage with the outside world is precisely what makes games dangerous and repugnant to critics that view them as time-killers. Because--and this is something that even game apologists such as myself cannot dismiss out of hand--indulging only intrinsic values can also be solipsistically harmful (not so much in the selfish sense of that word, but in the sense of refusal to engage with external realities).

(To be slightly unfair, Mr. Burgun's requirement that games should at least be "intellectual" reads, to my mind, as a demand for these games to have an "intrinsic" pursuit which is more socio-culturally acceptable/valuable or is otherwise more visible than "mere" emotional fulfillment or self-concept refinement. That is, we can see from this that even intrinsic values have extrinsic components to them.)

In response specifically to the idea that there is a "clear difference between" intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, I would strongly disagree with that statement as it pertains to most games, because many game mechanics can be vehicles for either intrinsic or extrinsic rewards. For instance, completing a game at its highest difficulty level can be a pursuit undertaken purely for the player's own self-improvement and self-challenge, but it can also just as easily (and more likely simultaneously) be one undertaken as a means of externalizing how much skill a player has, as a method of social jockeying / reputation seeking / public image management (which assumably are extrinsic goals). In a situation where the player cares only for the latter goal, the activity itself loses value until the goal is obtained.

In that same scenario, imagine a player that intentionally employs handicaps such as utilizing only low tier gear, deliberately using controllers patently unsuited for the game (bongo controller for Dark Souls?!?), never reloading to correct a failed state, etc. Are these activities done for "fun" and accomplishment, or for "bragging rights"? It really just depends on the player, and it's most likely a mix of both, which further fluctuates depending on the day and the player's mood. "I only care about being good at this game" can be both an intrinsic and an extrinsic value statement. It's really this fluid duality, this auto-conflict that makes games so powerful and useful.

To put it another way, pure process orientation can mean neglect of obtaining tangible results, and pure goal orientation can mean neglect of all the learning that can occur in the process of achieving even immaterial goals. We really need to recognize the importance of both, and balance them in good measure.

Getting back to the topic of games and time-wasting, my point here is that many game mechanics aren't inherently or especially wastes nor valuable uses of time, but rather tools (power tools of psychological activity, really) which can be used either for self-improvement or for self-distraction. This does indeed make them dangerous in a sense, but only so long as the player remains uncritical and unaware in her usage of these tools. (Tragically, the attitude that games are trivial is exactly what makes them dangerous to the casual user, because their potency is not taken seriously.)

That's not to say that there aren't players that really do have difficulty exercising critical awareness, nor am I trying to victim-blame here. And again, as I commented in Mr. Burgun's post, there definitely and absolutely exist mechanics which are more manipulative in their time requirements, or are designed specifically to be so.

But this idea that somehow "psychological loopholes" exist which literally preclude our ability for critical thinking seems rather unfounded and mildly patronizing at best, or actively counter-productive at worst. Isn't this rather like claiming games can control people's minds like some nefarious sci-fantasy doomsday weapon?

Misdirecting attention and / or misrepresenting real time costs? Okay yes, these are things. But preventing cognition altogether, and without the use of severe physical reinforcement besides? To repeat myself once more, there's a reason why behaviorism fell out of style with the advent of the cognitive revolution--because humans have the capacity for genuine self-reflection. That's what being self-aware is all about, no?

For my final thoughts, I'd like to repeat an argument I've made in a previous post. Mr. Burgun points towards Planescape: Torment as one of a handful of RPGs "you are probably getting some intellectual value out of", but I suspect he is forgetting just how much grind that game actually has.

Regardless of that suspicion, my contention is that it is exactly because there's so much grind in that game that (spoilers here) the ending of that game is so emotionally wrenching. The player is asked to figuratively give up all of the time she has invested in that game, to relinquish the very agency she's been building and valuing. And it just wouldn't work if it wasn't possible (and mechanically encouraged, constantly respawning mobs and all) to sink so much time into grinding in Ps:T (there's even a randomized and renewable location--the Modron Maze--to expressly allow that type of "mindless" Diablo-like grind), and so many RPG level-up stats to spend all that grinded agency on.

So there is, in this blogger's reading, a particular authorial purpose and reason for allowing the player to increase all of her base attributes so high, for allowing "time-stealing" grind. And, in this case, simply having an actual ending to the player's agency goes a long way towards closing whatever "loophole" purportedly exists in player compulsion. (To put it more technically, loss aversion works both ways, both to keep the player playing as well as to discourage further play.)

Perhaps, then, the most constructive path would be to recognize and directly mechanically address the double-edged nature of time requirements in games, and thus help players become more aware too--help them balance and develop their own intrinsic and extrinsic values. Awareness and cognition--metacognition, in fact--really is both the key and the fix. Helpfully, the very monotony of grinding can cause players to challenge their own behaviors. And, to quote Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse: Dune, "Even addicts dream of freedom."

I'm going to conclude here by continuing the food analogy I began in my comment on Mr. Burgun's post: we just need to help players measure the right portion size for them, help them determine, "Okay, I've had enough to be full, I don't need to keep eating," and realize such in their thinking. There, at least, I believe we are in agreement.

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