8 min read

Rewards, losses, and motivations: Indolent play in competitive Overwatch PTR matches

Many Overwatch gamers playing competitive PTR matches do not play with the same effort as when they play competitive live matches. In a series of two posts I utilize psychology to examine the issue and offer possible solutions.

“Any reward is better than no reward at all.”

- Celia Hodent, The Gamer’s Brain 

Damn bird, always chirping death chimes.

Blizzard’s Overwatch Public Testing Region (PTR) is a PC alternative region in which up to 10,000 gamers can beta test features. For the PTR to produce useful insights on the features under review, Blizzard must amass useful data from gamers playing the way they play on the live servers However, gamers appear to frequently not take playing in the PTR seriously, an issue many players find both frustrating and irksome. Even in competitive PTR mode, gamers play by selecting heroes they do not play well, disregard appropriate team compositions, or just play as though they do not care—i.e., for the amusement value.

Indolent play—playing in a lazy manner—is possibly detrimental to Blizzard as well, as it interferes with producing essential data to determine the features’ futures. As one poster opines: “Without some serious gameplay it is hard to give my real opinion on the changes.” Blizzard’s decision to separate PTR and live game progression may explain a gamer’s lack of effort while playing in PTR. PTR play affects only a copy of a gamer’s account, and progress accomplished during PTR play does not transfer over to the live game.

For those who care about PTR play, the lack of reward is not so black and white. Although it appears that they may not care about their PTR ranking for itself, the ranking matters to them insofar as it predicts the matching for competitive PTR play. Thus, if they lose because other gamers do not play seriously, their standing will fall, and they will be placed in inferior future PTR matches. However, many gamers pinpoint Blizzard’s decision to negate PTR achievements as an explanation for the pervasive indolent play on the PTR: “when people say it is "just PTR" they have a legit claim. The stats get reset.”

Preventing the transfer of gamers’ progress may inhibit their effortful play on the PTR for two reasons: lack of reward, and loss aversion. As Hodent so aptly puts it in her book, The Gamer’s Brain, rewarding players is very important. In explaining the value of rewards in tutorials, Hodent explains that to induce effort—and thus the effective learning of game mechanics—rewards should be offered.  However, this does not mean that the reward must be tangible as Overwatch gamers seem to indicate. Rather, it simply must be something that imbues meaning in their efforts. The trick to player engagement, according to Hodent, is understanding what meaning the situation holds for the player.

Crafting a meaningful experience is the key to motivation. The meaning might come from achieving an award in the form of progress, or it might just be an internal feeling of pride and accomplishment. Tangible awards that are external to the actual task are commonly acknowledged as motivating rewards. The golden guns in Overwatch are an example of this type of reward, which is also known as an extrinisc reward. However, internal rewards, in the form of intrinsic motivation (when the activity is motivating in its own right), are equally important. The internal good feeling you get when you know you have played an amazing game is an example of an intrinsic reward.

Research demonstrates that intrinsic rewards can be far more motivating—albeit harder to cultivate—than extrinsic ones. Furthermore, offering an extrinsic reward to a person for completing a task they find intrinsically motivating may undermine their motivation, replacing it with an extrinsic motivation instead. This replacement prompts these once intrinsically motivated people to abandon the pursuit they once found fulfilling if the reward is no longer available.

Since gaming is an autotelic activity, it is possible to view all gaming activities as inherently, intrinsically rewarding. However, the behavioral change that the PTR scheme induces (whereby those happy to play regular Overwatch competitive mode are unhappy to play it in PTR) demonstrates that although gaming is autotelic, effortful gaming is not entirely intrinsically motivating for everyone. Some gamers are clearly intrinsically motivated to play well, since they are interested in experiencing the augmented environment and heroes. However, other gamers are motivated by status, an extrinsic motivator. While some of these gamers likely started playing Overwatch and were extrinsically motivated from the beginning, others may have begun with an intrinsic motivation, but shifted as they accumulated extrinsic rewards for playing well. As status cannot be accumulated in PTR and transferred to live play, extrinsically motivated players will likely not take PTR play seriously.

In the absence of the ability to increase their status, these gamers’ motivation shifts to one incompatible with effort exertion and serious play. As these gamers choose to play in the PTR despite the absence of extrinsic motivation, it is likely they are intrinsically motivated to do so. However, their intrinsic motivation does not drive effortful, serious play. Rather, it appears to promote experimentation and mindless play.   

Clearly, while the two groups of PTR players are intrinsically motivated, their motivations are disparate. Based on Deci and Ryan’s model (1985; 2000), Hodent proffers gamer motivations including competence progress, a sense of autonomy, and a connection to other players. Players taking PTR play seriously likely experience strong competence motivation—taking pride in experimenting with new features, and mastering them even in the absence of transferable status.

The status-driven players, on the other hand, appear to be more strongly motivated by autonomy in PTR. As there are no status consequences for indolent PTR play, these gamers do whatever they want: disregarding recommended team composition, playing heroes they are unfamiliar with, or playing experimental maneuvers. This analysis of motivation is simplified, and gamers are likely driven by all three motivations to some extent. Although for simplicity’s sake I focused here only on what appears to be the strongest motivation for each group, it seems evident that strengthening gamers’ competence strivings by offering some meaningful reward for effort may curb their indolent play.

However, rewarding effort may be insufficient to adequately induce serious play. As the reward cannot be transferring progression from PTR to live play, gamers will still end up losing their accumulated progress in PTR when they return to play in the live game. Psychological research demonstrates that people are frequently illogical, and are especially so when it comes to losses. People make irrational choices to avoid feeling that they may lose something.

Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory explains human aversion to loss. According to prospect theory, losses impact people more than gains. This tendency prompts people to avoid making choices that appear to put them at risk for a loss. This occurs even though they would be willing to take a similar risk if it were framed in terms of a gain.

For example, when given a choice between options that are framed in terms of losses—where Option A is a sure loss of your PC, and Option B includes a 50% chance of not losing anything coupled with a 50% chance of losing both your PC, and your Xbox—most people choose Option B, the risky alternative. This is because the thought of a sure loss is more aversive than the thought of a possible, larger loss, which leaves room to believe that no loss might occur.

On the other hand, if the same options are framed in terms of gains, where Option A is the certainty of getting a free PC, and Option B is a 50% chance of getting nothing coupled with a 50% chance of getting both a PC and an Xbox, most people select option A, and not the riskier alternative. Here, Option B leaves room to believe that you may lose something, whereas Option A does not.

This human tendency to avoid loss, even when irrational, and even in the face of gain, may further explain unique PTR play patterns. If gamers do not get to keep the fruits of their effortful play, they may feel forced into a loss experience. In this case, it is possible that even a reward would not appease them, as losses are experienced more acutely than rewards of the same magnitude. Thus, it seems logical that gamers who are both especially loss aversive, and interested in testing out the beta features, will play in a way that inhibits their progress; they cannot lose progress if they did not gain any. To promote effortful play in PTR, many players may need not only some form of reward, but the feeling that their play will not lead them to suffer a loss as well.

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