It's a neat idea, that for every time you brush your teeth you might earn experience points from Crest, thanks to ubiquitous sensors that knew when you brushed your teeth. Or maybe you'd get points from the government for using public transportation instead of driving your car -- points that could be used toward tax incentives, for example.
But these "external rewards" systems, similar to in-game Trophies and Achievements, lead to some serious philosophical questions in the real world, says Ian Bogost, game designer, author and assistant professor of Literature Communication and Culture at Georgia Institute of Technology in a new Gamasutra feature
"When people act because incentives compel them toward particular choices, they cannot be said to be making choices at all," Bogost argues. Providing people incentives to do the "right thing" can be just as ineffective as a system that relies purely on disincentives to change social behavior, such as a hidden camera that catches traffic speeders.
In both systems, nobody is really convinced to do the "right" thing. People are more focused on the flaky incentives or penalties. "To be persuaded, agents must have had the opportunity to deliberate
about an action or belief that they have chosen to perform or adopt. In the absence of such deliberation, outcome alone is not sufficient to account for peoples' beliefs or motivations."
Does it matter, though, as long as your teeth are clean and the smog is gone, aren't external reward systems a good thing -- a means to an end? "Why does one's original motivation matter?" Bogost asks.
He answers his own question: "Because to thrive, culture requires
deliberation and rationale in addition to convention. When we think about what to do in a given situation, we may fall back on actions which come easily or have incentives attached to them. But when we consider which situations themselves are more or less important, we must make appeals to a higher order."
He continues, "Otherwise, we have no basis upon which to judge virtue in the first place. Otherwise, one code of conduct is as good as another, and the best codes become the ones with the most appealing incentives. After all, the very question of what results we ought to strive for is open to debate."
And while these questions of moral conduct are multi-layered and socially interesting for the real world, such questions about reward systems can be applied to video games. In order to really make a player deliberate over a moral choice in a game, do we want a point system pulling the game along, or gameplay that encourages deliberation and conviction when players are making meaningful choices?