Analysis: Killing for its Own Sake - Red Dead Redemption & The Value Of Rewards

In this Gamasutra editorial, Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.
[In this Gamasutra editorial, Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us -- in this case, how accomplishments and rewards differentiate Red Dead Redemption from earlier titles like Grand Theft Auto and World Of Warcraft.] I thought a lot about Duck Hunt while playing Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead Redemption. The game is the same, but Rockstar's animation of the act of hunting is as visceral as it is breathtaking. I raised my carbine repeater and fired; when my bullet hit the bird, I watched a fine mist of blood burst in the air at the point of impact as the dead animal plummeted. Hunting was so captivating, in fact, that it overwhelmed my ability to remember what I was actually supposed to be doing. While I was killing birds, I was supposed to be doing something else. On my way to one mission or another, I’d decide to take a shortcut and the sound of my horse would disturb some lurking vultures. In any other game they would just be an atmospheric doodad, and I’d continue riding right past them. In Red Dead Redemption, I can not only shoot them, but skin and harvest them, and it’s that last point that gives hunting so much in-game meaning that it eclipses the rest of the game. The trophies I got from hunting were not significant in themselves, but they gave the hunting significance as a symbol of what I accomplished as a hunter. For real life evidence, I present my high school biology teacher, who brought us a fresh deer heart when we were studying the circulatory system. I can’t say the heart was especially useful for teaching science, but it did a great job of conveying the reality of the giant muscle that pumped blood in the center of our bodies. He held the deer heart with reverence, as if it was still alive. He was holding all those hours he spent waiting in the cold for that deer, up to the moment he shot it. The digital pelts and antlers in Red Dead Redemption don’t require that sort of tenacity, but they too have a palpable weight. General Disarray This one design point is enough to transform Red Dead Redemption into an entirely different kind of game than Grand Theft Auto. The GTA games permit different but similar ways to interact with the open world, but running around in Liberty City isn’t structured. Anyone who has gotten bored with the normal missions has probably made up their own games in GTA. My favorites include: riding as far as I can around the city while standing on top of someone’s car, driving as many cars as I can find into a pileup and then tossing a grenade at it, and general rampage. This behavior is fun, but the game doesn’t reward it (in fact, it’s often suicidal). While not bad game design by any means, it means that players don’t have a structure or challenge. Red Dead Redemption differs from Grand Theft Auto in that it rewards the spontaneous events and opportunities in the wilderness, and thereby puts them on the same level as the story missions. Not only do rewards let players know that their actions are significant, they give players a structure for challenging themselves and understanding their progress. It gives the accomplishment significance that lasts long after its completion. Some of the most tedious and grindy game systems ever devised have been used by MMOs to represent crafting, which forces players to tediously gather materials for the purpose of making useless objects in hopes of finally attaining the skill to make a few actually useful things. This behavior is the definition of the grind: forcing players to do things they don’t want in order to do something they want. Rewards Red Dead Redemption’s gameplay system is a lot more interesting than the average MMO’s repetitive clicking, but the incentivized system is very similar. Like many things, the grind can be used for good or for evil. The system itself is neutral, at its core only an easy way to make players do something. The problem with profession grinding in MMOs (speaking from my experience with WoW) is that they are easy and never change in difficulty. There’s no challenge in killing monsters over and over in hopes that something will drop, and the crafting itself literally requires nothing from the player but seconds of time. Rewards in Red Dead Redemption are different, and not necessarily because they reward a display of skill instead of an investment of time. The objective of profession grinding is the reward itself. In fact, the reward is so significant that players consider the tedium worth the time invested. The time has meaning because the reward has meaning. But in Red Dead Redemption, or ye olde high score table, the trophy has meaning because the time has meaning. It’s the difference between the result symbolizing effort and the result having inherent value. When humans needed to hunt, killing deer had inherent value, but now it only symbolizes effort. And this is clearly also the difference between what humans consider fun and what they consider work. This raises the question of what role, if any, work should play in a video game. High score holders work hard for those scores, and I don’t imagine it is fun to do so. The top World of Warcraft guilds work very hard as well. While professions prove that gamers will do anything to be the best, the real reward for progression guilds is being at the top. The profession grinding in WoW gives practical rewards to those who invest time, while Red Dead Redemption, like the high scores of old and the deer heart, gives a reward that represents an investment of time and skill. [Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and things that you do on a computer that aren't videogames, and can be reached at [email protected]]

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