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Blow: Over-Using Reward Systems Can Make Games Less Fun

The rewards and social incentives that make achievement-oriented titles, from Call of Duty: Black Ops to FarmVille, may actually be ruining the pleasure in games over the long-term,
December 06, 2010
The rewards and social incentives that make achievement-oriented titles, from Call of Duty: Black Ops to FarmVille, may actually be ruining the pleasure in games over the long-term, says Braid creator Jon Blow. "There's a lot of psychological research that actually shows that this kind of thing, if we use it a lot in game design and we are, that in long term may de-motivate people and make people feel like games are less fun," he says. Talking in a new Gamasutra feature about The Witness, his ambitious upcoming project, Blow also shares his thoughts on working indie and on game design in general. The use of little rewards and bonuses to motivate players "only works for very boring tasks," he suggests. "It makes boring tasks more variable and more interesting." And by association, overuse of reward systems can make actually-interesting tasks and behaviors seem less so, Blow suggests. "There's a lot of reasons for it, but one of them that's kind of intuitive is like -- especially if you're a kid in school or something -- 'Oh, they have to bribe me in order to do this. That means it must not be worth doing on its own.' Right?" Blow cautions designers that it's important to think of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators -- that is, when a player actually wants to do something versus when they are doing it for an external reward. He says research has shown that the more people feel strung-along by a crumb trail of rewards, the less motivated and engaged they become. "That could have two effects. One could be people enjoy games less and end up only doing them for these rewards, which is kind of what's happening in game design, actually," he says. Another negative impact could be that because larger games are developed through intensive focus testing, than an attempt to hone the rewards that work best could actually result in designers prioritizing and prizing the most boring gameplay systems, since those will be the ones where rewards work best. "I don't want to give the impression that I'm putting out a doomsday scenario and like that this is for certain going to happen, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that we should be very careful when we're going about designing these kind of systems, and we're not being very careful right now," he says, considering it's not that reward systems themselves are inherently bad, it's an undisciplined use of them. "We're just pumping them out as fast as we can and that is not necessarily a good thing." He hopes designers consider not just practical gameplay concerns, but the ethics of design as well. Game design is becoming less about cool experiences "and more about this explicit manipulation where, you know, I've got a carrot attached to a stick and I'm just pulling you along. And I don't feel that that respects players, and I don't feel that it treats them as human beings, really." The full interview with Blow on The Witness, thoughts on game design and lessons from Braid is now live at Gamasutra.

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