Game Development Reference
The main way we generate dopamine motivation is by creating the
anticipation of rewards.
Many kinds of rewards can elicit dopamine motivation. Food, water,
sex, safety, money, possessions, power, and social status are all dopamine-
driving rewards. When we anticipate getting these things, our brains re-
lease a surge of dopamine, and our motivation to pursue the goal increases.
But wait a second. Games are inconsequential almost by definition.
We usually can't give players food or sex (though a few games do use
pornographic content as a reward). We usually can't offer real physical
security (unless the game can hurt the player, as in PainStation ). We usu-
ally can't give real money or real social status (except if players bet on the
game, or play it for an audience). Most games must work to create motiva-
tion without offering or threatening anything at all outside themselves.
But how can we do this if we can't offer any real rewards?
We can do it because the human brain evolved in an environment
that lacked modern games, so it has no system for distinguishing real
rewards from virtual ones. Virtual rewards usually don't have the same
motivational intensity as real rewards, but they retain some echo of the
real reward's power. While we want to get rich in real life more than we do
in a game, we still want to get rich in a game.
Some virtual rewards, like experience points, in-game money, equip-
ment, and abilities, are about powering up the player's character. Others,
like cutscenes or audio logs, use story content as a reward. Some, like
points in 1980s arcade games, are no more than records of achievement—
the digital equivalent of a kid scratching his name on the tallest branch
of the tallest tree in his neighborhood. The fact that these rewards are all
meaningless outside the game is irrelevant. They tickle the reward center
all the same.
In creating motivation, the reward itself often isn't the most important
part of the equation. The real key to motivation is in the timing of exactly
when players anticipate and receive rewards. This aspect of rewards is
determined by a reinforcement schedule .
A REINFORCEMENT SCHEDULE is a system of rules that defines when
rewards are given.
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