Game Development Reference
The damage is worst on tasks that are exploratory or creative. When
rewards are offered, people stop playfully exploring a system. They switch
into doing the minimum to get the goodie. That's fatal for a game based
on freedom or creativity.
Many psychological mechanisms have been proposed to explain the
extrinsic demotivation effect. Perhaps people use a mental heuristic that
says a rewarded activity must be work, and so not worth doing on its own.
Perhaps people push back against what they perceive as others attempt-
ing to control them. Or maybe rewards force us to mentally categorize a
relationship as a trading negotiation instead of a free and voluntary one.
Whatever the mechanism, these findings are important for game
designers. They mean that we shouldn't just toss rewards willy-nilly into
every game experience, hoping for a free motivation boost. Used haphaz-
ardly, extrinsic rewards degrade, distort, and destroy the core experience
of play. The player may be motivated, but the motivation is a shell of action
without a core of feeling.
We saw how games need dopamine motivation to keep players going
through hitches in an experience. But now we've also seen that extrinsic
motivation destroys the intrinsic experience of play. It seems like a catch-
22: you must motivate, but if you do, play becomes hollow. How do we
reconcile these two?
The key to creating rewards that don't destroy the experience of play
is rewards alignment .
REWARDS ALIGNMENT is how closely the activities encouraged by
a reward system resemble those the player would have engaged in
The principle of reward alignment basically says that you should only
reward things that the player already wants to do. The more closely we
can align the reward structure to the player's intrinsic desires, the less
destructive it will be to the core experience. In the best cases, the reward
system exactly matches the player's intrinsic desires, and the two kinds of
motivation really do add up.
Some games are naturally amenable to reward systems because it's
easy to detect when the player has achieved their goals. For example, a
racing game should reward players for getting faster times, because that's
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