Digital Carrots I

I recently suggested that you separate the intrinsic reward from the extrinsic reward in your gaming. Do you enjoy doing it, or are you just pursuing the imaginary shiny? My notion was that while our primitive simian brains reward us with neurochemicals for raising that number on the screen, it is probably better to do things we actually enjoy rather than chasing imaginary carrots on digital treadmills.

I am fascinated by the phenomenon of judging an activity by the reward at the end, rather than the quality of the activity itself. Adding achievements to a game increases its ratings. It is not just cognitive dissonance from people spending all that time chasing transparent dangling carrots; people really seem to get more enjoyment from that extra “Hurray! You did good!” from the achievement pop-up. My reaction to the Borderlands ending was that it was incoherent, but many commenters are far far far far far more bitter that they were not given a giant gun for beating the boss.

I understand why people repeat certain dungeons for loot, but some seem to lose the idea of having fun in the game apart from character advancement. An ideal design would make the most fun content the most rewarding (I know, tastes, preferences, play styles, etc.), rather than reinforcing the idea that you must slog through something to get the best rewards. That would seem like better word-of-mouth advertising. I usually hear players raving about how fun the early advancement is, rather than the late game. Is that just the novelty of the new shiny? A design change switching to late-game slogs as a slowdown technique? Or are we just irritable because the units of advancement are futher apart, and everything is fun when you level twice an hour?

Outside MMO-land, most games don’t have much in the way of extrinsic rewards. And looking at MMOs from the outside, all those digital shinies are still inside the game, providing no value unless you keep paying your $15/month, providing no value once the next wave of planned obsolescence hits.

: Zubon

15 thoughts on “Digital Carrots I”

  1. Good post. For the past two days I had been trying to write about how in my mind the journey from 60 to 65 in LOTRO sucked b/c the party was at 65. The journey started out fun, but as I moved eastward to 65 and Dol Guldur, I started “optimizing” and skipping quests.

    The point that eluded my words me was that 65 was such a dominating carrot, and I was so used to the stagnation at 60, that I started to hate the journey. Anyway, now my soul is at peace with your post since my post went into the trash bin this morning.

  2. It’s all carrots depending on how you look at it. For me, my carrots are exploring places I’ve never been and hanging out with decent people in a game. I’m definitely not your normal gamer, as you pointed out with the end-game phenomenon.

    Of course, my personal play style is ridiculed because players with the shiny mindset see me as a leech or just along for the ride. Yes, as a DPS player I have my purpose, but because I like to stop and smell the roses…appreciate good graphic art…shoot the crap once in a while…or god forbid read quest text…well…I can understand where I might get a bit irritating.

    I also suck apparently because I’m not one to do things over and over. Once I’ve been somewhere and explored it pretty thoroughly, then that’s it, I’m done. I like to raid, but can only really stand doing the same instance a few times. God knows in my 20-year career playing MMO-type games that I’ve tried. But really, my life will go on without a few items here and there. The next expansion will launch and they will be obsolete in a few levels anyway.

    And you make a great point about not being able to take it with you when you go. I have a friend who was addicted to an MMO. They had a rough spell at work and had to drop cable and Internet. The biggest revelation to them was that with no game they had nothing. Meaning, everything they did in the game stayed in the game. They had nothing to show for it. It’s difficult to explain, but it was a real eye-opener for them.

    1. I really emphasize with that last paragraph of yours. I had a very similar, almost traumatic, revelation when breaking free of the grip of my first online game (a MUD, rather than MMO. dates me, huh? :))

      All my accumulated “stuff” I was so proud of, boiled down to bytes that I couldn’t take away when I left. So what remained to me?

      I came up with the personal answer of “people” and “memories.”

      The friends you make, the relationships that can still outlast a single game, and the memories of good times thereof.

      Also, memories and nostalgia of the game itself, and memories of the emotions (joy, delight, frustration, everything) attached to the “stuff” that was once valued. I settled for a text log of all my items which spanned 20 characters’ inventories easily. These days, I suppose screenshots, armory pics, blogs and videos might hold the same nostalgic power.

      1. First of all…I’m right there with you in age. My little “habit” started with MUDs and other text-based games as well.

        I understand what you are saying and of course we all could and should take those things away with us.

        More in line with the blog post, however, my friend was addicted to advancement and gaining the best possible loot he could get. Almost fanatical about it. The other stuff you mention wasn’t on his mind at the time.

        Like you, however, he did come to the realization of those other aspects of the game. He still plays MMOs today, but he has a much different mindset than back then.

  3. If you allow players to earn rewards that are roughly on par (gear sidegrades for example) via a variety of activities, then they will indeed be rewarded for doing whatever they think is the most fun.

    The only MMO I am aware of to try this with their endgame was SoA era LoTRO. It worked really well, I’ve never had so much fun at the level cap in another MMO (including post MoM LoTRO, unfortunately).

  4. Blizzard recently improved the Oculus. Or actually, they increased the amount and value of the loot for doing something most players prefer to skip/leave on sight. :>

    Another game, another example:
    I also worked hard on my still not complete “God Walking Amongst Mere Mortals” in Guild Wars. It is quite fun and enjoyable to do some 25-26 of the required titles, but the final ones are real chores. Nevertheless I completed 2 more and only have 2 left to do.
    But thinking about drinking a bottle of Alcohol every minute for 10.000 minutes, ideally with a huge stack of virtual beer and a macroing program… or going AFK on the “9 rings” to lose/win thousands of tickets for the luck title track…
    There is no intrinsic motivation here for me, only external motivation, a mere title that *might* account for some cosmetic extra and bragging rights in GW2.

    This finally burnt me out so much that I quit playing GW (I had done everything I wanted and all that was left was grinding for this extrinsic reward) and played WoW, quit WoW and played no MMO for a while, till I started playing LOTRO.
    I did not experience the SoA endgame that Yeebo described, I heard many people mourn that they did not continue this way. It is a pity they abandoned this concept in favor of a rather generic dungeon raiding endgame. I think the strength of LOTRO is in the world, the IP and giving players some choice, based on more intrinsic motivations.
    But right now we see how extrinsic motivation works in LOTRO, too: Everyone does the Sword-halls or Sammath Gûl, because they are the easiest to farm for Medaillons and the only place to drop somewhat better gear and the tokens required for 2nd age weapons.

  5. To me, great game play is the carrot. If I’m not having fun, I don’t bother with it. That might explain my utter disdain for grind, strict classes and tedious, repetitive pacing.

  6. Even though I enjoy the journey, I still like the shiny, and I generally need both to enjoy a game.

    As primarily a solo player on LotRO, I’ve found it difficult to keep my motivation to explore and play once hitting the level cap and losing that XP/leveling reward cycle. I just hit the new level cap last night and I recently joined a kin that I finally feel that I fit well with. I’m looking forward to seeing if the social interaction is sufficient replacement carrot for the XP carrot that I just lost.

  7. Am I the only one who wishes that mmorpgs had natural end points? Stages you could aim for and then happily leave the game knowing that you had achieved the goal you set out to.

    I personally cannot buy in to the carrot on a stick treadmill. I do want to enjoy the journey but I like to know where the journey will take me and when I can get off.

    Guild Wars episodic content is closest to what I am looking for. You can play each chapter as a stand alone game if you like.

    1. Let’s hope GW2 retains the strengths of GW1 and that they have learnt a thing or two from stuff that did not work out well in GW1.

      Given how generic our trinity based levelquests have become, GW is truly a beacon of light.

  8. I dunno, I find I have a need to feel like I’m doing something constructive (and fun) but thinking of a whole lot of constructive things to do, and finishing them sequentially rather than as I feel like it is too much of a chore. Enter WoW. It feels constructive, because I am making progress (on a treadmill, shut up) and I can just work on whichever of my goals I feel like at the time without cluttering up my house with half finished projects. I don’t care what neurochemicals are being activated, I have to do something to have fun.

    Ooh I should keep a couple of RL projects on hand for when I’m bored with WoW, then I don’t feel utterly useless and only a couple will not clutter up my house.

  9. My best guess is that many many MANY many people in this world already have a mindset tuned to chasing extrinsic rewards. Better job, better pay, bigger car, larger house, the best high-tech gizmo, unsoweiter.

    At which point, you cease being surprised if people take delight in a digital world that reinforces the (generally irrational) belief that if they put in enough ‘effort’ (read time, grind in the case of MMOs), they -deserve- to get a honking big ‘reward.’ Disappointed, maybe, but not unexpected.

    Fortunately, there still seems to be a subset of people who do pay attention to the intrinsic activity, and our subsequent agreement on the intarweb reassures us that there is still hope for our subset of humanity. :)

    On a related note, I was recently pondering why some people feel ashamed at not -finishing- their computer games. They build up a ‘pile of shame’ and set a task to crank them out and down for the count.

    For myself, who gains intrinsic enjoyment out of trying out new and novel stuff and musing about innovation in game design/mechanics, my ‘pile of shame’ are the games I haven’t -tried-. Finishing is not on my agenda, I’m content giving them a rev and grokking their patterns, only finishing the ones whose gameplay I enjoy and story I want to see to the end.

    1. Is it a “generally irrational” belief that if someone puts in enough effort, they deserve to get a reward? What’s irrational about it? Is it only irrational if the reward is expected to be “honking big”?

      1. Nah, it doesn’t have to be honking big. It’s if they’re chasing and expecting an external, extrinsic reward tied to the effort.

        It’s irrational because the world does not work that way all the time. Not all effort leads to an equitable reward, especially an extrinsic one.

        It’s a comforting belief to hold, that the world is fair, and that there will always be equitable return for effort invested. There’s even some research that suggests it may be hardwired.

        But sometimes, the world doesn’t work that way. The real world, that is. When that happens, reality vs expectation, the person holding the expectation loses – they get angry, frustrated, unhappy.

        To me, this is an irrational stance to hold for too long a time, because the person hasn’t adjusted their expectation to match what has actually happened, and is busily making themselves miserable instead.

        That’s not to say that we can’t hold on to an ideal that we’d like to have the entire world as fair and equitable as possible. But it’s rational to acknowledge that sometimes, it isn’t.

        (It could be that my definition of rationality is skewed towards an intrinsic happiness-contentment seeking goal, so you’d have to read my statements of rational and irrational in light of that.)

        But, anyhow, my main point was that it shouldn’t be surprising that people would like a digital world they escape into to work ‘better’ than reality and act accordingly with their expectations.

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