Thursday, August 23, 2007

"They will consciously waste their own time"

It is hard to explain why, but I take an interest in general gaming discussions online. It is probably because I am still, at heart, a nerd.
However, my engagement with this world is basically acerbic, as I have gone from being in thrall to electronic entertainment as a teenager, to an adult who views such overuse as pointless. Therefore the tone of my contribution to the gaming world has gone from fawning (e.g. sending in hints and cheats to Amiga Power), to questioning (e.g. interrogating somebody as to why "there's no point limiting yourself to one console for the sake of it", as one seems to be perfectly enough).

One thing I've noted is that the XBox 360 awards gamers with a 'gamer score' which is posted online. This score is viewed on a homepage that is set up for you when you go online with the console, and becomes something of a bragging feature between owners. To quote one 'obsessed' games reviewer:
"So back to my confession. I only bought my own Xbox 360 a few months ago and I've been wasting time with my baby son that I should have spent gaming. But whatever the excuse, admitting you have a low Gamerscore feels like admitting you have a low IQ. Again, brilliant thinking from Microsoft - we're shamed into buying games."

In fact, owners of the console are playing games that are rubbish just to score easy points: "I feel dirty. Last night I spent an hour of valuable gaming time playing the godawful Fusion Frenzy 2 on Xbox 360. Why? Yup, you've guessed it - easy gamerpoints" starts the introduction to an article. A comment on the previously cited article adds that "I was sent the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game at work, and I've already got a couple of hundred points just for completing the first four levels. It's pretty rubbish, but I'm compelled to complete it, partly because it'll be the first time I've ever got 1,000 points from a game".

Now we live in a world where, sneakily, we attempt to inflate a meaningless score to overtake the meaningless score of others by gritting our teeth and enduring a paid-for experience that rewards us in no way except to inflate that meaningless score. Will there be any consequences?
I am a psychologist. I am interested in educational psychology. It has long been common in classrooms, especially for younger children, to award tolerable behaviour with golden stars and so on. In fact, a similar system is often used in prisons. It is very basic behavioural psychology - reward the behaviours you want to see so that they are repeated. Does it work in classrooms or prisons? And will it work in the living room, late at night, playing yet another shoddy sequel?

When talking about motivation, there is a handy distinction between the intrinsic and the extrinsic. I am intrinsically motivated to relax in the bath at the end of a long week - it is quite simply what I want to do for my own reasons, and I enjoy it. However, I am extrinsically motivated to take a cold shower before work when it happens that there is no hot water - for if I do not clean myself I will smell and be ridiculed.
Therein lies the difference between the two kinds of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is a factor inside of you that makes you act. Extrinsic motivation is a factor outside of you, either punishment or reward from another agent.
It is obvious that packets of cigarettes, gold stars, or 'gamerpoints' are extrinsic motivators. So, what happens when you rely heavily on rewards to make people (whether pupils, prisoners, or pad-pounding-playas) do something?

The answer is that extrinsic motivation leads to a lack of interest. Lepper et al. (1973) observed nursery children drawing, and picked out those that enjoyed it. These children were split into three groups:
  • Group 1 was told to expect a reward for drawing, and rewarded
  • Group 2 was not told to expect a reward, but was rewarded
  • Group 3 was not told to expect a reward, and was not rewarded

After all this, the children were allowed to play some more, and were observed. Group 1 spent less time on drawing than the two other groups, because when extrinsic motivators are taken away, there is no longer a reason to repeat the behaviours. The children no longer bothered drawing, as drawing had become a way to receive reward, and without the reward seemed pointless.

No doubt most game playing is based on intrinsic motivation. The addition of these 'gamerpoints' adds more extrinsic motivation to the mix, and may be changing the play habits of some Xbox 360 owners. Are gamers no longer playing a game when all the points have been milked out of it, tossing it aside in order to start up a new fetch quest for a high score? Do Xbox 360 owners feel less motivated to play games on other systems, as they are forgetting why it might be enjoyable to play a game which does not reward you with such achievement recognition?

Or is the whole thing just an excellent way for Microsoft to show us that there are plenty of dire games that many gamers will still play, as long as they are given a thin 'achievement' excuse to do so? Psychologists should observe closely: people can be powered so little by intrinsic motivation that, in the absence of anything in particular to do, they will consciously waste their own time.


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