I don't need shinies, but I want them.

On Being Rewarded for Wanting What You Don’t Need

In the context of limited engagement affairs wherein one is striving to assert logistical supremacy over another presumably comparable force, the idea of rewards may seem to be somewhat counterproductive. I would only then point you to Team Fortress 2 whose game play has been “enhanced” by the addition of achievement items which are awarded to players for having done nothing more demanding than simply playing the game. Naturally, players who are interested in engaging in bouts of PvP using mechanics and systems with which they are familiar would not have needed such things in order to derive enjoyment from their leisure time activity of choice – it certainly doesn’t hurt the game’s cause, however.

I don’t really think that bit of “evidence” is going to convince anyone that rewards are inherent to one’s enjoyment of game playing, but there is certainly something to be said about the companionship of a nice set of incentives to sweeten an existing game mode.

The reward for doing, in my case, is not just having done, but having something meaningful by which to remember what I have done. In this case, that meaning is derived from the caffeinated accumulation of numbers which represent the sum total of what I have accomplished in a particular game. In this sense, the rewards matter only insofar as they are a means to this end. Levels serve as broad markers which indicate to me how far along the game’s story mode I have progressed. They are not necessary, but as Captain Picard once mused in Star Trek Generations, “But I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again.” The same goes for levels. I may wish them away as much as I like, but they are a familiar friend, a reasonably reliable estimate of where I’m at with regard to where I should be at the setting of the sun on the leveling game and at the dawn of the Elder Game. From there, our modern games replace player levels with item levels and the dance continues.

Two adventurers dancing in Ul'dah.
Dance for your rewards, gentlemen.

I suppose it’s telling, though, that the very next line that Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise utters is, “What we leave behind is not as important as how we lived.” What we have at the end of our play sessions in terms of inventory items, statistics, and display bars is not quite as important as the experience of having played.

I would agree, philosophically. As much as I am inclined to drink all sorts of things that are not good for me, realistically, I should be content with drinking water to satiate my thirst. The only problem is that drinking water simply isn’t as attractive as drinking other things. I’ve experimented with various types of flavored drinks. They’re fun, for a while, but I always feel like I’m missing that kick.

Guild Wars 2, to my crude palate, is a nice cup of tea. It gives one the experience of having tried something hot, flavored, and caffeinated. It’s got a bit of bite to it and makes me buzz. The leveling and rewards systems are enough to make me interested for a while, but that fades after I realize that the achingly beautiful world and its machinations are not enough and my focus shifts from material markers to meaningful meanderings. Exploring is nice, but it’s nicer when I’m looking for a shiny MacGuffin.

A purple, crystal chandelier in a Free Company's mansion.
I didn’t need a quest, however, to motivate me to find and explore this dimly hued mansion and its mesmerizing centerpiece.

I’m a coffee drinker, I’ve come to realize. I like my coffee Finnish-style: in other words, I drink it where I sit and I do so at any occasion that calls for some sort of drink, even if that drink doesn’t really need to be coffee.

Extrinsic rewards are the sugar and cream in my gaming coffee. There is simply no way around it. I tried my very best to disabuse myself of this penchant for chasing ephemeral adrenaline highs, but found myself unable to wrest the hooks of themepark-on-rails play featuring hand-me-downs from members of the animal kingdom and local plant life out of my physical form. When I have coffee at hand, things are much more interesting. Period.

And so what of those games in which we vie not for our own personal gain, but for territories, kingdoms, and objects whose value lies in the hands of not an individual, but a community? In this context, we do not need the psychological gratification of a pseudo-random interval reward system. We can still take delight in the mechanics of the things we do to our fellow players both friend and foe. It is the larger context in which those things exist: both the culture and community of that in which we partake take precedence. We discussed some of these aspects in the context of open-ended PvP recently.

Who needs coffee when your mind is already engaged with other, multifaceted and inherently interesting things? Would coffee really replace the stimulation derived from participating in a vibrant and active community? It might enhance it a bit but those things stand on their own. They do not need a complex set of numerical calculations and personal goalposts with brightly colored flags flapping in the breeze to be properly enjoyed and appreciated. The reward for having played such games is, indeed, having taken part in fleet operations, having been a player in a grand political scheme, or simply having been present to witness the unfolding of a dramatic, well-written, game-changing event.

Kelestria eating a meal at an outdoor restaurant.
I was present for a well-prepared meal. Does that count?

These things are rewarding in and of themselves, if done well. You don’t need a full-blown mocha latte with ten different kinds of flavoring you’ve never heard of in order to enjoy a movie masterpiece or an awesome opera. It’s when games don’t give me what I want that I am more inclined to expect extra flavor to fill in the gaps. I don’t need it, but you’d better give it to me if you expect me to stick around.

When Ever, Jane is released I will be playing my role as an actress within the world of social conventions, proprieties, and connivances writ large. I was very fond of watching Anne of Green Gables with my mother while growing up and I would like nothing more than to relive some of those seemingly simple, yet utterly delightful village interactions within a game world albeit in a different time and place. I do not expect to have made any material gains over the course of my play sessions; rather, I look forward to increasing my knowledge of the game world’s workings, interactions within the context of that particular time period and literary milieu, and perhaps some quality role-playing with like-minded individuals. Just as a stage actor does not need to perform a charisma check in order to move to the next act of a play, I would not expect to see statistics, levels, dresses which improve conversational abilities, or any such quantification of characteristics within the game but would not be entirely surprised if something of the sort were to appear.

Why would we expect these things in the first place? It’s because we enjoy making games out of things. Take the Indie hit Papers, Please: a game in which you take on the role of a border guard whose job is to go through the mundane details of potential migrants’ paperwork and make sure that everything is in order according to a shifting set of rules. It shouldn’t be so mindlessly fun, but it is. You’re pretending your choices matter in the context of the game and this is where the ultimate form of release comes for some. One talks about farming and grinding numbers in games as a form of entertainment. As one fellow parent recently commented on Twitter (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m going to grind my face off this weekend.” We look forward to turning the tables and pretending that things that normally matter don’t and those that don’t do; furthermore, we like to quantify these things so that we have something to show for it.

Put another way: we turn something that is supposed to matter into a game in which it becomes an object of irreverent irrelevance. The real game, however, is instantiated by turning things around again and pretending it does matter.

The grounds of Greysky Armada's estate in Mist.
When you pretend that acquiring and maintaining an estate matters, the world becomes more interesting – and more beautiful.

We’re in an age where Playing Alone Together flirts with de facto normativity and hence our need for personal gratification skyrockets in the midst of a paucity of systems that reward our efforts with lasting meta-impact and a debased culture brought into being by well-meaning, perhaps self-absorbed developers in which we need a sliding scale of faceless minions to help us get to our next markers. “STFU and get carried,” is not my mantra. Not now, not ever. “Help me take over the kingdom next door so we can plunder their treasure chest full of fabulous cosmetics and have fun while doing so!” Yes, thank you. I’m in. We can topple a tyrant, make a powerful cartel cry, claim land for our team, terraform its terrain, and come out of all of it looking like a million units of currency? I’d pay for this game. Who wouldn’t?

So how are these rewards we don’t really need best delivered? In the context of a game in which player decisions and even simply existing have meaning and ramifications outside of the realm of what type of fancy armor we’re wearing to the next boss fight. Give players a world in which they feel like they are one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, and capable of contributing to variable permanence and they’ll stop caring about breastplates and ledger sheets quite so much – these things serve to flavor and perhaps catalyze the experience, rather than carry it. Otherwise, if I’m a cog in a machine powering a relatively static world whose actresses and actors take their cues from a shoddily-written Hollywood script, where do I upgrade my trousers, please?


2 thoughts on “On Being Rewarded for Wanting What You Don’t Need

  1. Brilliant. You articulate precisely what I was, frankly, too lazy to lay out in such detail.

    When the cheating and politics of WvW get too much, as they frequently do, we often point out to each other Chez Bhagpuss that true enjoyment of MMOs relies on believing that everything in them matters while simultaneously realizing that it really doesn’t. It’s a tricky piece of mental gymnastics but one that I’ve become fairly adept at maintaining for prolonged stretches of time.

    I also draw a very significant line between rewards that directly benefit my character in material ways (levels, gear, new abilities, mounts with stats, fighting pets or companions …), those that directly benefit me, the player, (vanity pets, titles, currency to spend in the cash shop …) and those that have no meaningful function that I recognize for either of us (achievements, mainly).

    The first group (into which would come your upgraded trousers) are still intrinsic rewards. The second group are extrinsic but they pull levers which work on me. The final group is noise obscuring the signal.


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