Encouragement vs. Reward

Over the last several posts on storytelling in gaming I’ve written (1, 2, <a href="3, 4), I’ve discussed some ways that players might find narrative meaning in games. Sometimes this is only possible when we go looking for it; sometimes it’s possible because of the way the game was designed; and sometimes we can see how narrative engagement might be possible, but might work better if the game were designed more for it.

This post explores the last of these scenarios. I believe games can be designed in such a way that they preserve a player’s feeling of agency—allowing for emotional reactions other than what we could get purely as spectators—but also allow preserve engagement with a story by recognizing the distinction (suggested in my last post) between what games encourage players to do for narrative purposes and what games reward players for doing in the form of distinct assets or benefits in gameplay terms. Designers can and should sometimes make players want to do things for story-based reasons, not just for gameplay-based reasons.

Why make this distinction? Quite simply, the tension between these elements can lead to some fascinating and meaningful scenarios when handled well, and can completely break our sense of immersion and engagement when handled poorly. Let me give some examples.

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Encouraging Ourselves to Death

This post continues a loosely-linked series of posts (including this, this, and this) on how we can find narrative meaning in replayed games. You can re-watch a favorite DVD again and again, but it’s tricky to replay an old game and still enjoy it for the story because the enjoyment of story is so linked with the experience of being challenged and excited by the game. This leads some gamers to force artificial limitations onto ourselves just to maintain a sense of challenge in ways that preserve the story, something most games are not designed to do. In this post, I’ll discuss one such artificial limitation—”permadeath” experiments with Far Cry 2—and what allowing characters to stay dead can do for the narrative experience of a game.

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A Game of “Find the Story”

As I discussed in my previous post, games can be played with attention to appeals offered by immersion in story and appeals offered by a sense of mastery, but we tend to see more attention to the latter when in the way games are designed to be played and replayed. Once you’ve mastered the skills required to excel in a game, it can sometimes feel too boring or easy, and so we crank up the Difficulty when we want to replay it. Making enemies stronger and protagonists weaker solves the issue of maintaining the appeal of mastery, but it does nothing to address the appeal of story. The sense of your own agency in producing the story is replaced by a sense of struggling to avoid repetition, whether boring (if it’s too easy) or frustrating (if it’s too hard).

Why not make up our own difficulty adjustments and imagine our own stories, then? Why not play “hardcore” or “permadeath” style, deciding that when our protagonist dies, it stays dead? Why not reject using the best weapons and skills available to our hero? Or, if a certain degree of variation is actually built into the game—such as the ability to play in a way that disagrees with our initial inclinations, perhaps as a villain rather than a hero—why not replay that way?

In fact, many gamers do just these things—and sometimes, I’m one of them. I had originally planned just one more post in this series on blending story and mastery appeals in games, but I’m going to have to spread it out over a couple more. In this post, I’ll discuss some ways I’ve tried to spice up replays by limiting my actions according to things that might make sense in the context of a story. I’ll discuss another recently blogged experiment in the post that follows this one, focusing on the narrative potential of irreversible actions. (And I’ll probably write another post after that, too, as I actually wrote this post on the next one months ago, and have new thoughts on these matters developed since then.)

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The Rumors of My Defense Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

It’s more than a little embarrassing to note that my most recent post before this one was the second part of a three-part series begun in early August. There is a reason, of course: I started the series in the window of time between turning in my dissertation to my committee and going to defend it in Philadelphia.

On August 12th, I defended my dissertation, Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age, and passed with only a few minor requests for revisions. I’m currently looking into options for publication, but in the meantime, feel free to email me directly (jason @ this domain) if you’d like a copy.

So, finishing the dissertation probably means I’ve had plenty of time to blog, right? Well, not so much, but I aim to remedy that now. Shortly after the defense, I started my new job as an assistant professor in the Communication department at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts (not too far from where I grew up, in Newton Upper Falls).

It turns out that designing and teaching three entirely new classes (plus committees and advising) is something of a handful, though certainly an improvement on the Morlock lifestyle that dissertation writing encourages. Now, in November, I’m finally getting to know the ins and outs of the new campus, figuring out what motivates and interests my students best, and carving out some time to do things other than course prep.

My new (academic) year’s resolution, then, is to get back to blogging. I’ll soon finish that three-part series, and I’m going to try to get back into the blogging routine at least once a week. I may not be doing new research on geekdom itself for the time being, but I suspect I’ll still have things to share for a while. Plus, I think you’ll find that my other research interests are plenty geeky in their own right. After all, someone has to babble on about the theories and usage of video games, web design, and science-fiction. I wouldn’t want there to be a shortage of voices opining on these topics in the blogosphere, so I now solemnly return to perform my duties.