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.

In Bioshock, for instance, the player is rewarded for killing little girls. There is no more pleasant way to phrase this. If you find a “little sister,” a demented little girl who wishes death upon you, then you have the option to “harvest” a slug-like creature from her and gain Adam, the currency used to buy new super-powers in the game. However, the player is also encouraged to “save” little sisters instead of harvesting them. You don’t gain as much Adam, but you do get little girls thanking you and treating you like a good guy. If you’ve been harvesting them, eventually you see other, saved little girls referring to you as a “bad man,” and you are supposed to feel like a jerk.

This works for those of us who are actually interested in playing for the story. I know that some other bloggers out there wrote that they’d just gone ahead and killed all the little girls for the best reward possible, and claimed that the attempt to manipulate the player emotionally failed for them, but I think that has more to do with what we bring to the game than what the game brings to us. For me for and for some other players, the interpersonal interaction with those you save was reward enough, a way of recognizing the value in what we choose to do in-game, even if that value isn’t in the form of an asset.

And, in fact, if you “do the right thing” consistently, the game rewards you for it eventually—comparably to or even better than the rewards earned for being a monster. In some ways, this undercuts the idea of doing the right thing simply for the sake of doing the right thing, but there is still an implicit, almost karmic message in this. There was a distinction between what appeared to be “the best reward” and what we might otherwise feel encouraged to do, and the distinction was meaningful and purposeful.

Admittedly, however, the willingness to give up assets for reasons of narrative/character consistency can only go so far. If you’re actually cutting out content that people would want to play, you’re not just withholding rewards, but actively punishing players for “doing the right thing,” and the payoff seems unclear.

For instance, in Mass Effect and Fallout 3, you can build up persuasive speaking skills in a character such that you can get yourself out of combat situations in some cases. This is only very rarely desirable. Not only are you not getting the rewards you would’ve gotten for fighting, but you’re also being denied the fun of actually playing more of the game. You’re not excusing yourself from killing innocent folks, but usually you’re simply putting off battles against murderers, cannibals, and terrorists, whom you’re going to have to fight sooner or later anyway. You don’t feel encouraged to do the “right thing” because you’re actively missing out on narrative content and gameplay rewards, which isn’t as encouraging as getting to feel self-righteous.

What could make dialog-driven alternatives feel worthwhile in such games? The easiest answer, from a gameplay perspective, is to suggest some kind of gameplay reward. In a certain Fallout 3 quest, for instance, if you want to free a person from a certain gang, you can just kill all the gang members and get all their equipment; or you could non-violently resolve the situation and preserve the ability to use the gang later as a resource, selling them goods nobody else wants to pay for, or even getting a special ability from them.

By the same token, the non-violent route can be encouraged through narrative context. In this Fallout 3 example, the player might be encouraged to act non-violently because, unlike plenty of other gangs in the game, this gang is actually being quite welcoming and friendly, and the person you’re trying to “free” from them actually seems to want to be there. It’s easy to walk away from the situation feeling like there is a narrative payoff earned through dialog skills. Similarly, in Mass Effect, there is one fight in particular that can be skipped in a way that is much more satisfying than the fight itself, delivering a short but powerful cut scene. In these cases, encouragement and reward line up; you get rewarded one way for non-violence, and another way for violence (typically in the form of more experience points and whatever equipment your defeated foes were carrying).

It is, of course, much more work for game designers to plan a new path for every choice the player might want to take. Only very few developers have shown an interest in presenting this (or at least presenting a sufficiently convincing illusion of this). As the example of Bioshock shows, however, the differences between encouraging one set of actions over don’t always need to imply hugely divergent content. Sometimes, hearing little girls call you a hero—or a monster—may be encouragement enough in itself.

9 thoughts on “Encouragement vs. Reward

  1. This issue has been one of the most problematic particularly for massively-multiplayer games. As computer and internet access has increased across wider swathes of consumer demographics, over the span of my own experience I have seen an across-the-board drop-off of in investment in gaming narrative and related increases in the energy and money spent on in-game content that rewards players through the mechanics of the game system itself. This hit me the most when I was playing World of Warcraft, a game I had been playing for years but in very small batches–I had finally gotten a character over level 60 and was flying around some new world when I realized I had absolutely no investment of my own in this new world and very little in the old one as well, and I quit soon after.

    The examples of games you’ve provided are interesting, where I think Bioshock is the most successful and nuanced example of incorporating a player into the game’s story. Personally I hold out for games that incorporate the narrative within the gameplay dynamics not only from the start, but, honestly, also as a marketing strategy aimed to lure players into a choose your own adventure, like Heavy Rain. Though these attract my attention more now, I’ve been a MMO-fan and supporter for years. I suppose I miss the investment in community-building by developers nowadays.

  2. Good point on MMOs. I’ve been very interested to see how the new Bioware-developed Star Wars MMO handles this, as the marketing seems to be promoting it as something very akin to a single-player, narrative-driven game that just happens to take place in a shared, persistent environment. Is “emergent storytelling” enough of a narrative component to encourage certain kinds of behaviors and emotional reactions, or will MMOs be borrowing more from more authorial storytelling techniques to keep players invested even after they’ve tired of level-grinding?

    Along similar lines to your example, I’ve been enjoying playing Borderlands in snippets here and there, but I suspect that as soon as I’ve fully leveled a character or two, I’ll call it quits unless I have a ton of friends still playing regularly. There may be a bazillion guns, but “rewards” in and of themselves only go so far to engage me.

  3. Hi Jason-

    My roommate’s boy has an article coming out in this book – as the only other video game scholar I know, I was curious if it was something you were aware of…


  4. I hadn’t heard of it, but thanks for the tip! I’ll see if I can check it out from the library when work quiets down (and of course I welcome you to tell your roommate’s boy that you have a famous* academic blogger friend who loves free books).

    * Only minor dishonesty required.

  5. Jason,

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this, and I’ll have to delve into them a bit more. BUT one thing – one feeling – that I cannot shake is the assumption that the narrative has any meaning whatsoever for the gamer.

    This might sound a bit drastic, but consider the thought that video games might be thought to have more in common with a game of chess than a television show (the former involving a bounded set of rules and a clear goal, the latter involving narrative construction to create meaning in the audience). I’ve often wondered how much audiences actually care about the narrative of a game (and, consequenty, thier actions in a game environment) when they are playing. Might it be the case that simply we are interested in “doing x to defeat y”?

    Perhaps this is less relevant in newer games as opposed to older games, but I often think of the 90s, when games were driven simply by graphics and gameplay – many older games still have no idea what the narrative behind Contra or Super Mario Bros. was, yet these games are fondly regarded as some of the best in the history of the medium.

    Moreover, I even wonder the importance of newer games – and yes, even in RPGs. If one of the primary motivations for gameplay is/are challenge & competition, then what room is there for narrative considerations?

    A thought excercise, maybe…I don’t think that I’d ever argue for the non-existence of narrative in games. But at the same time, there are scores of games with no narrative that are quite commercially successful, yet some games with great narratives that rate terribly.

    OR, perhaps we need to reconsider our definition of narrative? It is also the case in video games that the user has an active hand in narrative construction…

  6. Going back to your distinction between encouragement (via narrative) and reward (via challenge), I wonder how we could investigate this?

    Are you familiar with the distinction between hedonic pleasure qua enjoyment, and eudianomic pleasure via appreciation? It might be the case that some gamers ‘enjoy’ conquering challenges, but others ‘appreciate’ the deeper meaning of a game’s story.

    Some newer media theory has gone in this direction…

  7. Thanks for commenting, Nick! I think I just need to write up a whole paper on it, as I’ve come across so much evidence that (at least some) games’ stories matter to (at least some) players, but I’m not sure whether this has been sufficiently described empirically researchers (so much as assumed and acknowledged by some game designers). I’ve written about this in one published article and some posts around these parts, at least, including one on “The Multiple Appeals of Gaming” that makes the kind of distinction between games-as-games and games-as-stories, or at least games-with-stories. (See the trackbacks on that post for related articles.)

    I haven’t yet read about hedonic vs. eudianomic pleasure, but I’ll look into this. Is this stuff from Homo Ludens (sitting on my shelf but yet to be read…), or is there someone else I should be reading?

  8. I’ll dig around for some of my own work on hedonic vs. eudianomic pleasure (under various levels of review), but Mary Beth Oliver has some work on the subject, as does Peter Vorderer and – I think – Art Raney and Ron Tamborini. There was a recent conference in Spain (Entertainment + Emotion) and I believe this distinction was a major part of that conference’s proceedings, which I imagine will be published soon. Having worked with many of these folks, I’m also quite familiar with this distinction myself. Let’s stay in touch on this one, and let me know if you have difficulty finding the papers? I’ll try and dig up some citations for you:

    Oliver, M. B. & Bartsch, A. (invited for publication). Appreciation of Entertainment: Importance of Virtue and Wisdom. International Journal of Arts and Technology.

    Tamborini, R., Bowman, N. D., Eden, A., & Grizzard, M. (in press). Defining Media Enjoyment as the Satisfaction of Intrinsic Needs. Journal of Communication.

Comments are closed.