September 7, 2009 by Alex Beech  

There was a time scores functioned as enough of a drive for players to feed the arcade cabinet their change. Games have progressed from those simple times. Today games have narratives and have to last for hours to justify their price to the consumer. They need numerous tools to motivate the player.

Some players want personal challenge. For them the motivation lies within mastery. They must perceive incrementally improvement in skill. The promise of achieving a personal best is incentive enough. Feedback and with positive reinforcement plays only a minute role in captivating players.

Larger game worlds typically require more substantial rewards. To force two artificial categories here; some are narrative driven, others do not. Successful presentation of a narrative can be enough to compel a player. The promise of seeing a new plot element, or location with new challenges is enough to keep a player motivated.

When the in game engine isn’t enough to convey plot frequently players are ‘rewarded’ with cut scenes. As the medium progresses and moves towards a more integrated narrative such devices will diminish. If used effectively such exposition can be used to create a cinematic effect but they are frequently just used as a reward with little relation to the plot.

Some rewards have in game applications. Driving games are a good example; earning or ‘buying’ upgrades and cars is regularly a reward in itself, independent of advantages they yield. A look at recent fighting games sees rewards in the ability to customize your fighter’s appearance. These changes are purely cosmetic, but drive players to continue.

I say ‘purely cosmetic’, but in fact it plays into two reemerging motivators. The meta-game is flourishing since the introduction achievements. This harks back to the high score. A measurable, visible achievement; it could be equated to the customization of a character. Combine to this the other reemerging motivation, competitive play, and the significance of these marks of accomplishment become all the more apparent.

While competition in games has always been a factor, the boom in online console gaming has reasserted it. When gaming first emerged the focus was the high score, judging your skill against faceless opponents. Online gaming has reawakened this. Suddenly visible records of skills need to be seen because the competition (and their score) is not.

Other players see gaming as escapism similar to movies and books. But what makes this kind escape more appealing to some people than these other media? The contention that being able to control the protagonist(s) encourages a connection is viable. Conversely movies and books usually present more consistent and involving characters as they are better able to exploit and control character’s exposition. What games have is feedback from the game world. For some people this creates an emotional investment beyond one that is passively experienced.

All games offer some form of feedback to encourage play. This encouragement and the sense of achievement it communicates, I suspect, creates a feeling of enjoyment even when it becomes challenging. In the best games were play mechanics and pacing are solid these elements combine to elevate the experience. In many games these fundamentals are not perfectly established. It is in games, where the fundamental mechanics are not satisfactory, that players feel frustration. They aren’t enjoying the game but feel compelled to play to see the next motivator.


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