The Thin Play of Dear Esther

Does Overjustification Hurt Games?

Achievement Unlocked Left The House Today Concern about gamification has brought about a healthy discussion about its limits – but have we really understood the extent to which games themselves are already subject to a stifling of free play by explicit rewards like Achievements?

In psychology, the overjustification effect refers to situations in which offering an explicit incentive – money or prizes – reduces a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. The earliest demonstrations of this effect were Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett’s experiments on children aged 3 to 5 years, who had been showing an intrinsic interest in drawing. They divided the kids into three groups: in the first, a “good player” ribbon was offered for drawing. In the second, the ribbon was also awarded but it was not announced in advance. The third group was a control. Watching the children later, they observed that when playing freely the first group was significantly less interested in drawing, while the other groups behaviour did not change. They concluded that expecting rewards undermines intrinsic motivation in activities that were previously enjoyable.

This effect has been controversial in psychological circles because it flies in the face of previous research on the effectiveness of reinforcement (rewards) – and the widespread practice of using incentives in classrooms. Since 2001, the battle over the overjustification effect has been fought by the latest tool in the scientist’s kit – meta-analysis. In effect, this method is based on comparing results from multiple different studies. However, despite the occasionally grand claims made about the capacity of meta-analysis to solve disputes in scientific circles, what has happened in practice is that meta-analysis papers are open to dispute in just the same ways as individual statistical analyses, and the issues continue to go around in circles as participants in such tiffs remain committed to their various theories. As far as I can tell, the evidence as it stands still supports the overjustification effect, although rewards can be gainfully used to improve interest in tasks that are inherently dull.

Personally, I am fairly convinced by the overjustification effect since I see it all the time amongst digital game players. When the game offers explicit rewards in advance – for instance, and now most commonly, as a result of Achievement or Trophy schemes – these rapidly condition the player’s interactions with the game in question to the point that whatever intrinsic enjoyment there might have been in the game soon becomes secondary to the pursuit of the next badge in the collection. There are positive aspects to this explicit disclosure of goals – it makes it clear what sort of things can be attained within the game. But there are, I suspect, massive negative implications in contexts where a game is offering something intrinsically enjoyable, but conditions it by rewards. Once the badge has been earned, many players will move on to other things, even if the activity they are passing from would have been fun for much longer.

From the point of view of a large company involved in making games, or even a small one, overjustification actually has benefits: if you rely on intrinsic motivation, you may not keep the player’s attention for as long as if you structure their play for them. For platform licensors like Sony and Microsoft, there’s an additional advantage to the overjustification inherent in Achievements and the like: it helps the player reach a point of losing interest in one game, and thus encourages them to buy new games. However, for anyone interested in the artistic potential of the medium of games, overjustification should be a cause for concern, since intrinsically pleasant or interesting aesthetic experiences will be curtailed by conditioning the player’s involvement via goals and rewards.

This issue also has direct relevance for gamification, the application of overjustification to non-game contexts. If, as Jesse Schell jokingly mused, we offer extrinsic rewards for reading books (“Achievement unlocked: 100 books read!”), do we not tinker with the intrinsic rewards of reading? Players on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 platform sometimes choose which games to play based on how easy it is to accumulate the points associated with its Achievement reward schedule (called “g”). It will not be an improvement over the current situation if people are encouraged not to read the best books for them personally, but merely the shortest and easiest to read books. Schell seems to recognise there is a potential problem in his reference to self-determination theory (which is the most common framework used to understand the overjustification effect), but I share with Fabian Groh a general concern about rushing into gamification. As his February 2012 paper notes in conclusion: “proper scientific studies about the benefits as well as the side-effects of gamification are needed.”

Furthermore, I believe the games industry ought to be equally concerned about gamification “at home” as well as further afield. Although I have been a long-time advocate of “stamp collections” and other explicit reward structures in game design, I am now beginning to worry that overjustification is disrupting some of the intrinsic enjoyment of games. Take, as a case in hand, my experiences of Journey. I was having an incredible time with this game, enjoying a real sense of amazement about the relationships forged between travellers thrown together entirely by chance. Then, I collected the final Trophy for the game. I have not played it since, neither do I feel I am likely to do so. In some respects, this probably reflects my natural bias towards Achiever-style play, which compels me to find ways to make clean breaks with titles I am enjoying a little too much since my time is a scarce commodity. Yet what was intrinsically enjoyable about my experiences of Journey had little to do with goals. My play had been overjustified, and without rewards my intrinsic motivation to play vanished.

I certainly don’t want to be the one to declare that the sky is falling, but there is an indisputable tension in the ubiquity of reward schedules as the primary structuring mechanisms of contemporary digital games. Computer role-playing games had always been conditioned in this way, but as the Western-forms of these games have benefited from the growth of computing power, they have been consistently constrained by the outer reward structures offered by Achievements and the like. The vast possibility of their worlds are limited in advance by whatever badges are there to be won. I’m certain the majority of players will defend Acheivements et al as adding to their enjoyment, and this is a supportable argument. But what might you have done, say, in the fictional worlds of Skyrim or GTA: IV if the game had not given you explicit rewards for doing specific things? Can you be sure that your interests as a player have not been limited rather than expanded by extrinsic motivations?

The play of games, and the play of life as a whole, has become increasingly overjustified – a trend that seems likely to continue. Should we as game designers continue to participate in this exercise in constraint, or might there be games and play situations that benefit from being liberated from extrinsic reward? At the very least, we should think carefully about what happens when all games through a given channel are required to be overjustified via the necessary inclusion of Trophies, Achievements and so forth. The freedom of play is being curtailed, and we let it happen because we enjoy the rewards of being told exactly what to do. Perhaps we might benefit from greater caution in this regard.

The opening image was borrowed from a blog post by Liam Pritchard over on Brash Games entitled "Why I love Achievements and why they are potentially damaging", who discusses the same issue from a player's perspective.


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This reminded me of an old post of mine many years ago where I was complaining about people's attitudes and actions related to Achievements where it came to "boosting" and other actions that spoil competitive games, especially with poorly written achievements.

So, basically many of the negative effects of the overjustification effect. :)

That "100 books read" example is a perfect analogy for a poorly written Achievement having an unintended negative effect - because it is stupidly and easily 'boosted' in the manner you describe. However a better 'written' Achievement could theoretically have resulted in more of the actually desired behaviour (albiet still vunerable to the overjustification effect when it comes to reducing intrinsic motivation!).

Brain dumping here, but in some ways this seems to come down to ability to measure things. If the desired behavour is 'an intrinsic motivation to read more' - how would you make an Achievement that measured that? :-O

Although not directly related, this reminds me of a maddening discussion I had a few months ago with an acquaintance.

Were were discussing this overjustification effect, except that he was trying to spin things around the other way. He claimed that the highest human value is created within communities, and that thus finding intrinsic motivation in (non-communal) activities was deficient alternative to communal valuation of work, and that the ideal situation would be one where people value external rewards or praise (coming from others, i.e. the "community") for their activities more than the activities themselves. He was basically arguing that overjustification was the baseline proper human attitude towards most activities.

I've also encountered quite a few gamers and game developers who, along similar lines but likely for different reasons, rather strongly insist that goals and rewards, rather than free play as you call it, are the soul of games themselves (this position is one you dealt with on your series on play aesthetics, IIRC). They tend to draw a line between Achievements and in-game yet explicit rewards/goals, but I wonder how thick that line is.

On a more direct level, I certainly know what you mean from experience; indeed, I remember an amusing situation during the previous Steam Winter Sale during which I sat down and played numerous games merely as a way to earn coal to turn into coupons. Looking back, I can say quite confidently that the coal-collecting metagame didn't make me enjoy the games I was playing, even the ones I had previously enjoyed (such as Orcs Must Die! and Bastion).

This is something I struggled with in Skyrim, for sure. I enjoy Elder Scrolls games most when I'm exploring the world and trying to figure something out. That can work when there are quests associated with exploration or not. I loved the part of Morrowind when I had to go into the ashlands and make friends with the Ashlanders, which was quest-driven; and I loved finding the Gray Fox's secret lair in Oblivion, which wasn't. In both cases, I felt like I was diving into something unknown and having to read my surroundings. That's the feeling I love in those games.

Skyrim never once scratched that itch, and I'm not sure why. Part of it is the generative quest system, which quickly teaches you that similar things will happen wherever you go. Variations between locations are weakened because they share templates. I see where they were going with the quest system, but for me it had the effect you're talking about here - all those entries in my quest log just sapped my intrinsic motivation.

I think there might be a missed opportunity there, in fact. So you have a template of semi-generic actions that makes up a quest, okay. One way to use that is to instantiate it, write it explicitly on a piece of paper, and hand it to the player. But you could also just apply it retroactively. If the player has performed a series of actions that fits a template, trigger an appropriate reward or consequence. You'll probably finish fewer quests, but is that a bad thing? And what you get in return might be a world that feels responsive, rather than demanding.

Great comments - thanks! Let me pick up some points.

Rik: "...this seems to come down to ability to measure things. If the desired behavour is 'an intrinsic motivation to read more' - how would you make an Achievement that measured that?"

On the Xbox 360, one way would be an Achievement earned by not turning on the console at all. >:) I think a lot of Achievement culture is tied up with measurement, as you suggest, but I don't think all goals are attainable from travelling in this direction.

Garrick: Your friend's argument has some teeth, but he would be safer arguing this in terms of a virtue ethical theory (MacIntyre's would be perfect) than in terms of measurables. Because the nature of the measurable's interaction with the social is mediation by bureaucracy - and then the value the group places on it is not necessarily social at all, but simply formulaic. Note that discussion of the overjustification effect doesn't cover praise - only tangible rewards specified in advance. Praise may be understood as extrinsic, but it doesn't produce overjustification effects. In this regard, your friend is on the right track! :)

"They tend to draw a line between Achievements and in-game yet explicit rewards/goals, but I wonder how thick that line is."

Great point, since this line gets thinner the more gamer culture presupposes the Achievement/Trophy as the measure of success in all contexts. There are definite issues here we aren't looking squarely in the face.

LineHollis: Developers of cRPGs (myself included) have often been drawn to the generative approach, but it always suffers from the problems you outline here, and I suspect it always will. Your retrospective spin on this is interesting, but monstrously difficult to implement in practice! My own attempts floundered on giving the player a sense of connectivity between action and response - and this turns out to be far more difficult than expected.

All the best!

When I design trophy sets I try to make them cut across the grain of the main game. I try to make them easy but unexpected: "Here's a different way to play. Try playing the game in order to accomplish THIS and see how it feels." I tell myself that this approach is better than the "collect 100 butterfly wings" sort of achievements, but considering the research you cited, it might not make much of a difference.

I think what you've posted gets right to the heart of what I hate about gamification. Yes, as designers we can use the Skinner box approach to coax players into grinding: Keep killing kobolds and occasionally one will drop something epic! But such experiences aren't very fun. We may feel a compulsion to engage in them, but that doesn't mean that we enjoy them. I've never heard anyone say they enjoy grinding. They just see it as a necessary evil to get the piece of candy at the end.

A good play experience is one where the act of playing is itself enjoyable. The moment-to-moment actions are structured to be fun in and of themselves, not because they're steps toward an arbitrary goal.

I've never seen any gamification pitch that actually touched on real game design -- how to structure an experience so that it's entertaining in and of itself. (Probably because that sort of restructuring with most real-world tasks is very, very hard.) Instead gamification take one tangential aspect of games (grinding toward a goal) and uses it as a solution for everything.

Brian: nice observations. One word of caution:

"I've never heard anyone say they enjoy grinding."

I make the point in "Imaginary Games" that 'grinding' is expressly a term of disapproval. So you're unlikely to hear anyone say they enjoy grinding, because if they're enjoying the grind it is not de facto grinding (it's "having fun").

Personally I *would* say, with a little self-reflection, that I love grinding (in the wider sense of the word) - I love it a little too much! The problem I have when I play Minecraft is that my imagined rewards are compelling enough to motivate me through the grinding involved in the mining process (and that you can find surprises only helps this). But at least here, the compulsion is a direct consequence of the gameplay, and cannot bleed out of the game world.

What troubles me about the gamification of games is precisely the extrusion of the compulsion from the neat containment within the game worlds to a meta-level that intrudes upon every day life. I believe we ought to think carefully about what we're doing in this regard.

Best wishes!

Chris, here's are two hypothetical questions:

If you could perform a different, less repetitively task to achieve the same reward as the grind, would you choose that instead? And if there was no reward, would you ever grind just for fun?

When I say, "no one enjoys grinding" I don't mean that there's no pleasure in the totality of the experience, but rather that there's no enjoyment in the moment-to-moment performance of the mechanic. Grinding occurs when a mechanic that is dull by itself is made palatable only because of the construction of a framework of imagined reward.

So I suppose that, actually, I'm expressing a tautology. I'm defining "grinding" in such a way that it's impossible for someone to say they enjoy it ... .

Great article. Overjustification has most certainly compromised my own enjoyment of games, and now I feel like I better understand why.

How is it that "gamification" has become the official term for these types of artificial incentives, anyway? Aren't we speaking of something that existed far before modern-day achievement-hunting? Heck, Cub Scouts had badge unlocks far before Playstation.

I guess one reason this classification bothers me is because I believe the achievement structure (or "metagame") shouldn't be confused with actual game design (such as level structure, a game's win/lose conditions, fine-tuning the world's physics and player control, etc) -- which is more directly tied to what you refer to as a game's intrinsic enjoyment. To me, this classification makes as much sense as categorizing, say, the voice acting in a cutscene under "game design" as well.

Brian: I think you answered your own question there! It's easy to end up defining grind as a tautology like this. I think it can be helpful to expand the term to cover the enjoyable territory adjacent to that empty void. :)

Tim: "How is it that 'gamification' has become the official term for these types of artificial incentives, anyway? Aren't we speaking of something that existed far before modern-day achievement-hunting? Heck, Cub Scouts had badge unlocks far before Playstation."

Oh, absolutely! They date back a long, long way before videogames, and the scout badges are a good example to cite. Of course, these are based on military reward schedules that are far, far older - what is a medal if not extrinsic reward for a soldier doing their duty? ;)

To be clear, "gamification" is the term used to describe the export of these external incentives from games as such to other activities that are not overtly game-like - it became a craze after the success of social media sites like Facebook showed just how easy it was to take extrinsic rewards and apply them in non-game contexts.

In this piece, I subvert the term by talking about "gamification of games" - but my use of the term here is intentionally ironic. :)

"I guess one reason this classification bothers me is because I believe the achievement structure (or "metagame") shouldn't be confused with actual game design (such as level structure, a game's win/lose conditions, fine-tuning the world's physics and player control, etc) -- which is more directly tied to what you refer to as a game's intrinsic enjoyment."

Sure, but of course these lines become very blurred. In an RPG, the reward structures are part of the core play of the game - and indeed, it is ultimately from this that we get Achievements outside of the game. The vector of videogame design has been the gradual domination of the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. :o

For some time, it's been games-within-games-within-games - there's a strong intuitive tendency to want to draw the line at the boundary of the fictional world of the game, which is how you end up calling the achievements the 'metagame' (meta, because it's outside that fictional world). Bungie, I think, were responsible for misusing this term in this way, but now its in use with this context it has taken on this additional meaning. I accept this as inevitable, but I'm resistant since it seems that this is just a way of covering up what is really going on - the use of BF Skinner style reward structures at every scale the game is operating.

Thanks for commenting!

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