Gearing Up
The Grind Mystery: Escalating Reward Schedules

The Power of Games

pac_man_seating Where does the power of games lie, that they can entertain hundreds of millions of players, and engage gamers so intensely that they can forget even to eat?

In 1985, philosopher Noël Carroll wrote about “The Power of Movies” in a seminal paper exploring why the moving image had become “the dominant art form of the twentieth century”. The paper was unique in that rather than looking at cinema as a medium it considered the Hollywood blockbuster-style movie as a genre in its own right, and then explored what it might be about these films that made them so intense for so many people. The power of movies, in Carroll’s eyes, consists of two elements: widespread engagement (movies engage a broad mass audience) and intense engagement (movies hold interest strongly).

What intrigues me about Carroll’s observations is that these are two phenomena now shared with digital games. Mass market games (e.g. Wii, Facebook, Scrabble) have generated widespread engagement, while titles targeting the gamer hobbyists (e.g. Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Minecraft) generate intense engagement. This leads to obvious questions about how Carroll’s account of the power of movies relates to the power of games: what is the relationship between the two?


Widespread Engagement

According to Carroll, the mass appeal that movies are capable of is best understood by their accessibility, which he ties to three aspects. Firstly, the use of pictorial representation, a form which is less demanding than alternatives. Carroll makes the point that watching TV or a movie is considerably less demanding than reading a book – we can still follow a film’s story even when we are quite tired, but reading a book can be a challenge when we are enervated.

If we turn our attention to games, however, those games that have wide appeal are not necessarily or wholly pictorial in their appeal. Certainly the digital games with mass market appeal are visual in part – Wii Sports (65 million) or FarmVille (60 million players), say – but what about Monopoly (250 million), Scrabble (150 million) or Trivial Pursuit (100 million)? In so much as these games feature depictions, they are ornamental and not representational – with the singular exception of the house and the hotel in Monopoly. (To put these numbers in context, we can estimate that perhaps 250 million people watched Titanic, perhaps 75 million watched Slumdog Millionaire, so these game sales figures are clearly sufficient to justify the claim to widespread engagement).

Carroll’s second point of accessibility for movies is the use of variable framing, which draws the viewer’s attention to whatever is most relevant at any given time. He contrasts this to theatre, where the audience is presented with the entire stage and is left to their own devices to establish what is of interest. But this point doesn’t transfer well to games, which do not use this kind of variable framing and frequently expect the player to interpret a great many different elements in order to establish what to do (e.g. FarmVille, Scrabble) or leave it largely to the player to spot what is of interest in any given situation (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed), albeit often with the help of additional informational tools.

The third point of accessibility raised by Carroll is the one he places most stock in: the use of narrative, which he calls “the most pervasive form of explaining human actions”. Following Russian film-makers V.I. Pudovkin and L. Kuleshov, Carroll suggests that the story in movies can be understood via a ‘question and answer’ model of narrative (what he calls erotetic narrative), whereby earlier scenes raise questions (“who will survive when the ship sinks?”) and later scenes answer them (“not Leonardo DiCaprio”).

But again, this point does not transfer well to games – in the case of almost all the examples given above, the predominantly played forms of these games offers little overt narrative interest, and putting it in terms of a question/answer model presents little of plausible interest beyond “who wins?”

It seems at first glance that either Carroll’s account of the widespread appeal of movies is in error, or the widespread appeal of games (both digital and board games) result from different factors. I believe Carroll is more or less correct in his assessment of why movies enjoy widespread appeal: the accessibility of audio-visual representation, the ease of following the action, and the universal appeal of narrative do indeed seem to be highly pertinent issues in the appeal of mass market films. But the accessibility of mass market games have to be understood differently.

Carroll says: “The fact that movies tend to be narrative, concerned primarily with depictions of human actions, immediately suggests one of the reasons they are so accessible.” Indeed, we are all quite capable of connecting with human narrative because we quite naturally imagine ourselves in the situations we see the protagonists depicted. This employment of imagination, which Carroll does not remark upon, is an important part of the puzzle once we widen our attention to take in games as well as films.

Those games which enjoy widespread appeal represent familiar situations – sporting matches, property development, farms, spelling and word problems all have in common a degree of familiarity of setting. This is important because, as I have previously noted, imagination is a talent in varying supply. To achieve mass appeal, familiarity isn’t just useful it is entirely essential.

Whereas narrative media like novels and films engage us via their characters, the thin fictional worlds that attach to Monopoly or FarmVille engage via acquisitions, that is, rewards and the goals that promise them. Players of both are motivated not by human interest but by greed (albeit, in the latter case, this greed is recast as prudent stewardship). The joy of mass market games is getting. Even in Scrabble, what motivates the dedicated Scrabble player is how big they can score – double and triple word score squares, the bonus points for using all the tiles, the race to go out, all these elements of the game can be understood as greed, the desire to get, the need to win.

Just as every human is always already capable of understanding a narrative, every human is always already motivated to win. It is fundamental to our biology, and games can push this button far more effectively than anything else.


Intense Engagement

When we turn our attention to the question of intense engagement, the circumstances change considerably, since those games that achieve widespread engagement are generally not the same games as those that achieve the most intense engagement. Furthermore, the intensity of engagement that a digital game can produce far exceeds that of a conventional board game or a movie. There can be little doubt among gamers that a player engaged in the multiplayer experience of Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, or a lone player engaged in Minecraft or another computer RPG, has an experience of engagement that exceeds the intensity of almost any movie that they have watched. What accounts for these circumstances?

Carroll attempts to explain the intensity of engagement that movie audiences experience by reference to “those features that enable movies to depict a very high degree of clarity”, which he does so principally by reference to the use of variable framing, mentioned above:

...the movie spectator is always looking where he or she should be looking, always attending to the right details and thereby comprehending, nearly effortlessly, the ongoing action precisely in the way it is meant to be understood... The element of cognitive clarity afforded by movies may well account, too, for the widespread intensity of engagement that movies elicit.

When we come at this idea with reference to digital games, Carroll’s account does not seem to cross over. These games generate the same or greater intensity of engagement but do not guide perception in anything like the same degree. Indeed, the player is often left very much to their own devices in order to establish what they should be paying attention to in any given situation, a chaotic circumstance that only becomes manageable because of a clarity of purpose gained by the internal goals of a game e.g. we know what to do in an FPS because the basic goals are set by the circumstance: find and kill the enemies. Knowing this context affords clarity to the situations the player encounters.

It is worth remarking that digital games place greater cognitive demands on the participant than movies, yet still generate intense engagement. Recall Carroll’s example that reading a book is harder than watching a movie; we may similarly say that playing a digital game is harder than watching a movie – most middle-aged gamers will have had the experience of being too exhausted from work to consider playing a videogame. On the other hand, once one becomes engaged with these games, the intense engagement can sustain interest, even against exhaustion – as can be seen in the sad cases of gamers who have ‘played themselves to death.’

However, there's something to be said for Carroll’s notion of a fixed focus: the game and the movie both allow the individual to stare at one thing, the screen. The theatre or the board game does demand awareness of a greater number of things. In this sense, Carroll’s account of clarity can be applied to digital games: the clarity in this case is not that of variable framing, which drives the viewer’s attention to whatever is salient for the narrative, but the clarity of presence in a fictional world that is afforded by agency. The player can take actions which have consequences, and those consequences generate rewards. It is the expectation of these rewards (which I have termed Grip) which is the source of the intense engagement that digital games can produce.

Carroll too recognises that intense engagement arises from expectation, and notes that the question/answer (erotetic) structure of movies creates these expectations:

Given the erotetic model, we can say what it is that audiences expect: they expect answers to questions that earlier events have made salient... If it is a general feature of our cognitive make-up that, all things being equal, we not only want but expect answers to questions that have assertively been put before us, this helps explain our widespread, intense engagement with movies. Even if the question is as insignificant to us as whether the suburban adolescent in Risky Business will be found out by his parents, our curiosity keeps us riveted to the screen until it is satisfied.

In essence, this description is expressing how Grip occurs with narrative forms. This also leads to closure, which Carroll expresses as “that moment when all the saliently posed and sustained questions that the movie has raised have been answered.” This is also the case in a digital game which has a narrative backbone: many gamers have persevered with a story-driven game in order to get closure on the story, even if the game per se has not held their attention as well as others. Thus it is that digital games can benefit from story content – and I mean expressly here static story content – even when that content appears simply as miniature “reward animations” that punctuate play.

Although digital games generate expectation and closure by substantially different methods to movies, Carroll’s account of the causes of engagement can be adapted to games with great ease. It is precisely the way that modern reward schedules, such as those in Call of Duty’s multiplayer, or World of Warcraft, sustain interest: by having a plethora of unanswered questions (“When will I level up?” “What will happen when I fill this bar?”) every one of which generates new questions (“What will I do with the points I got for levelling up?” “How can I best fill the next bar?”).

For those players with sufficient imagination to control their own play more explicitly, games like Minecraft allow the player to decide on their own questions, and create their own answers, each of which generates by the structure of the play new activities that cause the process to snowball into an experience of intense engagement in the pursuit of self-made goals. There is no stated way to attain closure in such a game: the player will remain engaged as long as they continue to imagine new future states that they will strive to attain.



Carroll’s account of how movies generate widespread and intense engagement can be applied to games in so much as media which enjoys widespread appeal must be accessible and familiar, while media which creates intense engagement must create expectation and hold off closure for as long as possible.

The power of games thus lies in their capacity to generate widespread engagement through the universal appeal of winning which games by their nature are unparalleled at supplying, and to generate intense engagement by inserting the player more deeply into a fictional world via agency, such that their own actions lead to rewards which in turn can generate the promise of yet more rewards in an ever widening gamut of goals to pursue.


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Could one regard the desire for answers to questions posed as a form of greed? And if so, is this not a way in which movies imitate games?

Chris, very interseting, I'll only mention the part where I have doubts, for the rest I find it spot on.

"Those games which enjoy widespread appeal represent familiar situations..."

Yep I agree.

But if the familiarity in games is found in the feeling of greed, getting and winning, then shouldn't all games achieve huge widespread appeal? We know it is not the case, althought those elements of greed are found in pretty much all games (not absolutely ALL games, but the vast majority, whether they do achieve widesprpead appeal or not).

In the same way, I think that the feeling of greed is even intensified in multiplayer games, but again, that doesn't give widespread appeal to all multiplayer games.

So I do agree about the need for familiarity in order to achieve widespread appeal, but familiarity in games is far not limited to the feeling of greed, getting and winning.

(error, last sentence): but familiarity in games is NOT limited to...

Michael: the desire for answers to questions is a form of compulsion operating on the same neurobiological principles as the motivation to pursue goals; I think it would be stretching the use of the term 'greed' even further than I have already done so in this piece to suggest using this term in this context. :) Perhaps I should have talked of 'compulsion' rather than 'greed'? I'm not sure about the subtleties of the word choices here... But you're right, this is another fundamental commonality between the two media.

Roman Age: "But if the familiarity in games is found in the feeling of greed, getting and winning, then shouldn't all games achieve huge widespread appeal?"

The familiarity I refer to is a familiarity of setting, context and content - not a familiarity of experience. As I say above, because imagination is in varying supply, games with imaginative settings have a narrower audience (but greater appeal with dedicated gamers, who are more imaginative). This, along with complexity of mechanics (another facet limited by an individuals imaginative powers), serves as a barrier preventing a wide variety of games from achieving a wide appeal.

Best wishes!

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