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.