Wednesday, 15 March 2023
Ten Player Motives #3
If the victory motive asks us to endure frustration to get to the win, and the problem-solving motive asks us to endure confusion to solve the puzzle, is there something else we can endure for our future pleasure? There is: boredom. You may have noticed that a lot of videogame players complain about grinding, and yet games still contain an enormous amount of grinding. Why is that? If grinding is inherently negative (and it is, that's why we call it 'the grind') why would we want it...? The answer is that the boredom associated with grinding is also something you can endure to reach a sense of enormous satisfaction. It's the pleasure that comes with hitting 100% completion, with doing everything, with collecting everything. It's the quiet joy of acquisition.
Believe it or not, just like everybody likes to win, everybody likes to get stuff - at least at first. I mean, not everybody is a hoarder or likes to keep things, but who doesn't like to win a prize, to receive a gift, or even to get paid? 'Getting' is fundamental to the experience of being a living being. Even amoebas like eating food. The same neurobiology that underpins the enjoyment of foraging is tied up with the acquisition-motive - the reason why getting stuff is enjoyable. And yes, searching a field for all the nuts and berries can be tedious... but the question is, are you the kind of mammal that enjoys the satisfaction from knowing you've searched the whole field, or aren't you...?
Paradoxically, videogames have become more dependent upon acquisition than upon winning. In the arcade, where a coin-drop was only supposed to sustain between two and thirty minutes of play (and the quicker the better up to a certain point), there wasn't much motive to acquire. Sure, you collected points, but you collected them in order to set a high score - the motive was victory. But at home, from the tabletop role-playing games instituted by Dungeons & Dragons to their immediate digital descendants, there was a simple and compelling pleasure to acquiring that was to infuse a huge variety of game styles.
Whether it's gold, experience points, or interesting treasures actually doesn't matter that much as long as it keeps your interest. And for the most acquisition-focussed players, they're going to do everything the game says can be checked off the list. Achievements were only a logical extension of this compulsion, moving the stamp collections and to-do lists of the acquisition-focussed games into the meta-level of the platform itself, and with the same goal: the quiet addiction of pointless busy work that comes with a gold star at the end. Well done, you did it!
The sheer beauty of the acquisition motive is that you don't even have to be good or clever to get at it. If you're striving for victory you had better 'git gud', as the illiterate expression goes. If you want to overcome the problem, you need to have the intellectual chops to solve puzzles. But if you want to acquire, well, now all you need is patience. And that's much less demanding than the alternatives. Ever wondered why the so-called 'social' games were so heavy on the grinding? Because they let their designs by dictated by the metrics of retention, and nothing is better at retention that giving people stuff and telling them to get more stuff. Frankly, the moment you were born into a world with money, you were primed to play in this way.
This motive rounds out the three 'hot' motives - victory, problem-solving, acquisition - all of which require players to suffer through something in order to get to a hit of dopamine. Through frustration to reach the big hit of victory, through confusion to the quietly satisfying hit of solutions, and through boredom to the calm satisfaction of 100%. But there are seven other commercially important motives that don't require anything like this kind of endurance. Understanding these other ways to play provides game designers crucial ways to make these core player goals even more compelling, and to reach players who otherwise might never even consider playing in the first place.
Next week: Luck
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