Ten Player Motives #2
If the victory motive is about enduring frustration in order to persevere and triumph, its worth understanding than this isn't the only thing players will put up with if it gets them to the win. Victory is the motive of what we used to call 'jocks', the sporting types. But problem-solving is the motive of excellence for what we used to call 'nerds' - and I am frankly disappointed that these days this term is taken solely as an insult, because if 80s movies taught us anything it's that nerds beat jocks and they do it with their mental faculties. Nerds are the smart kids. And they have their own unique motive for playing games.
The problem-solving motive is after the same thing as the victory-motive: but it goes about it in a completely different way. Suppose you have a fighting game. The challenge-focussed player who gets beaten is going to keep trying to win through their own skills and prowess. The problem-focussed player who gets beaten is going to look at it as a puzzle to solve. Did I lose because of differences in reaction times or something else I can't change...? Not interested. But if I lost because of a tactical or strategic error, now that's intriguing, because it means I could play differently, modify my approach, and perhaps get to victory through brains instead of brawn...
The ubiquity of puzzle-solving play in videogames isn't an accident. Programmers and game designers are brilliant nerds, and as such they are drawn to problem-solving. So they make games with conundrums to be worked out, riddles to be decoded, and mysteries to invite that lightbulb moment. In some respects, the pursuit of problem-solving isn't even about the winning - although as I said before, everybody likes to win. It's about that moment of insight, the 'a-ha' moment, when you see the problem from a different angle.
Like the victory motive, this one piggy-backs on the limbic system, but it's a much younger piece of our brains that's involved. There's a direct link up between a region that makes calculative decisions (the orbito-frontal cortex) and the parts of the limbic system that make winning feel so good. This is what makes mathematics so enjoyable - if you're good at it: solving an equation is satisfying. Sure, it doesn't feel as hot and majestic as winning the World Cup, but unlike the world cup everyone with the requisite capacities can solve every equation. This is a huge factor in the appeal of the problem-solving motive: if you're good at solving problems, every problem can be solved. That's just not true of winning in competitive play.
Yet what epitomises the problem-solving motive most of all isn't working out the solutions to puzzles, enjoyable though that may be, but challenging your intellect against systems where ambiguities mean that the solutions aren't as certain as mathematics. This is the immense draw of strategy games for the problem-focussed player: these are designed systems that create an infinite diversity of problems to solve - tactical problems, strategic problems, logistical problems. Their inherent incompleteness means that, unlike a strict puzzle or an equation that typically has a single correct solution, there are innumerable possible solutions, and so mastery entails skills and practice. It's the same reward - the solution to the problem - but once it becomes this intricate and involved, it becomes a source of pride, a seductive process that continually rewards.
But just as not everyone is going to put up with being frustrated in order to attain victory, not everyone is going to persevere with solving puzzles, let alone learn mastering complex systems. It takes a certain kind of person to endure the confusion inherent to incomplete information... and it's the same kind of person that can learn to be skilled at scientific investigation. I still like to call us nerds, but even if you don't, you know what I'm talking about. How can you not! If you read this far, you know precisely why the problem-solving motive is so alluring to those of us with the mental faculty to discover solutions.
Next week: Acquisition