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How Engagement Rewards Backfire: The Overjustification Effect and the Peak-End Rule

Imagine you’re a kid at a new school deciding where to sit for lunch. Another kid sees you and offers you some candy, saying they have some extra they don’t want. You eagerly accept the candy and sit with the kid. The next day, you run into the same kid and they offer you candy again, explaining that their parents keep packing their lunch with this candy they don’t like. This keeps happening every day - when you sit with this kid at lunch, they give you candy.

Then one day you go to the candy store and see that same kid buying lots of the candy they supposedly don’t like. You realize they are deliberately getting this candy to give to other kids to try to make friends.

What might you say to this kid if you confronted them? Would you explain that their actions are not only clearly manipulative but also counterproductive in the long run - that they may have an easier time making new friends right now, but these people are likely to be put off when they realize what’s going on, even if they had actually enjoyed spending time together? Might you suggest that the kid should focus instead on being genuinely enjoyable to spend time with and seek out people with compatible personalities and shared interests who actually like spending time with them?

This is basically how I feel about games with log-in bonuses.

The Suspense is Skilling Me: Punishment, Learning, and Tension

I.

Long ago, I wrote a post about the different roles of challenge and punishment in skill-based games and how they relate to flow and learning. My argument was that challenge should vary with player skill to maximize opportunities for flow while punishment should be flat-out minimized to prevent disruptions to learning. Doing things like kicking the player back to a distant checkpoint when they die inserts delays and distractions between attempts, making it much harder to learn. But there’s a significant difference between first learning a skill and mastering that skill, and this absolutely affects what kind of punishment is appropriate. I’ll explain, borrowing an example from commenters on that old post.

Imagine you are playing a new racing game. The tutorial teaches acceleration, braking, steering, and drifting, requiring you to perform each operation before advancing to the next. You hold the accelerate button, then the brake button, steer around some turns, and then try the drift but your timing is off and you fail to execute it. In this case, it would be counterproductive for the game to force you to start all the way over and pass the accelerate, brake, and steer tests again before giving you another chance to drift. The game is teaching the skill, not testing it. Failing to execute this skill should result in an immediate opportunity to try again. Additional punishment would just make it harder to learn, which is the exact opposite of the tutorial’s goal. A punishing tutorial is a bad tutorial.

But once you’re out of the tutorial and you start racing, the scenario is different. The game is done teaching new skills and starts testing them. You are no longer learning skills; you are practicing them. Your goals are larger in scope - not just “perform a drift” but “win this three-lap race.” And because the scope of punishment defines the scope of challenge, a challenge of this scope is not possible without real punishment. If losing the race results in just restarting, say, the final lap, the challenge becomes “win this lap” rather than “win this race.” In order to challenge you to perform well consistently enough to win an entire race, loss must cost you the entire race.

Preparation, Strategy, Tactics, and Action: Phases of Challenge

Many games are tests of skill. Players succeed or fail at the game’s goals based on their physical dexterity and reaction time, general knowledge and reasoning ability, understanding and internalization of the game’s own mechanics - anything a game can test. But much of that skill is applied before the moment of success or failure.

Victory in a chess match may come from physically moving your piece into a position that checkmates your opponent, but that isn’t the hard part. And the hard part of beating Doom isn’t the button press that fires the last shot on the final boss - it’s everything you did to enable that shot. These goals, and indeed most interesting goals in games, actually have multiple stages of challenge that funnel into each other.

PREPARATION STRATEGY TACTICS ACTION

Here’s my conception of the phases of challenge. This is a fairly abstract framework, since it’s intended to be generalizable to every skill-based game. To help pin it down a bit, let’s take a closer look at each phase and then discuss how they interrelate. Once that’s done, I’ll go into some implications these ideas have for game design.

Curating Steam: Moral Complexity versus Automatic Norms

Steam, owned by Valve, is the world’s biggest digital distributor of computer games. For years, it’s had frustratingly inconsistent and unpredictable rules on what games could be sold on its platform. After the most recent kerfuffle, Valve’s Erik Johnson published a post to the Steam blog titled “Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?

It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s my summary: Deciding which games can be sold on Steam is a hard problem that Steam has struggled with for years. There’s a long list of controversial topics and kinds of content - and for each one, many people in Valve’s huge multinational audience feel strongly that it should be allowed on the store and many people feel strongly that it shouldn’t. Many of these topics are also controversial among Valve’s own employees. So rather than continue to struggle with the increasingly impossible goal of consistent curation, Valve is scaling back to block only games that are illegal or “straight up trolling” (later clarified somewhat to mean “designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict”). Valve’s efforts will instead go toward creating tools to allow people to control what content they see - customers will be able to block specific kinds of games from their own slice of Steam and creators will be able to avoid harassment if they release something controversial.

We’ll have to wait and see the filtering and anti-harassment tools to know whether this plan will succeed, but the reasoning and intent seem solid and likely to lead to a vast improvement over the current unpredictable mess. So I was shocked to see that the reaction from the game journalism community featured widespread rage and contempt.

Who's the Boss: Player Choice, NPC Consent, and the Designer's Unseen Hand

Last week, we discussed the spectrum of allowance - a way to describe how allowed a given action is within a game, ranging from impossible to required. A key point is that the game’s designer places each action on the spectrum. Aside from bugs (which violate the designer’s intent) and hacks (which partially override the original design with another), in a game you can only do what the designer lets you. This is true even when you have freedom of choice - that freedom was granted by the designer.

Some games understand this well and play with it effectively - see for example The Stanley Parable, especially the confusion ending (warning: spoilers). But not all games that examine player choice understand the designer’s role.

The Journey Of Me is a free browser game. It’s a 2D platformer and it takes about fifteen minutes to play. I am now going to spoil the hell out of it, but honestly I don’t think you should be too worried about spoilers in this case.

The Journey of Me title screen

That Which Is Not Forbidden: The Spectrum of Allowance

When Grand Theft Auto III came out, it introduced a new interaction to the series: players could now solicit prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back.

“To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. . . . Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she’d exited.”
—Samantha Leichtamer, The 5 Most Shocking Grand Theft Auto Moments

This capability has persisted in later games in the series, and gave rise to a lot of discussion. Much of the commentary is careful to point out that murdering prostitutes is not required at any point.

“After a player pays for services from a prostitute, they can run over, beat, and even kill the prostitute and then simply take back the money that was paid. . . . It’s worth noting that this controversial element in Grand Theft Auto is not required by any part of a mission, side quest or storyline: it is something that [is] available due to the open world/sandbox style gameplay.”
—Michael Klappenbach, Grand Theft Auto Series Most Controversial Moments

“[You can] pay a hooker to talk dirty and service you in your hooptie. It gets better: After you get your rocks off, you can run her over with your car or riddle her with bullets – it all depends on how you roll, ya big stud. . . . It’s important to note that GTA players don’t have to kill prostitutes, although they certainly can if it occurs to them.”
—Tracy Clark-Flory, Grand Theft misogyny

“Grand Theft Auto is known as the game in which you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and get your money back. You never have to do that to advance in the game; the world is simply so open-ended that you can do it.”
—Chris Baker, It’s Not Just About Killing Hookers Anymore

Of course Grand Theft Auto games are exactly that: games. You don’t have to play them at all. And they’re known as games where a lot of the fun comes from messing around in the sandbox, going on murder sprees that are also thoroughly unrequired. So is there a meaningful distinction to be made here?

I think there is. Merely pointing out that you can do something in a game is incomplete. It treats it as a binary, with the action either allowed or disallowed. But game design is much more subtle than that. There’s a wide range of how allowed an action can be.

I Wrote This So You'd Know I'm Smart: Games Criticism and The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner's Guide

Spoiler warning for The Beginner’s Guide.

The Beginner’s Guide is a short (ninety minutes or so) narrative game by The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden. I like it a lot and recommend it to folks interested in how we create and talk about games. If you’re intrigued by the game but haven’t played it yet, you might want to do so before reading further. The game has generated a lot of analysis and discussion - my personal favorite being Ian Danskin’s video essay The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide - but there’s a trend among some critics that I find troubling and want to dig into.

Who Frustration is Good For

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy went fairly viral so you may already be well familiar with it. If so, feel free to skip down past both pictures; I’m going to spend the intervening paragraphs explaining what the game is and how it works.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy is a connoisseur of frustration. His first hit game, QWOP, took the simple act of running and made it nearly impossible by wrapping it in a seemingly-straightforward four-button control scheme with each button dedicated to a thigh or calf muscle. He’s made a few other games along similar lines, but his latest work, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, takes things to a new level.

Why People Pirate Amiibo and What Nintendo Can Do About It

Amiiqo disc

The Amiiqo is a recently announced device that can be used with an Android phone or tablet to back up and restore data from Amiibo figures. This data can easily be shared online, which means that the Amiiqo also effectively enables piracy of Amiibo.

Amiibo have only been around since November 2014. They aren’t the first major toys to life franchise - Skylanders came out in October 2011 and Disney Infinity launched in August 2013. (U.B. Funkeys in 2007 was a bit before its time, and I’m not sure when Hero Portal started because it’s not even on Wikipedia.) They all use similar technology (Amiibo uses NFC while others use RFID) and can thus all be backed up and pirated in roughly the same way. While the Amiiqo is not the first toys to life backup device to be announced (see, for example, MaxLander) it’s the first targeted specifically toward Amiibo and is getting more attention.

Why would Amiibo piracy be so much more interesting than Skylanders or Disney Infinity figure piracy? While Amiibo are in many ways similar to those franchises, there are several key differences that encourage piracy.