Serious Media for Good: Games & Journalism Part II

BY Dan Norton
Part 2: Intrinsic Motivation in Games

Thanks for coming back! I was a little worried.

Today we’re going to explore more about the intrinsically motivating nature of games, and poke a bit at the strengths and weaknesses.

So games rely on generating an *intrinsic* - they’re “fun”, they create their own reason for consumption. Good games layer a whole series of different types of rewards of varying types (pleasing animations! new abilities! Narrative progression! Hats!) to hope that the player “buys in” to one or more of those rewards. If a player identifies with the reward structures, they might stick to the game’s ecosystem and “have fun” inside that little world.

But just because games rely on internal rewards doesn’t mean that they must be exclusively inward focused. A game can still reference and connect to things in the real world- and not just as a narrative setting or a pretty backdrop. Games can impart things like professions, perspectives, and systems that correlate to real-world constructs. One example would be a game Filament developed called Citizen Science that directly integrates journalistic practices (evidence collection and structuring interpretations of events), and leveraging the power of identity to create a role for the player that is empowered to change the world by understanding science and science argumentation.

This power of identity is really, really important in games. Any time a game creates a role or avatar for the player to step into, that identity has a unique connection to the player- in some ways, the player steps into that identity- including their profession, personality, relationships, goals.

Other forms of media can allow you to meet, sympathize, and even read the minds of other people, but games allow you to become someone you are not, and experience the world from a perspective that is not your own.

But even so, this type of identity generation contains a shortcoming worth noticing. The empathy we generate by standing in someone’s shoes inside a game experience is real, but it is in some ways a “cheat”- we haven’t done much to impart empathy practices, we’ve just let the player be selfish...as someone else.

Ideally the assumption is that the player can start a learning game not caring or knowing anything, asking only to be entertained. The game will then create a protected space that demonstrates the value and interest behind the practice (In Citizen Science, of citizenship-through-scientific-literacy).

Games focused on making impact and change (or at least, the way I’ve historically approached them) generally leverage the idea that we’re helping the player build a way of thinking/acting that hopefully is transferable outside of the game. And we do that by layering in as many reward and feedback structures as we can, to make the thinking, struggling and mastering feel good. Feel empowering. Feel like an accomplishment worth accomplishing.

Games, the real pleasurable and interesting part about a game, is the voluntary decision to take part in a challenge purely for the act of experiencing it. You spin the wheels of your mind against a puzzle, environment, or a team that you can think about, experiment with, and get better at. You walk away with a new thing to think about and a sense of clarity and accomplishment. But this is mostly about you. You, and your brain. In that sense, games speak to our self-ish practices, as human beings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Game players who read this are likely frothing at the mouth with a giant cavalcade of exceptions to this generality. Especially in indie games, there are games that push and test the boundaries of what’s possible in games. That’s fine, maybe I can help with two big swathes of counterpoint-ery, and then provide counter-counter points:

Big Counterpoint/Rebuttal 1:
Multiplayer games. Other brains certainly are nearby, but your contribution to a team or your might over your opponents is determined by your skill, trained reflexes, and knowledge.

Big Counterpoint/Rebuttal 2:
Adventure/narrative driven games. Yes, these games employ traditional narrative tools, but a very common criticism of these games is that there isn’t much there to “play”.

Feel free to send me any other interesting exceptions, I’m always looking for more things to play.

Games struggle with imparting transferable impact on a player’s perspective, even when they contain powerful tools like identity in their intrinsic models of motivations. Is there maybe a way we can leverage the powers of games, but integrate with journalism to provide more meaningful impact-based outcomes?

I think so! And I will tell you how, in the next chapter!

Click here to read Serious Games for Good: Games & Journalism Part 3!