Monday, February 28, 2011

Are virtual rewards a trap?

Games can be won or lost, they can be challenging, they can be social, they can (or even should) be entertaining. But in most cases games don't pay you. There are exceptions in the case of gambling or professional sports, but in the huge majority of cases people didn't play for profit. But then came persistent online games with their virtual rewards, titles, and achievements, and suddenly it seems for more and more people those virtual rewards have become more important than playing the game or the other motivational factors to play.

Now in principle there is nothing wrong with handing out a virtual award in a game, as a trophy and reminder of a game well played. The problem arises when that trophy starts to dominate thinking, and influences player behavior too much. There are lots of examples for that:
  • Player doing something they consider "not fun" for long periods in a game, just to get the virtual reward.
  • Players willingly removing the challenge from a game, to make sure to get the virtual reward for "winning".
  • Players not playing with their friends, because they found a group of strangers to play with for faster virtual rewards.
  • Players buying virtual rewards for cash, because getting them by playing is too tedious.
  • Players judging the value of other human beings by the quality of their virtual rewards.
I'm sure you can think of lots of similar examples. Basically the problem is when people forget what they started playing for in the first place, and just do anything, however counterproductive to the initial reasons for playing, just to get virtual rewards faster.

And I would argue that this is a trap. While you *can* buy an olympic medal on EBay, or get one by other means than actually winning an olympic event, the medal by itself is meaningless. Virtual rewards are even worse, because they aren't real. One day you will stop playing, or the servers of the game will shut down, and then all those virtual rewards will evaporate into nothingness. And it is likely that the memories of how we played will last us longer than the memories of the trophy itself, and with that come possible regrets. I still remember the mammoth cloak I camped in EQ a decade ago for a grand total of 16 hours, but more because that sounds so incredibly stupid today, while I have completely forgotten what stats that cloak has. Anyone still remember the stats on his Molten Core loot? No? The memory of that time when your guild split up over that loot probably remains longer.

The danger of that trap is that companies will use virtual rewards to make us pay good money for games that aren't good, that neither challenge nor entertain. It was reported that Zynga is one of the most profitable companies ever. What message does that send to possible investors and game developers? Now it is easy to shrug that off and claim that Zynga makes its money with stupid people playing Facebook games. But there is no MMORPG, however complex and challenging, where you can't observe that same obsession with virtual rewards. If players indicate that they want virtual rewards more than they want challenge or entertainment, that is exactly what they will get. Maybe it would be better sometimes to stop and to ponder whether our current action in game are actually promoting our fun, our social ties, or our skills, or whether we just do something boring, mean, or stupid for some virtual rewards.

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