Wednesday, 16 September 2020

A Video You Should Watch

 Apologies for a post which is little more than a link to, and quotes from, a Youtube Video, but this one struck me pretty hard.

Game Makers Toolkit talks about the nature of rewards in games, particularly the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and in doing so seems to describe almost exactly a pattern of play that I have both experienced and intuitively tried to mimic and re-create in my own stuff.

Its very, very OSR relevant. Honestly I think this video should probably be in the 'Links to Wisdom' alongside the various Primers.


"... beyond that the quests were a complete and utter disaster. Players focused exclusively on those quests and thought of everything else as a really noisy distraction. They optimised their play in really boring ways in order to finish the quest at hand, they avoided doing anything risky, because it meant they might fail and then they became completely demotivated the second the quests ran out."

"In structuring the game as a series of explicit tasks to be completed, we taught the player to depend upon those tasks to create meaning in the game"

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation;

"If a game is about experimentation, exploration or player-guided discovery - explicit goals can limit players creativity and imagination, even after the goals run out.


"A goal you set yourself is way more powerful than a goal someone else sets for you. .. So if a game is about improving yourself, a personal or social goal can be a stronger motivator than a set threshold.


We should remember that goals are a checklist that can be completed. Some players will exclusively rely on the game to give them purpose and direction.

Intrinsic motivation is shown to be far stronger - and it lasts longer too. People can enjoy a hobby for a lifetime. Extrinsic motivation will only last as long as the rewards are there."

The over-justification effect;

"There's a huge body of evidence that says when extrinsic motivation is attached to a task that we already find intrinsically motivating, we suddenly become way less interested in the task.


And other studies also show rewards can also make people less creative, worse at problem solving, more prone to cheating, and may lose motivation entirely once the rewards stop - even though previously they were happy to do it for its own sake."


"... there are certainly games that lean more towards intrinsic motivation. Like games that focus on exploration, creativity, expression and growth. There are games where you set your own goals and expect no rewards in return, and so when more extrinsically motivating systems - like explicit goals, progression meters and achievements are added too these games, our motivation can take a hit. We become blinkered to creative solutions. We're less motivated to improve ourselves. We put an arbitrary threshold on how much we can attain, and developers now need to create a constant drip feed of new goals and rewards, or risk losing us entirely."

Self Motivation;

".. because I think its clear that some people just aren't very good or interested in motivating themselves
For every minecraft super fan who generates their own fun, there's someone else who is simply lost and without direction."


"In a thread about the open-ended whodunnit Her Story, one user said; "It's up to you decide when you are satisfied with the information you have found."

To which the threads author replied, "how do I decide when I am satisfied?"

That post keeps me up at night."

What Goals and Rewards to Use;

"With goals its better to use large, overarching goals that players can complete however they want, rather than restrictive step-by-step instructions. 


Make goals optional, like Hitmans challenges, or hidden, like Outer Wilds achievements.
There is one type of reward that has been shown to not trigger the overjustification effect. 


Rewards can have a motivational effect in intrinsic situations provided that they're unexpected, reasonably low value and feel tied to the actual performance of the action."


  1. Did you forget to link the video?

    1. No. Its embedded in the post at the bottom after the quotes.

    2. it doesn't appear on the mobile version unless I press the "desktop site" button

  2. very very interesting and informative.

  3. The human dopaminergic system is built on unexpected reward. There are two basic elements to the system: first, when you receive an unexpected reward dopamine blossoms in your brain, and second, your dopamine is massively curtailed when you are denied an *expected* reward (ie disappointment). This is why it’s so delightful to read something very interesting, but it’s so crushing to have a date cancel on you. “Christmas is canceled.”

    Dopamine is the exploration neurotransmitter because you receive it when you encounter something worthwhile or with potential. Memory retention is heightened during a dopaminergic state because it's worthwhile to remember the details of something valuable and how you got to it. Think of the feeling when you discover something like a great restaurant or a beautiful place. Obviously this feeling can come from conversation too when you're exploring a subject with somebody and they say something or you realize something really interesting. You get all dopaminergic; you wake up, life is filled with potential, everything that you're talking about glows with information and insight. You feel like you want to fight, but in a good way; you feel excited, bold, ready to move, ready to act, and like your brain is bathed in golden light. You get a feeling of extreme meaning.

    If you want to break down something extremely meaningful to the level of hookers and blow, that feeling is also what makes people love cocaine, because coke prevents your brain from getting rid of dopamine or something similar. So you can talk for hours because everything’s fascinating and good to you, even if it's actually pretty meaningless. (Warning to the Northern Englanders I love: long run-on American sentence to follow, promise I'm not on coke) People love drugs like coke because it makes their lives seem meaningful, dopamine is the meaning neurotransmitter because it helps you *see* meaning, because when your brain locks on to something it perceives as interesting, whether as something on the border of your knowledge or as a source of good things, it turns you on and makes you want to approach it. It's associated more with approach than other positive chemicals like serotonin and endorphins.

    This is all part of the variable reward system of casinos and MMOs. You’re always *seeing* the next victory; always wanting.

    Now here’s an interesting bit of chemistry.
    Prolactostatin is a hormone that blocks dopamine release. A man gets a big dose of prolactostatin when he has an orgasm, presumably so he won’t fuck himself into a heat stroke. It’s the cause of the “refractory period” where your body won’t permit more sex, and presumably is also responsible for the feeling that you aren’t unhappy but otherwise can’t be bothered; you have a superabundance of endorphins and serotonin but your dopamine levels are low, low, low. My guess is that it lingers to some degree for some time after an orgasm, because it’s commonly observed that an orgasm can lower intrinsic motivation. You lay there and let yourself be cuddled while the world blooms around you. My guess is that this system is responsible for historical injunctions against masturbation and modern pageantry like no fap November; I’ve never taken after that, but old and seemingly-irrational ideas sometimes have a firm basis which has always been experienced, but couldn’t be articulated in clear terms until much later.

  4. (Dopamine, creativity, schizophrenia, and mania)
    Dopamine is also associated with creativity, which involves the generation of new ideas and the perception of connections that went hitherto unnoticed. Dopamine is linked to schizophrenia and mania in some cases, states which are also associated with creativity. I don’t want to oversell this, but I will posit it in case anybody finds it, uh, dopaminergic.

    There was a theory that schizophrenia was primarily a dopaminergic disorder, because a lot of the drugs that help control it also control dopamine (and mania) by lowering the amount of dopamine in your brain. Schizophrenia is in part a disorder where almost everything that you encounter is meaningful or has hidden subtext, which is the basis of paranoia, and probably why conspiracy theorists are often regarded with extra suspicion; the way they read meaning into relatively disparate elements can’t help but map onto our model of schizophrenia. That said, paranoiacs can create darkly powerful and eerily compelling stories because of their ability to read into passing thoughts and make novel connections between tangentially related information; Alex Jones probably needs psychiatric help but I’m planning on integrating a few of his ideas about CIA ayahuasca black sites contacting the same extradimensional entities that gave space age tech to the nazis into my next game of Delta Green.

    Anyways, when your thinking is disordered by schizophrenia, you tend to speak nonsense because it’s meaningful to you, or your brain gives relevance and importance to things that are unlikely to actually be pertinent; the old dopaminergic theory is that if you are charged with dopamine while thinking in a disordered manner, you see meaning in every passing thought and are likely to become very creative/paranoid. But then schizophrenics and manics who take antipsychotic drugs calm down but usually end up feeling depressed and unmotivated.

    However, I don't want to stand by that theory too closely because it’s now regarded as too simple, which is probably true. Schizophrenia can also be associated with *reduced* motivation, and whether a schizophrenic is creative usually depends on their IQ; intelligent schizophrenics are more able to stay on top of what’s happening and make something of it, while less intelligent schizophrenics tend to be more classically “insane.”
    As for mania, a superabundance of dopamine can create mania. It makes the manic person want to approach everything, want to do everything, makes them very very impulsive. It's a pleasurable feeling but it makes them do things that are ill advised because they have an altered perception of risk.

  5. (Dopamine and RPGs)
    Now for the applicability to role playing games. You want to create a situation where there's enough open world for the players to explore so that they can discover unexpected things and then as the GM, you need to be adaptable enough so that you can create those things in whatever context is necessary. It shouldn't always be totally consistent, because then it's not unexpected; it should be unpredictable, it should come intermittently, but on the other hand, when the players struggle, when they fight, take risks and win, they expect a reward, and you shouldn't deny it to them then because that's very disappointing and it shuts off their dopaminergic systems, which not only will reduce pleasure, but also reduces the drive to even engage with the game world itself. So that's the idea behind relatively open world games where things are happening but the players get to decide exactly what they're going to do. Railroading is antidopaminergic, because expected rewards don't generate dopamine, and they don't inspire the brightness of mind, the creativity in the confidence that comes from a highly dopaminergic state.

    According to the article you posted, that must be why having an extrinsic goal, or even an overly specific short term goal is not pleasurable and makes people lose interest, because it becomes an expected reward, and the unexpected reward is what people love. It can happen when they meet somebody useful they weren't expecting to, when they stumble over some treasure, when they discover a meaningful secret they didn’t see coming, all of that is delightful. But suddenly if they're doing an activity that somebody else expects of them, or if they're doing something with an expected end state, well, they may still get a kick out of a feeling of achievement or accomplishment, but the interest (and again dopamine is what fuels the feeling of *interest* in something) becomes completely lacking. The only thing that is interesting is what you might find to help you along the way. And even then it's in service of a non-dopaminergic goal.

    This is pertinent to educators as well as writers and game-makers. The idea is that when you find some information that's on the edge of what you know, which you are capable of learning but is still new, or when you perceive something new that you can integrate but you haven't yet perceived, then your brain lights up. You become extremely dopaminergic and you want to continue reading, or exploring that subject. Sometimes you're listening to somebody talk, and you're just hanging on their every word, because it's in that zone of maximal integrability.

    1. Thank you, this is fascinating, and gives me a new perspective on so many things in RPGs: why many people enjoy getting the latest sourcebook, why they resent having to get the latest sourcebook, why they enjoy optimising within self-imposed constraints, why they resent well-known optimisation solutions, why they enjoy random tables, and indeed random rolling in general, why it's sometimes so fulfilling for a DM to dream up a game but less so to actually run it...

    2. Haha, yes exactly.

      I think it’s most fun to run a game when the players are capable of surprising YOU. There’s great pleasure in seeing them plan and improvise. That’s why it’s important for players to know from the outset that your game will be player-centric, and that while you’ll be ambiently simulating events in the world, what the party does and what direction they take is fully up to them. This can be explicit or implicit. Part of the fun of running a game is improvising, too, you can surprise yourself in the middle of a game by coming up with new things; thinking can be a process of discovery. That’s one reason why a long linear adventure is bad for a GM too; it boxes in your thinking and is difficult to integrate with improvisation that goes beyond what PCs find in a location. Deciding what the factions are doing in the background based on the party’s actions is like continually creating the game

    3. Dude this is a blog post. Make this a blog post.

  6. Many years ago, I recall hearing a similar take from someone in the OSR who argued that RPGs shouldn't even have XP at all, because the act of adventuring should be fun on its own. Which I can get behind. If you still want your characters to advance and improve, then this is what session-based leveling is for. At the end of every 1, 2, 3, 4, whatever sessions, the DM just tells you to level up and that's that. Not really a "reward" for anything.

    So yeah, I agree that in RPG (and especially OSR) design, the basic act of playing the game should be intrinsically fun and that most designers have a bad habit of trying to obstruct that.

  7. I really enjoyed that GMTK vid when I saw it, hadn't thought about how it connected to RPGs.

    Unrelated: I started a game of my own that shamelessly mimics "Letters from Ir" (The game is called "Letters from Bellor" ffs), replacing the optimate with a sort of general-purpose magical apocalypse event that only recently finished. It's been a ton of fun so far, thanks for sharing the original post and inspiring me to run it!

    1. Look up Tony Bath if you want better ideas on that, my thing was based on his old letter writing campaign which I read about in 'Playing at the World'.

      Glad you are having fun!

  8. That channel videos on Stealth in video games are quite interesting as well.