[This post is part two in a series of posts about goals in games (MMOs in particular). Here is the first post.]
Games are like interpersonal relationships. And no, this is not to be taken in jest.
Communication is Essential but Requires Work
The only communication between you and a game occurs when you use a control device (keyboard and mouse, microphone, traditional console controller, etc) to give the game input. The game talks back to you through visuals and sound. Communicating with a game is expressing your will to the game through the use of controls. Just like in conversation with a stranger, your first steps towards communicating with the game may be misunderstood—you’ll do what you think tells the game what you want, but something else will happen in the game than what you expected. You try to stop Mario before a ledge but he slides off. This can get quite frustrating, but developing this communication between you and the game is the most basic step towards forming a strong relationship.
Like communications between people, communication between player and game leads to a certain unique kind of relationship. No two people will have the same relationship with a third person just as no two people will have the same experience playing a game. Each player enters each play session in a different emotional state, with different knowledge, and in a different real-life environment than any other play session. So within one person’s experience, they could have several significantly different play sessions that led to far-flung outcomes from frustration to jubilation.
We Interact So We Can Be Validated
We maintain relationships where others validate our personalities, thoughts, ideas, dreams, and desires. This process of validation makes us feel good about ourselves, so we seek it out. Usually people who engage in non-validating relationships are unhappy and, probably, seeking to end that relationship.
We enjoy playing games that seem to validate our will. If games fail to validate our will, we can’t communicate with them well enough for a working relationship to develop from which fun emerges.
Goals as Validation Schemes… or Not.
Some of our goals come from within and some from without. These goals are much different in how and why we pursue them.
Goals that come from within make us happy just through their accomplishment. If no one else ever saw that you completed that goal, you’d still be happy about it.
When we look for goals, we often look to those around us. What are they doing? If they’ve accomplished certain goals and they are happy, I must be able to achieve happiness through accomplishing those goals. Goals are propagated through a society in this way. Such goals don’t make us happy simply through their completion, though—we need someone to validate that the goal was worthwhile. When we complete the goal, we’ll go to our friends and tell them about it and pay close attention to their reactions. If they react positively, we feel good about our accomplishment—our friends have validated our efforts—but if they react negatively, we are much more likely to see our actions in pursuit of a goal as a waste of time.
Goals work similarly in games. The game becomes the society from which we draw the second kind of goal, though, and we rely on the game validating our actions in order for such goals to be worthwhile and, by extension, for a game that relies on such goals to be worth playing.
Goals can be usefully categorized:
- Based on their source. Where does the goal originate?
- Intrinsic (or intrinsically sourced) goals originate within the player’s mind.
- Extrinsic (or extrinsically sourced) goals originate from some other agent, like another player or a game.
- Based on if they are communicated directly. Is the goal told to the player, or does the player form the goal automatically based on the environment?
- Implicit goals are realized by the player without direct communication.
- Explicit goals are literally told to the player.
A successful goal generation and completion process in a game proceeds like this:
- You interact with the game to learn what you are capable of doing.
- The game makes it clear what you should do (an extrinsic, explicit goal is generated), or you find something you want to do within the confines of the game (you generate an intrinsic, implicit goal).
- You develop a plan to achieve your goal. This plan consists of implicit subgoals.
- You complete the subgoals and, by so doing, complete the main goal.
- For extrinsic goals, the game validates your will and presence in the game world through rewarding you and encouraging you forward. For intrinsic goals, you are happy and encouraged by completing your goal.
If part of this process is missing, the game will fail to hold your attention beyond its limited value as a curiosity.
Notice that gamers that need validation will rely on extrinsic goals and the pat on the back the game will give them when they succeed. The railroading that results doesn’t bother such a player, because games are merely validation engines for them. If the game doesn’t validate a player that needs validation, that player will stop playing. They will feel like the game is pointless to play.
For players who do not need validation from the game, they will not be happy with a game that does nothing but validate them—they may see such a game as lacking substance. These players want games that will allow them to exert their will on the game world within reasonable bounds. Railroading will be a turn-off.
[I removed an ill-conceived and incomplete section of this post that will be rewritten and included in a follow-up to this post. -Ev]