Wednesday 23 February 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure / Intrinsic Rewards

B. F. Skinner
Grady Hendrix has a great article on Slate, linking together three early forms of interactive media - choose-your-own adventure books, text adventures, and role-playing games. The CYOA genre has a surprising pedigree. Apparently, the idea came before role-playing games, and was foreshadowed by B. F. Skinner's self-paced teaching books that are themselves based on psychological reinforcement principles. Get the right answer, and advance; get the wrong answer, and go back to study some more.

The "reinforcement" in Skinner's books, as well as the CYOA books, is completely internal. The point of Warlock of Firetop Mountain was not to score points, but to open the damn treasure; likewise, even though most text-adventure games kept score, the points never really got taken seriously. This is an insight basic to all kinds of games: finding new stuff is its own reward.

It's because of this I don't see experience points for exploring as necessary. For fighting the monsters you don't really want to fight because they can kill you? Sure. But adding to the map, hearing the DM's description of a natural wonder, those are intrinsic player rewards that have nothing to do with extrinsic rewards: experience or gold being accumulated in the name of characters.

It is this division between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that, I think, characterizes the divide between the power gamer and the rest. Simply put, a power gamer is focused on the extrinsic system of rewards. In roleplaying games, it's leveling up. In competitive games, it's winning. The intrinsic pleasures of simulation, role-playing, discovery, or socializing carry no weight by themselves to the power gamer. If winning comes by a boring technique; by assembling an implausible but min-maxed deck, character or army; or by being rude to other players - so be it.

Image by CosmoDNA,
The other side of the coin is the extrinsic punishment system of the game. Character death, in roleplaying games, is the ultimate punishment. An intrinsically driven player will appreciate a good death; not so an extrinsically driven one.

This is also why every attempt to regulate player behavior by manipulating experience points, gold, levels and other such things plays into the hands of the power gamer, becoming in the end just another tool to victory. In the end, going up one level into the real world to apply social pressure, or down one level into the fantasy world to work out the consequences of the undesirable behavior, works out better than playing around with the twilight world of the game mechanics.


  1. Thanks for sharing the link to the slate article! I wrote a little bit about gamebooks and RPGs a year or so ago and find the topic really interesting since it's how I got into RPGs myself. The discovery reward remains the one I find most compelling, but I also find that when the game is being improvised I don't get that same feeling of reward - there wasn't anything to discover before I started making choices.

  2. Very interesting post! Thanks.

  3. I tend to agree with you. How do you handle advancement, though?

  4. @ Stuart - Nice article there, with some links the Slate author didn't catch. And great point about improvisation. I guess the trick is to make it look planned all along.

    @ zornhau - Cheap answer: see here. Short answer: By being vigilant as to whether players are "gaming" the xp system. If I sense that they are, I may tweak it down or switch to session-based.

  5. My preference is to actually plan it in advance if that's how it's being presented, or to improvise things and be open about it. :)