The Zero-Sum Funomaly pt.3
Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 10:43PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Learning, Motivation, & The Mind

If you seek to make fun video games then you need to understand the following. Fun and play require volition. Play requires intrinsic motivation. Games require goals. Games can and often do require a lot of the player (DKART skills) to reach these goals. Knowledge skills are a core part one's skill. The only way to gain knowledge is by learning it whether by building long-term memory, muscle-memory, or expanding one's short-term memory. One of the best ways to learn is when intrinsically motivated. Already, it's clear that intrinsic motivation is an important factor for playing games. Because intrinsic needs like power and vengeance are greatly supported by the knowledge gained from curiosity (the need to learn), a great emphasis is placed on evaluating a game's design as a learning system. Understanding the goal of a game frames the requirements of the player and therefore what needs to be learned. Therefore, understanding how goals structure and motivate learning is our next area of focus.

"Goal-setting theory is based on the notion that individuals sometimes have a drive to reach a clearly defined end state. Often, this end state is a reward in itself. A goal's efficiency is affected by three features: proximity, difficulty and specificity. The enhancement of performance through goals requires feedback. Goal setting and feedback go hand in hand. Without feedback, goal setting is not likely to be effective." ~wikipedia



According to the goal-setting theory, the quality of a goal is determined by 3 features; specificity, difficulty, and proximity. Fortunately, these concepts resonante well with many other observations, theories, and conclusions we've reached on this blog.  

Specificity, a clearly defined goal, is key. If it is not clear how to accomplish a goal, reach a goal, or what it is, then the entire learning-agency-volition-fun process can be utterly stopped. Since the goal defines the problem and the solution, players can't even use trial-and-error without a goal-oriented framework to analyze their failures. After all, how can one evaluate actions without a value scale?

It's important for the goal or challenge not to be too difficult or too easy. Chen's Flow in Games thesis explains this idea clearly. To reiterate, if a challenge is too hard, one's agency can become extremely diminished. One might feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything at all. Without power/agency, it's impossible to appeal to one of the most important intrinsic motivators video games can support. On the other hand, if a challenge is too easy one might consider it a waste of time to participate. The "flow zone" or difficultly sweet spot is more easily reached and maintained when the difficulty level of the goal or challenge can be adjusted somewhat. More on this later.

Proximity is how quickly a goal can be reached or how clearly one can mark their progress from beginning to end. It's easier to be motivated to do something that has a fairly immediate result. For example, hitting a button to make Mario JUMP. It's also fairly easy to be motivated to do a task that only takes minutes or hours to accomplish. But it gets increasingly more difficult to remain focused and motivated to accomplish a goal that will take you weeks, months, or even years to reach. Proximity is the reason why it's so hard to get young workers to save for their retirement.

As far as feedback goes, goal-setting theory is yet another reason why designers should pay very close attention to the cleanness of their games. With cluttered games, one may lose goal-setting motivation because the clutter makes it more difficult to figure out how one's actions make progress to a goal. If there is any question about what exactly happened as a result of the player's actions, the proximity the player has with the goal may increase. Cluttered feedback means the player may have to make many more attempts before the situation can be analyzed. Clean feedback also enhances agency as the player is more perfectly informed about their actions and how they affect the game world. 


Before I get into different types of goals that video games support, I wanted to cover another kind of motivator. With true learning, there really aren't any shortcuts. Getting the knowledge in your brain is a slow and mysterious process that often requires dedication and practice. It's also a process that can be corrupted. Now, we turn to the dark side of motivation.


If you've grown up in a public education system like mine or if you're simply familiar with these sorts of things, then it won't surprise you that some educators give away prizes for accomplishing tasks. Some give gold star stickers. Others give candy, gift certificates, recess time, or money! Ok, I never got cash from a teacher, but my parents did reward me with money or toys for straight A report cards. You might be thinking to yourself right now that this isn't such a bad deal. After all, the prize at the end is a little extra motivation to do a good job and to achieve, right? It turns out, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, that motivation and rewards outside of the individual or the task itself can have a poisonous effect on intrinsic motivation. After explaining how powerful intrinsic motivation is to learning in part 2, it should be obvious why extrinsic motivators are so dangerous.


"Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money and grades, coercion and threat of punishment. Competition is in general extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity. A crowd cheering on the individual and trophies are also extrinsic incentives.

The overjustification effect occurs when an external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a task. According to self-perception theory, people pay more attention to the incentive, and less attention to the enjoyment and satisfaction that they receive from performing the activity. The overall effect is a shift in motivation to extrinsic factors and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation." ~wikipedia


Extrinsic motivators can undermine or kill intrinsic motivation. And not just for the attempts that you make when the external motivator is offered, but the effect can linger afterwards as well so that the next time you approach the previously externally motivated task, intrinsic motivation may be slow to develop. Yes, the overjustification effect is just a theory, but it's a well researched one. If you need convincing just watch the following fantastic video, Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation.



"And what's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over and over again, for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators, if you do this, then you get that, work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science. And also one of the most ignored.

If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind. That's why they work in so many cases.

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected; the higher the pay, the greater the performance. But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance." ~Daniel Pink



Though some say grades are an external motivator this is not always the case. A percentage grade on a test can function solely as a type of feedback of performance. It's when external conditions add significant value to the grades themselves instead of the journey, process, or learning involved that they function most clearly as external motivators. For example, "I know you don't like math, but get an A and I'll give you 2 new video games!" The take away is not to be so quick to identify and condemn a motivator as extrinsic. We have to look at each case individually.


We've thoroughly shed light on what fun is, what it's made up, and how to foster fun from a foundational level. We have everything we need to begin looking at specific topics and examples in game design. Next up, more on goals and rewards.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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