Performance and Mastery: Changing One's Motivation as a Gamer

Faced with a challenge, people are largely motivated by one of two processes - either the opportunity to demonstrate their talent, or the opportunity to improve it. Game genres also appeal to these processes.

Doctor Professor, the nom de plume of the writer behind Pixel Poppers, assessed his sense of satisfaction in playing RPGs and found it a bit false. Challenges in RPGs could almost always be overcome with a character of a high enough level, and advancement within this genre is almost a given. Action games, however, required skill to complete successfully; either master the tasks or you'll never advance.

What did he do? He retrained his motivation. As a child, he was often praised for his intelligence, not his hard work, which he felt dovetailed with RPGs system of assured success. He quit RPGs and picked up a Sonic Adventure DX, seeking to improve his skills. And now he says, after a long journey with action games, he's a completely different gamer.

While I don't agree with the blanket depiction of all RPGs offering "false achievements," it is his experience with them, and that's what he's writing about, not mine. But it may explain why people can become so easily fixated with grinding and leveling up. And I do find his insight on performance and mastery orientation to be spot-on. I was the same type of student in school and sort of am to this day, delighted by doing something right the first time and quick to give up when I can't. I'd love to also retrain myself to be a better skilled gamer. Right after I make level 50 in Borderlands.

Awesome By Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement [Pixel Poppers, Nov. 23]

RPGs are many things, but they are almost never hard. As I realized in childhood, the vast majority of RPG challenges can be defeated simply by putting in time. RPGs reward patience, not skill. Almost never is the player required to work hard - only the characters need improve. Failing to defeat Zeromus might mean your strategy is flawed, but it also might mean your level is too low. Guess which problem is easier to remedy?

Yet while the player is mostly marking time, the characters are accomplishing epic, heroic deeds, saving lives and defeating evil. Even when the player is not explicitly praised for this, the game makes its attitude clear. "You're awesome!" it says, in essence. "You're so strong and noble and heroic!" The player is showered with praise for non-achievements. It's like porn for the performance oriented.

The characters make all the effort, but the player receives all the accolades. The game doesn't have to say "Wow, you must be smart!" to train the player to value impressiveness that was not hard-won - even when the praise is for effort rather than skill, it is a lie. The player has expended only time.

When I learned about performance and mastery orientations, I realized with growing horror just what I'd been doing for most of my life. Going through school as a "gifted" kid, most of the praise I'd received had been of the "Wow, you must be smart!" variety. I had very little ability to follow through or persevere, and my grades tended to be either A's or F's, as I either understood things right away (such as, say, calculus) or gave up on them completely (trigonometry). I had a serious performance orientation. And I was reinforcing it every time I played an RPG.

I could point to characters and story as much as I liked. But I couldn't lie to myself - not anymore. Most of my enjoyment of Super Mario RPG, of Skies of Arcadia, of Kingdom Hearts - came from illegitimate sources. It came from overidentifying with the heroes and claiming their accomplishments as my own. It came from abusing them for fake achievement. I felt sick.

After panicking for a while, I came up with a plan. There was no point blaming anyone else for the state of things - I was the only one who could turn it around. So I would do so. I would instill a mastery orientation in myself.

The first thing I did was stop playing RPGs. I was addicted and I had to quit. Then, it was time to retrain myself. I started small: I began playing action games. If RPGs had reinforced my bad habits, then action games could reinforce good ones.

Sonic AdventureSonic Adventure DX didn't take long to beat, but I didn't let myself stop there: the game had an achievement system, in which the player was awarded with "emblems" for reaching various goals - like speeding Sonic through stages with impressively quick times. Many of them were very difficult, and I couldn't accomplish them on the first, second, fifth, or tenth attempt. But I kept trying. And when I finally had all 160 emblems the game offered, I knew I'd crossed a milestone. I, not Sonic, had improved until I could pass these challenges. I had developed actual skills, even if they were objectively useless ones. I had done something I could actually be proud of: I had built a habit of not giving up.

It's been a long road since then - it's not easy to reverse a way of thinking so deeply ingrained for so long. And I still have to watch myself, and not let myself be too proud or self-congratulatory when I accomplish something quickly and easily. But I feel good about how far I've come. And Sonic will always have a special place in my heart for the role he played in starting me down the road to recovery.

- Doctor Professor

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.