Last week I sat through a couple sessions at GDC10 — excellent talks all around. Here’s a quick write-up of my notes part 1, but more detailed coverage also available here.

Session Title: Achievements Considered Harmful — Chris Hecker

Hecker classifies achievements as

  • tangible — cash, gold star, trophy
  • verbal — praise
  • symbolic — achievements like on Xbox

And also breaks them down on a variety of criteria

  • expected vs unexpected
  • informational (objective feedback) vs controlling (opinionated feedback)
  • task contingent vs engagement contingent vs performance contingent
  • free choice vs self-reported
  • dull vs interesting
  • transitory vs long-lasting
  • endogenous vs exogenous

tangible, expected, contingent reward situations reduce free choice intrinsic motivations

verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases free choice intrinsic motivations

The data Hecker quotes shows that if you pay for grades, grades actually go down. Extrinsic motivators actually do damage to what they are supposed to do. In order to minimize the potential damage, Hecker advocates:

  • don’t make a big fuss about achievements
  • use unexpected rewards (this is difficult to do, but try)
  • use absolute scale not relative
  • use endogenous rewards (rewards that are related to the context in which they earned it)

Hecker’s call to action is for the games industry to better consider the impact of achievements on players. While he doesn’t specifically condemn achievements, the point he makes is that it’s questionable whether or not the long-term effects of achievements are driving the right player behavior. He described what he calls the doomsday scenario, where intrinsically interesting games have the intrinsic motivation to play them destroyed by the design of many extrinsic motivators. Hecker talks about “metrics fetishism” leading to short-term optimization, and dull tasks designed around extrinsic motivators.

Overall, Hecker was really interesting and thought-provoking and raised good questions about the psychological impact of games which are over-focus on achievements and player reward. Reward is a great way to drive player engagement and activity, but what are the long-term impact?