In this way, videogames offer greater rewards for less effort over time, which makes them feel more fun. The problem is, feeling accomplishment from relatively easy challenges makes us give up more quickly in a situation in which we have to expend a real amount of effort. According to Carole Ames of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Psychology Department, senses of achievement are broken down into mastery goals and performance goals. "Central to a mastery goal is a belief that effort and outcome covary ... Mastery goals have been associated with ... an intrinsic interest in learning activities."[1] So a mastery goal approach isn't affected by easy achievement, because when a person following that approach fails, they blame their own lack of effort, and tend to contribute more in a second attempt.

Our society has decided, for better or worse, that self-confidence is too important to threaten.

However, a performance goal can be negatively affected by gaming's achievement culture. "Central to a performance goal is a focus on one's ability and self-worth, and ability is evidenced by doing better than others [in our case human competition, on or offline], by surpassing normative-based standards [like achievements], or by achieving success with little effort," she says. "As a consequence, the expenditure of effort can threaten self-concept of ability when trying hard does not lead to success, and in this way, effort becomes the double-edged sword." 1 A performance goal-oriented person will therefore spend less time and effort pursuing a goal that's more difficult than what they are used to because it damages their self-worth.

My father seems to be complaining that too many of his students follow a performance goal internally, just as Ames suggests in her essay. Rather than expend effort for the intrinsic value of learning and improving at even the most difficult task, they refuse to try because failure would harm their confidence. Videogames aren't solely responsible for this more negative sense of achievement, but they do pander to it. Games have restructured their difficulty so that the player's confidence is never harmed but only reinforced, because that makes each game seem more positive and fun. Too often, it seems as though only off-beat "hardcore" and even "retro" titles try to incorporate a healthy dose of frustration into their entertainment. In the same way, my father is unable to fail students because it would hurt their confidence, so the only remaining motivator is to reward those students who perform best, though they are likely the mastery goal children who will try their hardest no matter what.

The same psychological developments that help the popularity of videogames wind up hurting the cause of education since our society has decided, for better or worse, that self-confidence is too important to threaten. Children adopt a mindset under which difficult goals are not worth attempting, so some children may never feel a greater sense of achievement than the moment they find the last Riddler clue in Arkham Asylum. That's not a happy thought, a mass retreat into fantasy accomplishments to maintain self-worth, but it's not a world-destroying one, either. Just a little academic issue for my father and me to ponder together.

Nathaniel Edwards is a freelance writer specializing in articles on his two great passions, videogames and history. He writes game previews for and contributes articles to Indie Game Magazine and Strategy & Tactics Magazine.

[1] Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, Structures, and Student Motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 261-271.

Comments on