Too Much Success

One day last year, I visited my father’s middle school math class for part of a day. He introduced me not just as his son but also as someone who wrote about videogames for a profession, guessing that would arouse some interest in the kids. He gave them a few moments of class time to ask me questions, and after what seemed like much longer than ten minutes of them mostly asking about my beard, they went off to lunch. After the little interview, I stayed in the room and spoke with my father about his job. He talked about the children’s quick frustration with new concepts and their complete disinterest in, well, everything. They had nowhere near the patience necessary to learn and not even the most basic ambition to do anything in the future. Granted, these kids are in middle school, the Dark Ages between elementary school Antiquity and high school Renaissance. However, I couldn’t help but find many similarities between my father’s perceived change in children today and the game industry’s current state.

Games have found new ways to squeeze in more reward while eliminating as much frustration as possible.

My father belongs to that first generation of gamers, the ones that honest-to-God enjoyed playing Pong, so naturally I love to talk to him about the ways the medium has changed. I was born only a few years before the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis console war began, but my first games were those my dad still had lying around: a graphic adventure game or two, arcade classics like Q*Bert and Crystal Castles ported to an Atari computer, and even that evergreen topic of videogame violence discussions, Doom. Needless to say, I wasn’t very good at any of them. For one, I hardly had the motor skills to play, considering I had only just started walking. For another, games of that era were hard. I liked the arcade titles because they were just about score accumulation; they couldn’t be beaten anyway, and without the real arcade cabinet punishment of quarter expenditure, I could enjoy them freely without appreciating their difficulty. But the other titles, especially some of the adventure games (which I only realize now that I’ve gone back to play them for nostalgia value), were cruelly difficult. Beating them requires unbelievable devotion and effort, and at some point, my father had the time to actually do just that. I tell him about games today and how the philosophy of difficulty could not be more different. Over time, games have found new ways to squeeze in more reward while eliminating as much frustration as possible.

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As Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester says, “People like videogames because they introduce them to worlds where they can feel freedom and where they can feel a sense of accomplishment and competence.” The best games set forth a system in which the player gets a constant stream of success at a reasonable difficulty level, so they may feel a sense of achievement without becoming frustrated. Unfortunately for the prospective game designer, there is no way of knowing the perfect balance of difficulty that will please the largest audience. Therefore, to reach the widest audience mainstream games evade the issue altogether by taking away basic difficulty – the kind that prevents you from actually completing the game – as much as possible and replacing it with newer, more innovative ways to feel accomplished. In games like Farmville and Kirby’s Epic Yarn, challenge and punishment has been minimized to the point that frustration is no longer an issue, and that has proven to be a successful formula.

Games seem to be moving away from punishing bad play to rewarding extraordinary play.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn is, gameplay-wise, a standard platformer with one major innovation that puzzled critics but, in the end, won them over: There is no representation of death or critical failure anywhere in the game. Any mistakes made by the player results only in the loss of their collected gems, which are little more than an indication of score. Yet Kirby’s Epic Yarn earned the highest review scores of the Kirby series. This moment can be seen as the culmination of a gradual trend that has taken mainstream videogames from “Nintendo Hard” titles like Castlevania and Gradius to the point where a player cannot help but beat the game. The punishment of death in Kirby’s Epic Yarn has been replaced with the positive reinforcement of new secrets to find so that players can still feel the sense of accomplishment that is a huge part of why games are fun.

Traditionally, frustration was a natural way to fuel the eventual feeling of accomplishment one gets from progressing in a videogame. Games today are trying to invert that by taking the difficulty out of beating the game and adding it into completing bonus objectives, now regulated into a standard form on the PlayStation 3 as “trophies,” and, appropriately enough for our topic, “achievements” on the Xbox 360. These achievements add a lot to a game because they are a standard and respected measure of accomplishment, not because they add any tangible reward Though each achievement carries with it some difficulty, the challenge they provide is optional, and not completing them doesn’t hamper the player’s ability to experience the entire game. Achievements are positive reinforcement, whereas death is a punishment. Games seem to be moving away from punishing bad play to rewarding extraordinary play.

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.

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