Similar to all creative productions, games are heavily influenced by the common perspective of the time in which they are created, the Zeitgeist. At the peak of the arcade video games around 1980, games were expected to be highly challenging, short and competitive. This norm did not change directly when games transitioned to the living room. The games and their creators evolved very slowly. An example is the presence of an explicit time limit for completing a level. This was introduced on arcade machines to boost profit by limiting the duration of a play session. This artificial restriction was not necessary when games moved to the living room, but games (such as the Super Mario franchise) kept using it for more than ten years.
While explicit time limits are not common anymore, other relics of the arcade machine age are still dominant in modern games. My disagreement with the mainstream perspective regards one of the most fundamental aspects of the current Zeitgeist, namely the emphasis on the task-reward paradigm. (Yes, I just invented that term. Let me know if you there’s a better one.)
Most games require the player to perform a task. Upon completion the player receives a reward in the form of a compliment, a high score and/or the advancement to the next level. The reward feels nice. It is a confirmation that you are competent. The problem for me is that I’m becoming numb for the rewards. This is caused by the large emphasis nearly every game puts on the reward. After the thousandth game rewarding me for my fictional awesomeness, I don’t really care anymore. Some games try to increase the value of the rewards by increasing the difficulty, but this doesn’t seem to have much effect on me.
What should change about games for them to regain my interest? Get rid of the task-reward paradigm? I don’t think that’s theoretically possible. One of the fundamental ingredients of a game is interactivity (which includes action and feedback). Any type of action the player performs can be seen as a task, and any kind of non-negative feedback can be seen as a reward. To fully remove tasks and rewards, we would have to eliminate interactivity (and thus the game). But instead of removing tasks and rewards altogether, we could try to minimize the focus on the rewards. In this approach, receiving an extrinsic reward should not be the main incentive to play.
With the importance of rewards removed, what’s left of the game? Well, the tasks. They should provide the incentive to play. I find it hard to define how exactly tasks can accomplish this. Some examples will have to suffice for now. Journey features anonymous cooperative multiplayer. The friendly contact with other people is an experience worth having, which has nothing to do with any kind of explicit reward. Minecraft is an entirely different experience. The task of creating your own structures in a world can be deeply addictive, but the game never gives an explicit reward. (So far I’ve been ignoring narrative, but that could also provide an incentive to play.)
Over the last few years more game developers have been moving away from the explicit rewards which are dominating the mainstream games. The conditions might be right to shake off the final legacy constraints of the arcade gaming era. The Zeitgeist is moving…