Monday, April 8, 2019

Video Games

Tobold posted something interesting today. He was musing on the "core shell model", which he defined as:

"... some core activity of gameplay (which, given how prominent violence is in games, is often a battle), and then a shell around it, which has everything else."

He went on to clarify:

"The shell often has progression elements, like management of experience points and levels, talent or tech trees, and sometimes non-progressions elements like the story." 

Then he explained how it worked in practice:

"A typical player in a typical game of this sort constantly jumps between the core and the shell: Does a battle in the core game, then levels up his character in the shell game, to go back to the core battle with a stronger character."

I'm not sure why Tobold thought the concept required a new name. It seems to me he's describing the phenomenon that was all over the mainstream media a few years back: Gamification.

Gamification is the application of gamelike processes to activities other than games. In Tobold's "core shell model", the whole thing becomes self-reflexive, not to say incestuous, with games themselves being gamified, the "gamelike processes" in question, being drawn primarlily from a specific genre of gaming: the RPG.

Gamification, fittingly, began in games long before breaking out into the wider world. The concept had increasingly been applied within gaming to genres that previously hadn't appeared either to want or need them. Indeed, the supposed manner in which all games were becoming RPGs was quite the controversial topic in gaming circles for a while.

As Tobold rightly implies, it's a battle that's largely been won. Or lost, depending on your point of view. Many, perhaps most, video games being brought to market over the last few years utilize mechanics and structures that would once have been alien to their form: levels, badges, achievements, rewards.

The BBC article linked above takes great pains to trace such devices back to the experiments of BF Skinner, creator of the infamous "Skinner Box" and the system he called "operant conditioning". There was a time when no discussion of MMORPGs was complete without a discourse on Skinner and his eponymous box. It was as common a trope as Pavlov's Dog or  Schroedinger's Cat, and often as badly misunderstood as either of those overused and misapplied metaphors.

These days you barely ever hear it mentioned. The underlying methodology is now so established it's taken for granted. Like every other battleground in the history of video gaming - free to play, pay to win, microtransactions, randomization, games as a service - all territory once defended has eventually been ceded.

Gamification also seems to be a peculiar property of digitalization, another threat mainstream media once reviled  but now appear to have forgotten completely. Going back to Tobold's concept of cores and shells, physical games frequently, indeed usually, have only a core. They tend not to be amenable to Skinner's conditioning except inasmuch as you can structure competitions around winning.

You can, of course, have ranks and levels in a game like Chess. What you can't do, however, is dole those out automatically to anyone who presses the right button. To rank up in chess you have to get better at the core activity, something that's an anathaema to the shell. As for Pay to Win, you can buy all the solid gold, jewel studded, Collectors' Edition chess sets you want but no amount of money spent on pieces or boards will help you win more matches. Unlike Tobold's beloved World of Tanks.

Video games were once far more like their analog counterparts than anything we see today. Pong, Space Invaders, Tetris - all pure core, no shell. I imagine even now there must still be a few new games like that, although I can't bring any to mind. Even the simplest Match 3 comes with titles, levels, badges... who'd play one that didn't?

Is any of this a bad thing? As a lifelong moral relativist I'd have to say it depends.

My natural inclination is to be suspicious of extrinsic reward modifiers to activities that have intrinsic rewards of their own. I often used to suggest, when writing about MMORPGs, that the ideal MMO would have gameplay so compelling, so entertaining, that, were all the leveling and questing and character progression to be stripped away, players would go on playing indefinitely for the sheer pleasure of the mechanics involved.

That has, to a significant extent, been the case for me in some games. There have been numerous times when I stopped progressing my characters or improving their gear, ceased to follow the storyline, eventually abandoned all those "shell" activities, yet still continued to log in and play.

I used to do it in Rift, with the Stillmoor invasions or in Battlegrounds in World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, all of which I played to excess for the thrills and excitement alone. I was doing it as recently as last night in Guild Wars 2's World v World, where I spent nearly three hours following a Commander for no better reason than that he happened to invite me to his squad while I was doing my dailies and it turned out to be fast, furious fun.

To be worth doing for the sake of doing it, content in an MMORPG doesn't have to be PvP, much though many PvP advocates would like to convince us otherwise. Stillmoor wasn't and neither is GW2's ninety minute meta-event, Dragon's Stand, which I used to do on many a Sunday evening for the sheer hell of it.  Tobold is correct, though, to point out that, generally, this kind of "core" activity does involve combat.

There are plenty of other things you can spend countless hours doing in MMORPGs which don't, of course. The thing about most of those is, they don't really have much to do with "games" in the first place. Whether uncomfortably bolted on or lovingly integrated, building and decorating activities function primarily as kind of crafting hobby within the gamespace, the digital equivalent of knitting or model-making, while collecting is... well, it's collecting, isn't it?

The more I think on it, though, the more essential, the more core, at least some of those "shell" activities seem to be. For an MMORPG, anyway. I'm no longer at all convinced that the goal of great MMORPG design should be a gameplay loop that's so ineffably pure it both encourages and sustains endless, purposeless play. Even were it to be achievable, it sounds disturbingly like wireheading without the wires.

On the other hand, do we really need all our simple pleasures shored up by rewards, scaffolded by achievements, celebrated by badges? Isn't it enough to have fun for fun's sake?

Perhaps that does seem rather a hypocritical question for me to pose right after I've just been praising Rift's reward system for its success in pinging my dopamine receptors. The fact is, though, I played Rift for ninety minutes before starting this post because I enjoyed the questing yesterday and wanted more of it. The rewards are all in the bank, where they'll probably remain.

In the end there's no clear path to perfection or purity and we all know most of these systems exist to separate us from our money. Many have no other function, particularly in the increasingly inapporopriate settings we now find them.

In games that lie solidly within the RPG genre, a hinterland that would include all true MMORPGs, the line between core and shell is much more blurred. As Tobold says, you can have satisfying tank battles without any of the rpg elements. It's hard to imagine how you could take the progression out of a genre predicated upon it being there, although I'm sure someone's trying to come up with a way to do just that even as I type.

Looking back at those apocalyptic predictions from a decade ago, the world doesn't seem to have given in to gamification in quite the way the doom-mongers suggested. I'm not going to earn a citizenship badge for voting in next month's council elections and the new toothbrush I bought this morning is still just a determinedly analog piece of plastic with bristles.

The games themselves, though? Well, maybe that's a different story...


  1. Do you think there's any connection between the removal of scores and the gamification of games? I was thinking about this issue a little while ago when a certain high profile MP game started getting roundly slagged for giving up poor loot at end game. I was finding just playing the game to be sheer joy without worrying about loot and was trying to come up with analogies with older games. The stuff I used to play in the bars on quiet nights: Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender. None of them had any persistence or "leveling up" but they DID have scores, so while you were mostly playing because it was fun to play, you also were playing to see if you could get on the high score table.

    Though I dunno, maybe I've just answered my own question because it just dawned on me that games like Civilization don't really have scores (or if they do I don't see people talking about them) or any kind of progression, unless I guess you count pushing up the difficulty level as you get better.

    1. You've just brought up two things I thought about including in the post! As soon as I mentioned Space Invaders it brought back the whole "High Score" thing that we all used to take semi-seriously when I played video games in pubs as a student. It turns up in 80s movies and TV as a trope, too. It was a weird form of progression because not only could you benchmark against yourself, you could do that thing where you put your initials or nickname on a High Score table that would be there on the game machine for anyone to see. It still persists in online gaming in the form of external Leaderboards, of course, and there are even in-game high score tables in EQ2, for the races and for the goblin lottery, for example. I'm not sure whether scoring really counts as an external reward mechanism, though. I think it's more a record and proof of your skill. I think that anything that requires actual player skill is probably part of the "core" rather than the "shell".

      I also thought of Civilization as an example of a "pure gameplay" game but I actually haven't played it, only read about it, so I thought it better to leave it out.

    2. Oh, Civilization most certainly has scores. Over on the old Civ forums I used to visit there was a regular contest to start with a saved game that you could download to see who could get the highest score. Score is used as your measure of overall success and is made up from your tech level, population, wonders, and various other elements, depending on which version you're playing.

    3. Yep, Civilization has scores. I recall in the older versions I played, part of the fun of retiring your civilization was to see how far up on the scoreboard your civ got, because you’d be equated to various famous leaders based on your score, like Shaka Zulu or Abraham Lincoln.

  2. I just finished reading a book called Punished by Rewards and if its author is to be believed then the reason gamification hasn't taken off any further is probably that tacking extrinsic rewards onto everything simply doesn't work. It can produce results in the short-term, but in the long-term interest in whatever you're being rewarded for usually decreases.

    I'd really like to know more about how this applies to games, because if the rewards are part of the game too, where do you draw the line? Unfortunately the author of the book only touches on this sort of thing very briefly in the appendix, by admitting that "intrinsic motivation" is a concept that's hard to nail down, as there's a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to have done something, plus there are also cases where people enjoy doing something not precisely for its own sake but not really for an external reward either (e.g. taking part in an activity that creates a pleasant social setting).

    Maybe we've simply stopped talking about Skinner boxes because we're neither rats nor pigeons and humans are a bit more complicated...

    1. The BBC article goes into some detail about why the world hasn't become as gameified as was predicted. I was thinking as I wrote the post that I couldn't remember much in the way of reward or achievement systems being added to any aspect of my own non-gaming life. About the only place i've really noticed it take off is in Health and Fitness, which already has quite a close interface with games and gaming anyway.

      Certainly I haven't seen any sign of my bank, or the utility companies or even travel companies and car hire firms I use regularly trying to encourage me to spend or stay with them by offering me titles, achievements or badges. Some businesses I use do have various Loyalty schemes that give incentives and there are sometimes titles or
      ranks allotted for regularly posting reviews of products or services on websites but in both cases those seem to me to be practical things that give a direct benefit to either the customer, the company or both. I think that's a different thing altogether, which long predates the concept of gamification and has little affinity with it.

      As the book you mentioned would seem to suggest, though, the arena in which the whole concept has really taken hold is Education and Training. Given that it probably doesn't work in the way it was believed, that's very worrying.

  3. This is part of the reason I still tend to hold up real time strategy as the finest genre of gaming. RTS games are about the only ones left that are still mainly about playing the game, rather than any kind of reward. When I wanted to beat StarCraft 2's campaign on brutal, there was no option to grind more levels or equip better gear. It was get better or go play something else.

    Even in cases where reward systems are integrated (such as leveling in SC2's co-op), the top rewards tend to be quick to achieve and/or have minimal impact on gameplay. The focus is still on simply playing the game because it's fun.

    Reward systems aren't all bad, but increasingly it seems that both players and developers are starting to feel the rewards are more important than any other aspect of the game, and that disturbs me deeply. That's a road that leads only to soulless games without depth or artistry.

    Take Anthem. It's pretty much universally agreed that it's an incredibly fun game to play, yet it's being lambasted just because people don't feel like it hands out shinies fast enough. What's wrong with this picture?

    1. I very much agree that the reward tail has been wagging the gameplay dog for too long now.

      I'm not sure about the Anthem problem, though. Is the paucity of gear upgrades a problem with the Shell or the Core? If you have a game with no scoring system and no territory to take and hold, and you also excise all forms of progression including better gear from the Core (which Tobold does in his definition), do you have a "game" in the Core at all?

      To use an example where I have personal experience, I love gliding in GW2's Heart of Thorns so much that even four years after it launched I still often spend time in Verdant Brink just flying around. I did it yesterday - I was there to do a daily, which took me about five minutes but I lost half an hour just riding the updrafts in a kind of zen state. Is that a "game" in the way we mean it when we use the word?


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