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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Game Design: Goal Achievement

You can't throw a 360 controller these days without hitting a new scientific study about video games.  "Gamers are addicted!" says one.  "Gamers aren't addicted!" says another.  "Gamers are psychopathic killers!" says another.  "Gamers are totally normal people!" says yet another.  In all of these studies, no one ever asks the question, "Why?  Why do people play video games?"

It's an odd question to ask.  I mean, why not?  Video games are fun!  That's why we play!  It's so simple!  But why are they fun?  Some people find video games mind-numbingly boring.  Why?  Isn't fun universal?  You have people like this 11-year-old kid who says video games are a waste of time.  We don't feel that it is.  Why would someone say such a thing?  The answers to these questions are fundamental to our understanding of gaming, game design, and the industry in general.

Humans are very goal-oriented.  When you waste an entire day watching TV, you don't feel very well afterwards.  You don't feel like you did anything, right?  Our goals are fairly dynamic as well.  In a few minutes your goal may be to read an article or wash the dishes or sell X amount of sprockets at your job.  We have long-term goals and short-term goals.  The more difficult these goals are, the more inward satisfaction we feel once they're completed.

Video games work on this level.  Each game provides us with artificial goals.  If we're playing Halo, our goal may be to win this multiplayer round.  If you're playing Super Mario Galaxy, your goal may be to get to 90 stars.  If you're playing World of Warcraft, your goal may be to use that shiny new bow that's sitting in your inventory.  When we reach these goals, we feel satisfied, secure in the knowledge that we did something.

Now, are these goals necessarily noteworthy?  No, not really.  I mean, in the grand scheme of things, winning a Counterstrike match isn't going to change the world.  There's still a sense of pride that fills us when we do these things.  Why?  Because it fulfills a basic human need, a need to get things done.

This can explain many things.  For instance, why are Diablo and its variants so addicting?  Is it because of the awesome storyline?  No, it's because it continues setting goals in front of you.  They'll give you an awesome new weapon that you can only use once you achieve level X.  You want to achieve that level to use the weapon, and once you do, you feel contented.  However, Diablo doesn't stop there.  It's already given you another weapon or piece of armor that you need to work towards.  It's constantly setting easily attainable goals in front of you and letting you accomplish them.  MMOs do this as well, which explains why they're so very, very popular.

There are two sides to this coin.  When a task is too easy, we don't feel like we've accomplished anything.  I'm playing The Legendary Starfy right now, and I'm bored out of my mind.  It's decent, but it's not difficult at all.  I'm plowing through it easily, and I haven't felt like I've accomplished anything yet.  Conversely, when a task is too difficult or too obscure, accomplishment gets stymied.  We stop playing.  This is why we don't like backtracking and wandering aimlessly.  This is why we like to have current quests waiting for us.  If we don't, we feel like we haven't done anything, haven't accomplished anything, haven't gone anywhere.  It's not satisfying.

This is also why most casual games aren't as bad as you'd think.  Games like Peggle or Wii Fit help someone set goals and achieve them, just like a normal game.  A game like Wii Music is comparatively a flop for the same reason:  There's no goal.  There's nothing to achieve.  You cannot improve with the game.  It rightfully can be called a failure in game design.

This also explains the explosion in motion controls.  Motion controls work because they take away one of the barriers to goal achievement, that pesky little controller.  Now, all someone has to do is mimic the movement that they would do naturally and they're able to achieve a goal.  Natal hopes to further cut down on that barrier to goal achievement.

There's more to this, though.  Consider:  Since we all have this basic need to accomplish tasks, and video games provide us with an artificial sense of accomplishment, what does that mean for our psychological health?  Does that mean that we feel more accomplished than other non-gamers?  Does that mean that we might not try as hard in other facets of our life?  Or do we have a higher self-image that other groups?  Do we become accustomed to achievement so often that we search for it in other parts of our life?

These are all questions for greater minds than mine.  Still, recognizing this truth helps us to understand why certain games and technologies work and others don't.  We understand why we shouldn't fear most casual games.  It also helps us to understand a little bit more about ourselves and why we play.