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2012 December

Extrinsic Rewards versus Autotelic Satisfaction and Monetizing Games

To paraphrase a study cited in Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken:

The University of Rochester published a study in 2009 studying the overall reported happiness and well-being of 150 recent graduates while measuring both their achievements of extrinsic rewards (money, fame, power, everything psychologically external to a person) and intrinsic rewards (personal growth established by self-directed goals.) Their conclusion: “The attainment of extrinsic, or ‘American Dream,’ goals — money, fame, and being considered physically attractive by others — does not contribute to happiness at all.”

The same study also found that participants who focused on intrinsic rewards, like working hard to develop their own personal strengths and personal relationships, were measurably happier over the two-year period of the study, completely regardless of external life circumstances like wealth or social status.

Jane McGonigal points out that games are a perfect facilitator for enabling the pursuit of intrinsic rewards, and that pursuing intrinsic rewards (working to develop personal strengths, habits, talents, and relationships) is a key ingredient in the recipe of enduring happiness. Americans and other consumer cultures around the world have been wrongly taught that extrinsic rewards create happiness, much to their own detriment.

This line of logic led to a depressing realization about the field of social and mobile games — that in order to make themselves profitable, freemium games have largely abandoned the noble goals of creating intrinsically rewarding experiences, and have instead fallen back on providing extrinsic reward structures that prey on and reinforce consumer culture’s misunderstanding of how to attain happiness.

Games like Rage of Bahamut and Blood Brothers (the current #1 and #2 top grossing games on the Google Play Store) offer very little challenges that offer opportunities for intrinsic rewards (low difficulty, superficial social interaction, very little mental challenge) and instead encourage extrinsic rewards like ownership and social status. The end result is a hedonistic addiction to acquiring more and more possessions that ultimately loses its luster and never really generates happiness — at least no more than compulsive shopping would, which is perhaps the point.

The pessimistic view of this model is that it’s easiest to keep people purchasing the promise of happiness when they are perpetually unhappy. Another pessimistic view might be that the overriding cultural assumption for what creates happiness is so powerful that games -must- cater to it to thrive. The end result is the same though — players will be left with a vague dissatisfaction and eventual disillusionment with the product. Participants are driven to consume as in an alcohol binge, only to wake up with a hangover and a sense of confusion as to why they began in the first place.

I believe a more ethical pursuit, and perhaps a more profitable one, is a way to offer the opportunity to achieve ¬†intrinsic rewards as micro-transaction. I’m looking forward to seeing the industry produce ways to craft personal growth as monetization, rather than simple virtual possession as monetization.