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Alfie Kohn is a familiar name to many in the world of education. His books have consistently and intelligently railed against the state of our country's education system, from the uselessness of traditional grading systems to the hazards of bribing kids to do well in school with incentive programs.
One of Kohn's most famous books is Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. In it, he provides scientific evidence about the damage that offering rewards can do to students and their personal motivation to engage in lifelong learning.
Studies mentioned in the book have produced remarkable and surprising data regarding the methods through which many of us were encouraged to excel in our educational careers and, in many cases, the way we were raised by our parents.
For example: children who are praised and rewarded for acts of kindness toward other children tend to be less kind towards others overall in the absence of said praise or rewards. Rewarding a behavior only encourages it as long as the reward is present. Long term, however, praise and rewards can actually reduce or completely destroy a person's intrinsic motivation to continue the task for which they received the reward.
At this point you're wondering, "what the heck does this have to do with video games?" Which is a valid question, considering the load of psycho babble I just dropped on you.
The current generation of video game consoles has introduced a set of rewards no previous generation had: achievements and trophies. Sure, before we had the quest for high scores and the bragging rights associated with them, but never in the history of the medium has such a readily-visible and prevalent reward system existed. Every game you play has trophies and achievements to earn, and they can be earned through practically every portion of a given game.
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Achievements as Rewards
While there are surely a few gamers out there who could care less about something as meaningless as gamerscore or a trophy collection, for most they are at least a tiny part of the experience of playing games. You'd be hard pressed to find an individual who hasn't at one time gone slightly out of their way in the course of playing through a game to pick up an achievement, or at least altered the way in which they play or made a specific choice because the outcome might lead to another trophy or a few more points on their gamerscore.
I'm not talking about so-called "achievement whores," those people for whom gaming seems to serve no other purpose than the acquisition of new trophies (though the same concept applies to them, albeit on a much larger scale), I mainly refer to "mainstream" gamers like myself, those who play games for fun but don't mind picking up the occasional achievement along the way.
To put it in simpler terms, achievements and trophies are rewards for which most gamers are willing to perform a certain task. That is, kill 10 snakes, ride 10 miles, or whatever it takes to earn the particular trophy. Therefore, they are a reward that we earn for performing said task.
The problem then, as Kohn puts it, is that "anything presented as a prerequisite for something else--that is, as a means toward some other end--comes to be seen as less desirable." Achievements certainly fit the bill here, as most gamers are perfectly willing to perform the prerequisite, in this case the in-game task, to earn the achievement.
Achievements, therefore, are a type of reward.
Read on to page two for a personal example of how achievements and trophies have permanently altered the way I play games.
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The Problem With Rewards
Another appropriate Kohn quote: "Coming to see ourselves as engaging in a task to get a reward typically alters the way we view that task." The introduction of achievements and trophies into a pastime most people previously did simply for enjoyment has fundamentally altered the act of playing video games.
I'm going to use myself as an example here, mainly because I don't have access to the thought process of anyone else on as regular a basis. I personally love collecting Xbox 360 achievements. I'm not the guy who spends hours trying to collect each and every one for a game, but I'm perfectly willing to spend a little extra time or go outside the scope of the main story to add to my gamerscore.
I enjoy earning achievements and, though I'd probably never admit it to anyone's face, I'm proud of my nearly 30,000 gamerscore (if you read that and thought something like "noob, that's nothing," congratulations, this article is for you).
I also own a PS3, which I use mainly to play Blu-Ray movies and the occasional Playstation exclusive game. When I have a choice though, I always pick up a game for my 360. Not out of any fierce loyalty to Microsoft or hatred of Sony's platform, but because I figure if I'm going to be playing a game, I might as well be earning achievements and adding to my gamerscore while I'm at it.
Achievements have not destroyed my motivation or desire to play video games in general, but they have reduced my personal urge to play games for which no achievements can be earned. Kohn says that "rewards kill interest" which, in this case, is partially true.
They haven't killed my interest in gaming (though who knows how much I would play if there were no achievements at all to earn), but they have certainly reduced my desire to play games that don't offer a tangible reward.
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The Wii Example
To extend the personal example a bit further, I also own a Nintendo Wii. It also sits largely unused, partially because I don't always enjoy the motion control setup and there aren't as many games on the system that I'm dying to play, but also because of the factor I mentioned above: I can't earn achievements for playing Wii games.
I recently picked up a copy of Madworld for nine dollars online. This is a game that I've been dying to play since I first saw the preview on X-Play, yet I have yet to find the motivation to even remove the plastic from the case. It's just sitting on my shelf gathering dust because every time I think I want to play it, I change my mind and pop in my newest Xbox 360 game instead.
I have a copy of Super Mario Galaxy 2 on its way from Amazon, and I'm a little afraid I'll play it for awhile and then lose interest, only picking it up when I need to do research for a new article. Which is a shame, because I've loved the Mario series since I was six years old.
I just can't seem to maintain an interest in anything I play on the Wii, and I'm afraid it's because, to paraphrase Kohn, earning a reward for something you already enjoy doing typically has the effect of killing off any interest in that particular task.
My love of gaming has been permanently altered, and I personally believe that rewards, in the form of achievements and trophies, are to blame.
Think about that the next time you spend 20 minutes hopping on one foot to pick up a trophy. Are you hopping because you want to, or are you just doing it for the sake of a reward?