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An argument for easy achievements
by Rami Ismail on 11/05/12 11:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Last week I ended up in a discussion about the use and abuse of achievements as a progression support instead of offering challenges that either changed the players approach to the gameplay or that allow for extra –more difficult- goals. My fellow Vlambeer Jan Willem Nijman tweeted to point out that Assasssins Creed II hands out three different achievements or throphies before the game actually starts – you’ll have moved the left and right analog stick, pressed a few buttons as instructed by a giant, flashing prompt and you’ll have climbed a building to get that far in the game.

It’s a discussion that has been raging on and off – ridiculing the achievements and trophies that games hand out so easily for the most trivial of tasks and normal progression. It's also a minor subject within a broader discussion on whether games have dumbed down too much to cater to non-gamers. Slowly paced tutorials walk players through everything with command prompts and sequences and cutscenes queue up to teach players how to move their analog sticks and how to jump. At the end of every step – how trivial it might be - an achievement is unlocked.



It’s a sentiment commonly heard amongst ‘core gamers’ and it’s a sentiment that I agree with on many levels – a lot of contemporary videogames simply do not dare to offer challenging gameplay anymore in fear of alienating a rather significant portion of their audience. The relentless difficulty Demon Souls or Super Crate Box offer is a concrete risk when you’re gambling with tens of millions of dollars. Thus, the lowest common denominator reigns, actual challenge locked away behind difficulties that are hopefully available from the start of the game.

A few months ago my girlfriend decided to check out what this medium I rave about all the time entails. Together, we decided she should start with Assassins Creed II because I felt it had a well-paced and expansive tutorial. She’s someone that has played every Angry Birds game, The Sims and Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego. I had suggested Sword & Sworcery before hoping its relaxed nature would ease her in, but instead its reliance on gaming tropes and perceived monotony shunned her away.

As every gamer knows, it’s tough to sit back and watch someone walk into walls endlessly. She did exactly this in her first ten minutes of Assassins Creed II, frustration levels rising slowly to the point where she would just give up and never try again. After minutes that seemed like hours of desperately trying to steer a character straight ahead, she finally succeeded.

I used to argue that just achieving that goal in itself should be an adequate reward to motivate new gamers to continue playing, but I did not take into account that new gamers are fully aware walking should be a trivial tasks; they know that it isn’t a tough challenge to walk straight in a game, even if it is fully reasonable for them to find it difficult having never used gamepads before. They realize it is not an accomplishment by any standard and thus the argument fails. She was already tired of playing and about to quit when the console played that unmistakable notification sound: achievement unlocked.

She noticed the pat on the back and gave the game five more minutes of her attention - whereas if the game had just continued without the achievement, she would've been likely to just give up. The three achievements my colleague was quipping about were exactly the ones that kept my girlfriend's attention and motivation up for the twenty minutes she played that day.



The reality is that ‘non-gamer’ as a concept has changed from what it was. Where previously, ‘non-gamers’ were people without any gaming experience, the recent rise of casual games has ensured ‘non-gamers’ practically don’t exist anymore. Where it used to be that non-gamers were a blank slate that would learn to deal with the oddities of the high barrier of entry in videogames through practice, nowadays they are anything but a blank slate. They have years of gaming experience – only the games they play are Angry Birds and Farmville.

One of the things that sets casual games apart is their short feedback/reward cycles, rewarding players for pretty much every action through exaggerated feedback. These are games that are accessible beyond anything the mainstream industry can ever hope to achieve through their simple pickup-and-play designs. While playing, the games will carefully detail every step of progress through little popups. When done, players are bombarded with over-the-top scoring systems with clear ceilings and values. The goal, of course, is that players might feel good about themselves.

Achievements and trophies can take the place of such feedback in mainstream games. While the ease of achieving such goals seem trivial to more proficient gamers, for many new to the medium they are actual achievements that they’ve been conditioned to expect reward for in a measurable way. These games are not simple to control and they are far from pickup and play – Assassins Creed II takes several hours of slow introduction and half a dozen achievements before feeling confident enough to let players into its wonderful world.

The longer I mulled over the problem, the more I realized that an achievement is actually an extremely elegant solution to easing new players in. They’re unobtrusive, they’re measurable, they do not affect or corrupt the design of the game and they can be handed out in abundance at the start of a game. They do not require attention or interaction – they can simply be an indication of progression that is concrete instead of abstract. They're exactly what a casual gamer needs without negatively influencing the core experience more seasoned gamers are interested in.

I started reading websites dedicated to achievements to see what the objections were to simple achievements. This being the internet, I found an unquantifiable amount of complaints about achievements being ‘too easy’. As I started digging deeper, a realization set in: the problem these people were having wasn’t so much with the achievement being too easy to unlock for them – the problem was that others could unlock it just as easily. It’s the idea that if a ‘non-gamer’ can do it, things can't be an achievement. At best, it's a cry for more challenging games - at its worst, it's an attempt to safeguard the exclusivity of hardcore gaming from newcomers. The underlying thought is simple: achievements are supposed to be for 'real' gamers.

It is often wrongfully assumed that accessibility means sacrificing challenge or complexity, but it is neither – it is a way to allow people that otherwise couldn’t to experience the challenge and complexity that a game can offer. Such considerations are even – or more so – relevant to indie game developers. Whereas mainstream game developers have to deal with the consideration of non-gamers playing their game, indie game developers do not have the luxury of necessity – they might simply not consider the possibility of non-gamers playing their games.

My girlfriend and I are now playing through Halo 2. Last week, she suddenly backed off when overwhelmed by two Elites and strafed sideways into cover, proving she has succesfully mapped the actions on the analog stick to movement in the virtual world. She has rapidly evolved a sense of battle flow in Halo and will shout at me to help her or jump into the fray when she hears my shield depleted sound. If she had quit Assassins Creed II for not rewarding her with a concrete, measurable reward - she might've given up on gaming beyond Angry Birds altogether and miss a wide spectrum of amazing things.



So if I may recommend something that'll take thirty minutes of your time, just to get some new perspective as a game designer: sit down and watch your parents, partner or friends struggle through all the trivial tasks in any game that you consider absolutely great. If anything it’s amusing, at best it’s a great way to challenge your assumptions of accessibility. With that new perspective, take a look at what your games do to usher in new players. No-one says you have to implement your findings if you don't want to, no-one says you have to dial back on the challenge in a game or sacrifice complexity. Maybe your game isn't meant to be more accessible, maybe you'll find that it is a good idea to reconsider. There might just be an argument for your game to hand out a concrete and measurable pat on the back if someone does something that might – to you and me – seem trivial.


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Comments


Julien Delavennat
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I'm still sort of mind-blown by how little people mention rating achievements according to their actual meaning and difficulty value.

If we would explicitly write "easy", "normal", "hard", "very hard", "hardcore", "legendary", etc. on the achievements, the whole "achievements aren't for noobs" argument would just become completely irrelevant.

Core gamers' achievements would be acknowledged by the games themselves as being much more valuable than those of "casual" gamers in the first place, without necessarily alienating beginners - if it's done properly.

Rami Ismail
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One of the replies to this blogpost on my own website pointed out Sony has had a somewhat similar scheme implemented with trophies being graded bronze, silver or gold and a platinum trophy for getting all the others. It's an interesting thought, although it leads to a discussion that is somewhat tangential to my original point about achievements as accessibility tool & I will thus avoid myself.

Michael Joseph
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"She noticed the pat on the back and gave the game five more minutes of her attention - whereas if the game had just continued without the achievement, she would've been likely to just give up."

"If she had quit Assassins Creed II for not rewarding her with a concrete, measurable reward - she might've given up on gaming beyond Angry Birds altogether and miss a wide spectrum of amazing things. "
--

What does she actually enjoy about Assassins Creed or playing Halo?

Rami Ismail
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That's exactly the thing: nothing. At least, at first. They were games, games were 'not for her', the intrinsic rewards games offer were not a reward because games were 'games'.

She decided to give it a try either way, just to see what it was about and Sword & Sworcery didn't work out at all. Assassins Creed II was going to be a second try - a second try that nearly didn't work, but that little achievement pushed her through long enough to actually get a bit of a feel.

Now, she's quite liking the combat in the Halo CE Anniversary Edition, which she finished recently & like the article says, we're now playing Halo 2 together. She laughs at certain weird things that happen in the combat sandbox, she hates enemies with sticky grenades and she thinks my Warthog handling is terrible. These are all things she would not have experienced otherwise and her increasing understanding of game systems & controls will allow her to experience many more.

The only thing the achievements did was offer her a place that felt familiar while she was getting to grips with things. Mind you, I wrote this article in a response to her reactions, thoughts and remarks - so many of these events are rather recent. I can't say what it'll do in the long run, but I thought the effect the achievements had was interesting/surprising enough to write about.

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Rami Ismail
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@Joshua I do not think you can nor should ever generalize like that. Psychology is complex and even though there are differences based on sex - a persons way of thinking will always remain an individuals own.

I know many women that are more competitive than many of my male friends and many men that simply don't really care for adventure or conquest. I also think that even if what you say were true - that that should not stop us from trying to find ways to make great games accessible to more people.

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Michael Pianta
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Interesting points. I will admit, I am guilty of complaining about achievements. I find them laughably simple to get most of the time and for some reason this bothers me. I soured on the whole idea pretty early on and now I often wish they had never been introduced. I think part of what bothers me is simply the verbage: much like how Facebook has cheapened the word "friend" I find it grating that simple tasks that every player has to perform are characterized as "achievements". It feels like an assault on language - if every one is doing it it is definitionally NOT and achievement.

My other complaint is more specific to Microsoft. These achievements contribute to gamerscores and people compare these as some kind of proof of something. That would be fine if achievements were even somewhat demanding to get, but as it is its laughable. How do you get a thousand points for your gamer score? Master a game, or rent ten games and play through their first level? As said, Sony has avoided this problem fairly well just by ranking their trophies.

My real feeling is that these kinds of systems should be implemented on a game by game basis, that way designers can do whatever is necessary for their game. Assassin's Creed would still require some way to pull the beginner along - but would it have to be "achievements"? It could be any number of things. Some games may not require such a system at all. Others might have incredibly detailed ones. There's a huge list of "achievements" in Xenoblade - even though the Wii itself doesn't support such a system. That is the right way to go in my opinion - game specific leaderboards and so forth. I would be happy to see system wide programs abandoned.

Of course, I doubt they're going anywhere.

Rami Ismail
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I guess my girlfriend would disagree that movement in a game is not an 'achievement'. I personally think the Gamerscore is a whole different beast, but I don't think it should invalidate achievements.

I guess that where first, I agreed with you, now I like to think easy achievements the same way I think of real life standing and walking: sure, pretty much everyone can do those, but they're still achievements.

Michael Pianta
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I see your point - even though an adult walks all the time the first time a child walks it's a big deal. Hmm... that's still not quite like games though, since every game will give you the same "completed tutorial" achievement or what have you - they have no way of knowing if that's a real achievement for this player or not.

But in general, I hope I didn't come across as too negative. You're making some very interesting points about achievements as a way encourage beginners to keep going. That's a good insight. I'd always thought of them as basically competitive in nature before.

Rami Ismail
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No worries, it's super appreciated that you took the time to write down your thoughts. In the end, the reason I write blogs at all is because I hope I might get some people to think about things. Even if the conclusion they come to is the complete opposite of what I arrived at, if I could get someone to consider or think about something, the blog is doing what its supposed to do.

Eric Boosman
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I like a mix. I definitely think the majority should be reasonably easy to get by the majority of people, but I definitely think it's cool to have a few fairly hardcore achievements for bragging rights and to give the hardcore something to work for. Something special to uncover.

Rami Ismail
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Absolutely! And as you say, I'm not arguing against high difficulty achievements here, I'm arguing for a few well-timed basic ones for seemingly trivial actions to ease in new players.

Rob Lockhart
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I agree completely, Rami. This is the philosophy Toy Studio uses for all of its games. Getting up to speed with the basics is an achievement - so is some ridiculous thing that only L337s can do. As long as there are some advanced achievements, they can still be used to measure skill, but having some easy ones can provide valuable rewards.

Rami Ismail
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Glad you agree. I guess the thing I only realize after engaging in discussions about this post is that it is likely that the problem is that new gamers do not have the ability to suspend disbelief yet. They're not only conditioned to expect an external reward through casual games - they also need an external reward, something that is not part of the game, to let them know they're doing well.

It's an interesting hypothesis, either way.

Justin Speer
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I'd much rather the game reward me for walking straight ahead by showing me something cool. Try playing Journey with notifications turned off. You're constantly rewarded, and in a way that isn't patronizing.

Rami Ismail
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But what about new gamers? New gamers haven't suspended disbelief yet, they aren't able to because they're fighting the controls, the system and all the other things you need to be able to do before they'll be able to appreciate things like that.

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Rami Ismail
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@Joshua
I guess you're replying to the broader discussion of 'should we put achievements after every chapter' here, but that's not what I'm arguing for. I'm not saying achievements should be used indiscriminately, I'm saying achievements could be used as an accessibility tool for new gamers.

Sure, the device also plays a role - but many are closer to games simply due to the casual gaming 'revolution' of recent years.

The reason your comparison with movies fails is because there is a fundamental difference between movies, Starbucks and games are that games simply do not work without interaction. You can't sit back and let it come over you and gain a tiny bit of understanding from a game, like you can just watch Star Wars.

I can't really follow up on your "what ifs" because the situation back then was different - there were no casual games, new gamers had a blank slate in terms of expectations and achievements and trophies did not exist like they do today. Nowadays, they do - and as I stated in my post - I'm glad they do. Without them, I don't think my girlfriend would've gotten into gaming.

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Rami Ismail
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@Joshua Accessibility kills nothing as it is just that, accessibility. Like stated in the blog, it does not dumb down a game, it does not remove complexity - it just makes the complexity and challenges of a game available to more people. Achievements, for example, do not make a game easier - how could they, they're just little popups?

Far more disturbing about your reply is the assumption that games should be masculine and that certain genres are or should be reserved for a certain sex.

I will not be part of your 'reality' and if I can, I will see it changed.

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Rami Ismail
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I would argue yours is more of a 'social agenda' than mine. I want my medium to be for everyone. You'd see it, or parts of it, limited to certain groups.

Unrelated, this discussion is over. I want this to be about the article, not yet another useless discussion about 'who gaming is for'.

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Adam Bishop
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I let a friend who isn't a gamer play Journey on my PS3. They had no idea what to do. It does a terrible job of teaching you how to play or what you should be doing. That might be fine for people who have extensive experience with platformers, but for someone new to gaming Journey is impenetrable (in my experience). If the goal is to find ways to communicate how to play to new gamers then Journey is not a good example of where we should be heading.

Justin Speer
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That's funny Adam, I had the opposite experience where a friend who wasn't a gamer was able to start figuring things out and have fun. Should we have our anecdotes battle it out?

The article is talking about positive reinforcement, not teaching the player what to do. An achievement doesn't really communicate how to play, it just gives you a pat on the back for demonstrating that you understand a concept.

I'm only arguing that there are many ways to give this same positive reinforcement in the game. Why go outside of the game to give this feedback? If you directly tell the player they did a good job, why not have a character or event in the game communicate this information?

Rami Ismail
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As argued before, because that requires suspension of disbelief.

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Rami Ismail
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My girlfriend wanted to like games, and thanks to the three achievements she now does. Maybe your wife doesn't, in which case there's less reason to cater to her. There is, however, a really good reason to cater towards the likes of my girlfriend: more people gaming, her being a minority allows for more perspectives and even if you want to look at it from a purely financial perspective: more potential future customers.

I'm not saying we should 'graft broadstream market decisions' onto everything. I'm saying achievements could be a great way to help people that want to get into games achieve that goal.

I also sincerely disagree is that [insert gaming minority] 'don't want to game' (in the case of women, I believe recent number state they are actually the largest gaming audience in the world through casual and social games). For 'core games', however, I can imagine that many are simply turned off by the games in their current state, but with the attitude that 'games simply aren't for [insert the same gaming minority here]' we're not going to fix that. I think we should fix that, not by dumbing games down, but by working on their accessibility.

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Rami Ismail
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Achievements are exactly a safe place because they are reminiscent of the casual games 'non-gamers' play. Not everyone that wants to like games has that 'safe social space', games can offer an alternative.

Again, achievements do not dumb down games - they are popups that do not influence the game itself.

Luis Guimaraes
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I couldn't hate achievements more. They're intrusive futility that threat players as if they're in dog's training. That's my point of view as a player. One of the worst things a game can do is to be offensive towards my intelligence, which every year designers find out a new way to do so.

As a developer and someone who wants games to attract more audiences, this article is quite interesting. As long it can be completely turned off or, for different kinds of players, filtered by difficulty/importance, and that it doesn't damage the game's polishing by sucking up development time, it's all good.

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Luis Guimaraes
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That comes into other problems, like of games that have multiple levels of complexity, nuances and difficulty end up being badly received by many core players just because there is an easy way to get through. The easy route somehow makes them lose the intricacy of the exploration. Usually because core players will look for the most effective ways to play.

The other parallel stuff is once the player tries something and it works, they might be mind-blocked from trying different approaches unless forced or challenged to. Which in this case can be done by design in many different ways.

There are also the cases in which the games difficulty choices change how the the game should be played in a "perfect" solution to separate the experiences for different players, but some psychological barrier put core players to evaluate the games on normal difficulty as if anything above is how the game was intended to be. When in the end they might be playing the version that's not targeted at them.

So there's a lot of tricky stuff to deal with when trying to make stuff in the range for different players, as there are problems with the players themselves that blocks them from understanding what the game in trying to do or leading themselves a path of not seeing the best part of it, but that wouldn't work as well if forced down the player's throat anyway.

Rami Ismail
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Luis, absolutely - difficulty selection is another weird beast that I have thoughts about. Those are for another day, though.

The things you note are exactly things that in the end lead to achievements being a good solution: you don't need an easier path, you don't need stop players from exploring multiple paths, you don't need difficulty settings to have them and you don't need to dumb down the game. All you need is a little popup.

Roger Haagensen
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"they know that it isn’t a tough challenge to walk straight in a game, even if it is fully reasonable for them to find it difficult having never used gamepads before""

If it's difficult for a beginner to walk a straight line with a gamepad, then something is either wrong with the game, or the gamepad. And as to achievement, there should be none, as going straight should be just a matter of pushing the stick forward (or button for forward down if on a PC).

Some might say that it could be the calibration, but I'll assume that Mr. Ismail has a proper calibrated/proper deadzone corrected gamepad.

On PC (especially ports of console games) it is not uncommon for mouse smoothing/acceleration combined with user input tied to the frame rate to cause horrible input latency.

PS! Crappy gamepads has really bad "corners" so almost forward might cause you to careen to the left or right.

Rami Ismail
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That is the assumption I made until I actually tried it. These are normal, Microsoft-branded, original Xbox 360 controllers with default settings. Let me reassure you - get any complete non-gamer to play a game and instruct them to walk through a hallway and you'll see what I mean.

Stephen Mangold
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I disagree with Luis and Joshua. Games generally are made with as big an audience as possible in mind. I love achievements. I have a score based on how many games i've played and what i've done. I have never been done to seek achievements for the sake of it. But it has added an extra bit of playing time and that i think is the main point of the article. To be rewarded for scoring 4 touchdowns in one quarter or beating Halo 4 with just a pistol for example is a recognizble achievment rather than something you said you did. Its there in black and white. Its hardly instrusive other than the idiots who play for the achievements online. Games need to be made for the n00b to the hardcore player, not just one type. Thats why even if we feel like a tutorial is pointless, someone else might not. Why would you deny someone else a chance of playing the same game. As far as bribing the player goes, whats wrong with that. As a game designer you want someone to play your game as much as possible. Imagine if Mario Kart had it, it would have added an extra layer to it without ruining anything else.

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Rami Ismail
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It's also empowering to people (allowing the to get to grips with the medium), unobtrusive to the experience (because they don't influence gameplay) and do elevate the game in a way (because certain gamers do like achievement) except the reasonable notion that most games want to be played by as many people as possible.

Please stop with the ridiculous metaphors, the strange idea that a AAA mass-market game should be considered purely as art rather than design and the extremely misguided notion that games are meant to make you feel like a man.

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Erik van der Spek
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It's nice to hear that they helped your girlfriend along. That means they obviously had merit, at least in the short run, but I would never consider Achievements as highly elegant (or even remotely elegant actually). There's a real danger here, because Achievements are an extrinsic motivation; they're tied to the game, yes, but they have no meaning for and in the game.

In the sixties and seventies the burgeoning field of instructional science wanted to see the effects of positive reinforcements, extrinsic rewards, on children's motivation to learn and subsequent performance. While short-term gains were to be had, in the long run the children started to have a much stronger negative attitude towards the learning material. They very quickly developed the notion that if they needed rewards in order to be stimulated to engage in an activity, that activity must clearly be absolutely dreadful in and of itself. This then started to impact performance too.

Consequently, there's a possibility that your girlfriend may in the long run start viewing games more negatively (especially when she finds out that after hours of trying hard her gamerscore is still one hundredth of yours), precisely because she relied on extrinsic rewards. Incidentally, this is also why most of gamification is utter cack.


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