Explorers

Reading Alfie Kohn, he struck me on one particular point he makes – that ties to what Exploration design is in modern game design.  He cites that rewards hurt exploration, meaning exploration-as-risk-taking.

We typically provide non-gameplay rewards at the ends of tunnels to encourage players to Explore.  Once upon a time these were points, but they’ve evolved into more sophisticated things like story snippets.  Bioshock’s radio diaries are the most recent paragon.  Designers typically want to specifically cater to this Exploration player.  There’s a Bartle type for them after all.  These placed rewards are used as the simple level design for reaching them.  It’s common.  I’d bet even money the last game you played had them.  And If you ever try and take these non-gameplay rewards away completely, you hear “But I like exploring, why do you hate people like me?”.  Then “I don’t like how this is a dead end.”   To eventually “Why would I go over there, there’s never anything worth seeing.”  Level designers will argue there’s no reason to make all that art, if no one explores.  You’ll get bug reports about it from Testers.

I know I’ve certainly felt that way.

I believe Alfie Kohn would argue that exploration is a misnomer.  It’s not exploration we’re talking about but rewards as extrinsic motivators.  He’d probably say these players are not Explorers but Completionists.  That these people are looking for a pat on the head and a “Good job, have a cookie!”

I know I’ve felt that way too.

Alfie Kohn compares these kinds of rewards to Skinner boxes and dog training tactics – things people would do consciously only if we want to encourage attention and behavior.  (He doesn’t seem one to mince words).  If designers provide a powerful distraction that is continually operating but (critically) serves no relation to the core interactions of the game, designers can pull the player in without them noticing (or caring) about the gameplay, just enjoying themselves.  As long as the non-gameplay rewards have meaningful value.

That certainly doesn’t mean bad sales or immoral behavior.  It certainly doesn’t mean that games can’t tell good stories, either, or that Completionists are bad people or want bad things.  And Kohn is certainly controversial (like any good social scientist).  But it does question that having simple rewards under every rock means players are being Explorers.  Maybe they are seeking something else, something we might be able to design in a better way.

I remember when Fallout 3 came out, how exploring felt *different* somehow in a way I couldn’t explain.  I thought maybe it was just an added layer of randomness – not just random places but random objects in random places.  But that never sat right.  Maybe it was getting back to the essence of what Exploring meant.  In Fallout 3 I chose where I wanted to go.  I had little expectation of what I would find, but I knew I didn’t have time to see everything.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy when I got there or always pay off.  And it appealed to me in a way that none of the story objects I’ve chased through the years ever have.

I don’t know if I’ll still place rewards at the end of every corridor.  It’s still going to be industry practice tomorrow, I’m sure.  But I’ll be a lot more careful when I call it exploring, for the Exploration player.

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2 thoughts on “Explorers

  1. When I think about the games where I most enjoyed the act of exploration, two in particular come to mind- Stalker and Dark Messiah. In reflection, they have alot in common. Neither rewards exploration with anything other than tactical advantage or in-game items, usually minor consumables but occasionally a major item. Both consistently provide these benefits to players who take the time to explore & pay attention to their surroundings, rather than assuming they amount to window dressing on a game’s invisible walls.

    Working off this, I think the “exploration” I want is a level/world that makes me wonder (of my own free will) about going over *there*, and then doesn’t have the answer be “No” or “Yes, but there’s no reason to.”

    Also, I think it’s wiser to think of “Exploration” and “Completion” as two motivations that every player possesses to some degree, rather than labels or, god forbid, mutually exclusive categories.

    • This is a good example of using Exploration in the classic way, rather then the way I did above. In both your cases, you are doing “Completion” motivation – your “exploration” motivation is just a lesser “completion” motivation.

      I apologize for not making the distinction from “Exploration” as Kohn describes it clearer.

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