Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Disconnect in Message

     Kelly: "One of the great things about experience points is it gives the players something that they get to gain aside from treasure, magic items and things like that, whenever they complete a task, they get experience points that makes them feel like they're gaining power in the game."
     Monty: "Even though they're really not.  It's kind of a psychological effect, and it works ... anytime you've played a video game, or that's an RPG, you feel good about gaining experience points even though you haven't quite gotten to the end goal, but you feel like you've made some progress.
     Kelly:  "Yes, every time that bar fills up a bit more, I feel accomplished, like I'm working towards the goal, I'm gonna accomplish something.
     Monty:  "And I think that's one of the most important tools that dungeon masters have at their disposal when using XP, because you can award XP for almost everything.  And it's a great way to signal to your players, 'Hey, good job.'  It's not really going to affect your game aside from the players levelling up a little bit faster, and it's much easier to control the pace by making the rewards larger or smaller, depending on what the players have accomplished."

If the reader is able, try to watch the whole video, to the end, to get the full sense of the message being presented.

Why Players Like It

And they do.  There is no denying this.

We should wonder why we had a special, functional capacity for survival, some fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand years ago.  We were not the fastest creatures, we were not the strongest.  We were the smartest, true, but we need to ask ourselves, how did that "smart" manifest itself?  Particularly when we consider that there was little in the way of "talking ourselves into doing things," as language, both spoken and in terms of self-awareness, was minimal.  There is an answer.  We had other motivating influences, a cornucopia of self-produced hormones, one of these being dopamine.

Let me explain how works.  Dopamine is a chemical hormone synthesized from L-Dopa, which is a psychotropic drug made in the brain and the kidneys.  Basically, the human animal is a construction, which runs on various chemicals, of which dopamine is one.  Dopamine has a particular function, one that exists because it contributes to the survival of the human animal, you and me.

Say that we find the sign of an animal, that we want to eat.  Without introspection, we intuit that to find that animal we will have to track it for hours and hours, and for miles and miles, which will be very exhausting and sap our present supply of energy.  If the tracks are old, it isn't worth it; we would probably die before finding our meal.  But if the tracks are new ... dopamine.

Dopamine gives us a completely non-intellectual award for finding something in our environment that encourages us to believe that we're going to eat, or find shelter, or be warm, or otherwise feel safe and happy.  Note that I say "award" and not "reward," because we haven't actually done anything yet.  We've just found fresh tracks.  But that doesn't matter, because we need an impetus to get started hunting, and that is what dopamine does.  It gets us going.

Truth is, dopamine feels so good (particularly to the human animal that has no other amazing invention do give it pleasure), it energizes.  If we're tired from tracking the animal, no problem, we've got this tremendous endurance rush from following the tracks, and seeing that they're getting fresher and fresher; and then we see the animal and that's a dopamine rush too; and then we kill the animal and now we know we're going to eat, and that's a rush.  And when we're done eating, we know that our clan group is hungry and they're going to eat, so we're willing to carry the hundreds of pounds of food back home, even if we're tired and worn out doing it.  And with the dopamine there are other hormones that are helping, like endorphins that are masking our pain, or seratonin, which makes us feel pride and status, and that we're amazing and powerful.

So we do it.  And it feels so good, that we get addicted to it.  We get up the next day and rush out to do it again, because "Damn!  That was so much fun, I will totally do that again!"

Understand:  we don't have to accomplish things to experience dopamine.  We only have to feel that whatever it is we experience, we can identify some change that is going to happen because of this discovery.  And seeing numbers rack up on a piece of paper has precisely that sort of meaning for us, because we have socialized ourselves all of our lives to identify certain increased numbers as a promise that things are going to get better, and soon.

It doesn't matter that we didn't earn it.  The human animal did not "earn" the fresh tracks of the animal that were stumbled across.  Dopamine does not care.  Dopamine is not a drug that rewards our accomplishments, it is a drug that encourages us to accomplish something in the future.  Something that will help us.

So yes, of course, players think that getting XP for an activity is a terrific thing, because the human animal's biology does not care about "why."

Dopamine is deeply, deeply addictive.  Some things that release dopamine?  Alcohol.  Nicotine.  Gambling.  Cell phones.  When we hear the beep that says we have a message ... dopamine.  Why?  We haven't done anything.  But we know, something might happen that could be good.  And what do we usually find?  Spam.  That's why we hate spam.  Not because spam is such a drag, we can delete it or ignore it easily.  But because the let down from the dopamine is so sharp.

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Games are invented mechanisms designed to trick the human animal's biology into releasing psychotropes, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, which are what makes a game "fun."

The quality of game design is measured by the power a game has to produce this effect.  Over the centuries, we have augmented the gaming experience for humans, until the present day, when video games are kicking the ass of the formerly most successful games, games that are also sports.  Arguably, sports-games are still in the lead, but those are declining while video games are only just beginning to find their legs.  We have no idea how far VGs can go.

RPGs are also a highly evolved experience, albeit one that appeals to a very specific type of person.  It, too, is only just finding its legs, since it steadfastly refuses, as yet, to embrace the communicative technology of the present.  It has a long, long way to go.

This mired-in-the-past issue is a part of the stumbling inconsistency of RPGs, but so to is the human animal delivery system of the game itself.  Because RPGs are not programmed, they are subject to hormonal catalysts resulting from different human impulses: like uncertainty and fear, a quest for power and prestige, covering for ignorance, the need to win the approval of others and so on.  These very human behaviors cloud the manner in which the game is processed, so that DMs forget that they are providing the structure of a game, and are not actually tasked with the need to gratify, satisfy, indulge or fulfill the desires and fantasies of the participants.

This is a destructive break in the mechanism of RPGs, one that continues to proliferate throughout the game's structure, systematically underscoring every discussion or "clarification" by the participants.  In the interest of self-gratification, the DM seeks to service the Players, who in turn reflect the service with words that gratify the DM, and so continues the stagnating loop which soon infects every aspect of what was once an active, healthy game.

Yes, the players LIKE the DMs providing of XP.  The players would probably like a lot of other things as well, designed to specifically award the players regardless of their actual participation in a structured game.  If, for example, I gave money out of my pocket for good role-playing, I'm very sure that would also increase the amount of role-play that went on at the table, as well as the number of perspective players I might have, ending in my campaign becoming very popular once the word got around.

The fact of this explodes every argument the video makes.  Of course, XP doesn't actually require the DM to sacrifice something, like money would, to be gratified by the process of giving (which is a terrific peptide called oxytocin) in exchange for receiving approval (which would be more drugs).

Concluding Thoughts

Many participants are quite happy with the agenda of the video; this process, too, has the power to trick the human animal's biology into releasing psychotropes, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters.  Some of us, however, are not convinced.

That is because we've come to the conclusion that a very well-constructed, deliberate game gives a far better hit than an easily given push.  We feel the dopamine from being given XP for accomplishing a mission, but there is a nagging concern that the value of the number is cheapened when it does not also come with risk ... and most of the things that "deserve" XP in the video are things in which risk is clearly unavoided.

For example, the most common argument for this policy is that players should receive XP for not killing the monster, if they can circumvent the monster somehow, whether through role-play, innovation or some other means.

This presupposes that experience should be given for achieving the goal, and not for overcoming risk.  There's no risk in circumventing the monster.  The risk is in fighting the monster, and potentially losing.  IF the players fail to role-play past the monster, and therefore they have to fight the monster, there is risk.  But if the players role-play past the monster, it is because the DM decided that a die roll indicated success, or because "reasons" indicated success ... and where is the risk?

There isn't one.

Games are about making choices regarding risk.  Without risk, there is no downside ... and therefore "winning" loses all meaning.  When we provide a benefit that requires no possibility of failure or loss, for some people that cheapens the effect.

Remember when I said that if tracks were old, we weren't going to follow them to find food?  When we look at those tracks, no dopamine.  It doesn't matter than they are still tracks.  The fact that they are tracks isn't enough. 

Remember when I said we look at the phone and see that it's spam?  No dopamine.  It doesn't matter that it is still a message.  It isn't an interesting message.  Being a message isn't enough.

For some people, getting XP for role-playing is enough.  But dopamine is funny.  It is only turns up when something is special.  When something is repeated and repeated, and stops being special ... no dopamine.

This isn't a choice.  This is biology.  Once we have participated in something that produces a certain rate of dopamine, because of the nature of that activity, a lesser activity doesn't cut it.  A lesser activity is boring.  A lesser activity doesn't give us dopamine.  It doesn't matter how many thousands of people argue that doing such-and-such with experience helps in their campaign, we shouldn't expect this to work in ours, because it is we may be playing with different stakes at this level.

It's bad advice, because the dopamine gratification provided by the advice isn't sustainable.  If you try it, you'll find that out.


  1. "We also have things in dungeons other than combat, like traps." I love how he says this with the most arrogant, condescending tone, as though his audience has never heard of this game before...

  2. They are all like this.

    "Captain Obvious to the rescue!"

  3. I particularly like it when Monty says, "They feel like they're getting something, but it is really just bullshit: but what the fuck, they're psychologically retarded, so they'll eat this crap up with a spoon!"

    Or words to that effect.

  4. This may very well have to do with the lower risk of being in combat, that newer games present. If there is little risk in battle, players have little incentive to try to avoid the enemy patrols or talk their way past enemies, because doing so costs them the XP they would earn from combat, and not doing so (IE fighting everything) isn't enough of a risk that missing out on that XP is worth it.

    The campaign I run uses Pathfinder, and I've heard the players come to that conclusion more than once, before I dropped monster XP for a different leveling system.

  5. So, after breaking the game, the solution was not to fix the break, but to insert a wholly arbitrary subjective reward-system that effectively gives the players more combative abilities for combats they're not going to participate in.

    Yes, that's a brilliant solution.

  6. I get the dopamine argument. It's exactly the argument against legalizing marijuana.

    However, I do not see them as identical. Giving XP for role-playing in a role-playing game seems completely logical. The point of the game is to role-play, so gamers should be rewarded when they do well in the game. That does not mean risk/reward should be disregarded.

    Also, if gamers are just given XP for combat, which causes them to "level up". They are also getting non-combative abilities for combats, which would be like receiving combative abilities for non-combats.

  7. Well, this was more a primer in biology than anything else.

    Did get the point across, though.

  8. Troy,

    It is clear that you do not read this blog, and that you did not read the post. I make no argument about marijuana whatsoever. Whatever argument you think is there is entirely in your head.

    Take the line in the post, "systematically underscoring every discussion or 'clarification'" ... this is you, telling me that the point of the game is to role-play.

    The point of the game is NOT role-play, though there are reasons why a substantial portion of the community thinks that it is. I suggest reading my posts, The Two Philosophies, Getting Started and Bogost Deconstructed. I suggest you actually read them, as two of the post are about experts in game design. You're probably not an expert in game design, so you have much to learn.

    Therefore, except in your opinion, which in fact counts for nothing, there is no "logic" whatsoever about your assertion. (Read a definition of logic, please, before continuing to throw that word around).

    Finally, as the blog post above clearly states, even IF the game were about role-playing, giving XP as a dopamine encouragement is a crummy form of reward, as it quickly fades and afterwards ceases to have any meaning. So you're still dead wrong.


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