Numbers That Go Up

Saturday October 18, 2008
A few years ago I was talking to Ying about my aspirations to one day develop my own game (Iä! Divunal! May its slumber soon be ended!).  I was telling her about its design — naïve student of interactive fiction that I was, I had decided that there would be two salient features: permanent death, and "no numbers anywhere".  Everything would be relayed to the player by way of descriptive phrases, because that was, like, more real, man.

Never one to pull any punches on my account, Ying told me she didn't think it would be any fun.  I asked her why she thought this game — which, if I could pull it off, would be artful, like a reading a novel that was written for you every day — would not be fun, whereas a grindy stat-monster like DragonRealms was fun. She said:
People like numbers that go up.
This is a phrase which I have now both said and heard in countless conversations with professional game designers.  At the time it struck me as insightful, but I didn't realize how insightful it was for many years.

Now, I am obsessed with the power of numbers that go up.  It's not just a trick for game designers.  It's a basic part of the human condition.  A power so great it can be used only for good, or evil.  A tool for positive social change.  A force which, every day, keeps little babies from dying.

You think that last bit was hyperbole, right?  Wrong.  Doctor Virginia Apgar developed the Apgar score, which is a way of rating how healthy a newborn baby is.  The development of the score itself, not any particular technique for improving the score, was responsible for drastically reducing infant mortality.  (I believe one of the largest drops in recorded history, but I can't find an online citation for that.)

Lest you think this had something to do with the culture around video games, she did this in 1952.

Many people have observed that there is also a dark side to this phenomenon.  In 1987, Alfie Kohn famously wrote an article that is now distributed with every copy of emacs which notes that giving people incentives gets them to focus on the incentive rather than the task; and enjoy the incentive more than the task.  In 2000, Joel Spolsky wrote "Incentive Pay Considered Harmful", which details the numerous problems with HR reviews and employee incentive pay.  Just this month, he expounded again in "How Hard Could It Be?", noting that when you pay people to optimize something, they will optimize it, whether that helps you or not.

I don't believe there's a contradiction here.  What these studies are observing is that, if you crudely design and crudely present an incentive, it will have crude effects.  There's an art and a science to designing incentives, and the people who write employee incentive plans (and incentive impact studies) are not really using interested in using incentives in the way that makes them effective: to make activities more fun.  The only people who really get this right are game designers.  Unfortunately, the insight that game designers have is rarely shared with other disciplines. Game studios make even software startups look tame by comparison, leaving their employees little time for professional development, or, you know, sleeping.  When their ideas are shared, they are frequently, almost implicitly dismissed — after all, it's "just a game".  The "serious" folks want measurable objectives, clearer research, not "fun".

But tell a "serious" cognitive scientist or a "businesslike" incentive plan designer to produce a scheme which will cause the user's brain to release large amounts of Dopamine on demand, and they're not likely to deliver anything useful.

I certainly don't have as much experience with this as I'd like, but I've made plenty of observations.  My personal hypothesis is that the key factor here is subtlety.  The apgar score is an arbitrary number.  It means nothing beyond what it means.  Your progress, or health in a game has no meaning beyond the game.  It's an obvious yardstick by which you can judge your progress, but it doesn't really matter.

Stack Overflow is, I think, a great example of this type of subtlety.  Your reputation is arbitrary, and there are lots of arbitrary little landmarks you can achieve.  "Badges", originally from City of Heroes, and also known as  "achievements" on Steam, are a great way to motivate users to stick around just a while longer.  "Oh, I'm done for the day, but I'm only 30 votes from civic duty.  Let me vote on a few more things."  Because the motivation is there, you stick around; but because it's subtle, it's not worth aggressively gaming the system (and thereby wrecking it).

You can see the flip side of that pretty quickly on similar sites that try to motivate participation based on money.  I can't tell how good Experts Exchange is, because it throws up roadblocks, to protect their precious "content" and make sure they can make money on it.  Those who I know who have tried it assure me that it is full of spam and fraud, largely because the incentive structure is all based around money.  The "score" doesn't represent progress or mark status, it is progress and it is status.  The point of Experts Exchange is to get money, and the questions are just there to provide you with a mechanism to do so.  The point of Stack Overflow is to provide good answers to questions, and the reputation score is just there to get a rough idea of who does that best.

I think that this principle can be applied in lots of places in everyday life.  To give you a hint of where I hope to apply it at Divmod, in Blendix: consider the feeling of getting a point in a game, and the feeling of checking off an item on a to-do list.  Compare beating a level to seeing a page full of "done" items.  Just imagine that page full of ticked-off checkmarks.  Makes you want to write a to-do list, doesn't it?