The “Dark Souls” of Player Motivation

By Nick Venegas

In my initial analysis of core gameplay loops, I examined the four principle loops to game design: the internal game loop, the player’s mental loop, the interactive loop, and the designer’s reactive loop. In my presentation, I only analyzed how gameplay loops operate with near-exclusive respect to the interactive loop and my discussion questions only suggested broader implications towards the player’s mental loop through monetization models and myopic effects on player psychology when all the systems work as intended. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the recursive structure of the interactive loop: the player makes a choice which changes the game model which then, in turn, gives new stimulus to the player, causing them to make new changes to the game, and so on. The idea that a video game can change the way a player thinks is something that I just kind of brushed over as I briefly discussed how designers employ this principle to achieve design goals within the game world. In order to delve deeper into my understanding of the player’s mental loop, I am taking the unique opportunity of this blog post to go a little “meta” and explore how the principles presented in core gameplay loops have affected me and what implications my example may raise for player psychology as a whole.

Firstly, I’d like to start with what spurred my specific interest in player psychology. I was watching Ian’s video essay on Jonathan Blow’s The Witness and I was fascinated with his particular section on pedagogy: the art, science, or profession of teaching people. Although his discussion pertains to The Witness’s tutorials, I found the contrast of his examples to be intriguing even in a broader context. Specifically, The Witness employs “safe failure” as a means to communicate new information to the player. Rather than an explanation of how the mechanics work, Blow instead uses simple puzzles with only a limited number of solutions so that the player may experiment with different approaches in order to recognize patterns and discern the rules for themselves. By their very nature, all games use safe failure since they are intrinsically devoid of real or serious consequences outside of their own ruleset. However, this method of learning via failure was sharply contrasted by the methods of contemporary academia where students (typically) only get one chance at an assessment with severe and permanent consequences for failure, encouraging intense preparation before the first, and likely only, attempt. 

As somebody whose life has been encompassed in equal part by both video games and school, I wondered how these different teaching methods could coexist in my head; how could I consistently learn in a system that threatened severe consequences for failure whilst simultaneously playing games which allowed me to learn through failure without consequences? The ostensible incompatibility of these methods wasn’t reconciled until I thought about my experience with one of my favorite game series: Dark Souls. Initially, I considered how I would die to Dark Souls bosses over and over again in order to learn from my failures, seemingly embodying the philosophy of safe failure. However, I also recalled my intense proclivity to rigorously research wikis and forums for what weapons, armor, spells, and equipment I should use in order to make my character as strong as possible. Even as I replayed these games multiple times, breezing through most encounters with ease, my research habit prevailed as my focus shifted from what equipment would maximize my survival to what equipment would maximize my “fun” on a given playthrough. Here I was practicing the safe failure method in one facet of the game while practicing a fear of failure in another. Surely, I could just experiment with different armor and weapons in order to find out which ones suited me best just as I experimented with my approach to fighting bosses? Why didn’t I do it? What makes these scenarios any different? I believe the answer lies in the motivational disparity between explicit and implicit player goals.

As the player understands and evaluates the game’s model in their own mental loop, both explicit and implicit goals motivate the player to carry out actions. Explicit goals are goals that the game sets for the player. To retain the Dark Souls example, this would be something like an obstructive boss which the player must defeat. Implicit goals are goals that are entirely generated by the player in response to what they know to be possible within the game’s model. Dark Souls presents the players with many different kinds of divergent weapon types, but the designers never explicitly motivate the use of one playstyle over another. So, the player will generate an implicit goal of what kind of specific build they want to use in response to what they know the game will allow them to do. Generally, explicit goals fall in line with the safe failure method of learning since the consequences of not achieving the goal are only limited to the game world. However, I believe that implicit goals bridge the gap between the player’s in-game actions and real-life ramifications since their source is generated from outside the game model. When failing to complete their implicit goal, the player is no longer facing consequences purely from the game. They are also facing consequences from themselves as any disappointment or frustration from failing their own self-created task transcends the game and becomes real. However, these consequences don’t necessarily have to be severe; it is entirely up to how much the player chooses to emphasize their own goals. It is for this reason that I believe implicit goals have the potential to be much more motivating than explicit ones. This would explain why my proclivity to research equipment always beats out my desire to experiment with builds: I am worried of the real-world consequence of potentially wasting my time on a playthrough where I could have had more fun. 

The power of implicit goals is especially apparent in phenomena such as challenge runs and speedrunning. Despite the game designers giving no explicit incentives to have players constrain themselves or beat the game as fast as possible, some players recognize that they can and will do it anyway. For implicit goals, the designer’s intention doesn’t matter because the goal is merely a recognition of what the players discover to be possible, so designers have no control over what they do with open-ended mechanics; if Mario levels can be completed at any time, there will exist a player that will want to complete it at the quickest time; if Mario can freely jump, there will exist a player who will try to complete a level by not jumping at all. As a result, implicit goals are very volatile and can result in both positive and negative experiences for players; a player may make more fun for themselves with their implicit goal, but another player’s paranoia may cause them to do something boring or frustrating which contradicts the designer’s intention. So although a game may be meant to be easygoing, taken slowly, or experimental, the power of implicit goals will see players restricting their own abilities, speedrunning the game, or even meticulously “min-maxing” their Dark Souls build. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s