I’ve stumbled over an article recently that compared two role-playing games with one another: Shadowrun and Blades in the Dark. The larger purpose of that comparison was to explain how one of those games mechanically supports and guides the in-game content, while the other barely interacts with what players do in the game.
The phrase to express this idea is called reward structures. Simply put, reward structures refer to the back-and-forth between player and game, in which certain actions taken by the player trigger a response from the game that the player reacts positively to. Or in other words, if you do a certain thing the game will give you something for it. This is of course an incredibly reductive way of describing what actually happens when we play, but it is a decent starting point. It clarifies that not only is there some kind of interaction happening between player and game environment, but that interaction isn’t experienced neutrally. We react positively or negatively to the changes our actions evoke in the game environment.
You can see this idea influencing a lot of designs coming from the indie rpg scene. Games that formalize ways in which the game’s rules immediately respond to players acting in a certain way. The game Apocalypse World and the “Powered by the Apocalypse” games that were inspired/influenced by it, make this idea explicit. Characters are given rewards if their actions within the game fall into certain parameters. A particularly combat-focused character might get something for making their characters act aggressively towards threats. Now, if you’ve played a few RPGs in your time, you might be thinking “Wait a minute, that’s just XP for good roleplaying! That’s nothing new, at all!“. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But by encoding this into the rules and character types, two important things happen:
1) It is made explicit, given all involved a clear, tangible idea of what out-of-game consequences specific actions have.
2) It takes the reward out of the realm of GM fiat and into the ‘neutral’ area of game rules.
What immediately struck me about this arrangement, though, is that it requires a certain amount of obliviousness to actually support the fiction (i.e. in-game content) as opposed to simply engaging the game via some super-structure that refers to the fiction itself. You need to overcome the disconnect of manipulating the game (via conscious application of rules mechanisms) and experiencing the fiction through the character. Now this is far from an insurmountable challenge, and I have little doubt that a great many player are capable of easily balancing those two impulses. Still, it needs players to be adapt at this tiny cognitive feat to result in experiential role-playing.
Luckily, mechanics aren’t the only layer of reward structures that games deal with. There is another element of reward structures that I think is heavily present in role-playing games, subtly yet very influential in board games and occasionally emerges in video games, too. I’m talking about reward structures on the social level, that is to say the simple way that people and not the game respond to what you do. In RPGs this idea was elegantly, and somewhat brilliantly, folded into the fan mail mechanic in Primetime Adventures. There, a common pool of tokens is available to all the players at the table, and they are encouraged to award them to other players for a particularly well-made contribution. These tokens, once awarded, can be spend for some benefit, but it is the act of one player awarding another, that deepens the investment and heightens the excitement of all involved. (Admittedly the rules are still somewhat fuzzy on what ought to be awarded. But during play this was just part of getting to know other people’s preferences better and thus bringing the players closer together.)
I’m not too involved in RPG theory conversations these days, so I have no idea if and to what extent these ideas are outdated or have been discarded. I’m spending more time playing board games, but I think a lot of the same observations apply. There are mechanical reward structures which encourage players to pursue certain strategies over and over again. Arguably, some games are really just multiple reward structures nestled into one another. But it’s the social reward structure that I find far more interesting to talk about.
Especially, because I’ve come to believe that certain gaming genres meld this mechanical and social layer. The easiest example of this would be “Take That”-games where an action tends to trigger both a mechanical as well as a social response: you score a victory point, but you also make another player react in (hopefully faux-)frustration. I find that one of the appeals of certain, so-called destructive strategies to me, is that they evoke a response in another player. I find that part of the reason why I love to play board games is that emotional response from people at the table to the events unfolding in the game. It’s why games like Cosmic Encounter, DungeonQuest or Twilight Imperium will always rate so much higher in my personal estimation than technically more proficient and ambitious designs like Scythe or the recent Heaven & Ale.
The latter lack the emotional layer in play, that makes me want to get them back to the table. I don’t think of games as a purely or even pre-dominantly “left-brained” activity. Sure, we need logic, tactics, strategy and occasionally some maths to engage these games, but it’s only when play manages to connect to the right side of the brain, that I enjoy myself. Without an emotional response, it’s just cardboard and numbers. Without the game supporting a strong human element, I find no reason to ask my friends to spend their time doing this thing instead of connecting with one another in some other way.
All of which is just a roundabout way of saying, that our social behaviour is part of the reward structure in games. It’s the laughter, the surprises and the camaraderie found in both competition and cooperation that makes games come alive. Retreating from those is like starving yourself and the rest of the group of positive reinforcement that pushes gaming from a challenging mental activity to something social and fun.