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External Rewards and Jesse Schell's Amazing Lecture

I read a lot about psychology, then I tell you guys none of it. This is probably because I spend practically every waking moment working on the graphic design of three different card games and the logistics of manufacturing them. Anyway, Jesse Schell takes the opposite approach and clearly explains the intersection of games and psychology, instead of keeping it to himself.

Prisoners to External Rewards

The unspoken premise of his DICE 2010 lecture is that people are prisoners to external reward systems. "External reward" is practically a curse word to me, a thing I'm ever vigilant against. I don't need experience point systems giving me a false sense of mastery, or Xbox "achievements" for watching the opening movie of a game (that's a real one). But people absolutely are driven by external rewards. So much so that Schell doesn't even question it, he simply takes it as given.

He muses about a (dystopian?) future where games with external rewards permeate every minute of our lives. He looks at the beginnings of that in our current world and extrapolates out an extreme future where this stuff has completely taken over. What will stop it from taking over? Nothing, of course. Humanity has thoroughly proven that it can be manipulated by hollow external reward systems, and so these systems will take over. Most "games" on Facebook right now are hardly games at all, they are simply viruses-of-the-mind that are designed to spread, rather than to be of any actual value. Once your shoes have sensors on them, your Corn Flakes box has an internet connection to your friends' Corn Flakes boxes, and your e-book reader has eye-tracking which rewards you with points if you really read a book...points and "games" will be woven into your everyday life.

Who Exactly Will Design Our Future? 

Facebook "games" generally have their (virus-like) systems designed by skilled game designers. Schell points out that currently the external reward systems we see cropping up in places like his car's dashboard (that shows a plant growing the more energy he saves) are designed by "whoever happened to be around at that company." He rightly points out that actual game designers have the power and skill to make sure the future external reward systems that will permeate our lives will actually improve our lives also. These systems could cause us to read more and better books, to brush our teeth as much as we should, and so on. Yes, that could happen. DanC of made that exact point as well, and we've already seen the benefits of it in exercise games like Wii Fit.

I'm with Schell every step of the way in his lecture, except for that last bit though. While it's true that skilled designers could use all this for good once sensors and points take over our real lives, it seems almost certain that they generally won't. If Facebook is any indication, they will simply create the most effective mental viruses that drive whatever commercial behavior they want, with little regard to the victims (consumers).

The Good Side of External Reward Systems

For the record, I'm ok with (and sometimes do consulting work for) external reward systems that are not evil. For example, a leaderboard system or matchmaking system surrounding a competitive game is an external reward system, but it also legitimately improves the experience of competition. As mentioned above, the various fitness games we're seeing these days use points and gamey systems to motivate us to exercise, and I can't say I'm against that. It's a helping hand to do what we should be doing anyway. These things certainly can be used for's just that they so often are used for evil (such as to stimulate addiction with no benefit to the victim).

Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Freedom

I urge you to be vigilant against external rewards. Brush your teeth because it fights tooth decay, not because you get points for it. Read a book because it enriches your mind, not because your Kindle score goes up. Play a game because it's intellectually stimulating or relaxing or challenging or social, not because of your Xbox Live Achievement score. Jesse Schell's future is coming. How resistant are you to letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards?

Reader Comments (8)

I know next to nothing about game psychology, but I'm rapidly becoming interested. How games can affect people's desire to take action within a community is of particular interest to me – as someone with a journalistic background. Which leads me to ask this newbie question: If people want to brush their teeth in the first place, what's wrong with rewarding them in addition?

Put another way: If we can assume that the external reward doesn't discourage people from reading a book, but might encourage others to pickup a Kindle, how is that bad?

March 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoey Baker

To: Joey Baker
Please watch the video for more detail on different types of external rewards.
Probably most people would agree that incentives for doing good things is not inherently bad.
But creating a mindset where people are only inclined to do things because there is an external reward is questionable at best.
Also, acclimating people to dependence on an external reward system means that whoever is supplying the rewards has the power to manipulate the rewardee. Not just brushing your teeth, but brushing with a specific brand of toothpast. Not just reading a book in your Kindle, but reading a specific book, or in an even more ominous case, withholding reward for reading certain books, a form of suppression.
However, I would point out that people who view this presentation and paint Orwellian images in their minds would be wise to read about Edward Bernays, cousin of Sigmund Freud and father of "public relations", more properly referred to as scientifically grounded, mass media-leveraging, systematic, opinion-shaping propaganda. Bernays termed his scientific method of opinion-shaping "engineering of consent", and used the psychological insights of Freud as well as the research of Pavlov in his methods. People's opinions and behavior have been manipulated for generations, and the only way to combat it is to be aware of it.

March 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlde Edo

I'm always hoping that there are people out there, that have one thing in the back of their mind when designing something like this or discussing "price points" and "reward systems" no one, including Jesse Schell in that video seem to consider: morality.

But as time passes by year by year, there are just more and more applications and games and (game) systems that encourage long-term commitment/obligation and spending of money to even get into them, and even more to stay onboard and participate and instead of pushing people away, because they're being used to make money off of them for little to no effort, it attracts even more and leads to increased brand loyalty in many cases, I’m slowly losing hope...

Sure there are still companies out there (in gaming and otherwise) that do not make use of this, but it becomes increasingly more common.

From MMOs, that are specifically designed to keep people playing as long as possible by wanting to improve their alter ego, tend to social relations in the virtual world and not lose said investment (of time, money and social bonds) if they drop out. “Free Play” and Item systems that make you pay to “get ahead” of your friends or have a higher chance at winning etc., Micropayments (which nowadays seem to be everywhere) to some of the newest “systems” on a similar basis.

EA/Bioware’s “social” site for instance, that rewards customers for registering their games with extra content and items (and uses that already created account (which was made to get the free stuff) to advertise and lower the threshold/effort required to pay for “DLC”) and the “Community Event of Epic Proportions” that required a 6 days countdown, which turned out to be the “Bioware Bazaar”, a pyramid scheme kind of thing that reward points for owning original games and rewarding more points for participation via Twitter, solving “Challenges” or making as many people as possible click some sort of profile link. The earned points can in turn be transformed into prizes by bidding in some sort of points “auction”.
The “PDLC” EA announced (“content” which is being released before the actual game comes out and people are supposed to pay for), which basically sounds a lot like a paid for Demo/Beta to me.

Activisions “Guitar Hero/Rock Band” price-scheme, which Bobby Kotick (Activisions CEO) explained best himself:
"In the last cycle of videogames you spent $50 on a game, played it and took it back to the shop for credit," said the redheaded recidivist at the Deutsche Bank Securities Technology Conference. "Today, we'll [charge] $100 for a guitar. You might add a microphone or drums, you might buy two or three expansions packs, different types of music. Over the life of your ownership you'll probably buy around 25 additional song packs in digital downloads. So, what used to be a $50 sale is a $500 sale today.
Or their newest masterpiece, a planned subscription fee for coming Call of Duty games (basically in one fell swoop introducing the MMO price model to SinglePlayer games).

Microsoft is another great example with forcing people to pay to play online, all “DLC” or “bigger Patches” (as they were called earlier) having to cost something (for instance forcing Valve not to release Updates for games like Team Fortress 2 or Left4Dead because they don’t want that) and the whole Achievements and Points system in place with people obsessing over it, even if they don’t “particularly like” a game, an example.

Even Valve, discovering the psychology of Achievements, price-points and sales (leading to huge spikes in sales) and hiring an experimental psychologist to help them with that.

This all leads to a few questions: Where did all this come from and where will it stop? Are games only tools to make mass amounts of money for huge corporations nowadays, and where did the basic principle of games being mainly fun go?

April 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDex

I just wanted to say that pretty much everything has a direct or an indirect purpose of generating massive amounts of money for corporations and therefore the government in the form of corporate and individual income taxes on the employees of the company.

Corporations themselves are nothing but variable interest bonds, so to speak. The owners pay obscene amounts of money to create business enterprises and they don't do that in the interest of you getting cheap games. They do it because they want to have that investment provide returns.

When you buy a bond, if you have an option between a 4% interest rate and a 20% interest rate (all else being equal) you don't opt for the 4% knowing that your "niceness" in doing so is going to help other gamers obtain games cheaply. You don't even choose 4% instead of 5% because you are nice and you want others to obtain games cheaply.

When it comes to your own retirement and the welfare of your family, you want as high of returns on your investments as you can get.

This has not changed since invention of finance.

Also, it is unrelated to the point, but you mentioned "where did the basic principle of games being FUN go?". People play games for a lot of reasons and only one of them is "fun". Because you play games for fun doesn't mean that I play games for fun. You may prefer a reward centered on how much you feel entertained. I may prefer to play a game just because I want to prove that I am better at it than whoever else I am playing against. I am not wrong because I am not playing for fun nor are you wrong because you are not playing to win.

You play games for fun and I play games to win, but for the most part the owners of corporations (stockholders) don't care that you play for fun or that I play to win, they care about getting as high of a return as possible on the funds they invested to get the ownership that they have.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRaiddinn

I know pretty much how "corporations" work, that doesn't mean that there is an exact contradiction to taking the moral high ground and making some money, instead of slipping into shady drug/tobacco resembling business models where your customers are just sacks of money to be cracked open like a piñata and getting them "hooked" on a product like "World of Warcraft" or "Farmville" and trick them into making as many small payments as they can afford and making them come back in short time intervals if they want more...

See Google for example, almost all of their products are "free" for the end-user (Google Earth/Street View, GMail, Android, Google Finance/Books/Translate, YouTube etc.), they're making their money mainly with Advertisements and even try to operate "Green" and they're one of the most profitable companies on the globe...

Analogue to that, game companies like Bioware, Blizzard and Valve (before they got bought) didn't get where they are now by being the "greediest motherfuckers on the block", but by making and selling quality products and resembling that in the production cycle of their games (they didn’t go developing a game trying to make the most money possible for instance), listening to their fan base e.g. case StarCraft Alpha, reiterating their work and making sure their games are fun (and very balanced) also on a competitive level.

Also, take a look at the Valve article I linked in the previous response, it basically says that the lower the price of the game, the higher the profit, up to a over 1000% increase in real money profit if it is cheap enough (75% off sales)? I've also heard some more of those "small" and cheap games, including for example the remake of Monkey Island 1 sold extremely well and made lots of profits despite of low price points of 10-15$.

Sure, some companies might be making the "quick buck" nowadays going that "all profit, all the way" path, but they're not helping their reputation with their target customers and the press (at least those that care), and I'm pretty sure they're not building the fan base/following that Bio, Blizz or Valve have that way either and it might just end up biting them in the ass in the long run...
Hell EA/Activision only survived all this time because they're buying up companies and brands that are "in" at a certain moment in time and keep running them into the ground (while also conveniently eliminating most of the competition) by selling mostly the same brand of games and bad management decisions till there is no money left and then close them down.

April 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDex

That Jesse Schell creeped the hell outta me. The first part was about him drooling over how much money others made with cheapo systems. That was already... OK, not exactly what I'd call an "achievement". But still, I can get the point in that big $$$ world. And the video was still mildly amusing... at times.

But damn, that second part of the video! ... Was he really that much into what he said? Sensors everywhere, things in the skin, your tissues, house, give sugars for every good action, people tamed like good pets in that big game society? That's absolutely gross. I really hope that few people in the audience felt something wobbling in their pants for that kind of dystopia, and I wish one would have stood up to say "Fuck that! No one's gonna take humanity there!"
Seriously, if we do get there... go for the gasoline and zippos.

My patience is really wearing thin with all those drug makers of the likes of McBlizzard and co, providing miserable, void and repetitive games, growing entire generations of addicted idiots, where teenagers find more reasons to whine because the third sequel in a series will lack a given minor feature than the fact that Obama refused a game like "Rendition: Guantanamo" to be published. How many people even know about Lawrence Wilkerson's statement that even Bush knew the majority of the people in Guantanamo were innocents, sold to the US for $5000 each, without knowing why they were arrested to begin with, and that some of them were below 14 or above 90 years old?

What will our society look like in ten to fifteen years from now, with tens and tens of millions of kids and teenagers, constantly exposed to the all-in-your-face lollipop reward and micro-payment systems? When will kids be allowed to borrow money from banks instead of from their parents? Surely, beyond a certain threshold, this will seem natural, wouldn't it?
And who needs such achievements, seriously? What's the point? What's the gain in games? What does it add that's fundamentally good and substantial?

What kind of imbecile is going to pay attention to Ford's fake plant that grows in your dahsboard as your driving style consumes less fuel or whatever?

This is madness!
- No! This is USA!

Pinch me.

April 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStone Bytes

some of these "new" ideas seemed familiar, from books like "Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience" (the idea of turning every aspect of daily life into a game)
or Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders" (using psychology and sociology to manipulate people so they buy your stuff). Maybe this is the future (well, the past, actually... but history is bunk, I know ;-) ), but ethically I find it despicable to strive for external devices like games to make you a better person (and who defines what a 'good person' is anyway? the toothpaste industry maybe, because you were a good boy/girl and brushed your teeth for three minutes?)-because you'll create unneccesary dependencies. What happened to enlightenment and Kant's idea of "man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity"? What Schell is describing could easily create a process of turning everbody into brainless lemmings.

August 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersascietto

Don't forget what Marshall McLuhan said: "The price of eternal vigilance is indifference."

January 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJesse Schell
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