Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Food for Thought: Challenge-Reward Dynamics

Every once in a while I have the urge to complete all sidequests in a game I'm playing. Usually this urge happens with Japanese RPGs. But that's not the point of this post. What I would actually like to discuss today, is this topic: can we apply the challenge-reward dynamics present in games to user experience of non-game applications.

To recap briefly, challenge-reward dynamics are one of the reasons games are addictive to play (but definitely not the only reason). Obviously this should not be big news. A typical game provides challenges to the player, and rewards success. Typically the reward is provided in some form of in-game goods or information, although modern games also offer external rewards such as trophies and some digital goods (desktop themes, whatever). Most of the time, the concrete reward is tied to a sense of accomplishment, that familiar pride of overcoming a difficult challenge. Sometimes there are challenges in games that have no concrete reward, but the challenge itself is interesting enough and the sense of achievement is the only reward that's needed.

Applications on the other hand do not usually provide any internal challenges or rewards. When we think about programs like word processors, the challenge is definitely external (well, aside from the challenge of learning to use the application, which by the way is usually not very fun or rewarding). Applications are like tools. You don't want that hammer to provide any internal challenge or reward - you just want to build your house with it. Obviously applying challenge-reward dynamics to tools is probably a bad idea, but who knows? But not all applications are tools these days. Entertainment applications stand somewhere between tools and games, and are a field where ease of use might not be the obvious way to go. This is the application domain I'm primarily interested in.

While usability design principles generally agree that applications should communicate their system model to the user clearly, I think this particular principle should be challenged in entertainment applications. The value of an entertainment (or edutainment for that matter) application is mostly measured by how long can it engage its user. This roughly translates to how long the application can throw something different at the user. Games are definitely champions at engaging players; my personal record for a single player game is over 300 hours, but for online games this is more like the norm! On the other end of the spectrum, let's think of something like a virtual museum.

The idea of a virtual museum sounds good on paper - it's a museum anyone can visit from their home. But think about the concept for a while. Is there any real motivation to keep engaged to the virtual museum experience, which I assume can only be a fraction of a real museum experience. Why just simulate walking in a museum, when a virtual world allows many more options that are relatively cheap to implement. If we introduced challenge-reward dynamics, maybe part of the experience could be actually finding the attractions. The point being, if we want the users to get interested in paintings or whatever the museum is displaying, you might as well make them rewards that are challenging to get in some way. Modeling the virtual world after the real museum should not be the point.

People value things they have attained through some effort. This is something to keep in mind while thinking about entertainment and especially edutainment applications. Exploration and challenge are important keywords for this context, and are not (necessarily) in line with the user model / system model principle. Sometimes hiding meanings can make them more meaningful to the person who discovers them.

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