Monday, November 23, 2009

Awesome By Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement

When I was old enough to care whether I won or lost at games, but still too young to be any good at them, I decided RPGs were better than action games. After all, I could play Contra for hours and still be terrible at it - while if I played Dragon Warrior III for the same amount of time, my characters would gain levels and be much more capable of standing up to whatever threats they encountered. To progress in an action game, the player has to improve, which is by no means guaranteed - but to progress in an RPG, the characters have to improve, which is inevitable.

As I grew older, this conclusion lay dormant and unexamined in my mind. RPGs continued to be my favorite genre. I relished the opportunity to watch interesting, lovable characters develop and interact in epic storylines. (Comparatively interesting and lovable, anyway - say what you will about Cecil, but his quest for redemption revealed a lot more depth than Mega Man's quest to shoot up some robots.) And I loved feeling like a hero. I saved the world in Final Fantasy IV, again in Lufia II, then again in Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger Masa and MuneChrono Trigger Black Tyrano

Then, one day in a Child Psychology course, I learned something interesting.

It turns out there are two different ways people respond to challenges. Some people see them as opportunities to perform - to demonstrate their talent or intellect. Others see them as opportunities to master - to improve their skill or knowledge.

Say you take a person with a performance orientation ("Paul") and a person with a mastery orientation ("Matt"). Give them each an easy puzzle, and they will both do well. Paul will complete it quickly and smile proudly at how well he performed. Matt will complete it quickly and be satisfied that he has mastered the skill involved.

Now give them each a difficult puzzle. Paul will jump in gamely, but it will soon become clear he cannot overcome it as impressively as he did the last one. The opportunity to show off has disappeared, and Paul will lose interest and give up. Matt, on the other hand, when stymied, will push harder. His early failure means there's still something to be learned here, and he will persevere until he does so and solves the puzzle.

While a performance orientation improves motivation for easy challenges, it drastically reduces it for difficult ones. And since most work worth doing is difficult, it is the mastery orientation that is correlated with academic and professional success, as well as self-esteem and long-term happiness.

In childhood, it is remarkably easy to instill one orientation or the other. It all comes down to the type of praise you receive. If you perform well on a task and are told, "Wow, you must be smart!" it teaches you to value your skill, and thus fosters a performance orientation. But if instead you are told, "Wow, you must have worked hard!" it teaches you to value your effort and thus fosters a mastery orientation.

What does this have to do with videogames? Well.

Super PSTW Action RPG

RPGs are many things, but they are almost never hard. As I realized in childhood, the vast majority of RPG challenges can be defeated simply by putting in time. RPGs reward patience, not skill. Almost never is the player required to work hard - only the characters need improve. Failing to defeat Zeromus might mean your strategy is flawed, but it also might mean your level is too low. Guess which problem is easier to remedy?

Yet while the player is mostly marking time, the characters are accomplishing epic, heroic deeds, saving lives and defeating evil. Even when the player is not explicitly praised for this, the game makes its attitude clear. "You're awesome!" it says, in essence. "You're so strong and noble and heroic!" The player is showered with praise for non-achievements. It's like porn for the performance oriented.

The characters make all the effort, but the player receives all the accolades. The game doesn't have to say "Wow, you must be smart!" to train the player to value impressiveness that was not hard-won - even when the praise is for effort rather than skill, it is a lie. The player has expended only time.

"You may have cursed this never-ending journey. You have known injury and defeat, but you have struggled on to reach this place. Your in-born intelligence and courage have helped bring you here. You have believed in your friends, and as a group, you have supported each other. Have you ever stopped to consider how much your power has grown?"
—Tenda tribe member, Earthbound

When I learned about performance and mastery orientations, I realized with growing horror just what I'd been doing for most of my life. Going through school as a "gifted" kid, most of the praise I'd received had been of the "Wow, you must be smart!" variety. I had very little ability to follow through or persevere, and my grades tended to be either A's or F's, as I either understood things right away (such as, say, calculus) or gave up on them completely (trigonometry). I had a serious performance orientation. And I was reinforcing it every time I played an RPG.

I could point to characters and story as much as I liked. But I couldn't lie to myself - not anymore. Most of my enjoyment of Super Mario RPG, of Skies of Arcadia, of Kingdom Hearts - came from illegitimate sources. It came from overidentifying with the heroes and claiming their accomplishments as my own. It came from abusing them for fake achievement. I felt sick.

After panicking for a while, I came up with a plan. There was no point blaming anyone else for the state of things - I was the only one who could turn it around. So I would do so. I would instill a mastery orientation in myself.

The first thing I did was stop playing RPGs. I was addicted and I had to quit. Then, it was time to retrain myself. I started small: I began playing action games. If RPGs had reinforced my bad habits, then action games could reinforce good ones.

Sonic AdventureSonic Adventure DX didn't take long to beat, but I didn't let myself stop there: the game had an achievement system, in which the player was awarded with "emblems" for reaching various goals - like speeding Sonic through stages with impressively quick times. Many of them were very difficult, and I couldn't accomplish them on the first, second, fifth, or tenth attempt. But I kept trying. And when I finally had all 160 emblems the game offered, I knew I'd crossed a milestone. I, not Sonic, had improved until I could pass these challenges. I had developed actual skills, even if they were objectively useless ones. I had done something I could actually be proud of: I had built a habit of not giving up.

It's been a long road since then - it's not easy to reverse a way of thinking so deeply ingrained for so long. And I still have to watch myself, and not let myself be too proud or self-congratulatory when I accomplish something quickly and easily. But I feel good about how far I've come. And Sonic will always have a special place in my heart for the role he played in starting me down the road to recovery.

I'm not saying that everybody needs to play on the hardest difficulties they can possibly manage and devote hours to mastering every game they touch. Few of us have that kind of time or patience, and it's better spent developing more useful skills or actually being creative or productive. I don't play on Hard all the time, or always shoot for 100% completion. And I'm certainly not telling you not to play RPGs - I play them occasionally myself now, confident that now I'm enjoying them for the characters and story and not as a source of fake achievement. What I am saying is that you should pay attention to what's going on in your head when you play these games.

Imagine you were watching Lord of the Rings, but there was something wrong with your DVD player and you had to manually advance scenes by hitting a button. And you might have to watch the Battle of the Pelennor Fields a few times before you could make it past the Battle of the Black Gate. Periodically Sam or Aragorn would turn to another character and say something like, "You are so brave and heroic for coming along and helping me. I couldn't do this without you." But these moments would always be filmed in perspective shots, with the characters speaking directly to the camera.

Would you roll your eyes, wishing they'd get on with it? Or would you feel a small but uncontrollable flush of pride? And what would it say about you if you did?

Aragorn says 'You're my hero.'

Be aware of why you play the games you do the way you do. Be aware of how you use them. We humans are remarkably adept at finding ways to lie to ourselves, and ways to be self-destructive.

There is a followup to this post.


  1. Wow. This one really fuckin' hit home. I've been slowly having the same realization about myself recently, and I'm better for it. As a kid, I was also constantly praised as being very smart and gifted. Being Asian didn't help either - kids would constantly say, "Oh you're Asian! That means you're smart!" I actually thought for a long time that hard work was an admission of defeat, because if you were actually smart, you wouldn't have to work so hard! This was fine for my earlier years, but as life started throwing more and more difficult challenges that I couldn't just immediately "get", my self-esteem suffered.

    Anyway, back to games! I love your quote, "It's like porn for the performance oriented." That really captures the essence of the situation: giving you a cheap & easy substitute for something that should be a result of hard work and persistence. In an MTV interview, Jonathan Blow expressed a similar sentiment about MMOs like World of Warcraft, comparing them to cigarettes, and challenging MMO designers to take moral responsibility for their product. Is a whole generation of kids being taught the wrong work habits by MMOs? It is indeed a horrifying thought. Far more frightening than the whole "video games make kids violent" ruckus. Though at the end of the day, I think social influences, such as parents, school, and friends, are far more relevant to how a kid develops than the influences of a video game.

    There seems to be a theme in your posts about time vs. skill. Punishment by time, I think we agreed, is just a waste of time. Also, "skill by time", ie. grinding an RPG character to gain proxy skills, is equally a waste of time. In a sense, it would be great if games were more "timeless"! Heh heh.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Great post. Here's another article that's kind of related:

  3. Myst series are sufficiently hard

  4. @Steven A.:
    Effort as an admission of defeat is the saddest part, I think.

    Back when I was teaching my cousin to play Guitar Hero, I made a comment that I could tell she was really trying hard - and it was true; she had Intense Playstation Face and everything.

    She shot me the dirtiest look and gave me a sarcastic thanks for insulting her ability.

    I hate that we are being taught to think this way.

  5. @Yisong:
    That article is fantastic. I strongly encourage anyone who found this post the least bit interesting to read it.

  6. Thank you. You made the connection I had yet to make. Now I need to go through the retraining you mention. Excellent point about effort as an insult, too. All too true.

    I think I'd seen the NY Mag article linked and had somewhat identified with it, but your incredibly accurate dissection of achievement by proxy as provided by many games really brings it together even further.

    Anyway. If you could provide a follow-up post about your road to 'recovery' that would be great too, I'd love to read it.

  7. You played the wrong RPGs. Play Baldur's Gate or DA:O on highest difficult and you'll have plenty to master.

  8. Very interesting article. I was a big fan too of RPGs as a kid, still am. I know you're not saying that all RPG players are performance orientation, but I think you might be taking the investment of time a little too lightly. If I wasn't mastery oriented I would have turned off Crono Trigger when I couldn't beat Lavos at the first opportunity, I wouldn't have tried to power up all my materia to MASTER level in FF7, and I wouldn't have tried to find all the bobble heads in Fallout 3.

    I don't think the fact that I never completed any of these goals makes me performance oriented either. I liked RPGs for the story and customization. I, and I think a lot of other people probably did this too, wanted to find all the secrets and beat every little sidequest. If I powered up my character just enough to beat a boss it was only to advance the story because I was getting bored.

    My point is this, I agree with you that it's important to recognize what orientation you are and if you're not happy with it then change it, but people who read this should be aware that liking RPGs does not, by default, mean you're performance oriented.

    Good article. Keep em coming.

  9. Play Braid. Might be a good determinant of what type of gamer you are.

  10. Except, when you did solve something by being smart, and someone tells you "wow you must have worked hard". You might well just think.. heheh no I didn't. Other people must be dumb if they have to work really hard to solve that... I must be smart yay me.

  11. a always hated rpgs and only played action games and i have the habit of solving everthing possible in every game i play :D hell i even play levels again if i didnt perform well enough :D

  12. UO "back in the day" had a serious skill element, but it was all PVP based. Everybody maxed out, battling for territory, suffering real "loss" - man that was a great game.

  13. This brings me to a whole new level of understanding. Thank you.

  14. Fan-freaking-tastic. This hadn't even occurred to me, and now it seems true, down to the early childhood training. Not just true, very true. Thanks for helping me understand myself a bit better.

  15. Heh, this is a completely invalid argument, and a gross over-generalization.

    Some action games are a joke (Half-life 2 and ep 1 and 2, though I enjoyed them a lot, just aren't hard games even on the hard difficulty), and the RPGs I've played certainly require mastering some skill, be it as simple as balancing your inventory choices and using the right weapon against a given creature.

    But really, what skills do you think you're mastering in an action game? Memorizing a level layout, sequences of opponents and boss battles, etc. What does that give you, exactly, that, say, Nethack doesn't have? Same concept - you have to learn the levels, learn how various opponents fight, learn when it's best to run vs. fight, learn how to deal with the game's inherent randomness such that you have the edge, ....

    I'd say if you're looking this hard at the dangers of enjoying any game for the "wrong" reason, you should probably get out more. It's just entertainment, man!

  16. Ewww.... I saw myself far, far too much in that description, except that I dislike grinding, so I gravitated to strategy games where I could win by exploiting weak enemy AI.

    For me, performance orientation may have been a contributing element to my current and long-standing clinical depression. If I achieve anything short of immediate, spectacular success, I percieve it as failure. Hard-won victories and mere above-average performance count as shameful personal defeats on the tally board in my mind. With my internal scoring system stacked so heavily against me, it's hard to get motivated.

  17. What about those of us who play RPG's for the storylines?

    I'd stick around for your answer, but I have to go cry in a corner now that someone on the internet has so kindly explained to me my enjoyment of RPG's is actually illegitimate, and that I'm living vicariously though the muscle-bound, digital lives of the Hero characters! Clearly I don't enjoy the storyline, character development, or humor of these games in any way. I'm lying to myself!

    Ok, I'm off to obsessively and repetitively play an action game on the hardest setting until I get every single xbox live trophy. That, friends, is real, legitimate fun.

  18. Wow. These posts really did hit home.

  19. Dude, you totally hit the nail on the head for me. I have the exact same thought pattern; even the games you mentioned matched up. What's worse is that my brother was very "mastery oriented," and we never really got along because of it because he would always beat me. Ironically, I was the "smart" one growing up and am now finding that I'm quite lazy and that my brother is the one that works hard to get things right. I think we both struggle, though; it's not always clear-cut. Just having the "mastery" mindset isn't enough to motivate you to work hard at the right things.
    ...I think I'll start playing action games again... or maybe I'll learn an actual skill... like violin or something.

  20. I just want to say, like the other people, it really hit home... great post.

  21. Anonymous, for me your comment hit home harder than the article itself. My brother and I fit your description exceptionally well (my brother being more mastery-oriented than I).

    He plays the violin.

    I also play an instrument (the flute) and don't fit the description of performance-orientation exceptionally well (I play a lot of FPS, strategy, & action games because RPG achievements seem hollow), but the coincidences remain quite vivid.

  22. I can see that sort of thing happening with RPGs a lot, but some games require you to learn something new to get by. Great example from my childhood: Phantasy Star IV.

    There's a boss in Phantasy Star IV that you can't beat unless you use this one weapon as an item in battle. I did not realize that I had to do that, aside from hitting the enemy with it. If you don't use the item, every turn, the boss kills one of your characters, and you can only do 1 damage to him. It is physically impossible to beat him, even if you have the perfect setup of reviving items and combat, unless you use this item. I tried to just level up to get around this, and at around level 62, I gave up for a while. I came back later, somehow my game had been deleted, and I started over, and this time I accidentally stumbled upon using the weapon as an item, and I ended up being able to beat the rest of the game, finally. My level after beating the final boss of the entire game? 55. Sometimes levels aren't everything. But you're right, in most RPGs they are.

  23. Great points, the ending with lord of the rings was a bit weird though.

  24. For those that are taking offense to this article, I think some clarifications are due: The point isn't that all RPGs suck, and that if you play RPGs, you must be a loser :P There are other reasons to enjoy RPGs (story, music, etc.), and many RPGs require lots of actual mastery (Baldur's Gate, Fallout 1/2, etc.). But you have to admit, many RPGs do exhibit this "If you put in hours upon hours of mindless grinding, you shall be victorious!" attitude. Even the good ones do it here and there. The bad ones do it even more. And RPGs aren't the only ones that do it. I can think of many games in other genres.

    The last line of the post summarizes the main point of this article: be aware of these issues, and maybe ask yourself, am I playing RPGs a lot because they give me a steady supply of performance gratification?

  25. Sounds like someone needs a PS3 and a copy of Demon Souls!

  26. Thank you for writing this article! A fascinating read, and now I've got a million other tabs open in my browser relating to this topic.

  27. What a thought provoking post man. As an avid gamer, I find this article to be extremely thought provoking, I never ever looked that deeply into why or why not I enjoyed RPGs and MMOs the way I do, and why action games simply piss me off, but this in-depth analysis deserves many props because you hit it spot on brother.

  28. Nice article. The only issue I would have is that you illude to the fact that people are either one or the other. People are far more dynamic than either or. Also, contrary to what you think, the professional world is ruled by performance oriented people via the work of mastery oriented people.

    It is actually better not to get stuck on "am I a performance oriented person or mastery" and instead try to learn the traits of both and use them situationally. It really is not about the end result as what the orientation is about but about the way a person tackles the problem. In short it revolves more around the amount of vairables a person will put into their deduction and how they prioritize them.

    Performance oriented people can be lazy, but lazy is the obverse side of the same coin as efficent. There is less variables but a much more strict prioritizing of the variables that are used. This is why a performance oriented person has a faster cut off point. It is not always a lack of skill that prevents them from accomplishing the task at hand. Performance orientation typically goes hand in hand with foresight and assertion.

    To water down mastery orientation a little, it has negative sides. The expression "beating a dead horse" was born from mastery oriented types. Mastery orientation says "I will solve this problem" while performance says "I will get around this problem". Life is not always controled studies of some over paid pyschologist. Sometimes, mastery oriented will forget that there are other options. They look at a much smaller picture overall and work on the fine details in that picture. Mastery orientation allows more variables in with lower priority which in turn leads to sloppier logic, which is why "mastery" people will keep on trying where a "performance" person gave up long ago (possibly going back to the last known truth).

    Still, people have more variables that define them aside from the performance vs. mastery orientation. As I said before, it is better to learn how to balance between the two.

    This comment goes out to you and all the other people commenting on how this article changed their life. Maybe it's not that you needed to change your orientation but that you needed to refine it.

  29. I was waiting for you to cite Carol Dweck's research somewhere in this post. ( ) I had the same curse of being 'gifted' and gave up on things that I couldn't complete immediately. Reading Dweck helped a lot.

  30. Great post, mista.

  31. Actually, the fault isn't the RPG's, but the way you played them. If you backed out whenever you had a tough battle, to try later at a higher level, then, yes, you were not interested in the challenge.

    OTOH, if you spend four hours redoing a particular battle over and over until you are able to accomplish it flawlessly (no party member dying, etc), then there's absolutely no performance-orientation.

    Which, btw, is why I *hate* when RPGs come up with battles I'm supposed to loose.


  33. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat Professor? Focusing on performing for an audience makes you stupid and bad, while working and working and working until you're able to pass a test imposed on you by a fricking puzzle box makes you happy and good? Child psychologists cannot be that stupid.

    It isn't stupid to focus on "performance", whatever that is. It is stupid and bad to be unable to maintain interest or have fun unless a machine is telling you that you're doing well. That is the core of your essay.

    Like a commenter above says: "If I achieve anything short of immediate, spectacular success, I percieve it as failure. Hard-won victories and mere above-average performance count as shameful personal defeats on the tally board in my mind. With my internal scoring system stacked so heavily against me, it's hard to get motivated."

    That is STUPID. And... why is this dude so focused on easy, excellent victories? Is it because, when he achieves a less-than-excellent victory, he sees evidence that he hasn't achieved mastery? Maybe he should focus more on performance.

    I'm gonna blow your mind: What if somebody masters performance?!?!?!?

    "What about those of us who play RPG's for the storylines?"

    That is cool, unless you're not also reading books and watching movies and stuff--including some works that people who seem to be smart say are good for reasons that you don't fully understand. If you do enough of that, you will probably eventually master storyline-appreciation well enough to develop the opinion that RPG's have pretty crappy storylines. And then you'll probably stop playing RPG's, just like these performance/mastery obsessives are doing, but for a different reason.

  34. Regarding the kinds of RPGs mentioned in the article I wholehartedly agree. Both (almost all) JRPGs and (most modern) MMOs are grindfests par excellence where time is the most constraining factor. That's why I hardly play any games of those two subgenres anymore.
    The problem: Don't equate those two with the whole RPG genre. The whole world of "western" CRPGs is full of games which require either tactical skills (for their devilishly difficult battles which you can't just solve by grinding easier enemies, because random encounters/respawn doesn't exist) or "brain skills" (for lots of fiendish puzzles).
    Sadly, these kinds of RPGs are more and more seldom these days - and even those that are still released are quite watered down from a tactical/puzzle perspective (DO:A, i'm looking at you...:) ).

  35. You just totally hit the nail on the head. I was also the "gifted kid" who either got it right away or flunked out.

    I also have twin boys and one of them is a "Matt" and one of them is totally a "Paul"! Thanks for helping me understand them a bit better. :)

  36. I saw myself in this... I was always positively reinforced for things that came easily to me and it is VERY wrong. I tend to celebrate the opportunity to display skills when they come easily to me, but I almost never work hard at anything. Putting in time <> putting in effort.

    I'm playing dissidia for the PSP right now... it is constantly rewarding you for simply putting in the time instead of actually getting better. "Mastering" a player is simply levelling them to 100. Accomplishments include playing X number of days in a row.

    Now there are elements of skill development involved, but I think that they take a back door to the 'performace' emphasis of the game.

    I was playing Borderlands last night and having some beers with a friend until 2:30 last night. This seems to be another type of game that rewards 'time' as effort. It is like an MMORPG in that sense, and I discovered how addictive the feeling was of leveling and getting new weapons, without really getting 'Better' at the game.

    On the other hand, I also spent a lot of my time playing games like the adventures of Lolo and the Zelda games, where puzzles are an important part of the game, but where the story seems to take a backseat.

    My roommate and I played Modern Warfare 2 while taking turns running into the kitchen to monitor the food. They have a special ops minigame where you earn 1-3 stars based on difficulty chosen or beating the level under certain constraints. While I see in myself the distinct 'performance' reward syndrome, I also greatly feel the accomplishment of doing something and finally getting it right.

    My marks through university tended to look like this:

    40-60: Didn't like the material, didn't put in the effort (proofs, physics, calculus)
    60-75: Material came easy to me, but I put in only the effort required to get through because it wasn't something where I could showcase
    75-95: Classes where the material came easily to me and I was able to showcase my talents by leading study groups, accomplished a big project that kept my interest, or where I could be recognized for my work.

    Somewhere in there is also classes where there was a hot girl involved... I tended to concentrate fairly hard in those classes, but unfortunately the 'effort' was largely unrecognized and the comment was usually, "oh you're so smart!"

    Thanks for this!

  37. True, jrpgs (Japanese Role Playing Games) and mmorpgs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) are almost never actually hard, just "play for a really long time so you can get to a higher level so you can defeat those hard monsters" type games. But, then there's classic, western computer role playing games like Fallout 2 which kick your ass and never let up, especially if you aren't familiar with the character creation system of the game, and is also filled with, I dunno, math and stuff.

  38. What is with you people thinking Fallout et al are difficult? Even games like that still let you save up experience levels, and their AI tends to be crap, and they are turn-based so you have all the time you need to get around the brute strength of the moronic enemies, and they generally make their hard puzzles optional....

    Not to say they're bad games because of that. Some are good; some are bad for other reasons.

    But, really--if you enjoyed playing a game, do you have to insult your own past self, by saying the game was just a drug after all, in order for you to grow beyond the past?

  39. Fascinating piece. One thing it does is perfectly encapsulate one of the main issues I have with role playing games; in a lot of them I feel like I'm just not really doing anything. The whole Diablo click on monsters and see if you kill them or they kill you thing is antithetical to what I like about videogames.

    On the other hand, honestly, I'm not all that patient or determined and I don't master games. If they get too difficult I tend to give up or find cheat codes. So I want to be challenged, and I want to increase my skills and get the satisfaction inherent in that, but only to some extent (perhaps because if I get really good at a video game, all I get out of it is being really good at a video game; I put far more effort into improving my Lindy Hop).

    As someone with very little patience, I feel that perhaps you are being too hard on RPG fans, because they do exhibit a certain dogged determination that might do them good in later life, where sometimes the ability to grind through a job is more important the the ability to excel at anything.

  40. "Children need encouragement. If a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess. That way he develops a good, lucky feeling." - Deep Thoughts/Jack Handy

  41. So that's why I like Team Fortress 2 so much.

  42. It's an interesting post but something is missing: the value of the time invested to master those skills and the value of the skills and the praise you get by doing well in games. That value changes over time and is different for different people.

    I spent a lot of time in mastering games when I was younger because basically I hadn't anything better to do. It's something that doesn't interest me any more now: if a game becomes too difficult the return I get from it is not enough so I quit playing it very quickly. I have more interesting and more rewarding puzzles to solve now, for example the computer programming that I do for a living.

    Even kids might get more praise and more skills from other activities in some social environments. That could explain why some kind of people don't play some kind of games.

  43. Just wanted to say this essay really resonated with some of my own thoughts about playing WoW; I've linked this post on my guild forum for my guildies to chew over.


  44. There's one thing I'm missing here, and that's whether this has done anything else for your life. Did you start getting better grades in hard classes (that you previously failed)? Putting more time into your homework when it wasn't easy to do?

    I mean, if you just traded one set of games for another, then you haven't accomplished much, IMO.

  45. I felt like I was doing the same thing with WoW, but instead of other video games, I took up a musical instrument (cello), and started studying chess. Good move in the right direction though!

  46. One thing you're doing wrong is assuming that action games are what allows you to develop. You still put in time, get good enough to be on top of the challenge that the game offers and then, its done.
    To get the mastery mindset, I'd recommend trying a competitive multiplayer game, and one that you don't have to rely on teamwork all the time to win - like Quake Live, or Starcraft. There are people literally playing these games for more than 10 years, yet the skill curve is high enough to be never reached and so the players still develop.
    For ex., there is team modes in quake and they do require teamplay in order to win, but you still need individual skill, whereas in some of the popular team games (like World of Warcraft arena..) your individual skill would just cap and not allow you to get REALLY better.

  47. Heh. Funny you should talk about this, as I just posted a blog entry about the same thing. The performance/mastery split seems to make a lot of sense, but like most things I think it's a spectrum rather than a clear-cut divide.

    Something like Borderlands, which is an FPS with heavy RPG elements, allows you to blend both level-based elements and skill-based ones. If you're sufficiently skilled, you can take on and defeat enemies far above your level; it's a win-win, in that case, as you gain both in-game experience and the sense of achievement that performance-orientated gamers feed upon.

    I do wonder if part of the appeal of level-based gaming is innate, part of humanity's reductionist tendencies. Don't understand something? Break it down into simpler terms, into smaller pieces you can easily assimilate.

    Real life, and action-based games, are impossibly to quantify - the only way to understand how good you are is to measure yourself against something else. There's no objective system of measurement. Whereas level-based games (RPGs, etc) hard-wire that quantitative system into their game-world, letting you measure your personal progression in absolute terms.

    But anyway, interesting article. Thanks!

  48. I read something a long time ago that was one of those AHA moments. It was the observation that pride originates from doing something for someone else - starting with keeping your diaper clean.

    I now have mixed reactions to hearing people advised to take pride in their activities.

  49. Yes RPGs are like that, but MMORPGs like RuneScape for instance are quite different. Yes if you spend long enough playing you get better, but there are other players there too who want the same thing. So when another player takes your resources time cant help you, its just tough. And you only have NPCs congratulating you if you can solve quests, however you dont have to do quests. You dont even have to train skills. You could just spend your time enjoying exploring and annoying people. Oh and too your last point. If you felt pride for that youd have to be mentally retarded.

  50. Interesting commentary.
    Well written and paced.

    I happen to gravitate towards both.
    I see the benefit in both performance and mastery.

    Performance: Not everything you will do in this life will instantly give you the feedback of success and failure. Sometimes you just need to keep going on your long view of things and your convictions.

    Mastery: Sometimes things need to be done as quickly and perfect at the same time. Being able to rise to such occasions will always be a benefit.

    I also do think you haven't played any good RPGs. :-)

  51. I agree 100% with this, and it was one of the reasons I gave up RPGs.
    I make some exceptions though...such as the PaperMario games, or the DS versions. These games entertain in other ways (humour, story) and provided puzzles and platforming as well as leveling and fighting.
    Other RPGs that mixs elements like that in Id try too.

    I think most people that stick with RPGs do out of story rather then gameplay though. There is a false sense of achivement, but its also about getting to the end of a story. And RPGs still pretty much have the most complex storys in gaming.

    Its interesting to note it isnt just limited to RPGs. Some sports games, such as Golf, also effectively have your charecter getting better rather then yourself.

    Its thus with quite some irony that stuff like WiiSports Golf is looked down apon as being more casual because its more simple, when in actual factor it requires more skill development in yourself to improve.

  52. Then there is the related xkcd #189:

  53. Not a good analysis, poor attempt at lateral thinking.

  54. Interesting post, interesting comments. It struck a chord with me because I ground through WoW for ages but never levelled a toon to the highest point. I probably would have if I had not discovered battlegrounds, much closer to the other kinds of 'action games' alluded to. After I discovered that, the only reason to level my toons was to get them to the top of their bracket so that it would be a fair fight with the other action lovers.

    But I would be flattering myself incredibly if I said that meant I 'mastered' anything, or that I had done it without any motivation of results. I wanted the gear. I wanted the wins. A great deal of those results came from 'action grinding'. You keep doing something repeatedly and eventually it works. Just the same as PvE.

    I think the reason I liked action better was it was more engaging with the other players - I forced myself to think of the entire battlefield, which meant I had to talk to everyone. PvE can be a very solo experience. Dungeon instances were better, but they took forever to organize, and that isn't the kind of engagement I like. I like it a bit faster, snappier, over sooner. So in pursuing action, I was in many way after the easy result - the socialization required far less effort for big payoff.

    I think it's really a difference in style. You'll find gifted people who got there by both methods you identify. And almost everyone has both styles in them, for different tasks. I think very few people are capable of enduring never receiving praise, and to be able to endure that is not necessarily healthy (although it could be). And most people will work without praise on a task that is self-rewarding, even if difficult. It is hard to know what people find rewarding, though.

  55. Thanks for this article. It was good to realize I'm not alone. I perceived that about myself a while ago, not with games, but with pretty much everything else. I was an A or F student at school, same background as you described, and that followed me up till a few years ago, when I realized I was quitting job after job simply because I performed like a star on the first month and then, when I had to push the boundaries, it took effort and mastery, and I lost interest. It's incredible how the wrong kind of reward and praise can take you on such a weird path.

  56. PC games like Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torrent, and Fallout are more about story and character development rather than what spell/weapon/level you can get; those are just enjoyable bonuses. I hardly consider something like Chrono Trigger a game where you actually role-play in the traditional sense; the tag of RPG has basically become so watered down with games like WoW that anything with a character is called one. I still love Chrono Trigger, but for its story and not for leveling up.

  57. I find that there is some amount of skill and mastery in RPGs. When I go back and play a game after a long time away from it, I've forgotten so much that even easy fights kick my behind.

    Over the course of leveling, you get to know the mechanics of the game and the abilities of opponents.

    I started gaming in a time before FAQs, when you had to figure out everything for yourself. There was no certainty in anything that you did. You had to have mastery skills to get through them. Heck, discovery of the unknown was a feature.

    Contrast this with today's FAQ's that say, "Here's the only way to do X. Go there, do this, get something. Etc." You don't need game mastery. Someone is handing you all the finess to the game.

    If anything, I would compare RPGs more to slot matchines: you get the random drops of valuables. Just like a slot machine hit, these surprises give you rewards. Also like a slot machine, the more that you play one, the more invested that you feel in them. Slot machines are among the most addictive of addictive behaviors, and so are games like WoW.

  58. I agree strongly that rewarding people for effort is better for them than rewarding them for intelligence. After all, I can't control my natural intelligence, but I can control my level of effort and perseverance.

    Similarly, though, I can't control my natural reaction time or dexterity.

    So I think the argument of the article falls apart when it talks about the evils of RPG's.

    RPG Grinding is all about persevering. Because it certainly isn't about intelligence.

    And if RPG game rewards are dangerous, then aren't "all 160 emblems" in Sonic the same thing?

    The part that really matters in any game is, did you quit when the going got tough, or did you stick with it?

    When you beat a part of the game, did you pat yourself on the back for being smart/
    /having quick reflexes? Or did you pat yourself on the back for sticking with it until you mastered it?

    So, I claim that the good Doctor's accomplishment- switching to a mode of perseverance- is the real victory.

    If abandoning RPG's made that easier, that's great. But I can imagine that some players who find action games easy, and RPG's hard, might have the reverse experience.

  59. There are other non-game venues for improving your skill at something arbitrary, like picking up a hobby, a sport, a musical instrument.

  60. I think its good to have a balance. Finding ones talents and developing them is key to excelling in an area.
    Sticking to our strengths and developing them is a good thing. So is working on improving weak areas.

    Natural ability and talent should be the basis of our perseverence if we ever really want to excel at something.

    What would the point be of mastering (to the best of ones limited abilty) something one does not have an
    aptitude for compared to putting that effort into something we do show natural aptitude for.

    Praise for intelligence and natural abilities helps to highlight some of our inate strengths.
    That is a very GOOD thing.

    Being lead to believe we do not have to develop in an area because e have talent there is a BAD thing.
    (thats called laziness)

    I think it would be more beneficial to apply the mastering attitude towards something for which we show
    aptitude(natural ability/talent/intelligence or whatever you wanna call it).

    This article has definitely opened my eyes to new things in myself. I love things like that. Good job.

    In defense of games like World of Warcraft I enjoy the challenges of raiding in instances. Anyone who says it takes
    no skill to defeat 25 man raid bosses, let alone in hard mode, is just plain wrong. (Healing ToC HC with a pally
    is tricky and takes some skill)

    I find learning how to play the various classes in World Of Warcraft challenging each have strengths and weaknesses
    and play quite differently.

    I also find the social apsect of the game quite fun :) (yes I am a WoW Fanboy)

    Do these skills and achievements benefit YOUR life? Is it fun and challenging ... then its good.
    Are you spending all your life playing wow to the point of losing your job etc ... thats just plain dumb.

    I hate that people are so quick to blame outside things instead of looking into themselves as the source.

    Self awareness is a BIG player in this article.

    If we are spending to much time doing unfulfilling things or things that are wasteful or un-fruitful then
    we are doing that ourselves and we should change.

  61. I used to love RPGs back when a RPG was essentially a "sandbox" world simulator or a free-form adventure game (think Ultima 7 or System Shock 2, for example, two of the best games of all times, IMO).

    Games like World of Warcraft are not RPGs, they are multiplayer RTS games at best (think raiding), and repetitive, nonsensical clickfests at worst (think solo questing / reputation grinding / etc.). Cities and landscapes are designed to make you spend as long as possible walking between the most important places and there is no consistency in the game world or the NPC actions.

    The competitive element in WoW-style games boils down to how much time you can put into it or how many plug-ins you can get to tell you which key to press when. While WoW can be fun, it gives me absolutely no sense of achievement (and I've played just about every class and done just about every raid). I play it mostly for the strategy elements, but since even that is being dumbed down (the latest "raids" consist of boss after boss in a single big room, where it's all about clicking the right button at the right time - more like an on-line puzzle game than a RTS), I probably will not be renewing my subscription. It's a shame to see all those models and animations wasted by that lowest-common-denominator approach to gameplay. WoW is about Blizzard's profits; any grand plans to make it an inspiring and consistent fantasy world have long been abandoned (if they ever existed in the first place).

    The kind of mutiplayer game I find myself constantly going back to is the kind that requires multiple skills (in terms of tactics, strategy, movement, deception, mind reading, reflexes, precision, etc.), like Team Fortress Classic. The new version (TF2) is somewhat dumbed down and made more random (possibly to make newcomers feel less impotent against experienced / skilled player) but is still a good example of a game that takes a good combination of skills to excel at.

    I think online RPGs would only gain by abandoning their pseudo-competitive elements and clearly aiming for "something to play with" rather than "something to play against". I'm just not sure if that's truly possible in a multiplayer game, where some people will inevitably point to vacuous "achievements" to somehow claim superiority over others ("see, I have been playing for 3 years, you have only been playing for 1, so I am clearly 2 years better than you").

  62. To the people saying that "rewarding effort" is better than "rewarding intelligence or natural ability", I have to say they are missing the point.

    The point is that many games don't reward "effort", they reward _time_. Doing an easy action 500 times does not take any "effort", it just takes 500 times longer than doing it once. And that's how a lot of modern online games are designed: to allow anyone to achieve anything, regardless of skill or effort, but to keep everyone playing as long as possible (because that keeps the cash coming in). And whenever someone finds a "smart" way to do things, that's labelled as "an exploit" and "fixed" in the next patch, so that even the people who dedicated themselves to finding a better way of doing things are forced to do it the slow, dumb way.

    Games like WoW are designed as time sinks. They require little skill or effort (although more skilled people might be able to progress slightly faster), but they do require a large, unavoidable investment in terms of play time.

    Even the few parts of the game that took some real learning ability or skill (think Oculus) are being modified so that players who have been playing for longer (and therefore have better gear) get a "bonus" to their stats, and thus don't have to make any effort to improve their own playing skills. More and more raids have a "gear check" phase, where it's all about how much stamina or attack power you have. Not how well you position yourself, not how aware you are of your surrounding, not how adaptable your strategy is. Simply about the stats on your gear (which is highly dependant on how long you've been playing for).

    Even PvP in WoW is far more about your time investment than about your skill or effort. A level 70 character has no chance against a level 80 character. A level 80 character in "PvE" gear has almost no chance against a level 80 character in "PvP" gear. And so on. In "real" player-versus-player games (be they team-based like TF2 or deathmatch style like Quake 3) everyone hs access to the same "weapons" and the results are a good indication of skill and effort (though your PC's hardware can still hold you back). In WoW what matters is how long you've been saving your honor points for, how many dailies you've done, and so on. Skill (and the effort required to improve your skill) plays a role, but it's definitely secondary when compared to play time.

  63. There's a PC RPG that is hands-down "Mastery" oriented. You have to learn the ins and outs of the game, if you want to have an effective character, including how to time your attacks properly, among *many* other things.

    Gothic 2. It's even harder with the Night of the Raven expansion installed. I'd recommend finishing the base game at least once before installing the expansion.

    Personally, I find that the approach I take towards something, is directly related to my level of interest in it.
    Not very interested = Performance route.
    Interested = Mastery.

  64. nice post!!! and i must say i found uselful that mastery-performance story

  65. And some people prefer RPGs to action games because the STORY is more interesting. I play games for stories, not for any achievement or skill. If I want to master a skill I take a class, or look up how to do it on the internet, and practice.

  66. While there's no small amount of truth to this article, it does rest on a faulty assumption: that the only way to approach a game is as a learning experience.

    You could mount a similar argument on books. Fantasy books provide a similar sense of achievement while only requiring you to spend time reading. Self-help books, however, require you to internalise what you read, apply it to yourself, and really achieve something, as a result of significant effort.

    Not all reading is a learning experience. Gaming is the same. And just as not all books are fantasy or self-help, not all games are RPG or action.

    Actually, the article demonstrates a "danger" of new learning - particularly when it creates a large shift in the consiousness of the learner. You run the risk of trying to apply this insight into every aspect of your life. In this case, the author has gained an insight into how they learn, and seen a way to apply this to an aspect of their life thay hadn't previously analysed in this way. Applying the lens of "performance orientation" to cognitive experiences and behaviours into aspects of life beyond which they may apply.

    This is the temptation when a new level of consiousness is reached: it makes so much sense in one area, and provides such a valuable insight, that you want to keep on applying to make your world fit into this new consciousness. As you apply this insight - and learn from the successes and failures you experience as a result - this insight fades into its proper place within your conscious whole.

    Until then, enjoy it while you can - these experiences are rare, wonderful things - but realise that ultimately your insight may not be as universal or significant as it appears right now.

  67. Hmm. You seem to atribute the mindset to the games. Yet you mention in school and growing up how you always had the "wrong" sort of praise, so couldn't it be the praise you received elsewhere that affected your choice of game?

  68. I've always hated RPGs. Does that mean I'm awesome?!?!?!?!

  69. So when I'm playing RPGs and spend time thinking about the story or staring at the archetecture, I'm obviously feeding my praise side because it's an RPG?

  70. This article reminds me why I gave up on RPGs. I see lots of people stick to them due to other pertaining elements to the genre (story, characters, setting) other than earning levels and amassing power by sinking more and more time in the game. Then again, you could just read a book or watch a movie for all that, but yeah, different people, different tastes and perceptions.

  71. I've never taken in that part in earthbound as personal praise, or even praise in general. I always considered it as encouragement towards Ness to convince him to keep on pushing forward and to never give up. Showing Ness all the areas in which he has grown stronger.

  72. Hella good article, sir. Well done.

  73. I personally think that your observations are good, but I don't know if I agree with your conclusions.

    I think marketers are smart, and have probably taken their own share of psychology classes. Most games I've played are designed to rope in all learning types.

    I think you could definitely discover a lot about how someone learns by seeing what they gravitate towards in games. Obviously you were never drawn to the screen filler and completionist aspect of RPGs. Mastery style workers play RPGs, they just play them differently than performance style workers.

    I am honestly surprised you didn't flip the game genres you haphazardly pigeonholed. I've found action games to be much more "woah you're awesome" and rpgs to be much more "why don't you put some more time in." You started to go that route, and then it seemed like your changed your mind.

    I'm still not clear what you're trying to say about RPGs and Action games as reinforcing learning types. If you're just espousing what worked for you, that makes sense, but otherwise I'd say your observations are wholly off.

  74. Wow. As someone said, this really hit home. The Call of Duty 4 save I have is still sitting on that one level, I hit that wall in Ninja Gaiden, and I'm certain I value performance.

    I guess it's time to bust those old games out and commit the time to beat them.

  75. I'd like to expand on what you said in this article. Yes, it's ridiculous to merely give up as soon as you have trouble, think something's wrong with you if you're not immediately good enough. However, that is merely a more extreme version of that outlook. What about the other extreme? Say that you're determined to find a solution to something. What happens if you don't find it? The equivalent extreme of the "mastery" outlook, would keep going and going until they found it... But if they never did, that fixation could be unhealthy. The problem isn't with the outlooks in themselves, it's the extremes of them.

    And each outlook does have its good points. Say grinding in RPGs, if that's equivalent to the outlook of "performance" since you used RPGs as the example. That means that when you're stuck, then you're taking your time and preparing yourself so you can try again. Sometimes, preparation may very well be the key in a situation. Grinding also happens to be pretty boring in many cases, so it also meant that you took the time even when you'd rather be doing something else... The perseverence that mastery teaches is also a good thing of course. Don't give up immediately when you can't get by something, try to take different approaches to it, and don't give up!

    I know myself that you don't merely have to be one or the other. I enjoy RPGs, and sometimes, I will grind when I'm stuck. However, that's not my immediate soluation when I run into an obstacle. I keep trying to do my best, use strategy to get past the enemy. And yet, I also enjoy one particular game series that is pretty much pure skill. It's not easy, not in the least, but I've taken the time to get better at it, and I've come quite a long way.

    Taking two extremes and assuming one is "better" is rarely the answer. Things are usually not that clear. However, if you can strike a balance, taking good aspects of both, and trying to avoid the bad ones, then isn't that far better?

    Well, that's all I really have to say.

  76. You are quite on to something there. I love both RPGs and action games. But I find that when I play RPG's, I'm mainly interested in enjoying the literary effort of the designers. When I play action games, I'm mainly interested in mastering the talent it takes to advance.

    Good insight. You have saved the land!

  77. Wow, thanks for a very interesting and inspirational writeup. Like many others I'm sure, I personally play RPG's to experience the story and the content. Nonetheless, the factors you described are definitely real, and I'll be keeping better watch for them (and maybe cranking the difficulty a notch;-).

    In general, videogames can be an interesting and effective tool for training certain mental traits. I used Dawn of War to work on multi-tasking and "not gonna give up" gumption for a bit, and saw definite benefits.

  78. I think it is more that that my friends.It is all about power.People with no life can tell noob people with life because they have better items.This is why i avoid item based rph since there are some nice pvp rpg with low cap lvl and max weapons and armors for all...

  79. Excellent article, I really enjoyed this and lots of the comments here as well, even the critique. I think at it's base, it's spot on, but as others have said, in application to actual games and genres is a lot less clear. However I am pretty sure you're well aware of that already. This all made me think of the huge differences I sse in people's attitudes to XBox "Achievements" (something I've written a little about too..
    hehe, gotta self-promote since I found your great site by your own self-linking - this is instantly added to my links btw!).

  80. Great post! The two orientations you talk about, mastery and performance (you can read more about them here:, are an important thing to recognize within oneself. Overall, I think that the school system does a good job of promoting a more performance oriented perspective for kids. And I think that games can offer a great opportunity for kids to espouse a more mastery oriented perspective.
    Thanks. This was a great read.

  81. Some people simply play games to have fun. The fact that you feel motivated to prove your (pretty useless) skill at action games shows the same kind of motivation that brought you to be satisfied with RPGs. All you did was redefine what victory was. Now you're chasing after the "achievements" that the game creators put into the action games. It's still all about victory. Yeah, maybe you work for that victory, but what's the big deal? Your obsession is STILL IN WINNING, you simply added another another step, that's all.

    There are PLENTY of action/FPS games that I'm quite skilled at, but I don't play them. Know why? Because I have nothing to prove to anyone. I'm in not in it for a victory. I want to play a game that I enjoy, and that's what RPGs do for me. And if I don't finish the game, I don't really care, because I just play until I feel that I've had all the fun that there was to be had with that particular game. The distinction between RPGs and action games isn't an clear and stone-set as you'd like to make it seem. There's a lot more why people play particular games than just their reasons for wanting to "win".

  82. Tristan - good points too. Yes gaming genres are completely generalised here, I'm pretty sure the author is well aware of that.

    But "simply playing games to have fun" - it really depends what kind of 'fun' you are seeking/having.

    Fun of winning?
    Fun of striving to win?
    Fun of learning?
    Fun of a story delivered through a game narrative?

    This article is pretty clear that even just garnering 'fake achievements' due to pure time/patience is indeed also =fun=. I believe the point it makes is the 'danger'(?) that can lie in the mindset that takes too much pride in this, or focuses too much on this:
    "What I am saying is that you should pay attention to what's going on in your head when you play these games."

    I do think it's really genre independent though. Witness people's pride in literally fake XBL Achievements across any and all genres for example.

  83. I had a friend with a really smart kid -- it was difficult to explain to them why completing his homework was important -- wish I'd had this article.

  84. okay good article, except for the fact that you should STOP PLAYING VIDEO GAMES ALTOGETHER

    i am not kidding dude

    go to the gym and lift some weights, meet some girls and get your dick wet.

  85. To use an analogy: I find that a lot of RPG games are kind of like a sandwich - the story, characters and setting are the fillings and give the game all the wonderful flavour, whereas for the most part the more gameplay aspects are like the bread and are there to make the game feel a bit more filling; it stops it from being just a light snack and over too quickly.

    To me the problem isn't that the bread is there, but more that it's too easy to end up with a sandwich that has way more than the required number of slices. Personally, I don't really expect to get praised for eating my sandwich, I just expect it to be tasty and end up feeling gipped when the vender doesn't make it properly.


    That said those Square Enix brand sandwiches are a bit of a problem. Those things have some of the best fillings out there, but the amount of bread... way too much.

  86. I would definitely say that at some point in the last couple of years, I switched between the two types of people mentioned in this article. I used to be a huge fan of RPG's, and I often progressed in them by grinding. (Though I did find overcomplicated strategies to be intellectually exciting to try.) However, in the last few years I've begun to play more action-oriented games. I first started playing first person shooters in 2006 and now I definitely fit under the mastery mentality in action games.

    I've noticed similar changes in school. I too was a "gifted" child who constantly underperformed with anything just outside of my skill level, but a transition from performance to mastery seems to have occurred as a summation of my junior year courses. I began to tackle challenges that once seemed out of my range and I've now had no problem with subjects such as mathematics and physics that started giving me great trouble in the beginning of my high school career.

  87. I can't help thinking of something you said at the beginning of the article:

    "After all, I could play Contra for hours and still be terrible at it"

    What if an action game is simply beyond your ability? What if you play for hours and hours and hours and your reflexes are just not fast enough to accomplish these tasks? That's just a whole lot of wasted time.

  88. I must say this is a really great article!
    I'm a game developer myself, who played many many years Diablo 2 :D pff

  89. this is wrong to a fairly large degree. you draw a dichotomy between "performance" and "mastery", which is all well and good, but generalizing RPGs as "performance" while saying action games are "mastery" is utter foolishness.

    back in my FF8 heyday, i didn't play to be praised. hell, i was playing alone in my room and i still got squall to level 40 before i even fought ifrit and got out of the starting area-- not because the game in any way rewards you, but simply because i wanted to achieve a goal.

    furthermore, performance and mastery are really just two different ways of achieving goals. what you're doing is degrading extroverts (achieving goals for other people) and stressing the superiority of introverts (achieving goals for oneself).

    video games, in general, appeal to both groups by providing DEFINITE GOALS, something that life itself rarely offers. whether one is performance or mastery does not matter nearly as much as the ability to CREATE GOALS FROM THE AMBIGUITY OF LIFE; this is what drives achievement, not whether one plays action games or RPGs...

  90. Author: "lol i better than u cuz i gud at halo an u just play final fantasty lol, halo is a reel skill to have in tha reel world"

    This entire argument is moot. Who gives a shit if RPGs are a false sense of accomplishment?

    That's the fucking point of video games; to escape real life and gain a sense of accomplishment. Who's to say which way is "the right way" to do that? It's just different means to the same end.

  91. This couldn't be more true! My younger brother spends about 6 hours a day advancing his maple story character to the next level and getting mesos. He's been doing this for the past 3 years. But why?

    I have played smash bros melee competitively for the past 3 years with the goal of being the best by improving my skills. I had always wondered why I stop playing ever RPG game before reaching the end. It's because I don't find them challenging!

  92. Great article, it really hit home. I've been trying to figure out for a long time why I do what I do, but this totally showed me what my problem has been all along. My parents would always tell me that I'm smart. Now I know how to talk to my kids when I have them in the future.

  93. Well i can't finnish most of my rpg games either, mostly because the battle system sucks and becomes boring (Kingdom hearts and a handfull of other games escape that fact, i can play them over and over again).

    I dont really play to show that i can finish the game, i play to see of the game is worth of my time. A good example would be GTA series, my first Gta was GTA 1, then came 2 and then vice city. Now i also like san andreas wich is my favorite of the series but GTA 4, i have it for over a year now and i can't make myself to play it. Its boring, lost its touch.
    The same with the latest final fantasy XII, altough i blame it's "new" batlle system the game overall has lost it glance that its precessors(i humbly appolize for my bad english) had, My favorite would final fantasy IX with X as the second best, but XII was a way downward for the series.

    Now for people wo actuly think that playing halo is better then rpg, fine that's your opinion, but i can also say you never have experienced a true and genuine story that actuly makes you feel with the characters.When some one says to me "halo is the best" i would say in return " have you played Time splitters Future Perfect? ", storywise is't it much beter but at least they give you something to think about plus the gameplay is more fun than halo, to bad its online function has been shutdown.

    Anyway, most people see RPG as a waste of time, but for me that depends if i like the story and battle system. Most of the games that i buy have some challenge but i'm a fast learner so most of them becomes boring right away, assassis creed 2 is a good example, i finnishd it and never played it again, i have proven my skills and there is nothing to improve anymore.

  94. Shall burn every work of fiction I've lived through vicariously? I realize I wilfully do this, and do so in a way that empowers me.

  95. Excellent article. A lot for me to think about. I never thought I'd feel negative about all those RPGs I've played through the years, but I really think you're right.

  96. Wow. It's funny, because I really DO prefer RPGs too. I think the whole achievement system of the Xbox 360 changed things for me too. Normally I would beat a game, then be done. Never played shooters, action games, or anything that didn't level me up and make everything easier.

    But then I started playing the Xbox 360, and I said, "huh, I could really build up this score." It's very ridiculous to attach yourself to something so trivial, but it's still fun, and it's a way to guage progress when there isn't a number to it. Shooter, RTS, action, strategy. I've played a MUCH wider variety of these games, and developed skills in such.

    I never thought of that as a sign of growth and change, just as another obsessive need to see 100% on a game.

  97. Dang this article made me want to take child psychology. This is actually gonna give me something to think about as I go back to college.

  98. What a great article! I love it when people actually analyze games instead of treating them like fluff, which the media tends to do far too often. All you ever hear about is how awful GTA is for society, or how Halo is blamed for school shootings. It's nice to see someone take an intellectual approach to why we love games!

  99. Al I have to say is why can we not just enjoy the game we are playing to the the game we are in fact plating? The are certainly different levelts as far as difficulty but truly the final fantasu games are bye far my favorite, smply because of the plot line, the inevitable whole of te story may make you want to vomit but the plot is solid. I am drunk so .. W/E don't really care, just want tp rut my two cent in as far as video games go. I got my little brother into FFVII, Old School I know, but it just brings a level of accomplishment that newer, games just not allow, such as a good decent story. Just my thought, but then again i am a 24 in a society that for some reason has just given up on their youth.

  100. I tried to re-read that, and wow I do not know WTF I wrote

  101. hahaha,

    put an action gamer in front of some of the more skill oriented RPG's and you'll see a different story... honestly this article just reveals your own extremely low self-esteem and your inability to deal with it, the ending statement in this article is true, but not for most gamers... for you. Stop lying to yourself- video games and parents, any outside source of anykind- the problems that you see and feel are simply a reflection of yourself...

  102. I congratulate you on having read yourself some Carol Dweck in your child psychology course. A more humble author might have actually cited her name, but then, I wasn't expecting you to. I do not congratulate you on your insecurity, or your lack of understanding of a genre into which you apparently dumped a lot of time.

    And what sort of message do games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero send kids? You advocate for these games (part of the "gaming zeitgeist" lol), and yet they reward simple memorization and timing. They ask for time that could be spent, y'know, learning an actual instrument. Digital crowds scream for them; big numbers fill the screen. Do you honestly think that this is because a GH/RB afficionado actually mastered something?

    If you actually understood a game like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 4, you would realize that you don't have to level grind if you actually explore the world, find the right summons and equpiment, and understand how to utilize support spells/items.

    RPGs, at their most basic level, are a giant algebra problem. You're just plugging in numbers until you've balanced things out. There's lots of ways to do this, and some people (not me) argue that the what really drives role playing games are their stories, which encourage a skill with actual, practical application (reading and textual analysis).

    Faux-intellectualism actually looks way better when you understand the less complicated element of your subject.

  103. I think there's a difference between a claim that JRPGs can *only* support the performance orientation - a claim many of you seem to take offense at, and rightly so - and the claim that JRPGs *allow* a performance orientation, or more specifically, that the way Doctor Professor played them enabled him to reinforce this habit.

    There are ways to play RPGs for mastery like you describe, and there are ways that just prove performance like Dr.P describes. Similarly action games can be played both ways. Imagine mastering a single street fighter character, but then refusing to play any other character for fear of losing. Which orientation does this hypothetical example show?

    Doctor Professor isn't asserting RPGs are bad for everyone while action games are good. Instead he's saying that it's worth examining what you (or perhaps your child) reinforce through the play style of a game; if you find you consistently reinforce your performance orientation throughout a genre, it might be good for you to step away from that genre for a while.

  104. Hey, just throwing it out there. These are video games we're talking about here. I mean I've played video games all my life and have owned all types of systems, but I play video games for fun. Sometimes I'm a completionist, sometimes I get bored of a game after completion and stop regardless of percentage of items found or locations explored. Sometims I play through games twice. Sometimes I don't finish the games I purchase. But thats perfectly ok because I play games for myself and only myself. I mean I play them with friends on occasion but its not competitive. We don't gamble over who beats who in Street Fighter 3 or over how quickly we can beat Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. How about I like both RPG's and action games. I like the effort put forth in strategic team or character management in RPG's and that the simple choosing of a class or race in some games can provide drastically different gameplay experiences. I also like some shooters or survival horrors or puzzle games just because of the challenge they offer. So Vagina.

  105. This is BS. What? you only took an entry level psych class? at what? a Community College?

    I've been studying psychology for 6 years and have never heard of this bullshit. This performance orientation and mastery orientation has never been introduced by any of the big three child psychologists. If anything this is some theory that has been proposed by your pretentious professor.

    If there is no research or scientific studies to back up your hypothesis here then you are just makig assumtions on a psychological basis as facts and not theory without backing up your claims.

    You need to do a little research first before asserting this as truth. Checking through my research data bases there are very little studies on this orientation hypothesis on children or anyone for that matter.

    There is no proof in this theory and your own personal experience does not count due to a skewed view put on by your professor. You need to do research and not make assumptions

  106. Perhaps your studies don't include such recent research. Searching for performance mastery praise on Google found two research papers in the top five hits: "The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis" from 2002 and "The Effects of Social-Comparison Versus Mastery Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation" from December 2006.

    Since I can't seem to search out who your "big three" are, it's harder to confirm or deny that claim.

  107. I thought this post was very interesting and insightful and definitely made me rethink my own accomplishments and skills. That said, I'm not at all convinced about the way you relate this to videogames. You're essentially saying RPGs are a waste of time and action games will somehow improve your life because they're somehow "more legitimate". I've played both action games and RPGs all my life. I prefer RPGs and I think they require a type of skill mastery that a lot of people aren't interested in pursuing. You need to keep track of and learn about any number of things in RPGs - weapons, armors, elements, magic, the battle sytem, the individual strengths/weaknesses of bosses, and you also need to be very aware of the world around you in order to be able to know how to progress and solve puzzles. Many people simply do not have the patience for this and would prefer to just play a game where they learn how to mash buttons in the right order like a monkey until they get "better". Which requires more skill development? You tell me. I'll admit I suck at action games and rarely have the patience to get good at them, but I will if I really like the game.

    What I liked about your post was how you used videogames to realize you are performance oriented. I'm definitely performance oriented in that I have always been praised for my intellect and my academic ability. As such, if I tried something and wasn't good at it I assumed I never would be. I thought I was "smart" about some things and not about others, and that my ability to do anything was innate and couldn't be improved. Obviously as adult I know better, but I still am reluctant to try anything I suspect I might not have a natural aptitude at because I always associated having to try with being of lesser intelligence. I don't like looking dumb or not being praised for my skill in something. I realize this is horrible but I had a hard time understanding kids in school that couldn't get an easy A in a class like English by doing little more than showing up and staying awake. I totally agree that I could stand to try to become more mastery-oriented, but I would rather pursue it in the form of learning a new language or musical instrument, or getting good at a sport instead of switching to a different type of videogame. Why not master a skill that is useful in the real world?

  108. Personally, I did not have extensive exposure to video games until fairly recently (I just entered college). As a female who has always favored things of the.."nerd" persuasion, I was deprived since I couldn't practice. Now I find myself driven to master my own gaming skills when I can rather than prove performance because I see myself as having such a late start that it is highly unlikely for me to easily succeed.

  109. Very interesting article, although like you pointed out there's more to RPGs than "easy" sense of achievement. There's the epic storyline and great fantasy soundtrack and other things that make RPGs so fun. I play both action games (FPS like Counter Strike) and RPGs but the latter are my favorite.

  110. Interesting take on video games but it seems to be overlooking the fact that games are for entertainment not education. If you can get some real life education or skill from a game, it's a bonus. Games are for fun. Any worries about what a game is teaching you or not teaching you is a waist of time in my opinion.

  111. (in reference to the previous poster) As is spelling, it would appear.

  112. Most games nowadays have enemies levelling up along your character anyways.

  113. Sounds like you were playing shitty RPGs.

    Try Some Baldur's Gate II with Tactics mod installed, or Planescape Tourment, or really anything that doesn't allow or encourage infinite grinding.

  114. Stumbled from CA!

    I've always been more of a performance player, and known it. I just didn't know the words to describe it.
    Now that I do I can see what has to be changed! Great article!

  115. This is an excellent article - congratulations and thanks for it.

  116. I'm in a different camp. I just consider games a form of interactive entertainment, not something to sharpen a skill. If I'm going to spend hours and hours perfecting a skill, I want it to be for something real-world, like my music. (A *real* guitar!) Learning an arcane seqence of keystrokes that becomes instantly irrelevant once the game is over, gives me less a sense of accomplisment than a feeling of misplaced effort. But, to each his own!

  117. Very interesting article.
    I wonder where perma-death games fit in this. A perma-death game is one where death is permanent. They can be either action or RPG...
    While RPGs seem trivially easy, and action games seem harder, really any game is trivially easy as long as it has unlimited save points.

  118. Ok, the original article and most of the commenters take the point of view that the choice of games (RPG vs Action) shapes how kids are. But wouldn't it be just as likely to be the other way around?

    I mean, perhaps your first inclination towards RPG just signals who you are, period. You may try to be what you are not, do what you would not, but that does not necessarily change you.

    Which way the causality goes is very important for this discussion. Perhaps it is a mix of both. But good'n'old research certainly is in order.

    As the "demotivating phrase of the day" I give you this, regarding the latter possibility:
    If you are a bird who is not meant to fly, the harder you try, the harder you fall.

    Then again there's the Gattaca (movie) POV.

  119. For me, if something's fun that's all that matters. I'm not "achieving" anything in a video game, honestly.

  120. I was very inspired by this post (especially the last sentence) and did a lot of introspection when I read it. Much of that introspection went into the Exit Fate review (although it is really an essay on all jRPGs) that I just put up at (any comments are of course welcome). I cited your article, because it really was that good and I really learned a lot from it.

    When I read this article, I have already naturally stopped playing most jRPGs due to most of the same reasons you cite above. This was not quite as drastic as not playing jRPGs at all, because I think jRPGs are good for releasing certain kinds of sentiments and provoke certain kinds of thinking, but these realizations do not come any faster when you gorge them, as most jRPG players tend to do.

    I'm reminded of Don Quixote's addiction to chivalry books, as Cervantes expresses through one of his monologues that while they may be good in moderation (and do offer good entertainment, which has inherent value), they can be extremely destructive and time-consuming when binged, creating, in the extreme, the hollow man that was the titular character.

    I don't think you're trying to go on a firebrand mission preaching to just not play any games in certain genres. I believe your bigger point seems to be: think about why we do the things we do and if we're getting out of them what we wanted from them. That itself, if I interpreted you correctly, is great wisdom. Thanks for reinforcing it for me.

  121. I like RPGs, but I often try to challenge myself while playing them. I play FFVII once in a while, and make up some rule I have to follow throughout the game. One playthrough, I set a rule that each character must use their original weapon and armor, and no materia (magic) could be used. This kept the game very challenging throughout. Unfortunately, I never finished it. I got to Sephiroth, but it was a stalemate. His first form heals himself every turn for like 7000, and using starting weapons, which hit for 1500 or so, I just couldn't hurt him fast enough. Of course he was never able to kill me either.

  122. Personally, I think it is self-destructive to take something that is supposed to be fun and entertainment, and analyze it to the point where it is no longer so. If a person can have fun playing a video game, irrespective of the reason, it is a disservice to that person to make them think there is something wrong with them because they play a certain way (unless it has serious ramifications like health deterioration).

  123. See, here's the thing. Grinding out 50 levels in a Korean PvP MMO is definitely about persevering. Then again, there's people who make it a PERSONAL quest to finish the mandatory 30x repeat quest faster than the last time. To find the more efficient rotation to do more DPS to 2 targets so you get your X items faster. To get to the top in gear so you can begin PvPing with your opponents on even terms. Once you're at that point, at level cap with decked out gear, the game is no longer about performance and mastery, it's about outright mastery. You have to learn how to take on the opponents 2v1, 3v1, and potentially 4v1 once you've hit that point, and half your race on the server quits.

    The problem with the argument as laid out above is that it's black and white, with no grey area for games that are transcending the boundaries the way many RvR and PvP-oriented MMOs are. A modern MMO is no longer about getting geared to kill a set of NPCs inside an instance over and over; it's now about getting geared to fight against the other race. These are the vast majority of MMOs that are failing lately, though, due to WoW being a MMO heavily based on performance at this point, so I really don't have much hope for the community that refuses to move from WoW to another, much more balanced game.

  124. Good stuff - but of course it goes well beyond action games. And it applies within many contexts, including higher academic work too. I've experienced being a "Paul" and a "Matt" and a Paul in one area transitioning to a "Matt" in that area. I really like the distinction, thanks for sharing your realization.

  125. It's not an issue exclusive to rpg's or action oriented games.

    RPG's Counter point:

    1) Play an RPG that limits the amount you can over level, or has other strategic elements that require player skill/thought over charecter. (see Persona 3, Demon's Soul)

    2) Learn how to wield your charecers and their abilties more efficently so you can do more advanced manuevers and tackle elite things before your level (See World of Warcraft, soloing elite quest, or figruing how to push your charecter to handle more enemies at once)

    3) Then don't over level. Go through the game at the pace you encounter it instead of stoping to grind. Or what's more, do a low level challange (Lvl 1 playthrough, minimum step game, get to final dungeon in 12 hours, ect)

    Action Game Coutner Point: Just the same Action games can just as easily be made trivial, and seem to be headed that way.

    1) Health automaticaly recahrges just by laying low. Makes health, as a resource, effectively infinite (Re Halo / GoW syndrome)

    2) Constant check points, trivializing death, hand holding. (Re Prince of Persia, Bio Shock, Uncharted 2: check points before every battle/room really...)

    3) You can always just turn down the difficulty slider. It has the same result that over leveling has really, players just go about it in diffrent ways.

    *) Memorizing patterns through repition is grinding. (re doing level 1-1 with your eyes closed). Granted, this is still the player rather then the charecter improving. But it is diffrent from someone else who learned the game well enough to be able to hanld dynamic or variable levels within a game.

    Argueably anyone could memorize the timing down eventualy without actualy grasping the skills or concepts of the game, but that is probably a seperate argument all together. (Learning how to play only one song vs learning how to sight read. It's much easier to perform the first then to master the later)

  126. Thank you for this article.

  127. The personality profiles are interesting, but the article's takeaway is not. We're talking about games, for god's sake. I work hard at my job even though a lot of it is boring, and I clearly fall into the "performance" category.

    The person who said "For me, if something's fun that's all that matters. I'm not "achieving" anything in a video game, honestly" has it exactly right.

  128. Videogames have a large amount of impact on the mind... more so than television, I think. People can be examined by the types of games the play and why they play. I like action games with puzzle elements (like Zelda) or exploration (like Metroid). Changing the difficulty is the best bet to get the most out of a game. Take Murumasa:The Demon Blade for example. This game is an action game with some RPG elements thrown in there. Play on easy and you will level up, take down enemies easily, and not much skill is required to win. Play on hard, and its a whole different game. The enemies are harder, your defenses are easier to break and leveling up doesn't do much, it focuses on skill.

  129. I like this article. I'm a gamer who has mostly grown up on pc games and played very few RPGS. Recently Ive been playing a few more RPGs. I played final fantasy 4 and I enjoyed it because some of the dungeons were actually quite hard unless I did some grinding. So I'd have to replay the dungeon and find a different approach.

    OTOH I found myself abandoning ff6 about halfway through because everywhere I went I was over levelled. Every single physical character of mine was one hitting enemies.

  130. This article is really great. I think a lot of the commenters here may have missed the point. As I interpreted it, it's not about RPGs vs. Action Games so much as the way they are played and how this attitude matters in other aspects of life. Although I happen to play almost exclusively action games, I recognize a lot of the "performance orientation" in myself that you liken the fake achievements of RPGs. I think it is not too late to turn this attitude around. I just wanted to let you know this article made me realize a lot about myself.

  131. Well done. This has to be one of the most insightful articles on videogames I've read.


  132. While your psychological babble is somewhat interesting, everyone needs to take a step back and realize that you're overanalyzing it.

    Video games, Specifically RPGs, are akin to watching a movie or reading a book (only less boring because you lead the hero to his predetermined fate).

    I played Skies of Arcadia first when I was around 12? And I have to say, none of the enjoyment came from bettering my 'RPG skills' or from pretending I was the one who wtfpwned the most epic creatures in our known world. No, thats insane, and that IS sick.

    So if this really happens to you, you probably think you ARE chuck norris when you watch Walker Texas Ranger, in which case, you DO need psychology...

  133. ^^^^^
    Exactly what I thought when I read it.

  134. Hah hah... This was a very interesting read.

    I used to play Final Fantasy games all the time because I wouldn't have to be skilled at anything aside from knowing which mindset is most appropriate for taking on a boss.

    But right now, I play an arcade-like action series that resembles Space Invaders, only 14000x harder. However, since I started playing the series, I tried to learn how to play the awesome songs from said series on the piano, and so forth. Mastery, much?

    Even then, with that series (or the genre in general), a lot of the patterns you face will be the same every time or there will be a blatant blindspot. At least two games in the series give you enough nukes to effectively skip every boss in the game, letting you beat the game without too much effort.
    Of course, bombing, more often than not, nukes your score, and I tend to have a mindset of "If I nuke this boss, I'll never live down the shame."

    Scorerunners = Mastery
    Survivalrunners = Performance

    Thanks for summing up my life. Although you're still missing the gray areas in a growing amount of games.

  135. Actually, that is partly not true, at least for casual gamers. They also show the kind of signals and outcomes you mentioned, BUT they do it in real life rather than games. There is a huge difference between the rl and games.

    If you take games as a means to actually entertain and relax, than your approach is wrong, if you want to extend your real life problem solving skills to games, than you are on the right track.

    I think it depends on what you want from your games.

  136. I started gaming intensely back in the 80's and I can honestly say that I'm amazed at how obsessed gamers have become with achievements. I prefer games with good stories. When I reach the end of the story, I'm ready to move on to the next game. No gamertag for me thank you.

  137. I think you just changed my life.
    Thank you.

  138. RPGs allow me to connect to a story on another plane of interact-ability that I can't access when I'm reading a book. If anything gets in my way of a great story, I lose interest; I am supposed to be entertained by a video game, not enslaved by it. That's not what I paid my money for.

    For the record, I was the smartest kid in my class in elementary school. But my grades remained pretty consistently good across the board, even now in college. And I play an assortment of games, although mostly games boasting a comprehensive, well-written story.

    You seem to be trying to tell me that since I don't enjoy grinding through games or learning how to maneuver a FPS online map so I can be at the top of the leaderboards (don't play like that's not part of the mastery orientation) that I have become lazy and spoiled and I should be ashamed of my partiality to RPGs and the fact that I haven't learned anything.

    Could this be the reason why I am quickly turned off by Modern Warfare 2? Or Halo? Pah. Those mastery-oriented gamers who grind for hours against each other trying to improve their tactics and such act like animals.

    Face it: all games give a false sense of achievement. You could play any modern game and go about it one way or the other. Grinding for all the hidden little nibblets or getting to the end and moving on. But in the end, you have not shot and killed 500 enemies, slayed a real dragon, saved a real princess, or collected 400000 glowing power rings.

    Your ability to comprehend puzzles, obstacles, stories, characters, and everything in-between determines your enjoyment of a game. If a person finds it more fulfilling to play on easy, who are you to judge him or her? If you like working till blood and sweat trickle from your forehead then so be it. Just don't tell me there's something wrong with me for choosing either or.

  139. I never thought about this before, but I guess I'm both? RPG's are my favorite types of games to play, but at the same time I will play games like Gran Tourino 4 Until I have every race gold and everything unlocked, or playing Mike Tysons Punchout over and over and over x 20 until finally beating Tyson.

  140. This kind of points to how videogames have expanded - and to some extent corrupted and degraded - the concept of a "game". Normal games - PvP games - improved both players' skills, and players learned tricks from each other face to face.

    Video games are more honestly puzzles - they are static challenges that one can grind through. And worse yet, many of them rubber band difficulty to ensure that even a simpleton can excel. Meaning, where a static puzzle makes you smarter, a Video game puzzle allows you to make the PUZZLE DUMBER.

    As if that wasn't bad enough - you can actually buy achievements with real money - which is of course dumb - and in the process, buy a simpler puzzle.

    I would just to be difficult, point out that in the old days, RPGs were STORY TELLING EXPERIENCES. Allowing a story to unfold is a third motivation to the RPG experience - not one that is often primary, but for some games like Myst, you get both a series of challenges that don't dumb down or scale down as you become "More powerful" and a story that is not wrapped around gratifying the protagonist. My -- how far we have fallen...

  141. One faint gleam of hope is that there are a few new constructionist games based on the lego experience that challenge you to build interesting things with fundamental pieces -- metagames of sorts. In those situation, actual creativity is rewarded through making something that works and is elegant.

  142. I think maybe the author needs to consider improving his abilities outside games. Games are just that. How about attempting to master some real life skills?

  143. I know this is oldnews, but, thanks. :)

  144. I wish I'd read this two years ago.

  145. Huh. That's an interesting way of looking at things. Deep down I always knew this was the reason I loved RPG's and love the attention I get from the art I draw. Won't stop me from performing though.

  146. Y'know, I was briefly worried by this, because it's skillfully written and I think most parents have at some point supplied the 'you're so smart' flavour of praise. Mine did, but then, I don't know any that didn't.

    I like RPGs. So far, you've got a perfect hit rate.

    Then I realised that far more than I love RP video games, I love text-based forum RP, where I play characters with many ineptitudes and character flaws. And I don't mean simple cosmetic ones like a 'dark past'. I mean stupidity, clumsiness, insanity, self-obsession, ineptitude.

    If I'm doing this, how desperate can I really be for gratification? No one praises me for having a dumbass character.