Skip to content

Of Rewards and Punishments and Participation Trophies

I had recently had lunch with a friend who is putting together a curriculum for “at risk” kids. She is working with a board of advisors comprised mostly of non-gamers. They want to introduce gaming into the program as a way to increase community for the kids.

During our discussion she told me about games she was considering for the program. “I want to choose games that don’t necessarily have a ‘win’,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we want to remove the idea of failing.”

“Why?” I asked again.

She tipped her head to the side and looked off, then looked at me again, “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Because you often learn more by failure than by winning,” I said. “Plus, Forgiveness for error is the best way to keep your player… or your student…engaged and coming back.”

Since the publication of my book in 2005, the concept of “Forgiveness for error” gets more vociferous pushback than any other topic in that book. I can understand why. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, particularly in an industry that has as its foundation “punishment for error.”

I have learned that vocabulary can make or break a deal, so I want to start this conversation with some definitions.
There are two ways to deal with failure in games. One is “punishment for error” and the other is “forgiveness for error.”
“Punishment for error” is the one everyone is familiar with. You make a mistake, you are punished. You don’t solve the puzzle, you have to start over. You don’t kill the monster, you die and lose your stuff. You don’t pass the test, you get an “F”.

In each of these cases the person is punished for an error by losing all the progress they’ve made up to that point. This lose includes things that are irretrievable or only retrievable at great cost.

The other option is “Forgiveness for Error.” This DOES NOT mean allowing a person to progress or advance regardless of previous performance. It does not mean the player gets to move to the next level even though they died and didn’t complete the previous level. It does NOT mean a student is passed to the next grade or the next class even though they did not show competence at the previous level.

“Forgiveness for error” is a little harder to understand. First off, it DOES NOT mean that the error is forgiven with no consequence. It does not mean that you automatically make progress regardless of your previous performance.
What it does mean is when the player commits an error, the punishment they receive does not remove any progress they have made. It means that anything taken from the player is replaceable fairly easily. This makes it easy for the player to continue and to “try again.”

So, ultimately, forgiveness for error encourages replay while punishment for error tests tolerance.
For game designers, forgiveness for error can be a really tough subject to get their head around. They get very caught up in the meaningfulness of the game. They want the game to feel challenging and what they reach for to make it challenging is harsh punishment. So when they are presented with the concept of forgiveness, there can be a feeling that they are being asked to “make the game easier” or to “dumb it down.”

Instead, what I ask game designers to do is to think more “meta.” Sure, a game designers job it so design a great game, but if you get right down to it, a game designer’s job is actually to keep the players playing the game. *Particularly* if the game is relying on a F2P model for monetization. The player can’t make microtransactions or buy DLC if they aren’t in the game. And they aren’t going to be in the game if they have become frustrated.

Initially game designers dealt with this by having “save points” in the game. These are points the player would automatically revert to when they died. This way they didn’t have to go all the way back to the beginning of the game or level. For standup arcade designers this worked quite well, because they could ask the player for another token in order to start again from that place.

However, for other platforms this is a marginally successful method. It still is a punishment. The player has still lost the progress they had made, albeit not all the progress. It also often had the downfall of locking the player into one path from which the only possible way to continue the game was via a path they had already found extremely difficult. This means, it is still a test of tolerance and a potential point for the player to stop playing the game.
One of the ways the designer can think about Forgiveness for Error is by thinking of it as ‘stopping or slowing’ progress rather than taking it away. So rather than putting the player back to the start of a game, or back to a save point, the player is put where they failed, with no loss of items or inventory. (If the game design allows for it, it is also good to give the player a different way to approach the situation.)

So what is the deal with “participation trophies?” Honestly, I believe they were/are an attempt to alleviate the pain of a “punishment for error” system. They were an attempt to assuage the frustration felt by players/participants who were being punished for not successfully (winning) the event and I applaud the effort.

However, the trophy isn’t the problem, the system is. Today we have a school system that has the harshest punishment for failure methodology out there. Unfortunately it’s also a system most do not have the luxuary of simply shutting off, at least not without potentially devastating consequences.

Think about it for a moment. A student takes a test and gets an “F.” That “F” completely removes all progress the student might have made in that particular subject. If they get an “F” in the class, it not only removes any progress they did make, but it also makes them “start the game over.” They lose all their friends. Also, like Mario, they are forced to run the same maze again. It’s no wonder they drop out. Their tolerance has been tested to the end.

We need to look at Forgiveness for Error models both for our games and in how we treat students. We need to come up with designs that do not, irrevocably, take away all their progress. It’s the best way to encourage our players, our students, to keep trying.

Published inRandom Musings