Hidden Incentives: Daycare pickups and bribing for attendance

Yup, that’s not a title you thought you’d read eh?

In these days of confinement, I’ve started watching a lot of videos about video game and RPG design, and I like to take those learnings from adjacent disciplines and bring them into board games. And one I’ve read this weekend has stuck with me: the idea that some DMs offer players experience points when they show up to play. Based on the comments I’ve read, it also seems to be a very common thing too.

The idea baffles me for multiple reasons: (1) if your game is enjoyable, players will want to be there by default; (2) if life gets in the way, no XP bribe will be enough to skip out on a funeral; and (3) if it’s a case of “I’m not feeling up to it”, and the bribe does work, how much fun do you think that will be? It reminds me of professors in university who would assign a portion of your mark to attendance: why don’t you instead focus on making your classes interesting and informative, and evaluate the stuff you cover in class?

I also was reminded of this study they covered in Freakonomics (which is one of my favorite books in the world and you should read it too) about a daycare in Haifa, Israel, which had a problem with parents arriving late to pick up their kids, which led to anxious kids and frustrated teachers. As a good game designer would do, they added a counter incentive: if you came in late, it cost you 3$. Instantly, the number of late pickups… almost tripled. They incentivized against something, yet instead of deterring it, it seemed to encourage it?

In fact, what happened is that the cost replaced the much stronger social and moral incentives: before, you wanted to be there on time so you wouldn’t have to face the teacher you had kept from going home, or because you wanted to do the right thing, but after, all of those things were gone. The 3$ erased the guilt: it now just became an exchange like any other, and 3$ is not enough for someone to leave a meeting early or head out while you’re “in the zone”. It’s no longer about the kid, the teacher, or what’s right: it’s about that money.

Same thing happens, in my experience, with attendance “bribes”: if I had a long day and game night feels more like a chore, I might push myself to go so as not to disappoint my group, but if I start to think of it in terms of XP, I’m staying right on my couch. Same with class attendance: by offering points for being there, when my alarm rings in the morning, I think about how many points I’ll lose by staying in bed, not about the commitment I made or the learning I’ll miss.

In games, the same thing is true: in games with targeted interaction, everything else being equal, I’ll try and spread out who I pick on. Actually, spreading it out is a pretty high priority for me: I’ll do it even if it’s less optimal. In Small World, I’ll come in between two other players, just to hit them equally, even if it’s harder to defend; in Scythe, I won’t attack a player I just took a bunch of stuff from. To me, it’s part moral (“we’re all here to have fun, let’s not ruin anybody’s game”), and part social (“I don’t want them to be mad at me”).

Pic by BGG user Lacxox

Then, take a game like Hyperborea, where you get 2 points for every different opponent you’ve won a fight against: all of a sudden, those go out the window, and I’m trying to evaluate whether focusing fire is worth more than 2 points.

Game design is about creating incentives, but one thing you can’t forget is that you have to consider incentives that come from outside of the game during your process: they are often very powerful, but easy to extinguish.

Sometimes, like in the examples above, those incentives already go in the direction you want to push, and you want to avoid smothering them. Sometimes though, those incentives go against your goal: in games about deception, stealing, and other activities which are morally wrong outside of this setting, some players might resist. Adding even a tiny game element can take the guilt right out of it: in my interview with him, Peter C Hayward talked about the hidden incentive of valuing your turns, even if there were no limit to the number of guesses, because those were *your* turns.

Can you think of other instances of hidden incentives in games, whether in published games or in your own designs?

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