Most games have a constant and clear indicator of how you’re doing so far. If you’re playing capture the flag, you look around at the number of players on your team that are running free vs. captured, and you know immediately which team is winning. If you’re playing Monopoly, you count your money, your properties (mortgaged and otherwise), and your houses and hotels, and you can compare the vastness of your wealth and prosperity to the poor saps around the board.
In video games, you’ve got points, coins, stars, gems, experience, and levels — all to tell you how you’re doing. In multiplayer games, the players are ranked an important score or measure, and they can usually see their progress on that measure in real time while they play.
Progress indicators tell you how close you are to a goal. Games have goals that tend to be very clear, and very well agreed-upon by the players. The goals are written into the rules of the game. One can’t expect to make much progress in a game of draw poker by working hard to collect only even numbered cards. The goals are clear, and failing to meet them means losing the game.
Often there is room for choosing which goals to meet and what you’ll do to optimize for meeting those goals. In fact video games often offer many paths to reaching the ultimate goal, allowing players to focus on any number of short-term tasks to achieve milestones along the way to achieving higher-level goals. Sometimes those milestones come in the form of resources or items collected, buildings built, or quests completed. Each of the milestones move the player toward an ultimate goal.
Rewards and Achievements
The rewards that games provide to players for making progress vary from game to game. Points are common, and sometimes come in the form of experience points (XP). Other rewards include coins, dollars, stars, gems, chips, and others that fit the context of the game, but provide similar collectable rewards. Players who collect these rewards can use them as a measure of who is winning a game, as a measure of progress toward “leveling up” (reaching explicit measured milestones), or to trade in for valuable in-game items.
Many games feature in-game achievements, which work a whole lot like boy scout badges, and are given out for completing specific tasks during game play. They tend to be awarded for completion of relatively large tasks, and often games offer a way to show off to other game players which achievements a player has completed.
Games also have a built-in mechanism for aligning the goals of a team. Team sports are well suited to this task: players take different roles, but all with the same ultimate goal. Team-based games work the same way, encouraging players to take different roles — and perform them according to role-aligned goals — in support of an ultimate goal that is shared by the entire team.
The massively-multi-player online role-playing game genre has done some impressive work with the idea of team goals. In some games, teams are formed on an ad hoc basis, often to perform a specific task which would be too difficult to perform alone. Players who in general have no interest in helping players around them — and even tend to ignore them — will go out of their way to assist team members, even those who have just joined the team and are completely unfamiliar. Team members will take specialty roles, and rely on other team members to play their roles. And when one team member is struggling, others will immediately step in to help the struggling team member, in an effort to quickly get the team back to an optimal condition for meeting the team’s goal.
With players all working for the same goals, and with clear indicators of each individual’s progress toward those goals — through points, items, or achievements — games keep players focused on the task at hand and the rewards for meeting goals.