Applying Game Theory/Design to Writing: Rewards

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Here’s what /u/jawest13 has to say about it:

This is one of the first sections from a chapter on how to set up a conflict. Basically, establishing the carrot keeping the rabbit in the race.


Extrinsic and Intrinsic Rewards

When exploring any given conflict, a good place to start is asking what the purpose behind. For this section, we will focus on when the purpose is for someone to gain something either intrinsically or extrinsically.

Extrinsic rewards in games are rewards the player receives for completing a given task. In video games this often takes the form of item drops, experience points used for leveling, or money for upgrading tools being rewarded after a player kills an enemy. Role playing games often use extrinsic rewards as a means of assisting players complete the main mission. For instance, a player might be awarded certain information following a side mission that helps give them an advantage in the main mission.

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are rewards gained while preforming an action. This can take the form of players enjoying a moment of combat because they get to use very flashy moves to defeat the monsters or having a sense of satisfaction while solving a puzzle. Both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are important in making a compelling conflict as one gives a clear goal for the player to work towards and the other helps keep the journey to that goal interesting.

Applying rewards to writing comes with the added complication of making those rewards appealing to both the reader as well as the characters in the story. From a narrative/character perspective, it is important to make it clear why they are engaging in a given conflict outside of just doing something to keep the reader interested. On the flip side of that coin, the reasons a character might enter a fight need to be understandable to the reader.

Fortunately, a great deal of this complication can be alleviated by making the main characters likable and relatable to the reader. If a reader is able to understand and sympathize with the conflict a given character is faced with, they are more likely to feel satisfied when seeing them succeed and grow.

When looking at extrinsic rewards in stories, the reason behind those rewards will often be explicitly explained beforehand. For example, a character might enter a competition of some sort in order to win a cash prize so that they can pay off a debt. This creates a clearly defined goal and motivation for the character.

Another form of extrinsic reward in storytelling is what’s commonly referred to as the mcguffin. A mcguffin is an item or event that acts as the primary source of conflict in the story as well as the motivation for the characters even though it has little significance by itself. Treasure/scavenger hunt stories often use this trope in order to get the plot moving. The issue with using a mcguffin as a plot device is that it’s often only vaguely explained and can become dull if that and the race to obtain it are the only things the story really focuses on.

Intrinsic rewards help avoid such pitfalls by highlighting the characters in a story and how they are affected by different conflicts. A character may have to put in a considerable amount of work to achieve their extrinsic goal, but they enjoy the journey because of the intrinsic rewards it brings them. For example, a common character trope in combat-action stories is a protagonist who wishes to become the strongest person in the world. While the road to such a goal is long and he does face defeat from time to time, the protagonist will more often than not take such struggles and losses in stride because he still gets to see new places and meet interesting people.

Taking a step back and looking at it from the author’s point of view, a character can also be used to explore what might happen when they no longer have the intrinsic rewards in their life. Let’s say a character begins the story as someone who enjoys the external conflicts he faces because he believes he is doing good and benefitting society through said conflicts. However, over the course of the story, he begins to wonder how much good his actions are really doing (he doesn’t think he’s having a negative impact, but questions if the positive was as big as he once thought). This inner doubt continues until he essentially loses the intrinsic reward he once got out of his conflict and forces him to reexamine his original views. Put together, this can make for an interesting character arc that grabs and holds the reader’s attention.

When used together, extrinsic and intrinsic rewards offer a great deal of potential with characters. A character may find that their viewpoint shifted due to the intrinsic rewards they’ve gained on their journey and see the extrinsic reward they set out for to be not as important as they originally thought. Conversely, the extrinsic reward and the reason it’s desired may cause a character to forsake the intrinsic rewards they’ve experienced. Just as with players of a game, giving characters extrinsic and intrinsic rewards makes for a more investing experience.


As always, please feel free to comment and share your thoughts. Cheers!

submitted by /u/jawest13 to u/jawest13
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