The gremlin in the brain 📄 posted at 25 July 2021 on new danboland

There is a gremlin in the brain of the gamer.

This gremlin revels in the world of extrinsic rewards - the gremlin wants XP bars going up, it wants to grind, it wants to farm, it wants to go up in rank. It wants to unlock and level up epic champions. It wants to get stuff. It wants to progress. Few genres are free of the gremlin – I would argue that even playing progressionless retro games on a Twitch stream is placing you in the domain of the gremlin, at the very least.

Mastering a game – true mastery – is a slippery slope, after all. Things change, day to day. Some days are good, some days are bad. The player will inevitably question what they have gained, or what they are to gain. Drop the ritual, and you get rusty, you lose this hard-won mastery. You torture yourself by forcing yourself repeatedly against all the worst elements of a game, while you get bored of their best elements. Keep at it long enough, and what you get in return is a rather lonely world – with so little to show for all your work unless you are #1 in all the world. You become the person with a 4,000 hours played “Not recommended” review of a game – a walking joke, in many eyes.

Compare this with the slow – but steady and irreversible – process of levelling up a character, unlocking an item, filling a bar, finishing a battlepass. Consider that games often have many rather rich mechanics for accelerating these processes, or have systems so opaque and hostile that beating or exploiting them can feel good in itself1.

Image: A series of monthly login rewards for Azur Lane. I haven’t played Azur Lane in more than a year. There eventually comes a time when all the artifice instantly melts away and you’re left in that refractory ‘what the hell have I been doing?’ phase. For me, it was finally getting my tenth white haired girl with big hooters. I yam what I yam.

Games can so effortlessly sell us one of the most heartbreakingly distant fantasies of all – working for something in a consistent, predictable fashion, and then getting it. No doubt, this fantasy is more pandering than a hundred games about big-titted yamato nadeshiko gunboat/schoolgirl/warrior wives. Is it really any wonder that this gremlin exists, even before we consider that it’s good business for all the big games to nurture it in all of us?

Sating this gremlin may compromise our work. How many games have you played where the real, interesting game is locked behind a few much-needed unlocks? How many games have we seen where strong visual design is muddied and confused by the need for cosmetics?

We can opt not to placate this gremlin – a noble idea, but we can’t ignore that it’s alive and well in the heads of the majority of players. Such players are discouraged from even touching our work with such force that we might as well be trying to sell a hidden object game to a blind person. Perhaps they will half-heartedly pick our work up as part of a sale, but why would they ever play it if it won’t feed the gremlin and something else will? I’m not even speaking from a business perspective – we want as many people as possible to enjoy our work, surely.

Can we kill this gremlin by ourselves – as designers, or even just as individual players? Should we pathologise this gremlin as some form of addiction? If we do, staying “dry” means opting out of almost the entire games landscape at this point. Do we try to placate it on our own terms – can we sate this gremlin with just a bare-minimum, player-friendly, non-toxic2 approach, or is that a losing approach where the gremlin simply demands more and more?

  1. This is only way that any microtransaction or gacha purchase has taken your money – by priming your brain to exploit opaque and complex currency systems, and then teasing you with a particularly great exploitation. Double gems for your first purchase, gamer. 

  2. Indies normalizing a “skip all gameplay progression mechanics” button seems like some easy brownie points – you could probably pass this off as something far more radical than it actually is, but don’t be fooled.