Saturday, February 28, 2009

The point of points

Judith Thurman, in describing Scrabble, calls its scoring system a work of “finesse and calculation” (“Spreading the Word,” January 19th). I would argue that it needs to be adjusted for inflation. The original scoring system was developed according to “educated English usage” in the nineteen-thirties, but the current Scrabble word list admits words far beyond that usage. As the word list has grown, certain letters have become overvalued and others undervalued. “X,” an eight-point letter, is now far more easily played than “C,” a three-point letter. When “za” and “qi” were added to the official word list a few years ago, no adjustment was made to the ten-point values of the “Z” and “Q” tiles. The result is that the current game encourages players to exploit the inefficiencies of an outdated scoring system. It also increases the role of luck: the player who draws the “X” is virtually guaranteed a big play. Meanwhile, the fifty-point bonus for using all seven tiles, what was once a home run, now seems like a ground-rule double. If the scoring was recalibrated to the current word lists, we might get to play Scrabble with the finesse of its original points system.

The above letter to The New Yorker is a wonderful example of how even small shifts in a game's mechanics can have an effect on game behaviour.

To non-gamers, the idea of playing for points may come across as hyper-competitive but that's not the intention. While points allow for a measurement of players against each other, the primary function of points is to provide personal feedback against the game. Spend the time to understand a game's point system and you can understand what behaviour the game designer is trying to reward.

For example, from the scoring system of the crowd-sourcing, micro-content, forecasting MMO called Free Space (think Delphi Method 2.0), one can see that you get twice as many points to create an idea as opposed to responding to an existing idea. And, if take the time to come up with a really strong idea that generates lots of discussion or attracts the attention of "The Lab" and you can earn five times the amount of points.

But points can also be a distraction. In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster puts forward the idea that we play games until we master that game's pattern. Once its mastered - tic-tac-toe, anyone? - the game becomes boring. I mention this because I now realize that, in general, I don't like to play for points. That's because I like to play for the feeling of flow and I don't like to interupt my fun for cognitive work. Unlike most real gamerz, my favourite part of the game tends to be those first levels in which the purpose of the game is to figure out how to play the game (Here's an example to play).

In the best games, the work that it takes to figure out the game doesn't feel like work and - as a bonus - it's rewarded with points.

1 comment:

Barry Kirk said...

Mita, I'm a marketing consultant who specializes in the design of points-based loyalty programs. I've been increasingly interested in the application of game mechanics to this space and your post provided me with much needed clarity about the psychology of points. Especially like your suggestion that some of us "play" for points (as a personal and/or competitive metric) while others certainly play for flow and mastery of what the game is all about. Good stuff!