Thursday, September 18

Where's your locus of control?

Third post today, save this one for a day or two from the time you receive it as I have real world based concerns that will draw my attention away from the blog for a few days.

The subdivision of psychology known as motivational theory has this idea of a locus of control. Much like metacognition it's a scale with one axis representing internal locus of control and the other representing external. An internal locus of control is self directed. It is not reliant on external factors for activity. In gaming terms it represents the kind of player who does not need a reason to play, who plays their own way, on their own terms, using their own rules. Outside of gaming those who have a strong internal locus of control are likely psychopaths or entrepreneurs. An external locus of control is directed through external influences, other people and the environment. Gamers with a strong external locus aren't looking for the secret passages, the hidden treasures nor are they inventing new ways of playing the game. They're more likely to do what they're told and play through the game as presented to them in the tutorial. Outside of gaming those with a strong external locus make fine petty criminals, career victims and form the core of public service occupations.

How is this relevant to games? Well, in my rambling little mind I've tried a few times to write about emergent gameplay. A definition here, a reference there, a paragraph on games of that style, and a paragraph on styles of play that might be representative. It's all pretty dry, dull, boring stuff. So I'm gonna break it up into different pieces and deliver it slowly so it can be more easily digested and not lead to impacted faeces of the mental kind.

Sandbox games like GTA4 or Oblivion lend themselves well to those who have a strong internal locus. Externally focussed individuals will play through the main quest and maybe a side quest or two (depending on interest) before putting the game aside. An internally focussed individual will probably devise a plan and attempt to implement it. A friend of mine often asks what I do in games like Oblivion once the main quest is completed. She's externally focussed in this aspect.

Linear games represent the ideal game for those individuals who are motivated by environmental factors. Freed from having to devise any reason for participating in the pastime these players will dutifully do as they're told, the plot, the rewards and the mechanics all request a specific set of behaviours from their players there is no need or point in attempting to deviate from the norm. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a good representation of this kind of game.

Most of the time most people have a little of each with one or the other being dominant. In dealing with one's boss one is more likely to acquiesce to external influences (and probably resent it), while encouraging one's child to live out the dream life one never could is largely an internal focus. Like life, games can provide instances where either locus is valid. Most games, however, tend to limit themselves to an either/or stance. Either you're its bitch and you do as your told or you have free reign (once the mechanics are mastered and the rules learnt) to play and do whatever you like. I'm proposing that a game, if it wishes to broaden its audience should cater to both loci while keeping its core gameplay model intact.

A great example of this in action is in SoulCalibur 4. I set up a challenge for a friend and I to create characters in the character customisation mode that represented ordinary household items. We had to create five characters each. Seeing and fighting against his wonderfully realised "plunger" inspired my "toilet brush" creation. We're taking an element of game play and making it our own, as much as is possible within such a limited framework. Typically SoulCalibur 4 presents an external locus of control, but what makes it great for me is that I can influence it with my own goals, ideas and ideals.

Would you mind thinking about games where this is possible and recommending them? Perhaps you could relate experiences of your own, either where you took the game and made it more about you or where the game invited you to create your own goals but you were not inclined to take them. What were your reasons?

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