Reward Systems and Paying Attention
Last week, I was having a Twitter conversation with the bane of my existence Clyde Rhoer, sparked by this comment:
I suggested that this was not particularly possible, and he asked me to unpack why. Now, I haven’t played in many American LARPs, but I have done enough to feel like I have a sense of those social dynamics. And something like Primetime Adventure’s Fan Mail system wouldn’t carry over.
See, in LARPs, you’re talking about 30 people, give or take, doing a lot of small-group interactions. Rarely (and it happens, but rarely) is the entire room paying attention to the same thing. So, any positive reinforcement mechanism will have to complete with the medium, rather than cooperate as it does with tabletop.
The point of positive reinforcement is two-fold:
- Reward the person for good behavior (whatever that is)
- Demonstrate to others the benefits of said behavior
In a LARP, the first can happen provided those with the ability to grant rewards are paying attention to you. Good luck with that. But the second? Hell no. There’s too much going on. Five people can sit around a game and throw Fan Mail around when people are being, well, whatever we want to reward. (Eric Boyd got Fan Mail for being particularly evil in several scenes of my first attempt at Blockbuster Adventures, the PTA-for-movies hack. Which made me realize the power of Fan Mail to be use in more specific ways to different characters/players rather than general.) But 30 people have 10 different constantly-splitting-off conversations cannot do so with the same effectiveness.
“But Ryan, we could tell everyone why X Dude is totally awesome and deserves this bennie!”
Yes, yes you could. But that’s way, way diminished in value. There’s being demonstrated behavior and its reward in person, and there’s hearing about it. When you hear about it, some of the emotional resonance of that moment are lost. You’re retelling a story whose context was moment-dependent, and while people can intellectually understand why a X Dude got his bennie, there’s much less of a lesson to connect to, if at all.
Furthermore, we can also intellectually re-equate hearing someone else’s tale with something we did. If I hear “X Dude got the Good Roleplaying Award for being true to his character even when his secret of being a necromancer was out and he was beheaded” or whatever, rather than actually see the quality of that moment and the emotional resonance around it, I can re-equate it with “Fuck, man, I did that last week and I didn’t get shit for it.”
(Why, yes, I have worked in a large institution that has given out little certificates of achievement for years and seen how they depress morale in staff that gets little attention. How can you tell?)
This is why I responded to Clyde at the time with the following:
There’s something I tell software people that I feel applies here: be wary of using technology to solve social problems.
Not “don’t” but “be wary of”
And I’m wondering if it’ll end up backfiring due to social dynamics.
Something that works well for five players constantly communicating might not for 30 split up.
Positive reinforcement is a different beast when everyone is able to pay attention to both the act and the reward.
I naysay not to discourage but to make sure you’re armed properly for the attempt I’d like to see. :)
We’re talking about a social issue that the innovation proposed might be ill-suited for. Granted, I’m all for someone trying. I hope someone proves me the fuck wrong.
 For the love of fuck, Internet, it’s a joke. I know, I have to say that upfront. Y’all are a touchy bunch.
 I was pretty mouthy that moment on Twitter. Clearly I was bored.