Mixing Linear Content with Non-Linear Context

There are at least three fundamental aspects of scientific inquiry — I’ve always liked the way that Ken Wilber refers to them – as three “strands” of valid knowing:

  1. Instrumental Injunction is the foundation of the scientific method, and always of the form, “if you want to know this, you must do this.” If you want to see moon craters you need a telescope. If you want to understand how a quaternion works, study Mathematics. If you want to play a game, you gotta learn the rules.
  1. Intuitive Apprehension is an immediate, direct understanding brought forward by the injunction – the acquisition and grasping of data. You look through a telescope. You study quats (and if you go into the theory of quats, you try to keep from frying your brain). You play by the rules.
  1. Communal Affirmation (or rejection) is a checking of results (apprehension of data) with others who have adequately completed the injunctive and apprehensive strands. You talk to others who have seen the same moon craters you have. You share and validate code (for example, in a video game) that replaces some of your old Euler matrices with quats. You find and play games with other players and share your strategies.

Using these strands, think about a chain of activities in a social game. Call it a quest. How does a quest work, fundamentally? How does it deliver a compelling experience — something of value? Let’s obviousify:

  1. If you want to complete a quest, you need to follow instructions. For example, you’re playing a fantasy game and the town Bard tells you a story about his missing magic lute and how he lost it, then asks you to find and return it for a reward. He infers or tells you directly what to do to get it back.
  1. You start checking off the places you need to visit, people you need to meet, battles you need to win, etc. until you finish the quest. You return to the bard for your reward. At this point you know how the quest works — its risks, its meaning to the game’s fiction, what you learned, how the journey went/felt, your reward and so on.
  1. Other players choose the same quest. Their experiences are similar to yours. If enough players finish and broadcast, the quest becomes popular, affirming or rejecting your own judgement.

A quest should have intrinsic value — (1) and (2). Without at least the appearance of gameplay — something meaningful to do, something learningful and the freedom to do it — few players will take it on and even fewer will finish it.

A quest should also have extrinsic value — (3). In fact, extrinsicly-speaking, the quest exists mostly (perhaps only) because many players have completed it and can verify and validate it. At some point the number of shared experiences will sum such that the quest will become common enough knowledge within the game world, making the prospect of finding and completing the quest far more interesting and challenging than by (1) and (2) alone.

Gamification weights (3) so much that gameplay has little value. The objective of the quest is to “play”, validate, then play again — rinse and repeat, scratch and win. It works to a certain extent, because it has a logical foundation to it. Quest components — where you go, what you do, what you see and understand, knowledge and rewards you get for your effort during the process — have less value. The reward is extrinsic and based on some other context — locations on a map, for example.

Traditional gameplay weights (1) and (2). The gameplay has most of the value — the reward is instrinsic.

How do we combine the intrinsic with the extrinsic in a way that leverages both (ideally with optimal development efficiency)? Or, how do we make the extrinsic a little more intrinsic — and the intrinsic a little more extrinsic? How do mix linear content with non-linear context?

Here’s one example. The quest is our “Quest for the Magic Lute”: Find the Bard’s lute through a manageable but somewhat complex narrative of places, people and battle encounters, then return for a handsome reward. However, upon completion there’s an additional reward — you’re now allowed to pass on the quest to others with some game-generated modifications. You might be allowed to substitute a qualifying item from your inventory for the quest target, and create the “Quest for the Magic Ring.” Or you can change two or three places on the path and the game will re-plot the journey.  Or you can re-write some of the story, within prescribed limitations, keeping the basic integrity of the narrative intact.

Changing a few parameters — intrinsic parametrization, a bit like mashing-up — alters the original logic or quality of the quest, adding more or different value. Taking ownership of the quest — changing the starting gate to the experience and its external identity — adds extrinsic value since you’re motivated to spread the word about “your” quest. If enough players take ownership — sort of like curating their own content — players become motivated to look for “repeatably unique” experiences where something familiar is also something new.