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author: @aestranger

Reading time: 9 minutes

How Discovery Can Help You Better Understand Motivation: Examples taken from Gaming

Exploring and discovering is how we learn, as children and as adults. I remember when I was a child, I grew up in South Africa, I ventured out into our garden once with the purpose discovery. In this particular instance, it was to discover Dinosaur bones, typical of children around 6 years old, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I knew they had existed, and I knew the bones could be found in the ground. I just didn’t know where…yet. So fully motivated in my fantasy (in my game if you will), along with my scraps of knowledge, I went out into the wide world to make my discovery.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any bones and I never became a world-famous paleontologist, but as an adult, the memory and story do help me to understand a little about how hidden knowledge and artifacts can help motivate us to do new and interesting things in our lives and in games.


Starting from a point of not knowing

This may come as a surprise to you (hopefully not) but Exploration and Discovery are dependent on a Scarcity of Knowledge. An amazing revelation I’m sure.

Knowledge Scarcity is a concept from Economics and specifically Game Theory. The main part of from that field that you should be concerned with when thinking about discovery and exploration is the idea of Imperfect but Complete information.

To give a quick overview of the Imperfect but Complete information concept lets look at a few different game genres that use it. Our first example is Chess, this is probably the easiest to grasp, you and your opponent can fully see each other’s pieces. This is complete information. The imperfect information is that even though you both may know several strategies, you have no idea which one the other is going to use to win the game.

A more modern example is Blizzard’s StarCraft, you may not be able to see every aspect of the play area due to the fog of war (which we’ll talk about later), but if you are an experienced player, you will know what race your opponent is and what units they may go for. But again, you’re not 100% certain about what the strategy is that they will use.

Though both of those examples are pure strategy games, the concept still holds true in the genre’s like first person (shooter) games, such as Ubisoft’s recently released For Honor. Again, you know what the opponent’s character is, what it’s capable of doing, the UI lets you know where you need to go and what is happening on the battlefield. But you are uncertain about the opponent’s strategy or their skill level.

These are all good examples of imperfect but complete information. I’d recommend that if you have one or all of these games that when you play them next that you give this a thought, and see how it influences your choices and gameplay. And if you don’t have them, then I definitely recommend that you pick them up.


Knowing a little make’s exploring the unknown a little safer

The point of explaining to you this idea of imperfect-complete information is crucial to how best to motivate others into undertaking a quest of discovery. If you yourself know a little bit of information about the surroundings, or know of a direction, or know that there is the possibility of an item that will help you, then you are that little bit braver to venture out into the world. But you are only starting out from a point of perceived safety

This perceived safety makes you better equipped, mentally, to explore an unknown world, because you always know that you can return to something. Be it either returning to your favorite Inn in World of Warcraft after you ventured too far into the wilderness and needed to hearth back. Or retry a Dungeon with a different team from the village in Darkest Dungeon.

The strange thing is though that we are better mentally equipped in a game for these kinds of quests than we are in the real world. I’ve mentioned this fact before in another blog post, and it is indeed a strange phenomenon. Especially for a great many of us in the modern world. Despite the fact that so many of us have a great deal safety nets around us, we are still afraid to try new things. To go out and explore and discover what life and the world could show us, and how it could enrich us.

Creating a sense of discovery

Though one thing that does aid us in the virtual world, which is in itself a type of safety net, is that many games give the illusion of freedom of exploration. And that is a very important point because the illusion needs to be maintained. Too many games nowadays clearly show the rail system on which you, the player, are placed.

Some games choose to go with clear linear narratives and implement them in much the same way as a movie would. Which in my opinion almost detracts from the activity of playing a game. When you’re watching a movie, you can’t interact with the story. You voluntarily let yourself be swept away with the story and taken on a theme park ride. But in a game, you want to interact, you’re there to interact.

To me, having a theme park ride in a game is a little bit boring. I’m not saying that the games that do this are bad. There are a great many that pull this off well, but I feel that they leave you with a less than optimal or memorable experience after you’ve finished playing them. Mostly because they then need to come up with artificial ways to encourage exploration and discovery again.

One of the mechanics that do this artificial encouragement is NPC side quests in an RPG. Here you’re given a random quest, that has very little to do with the main plot line, simply so that you can go off and don’t miss out on the wonderful world that the game has to offer. These mechanics are not bad, they are in fact good, for the developer and the player. But if they need to be used to instil a sense of motivation to explore, then they are extrinsic and temporary, because you will probably rush through the quest as quickly as possible to get back to the roller coaster, and just as quickly forget why you were on the side quest and the wonders you saw.

A better way for you to encourage discovery in people is to offer subtle cues and hints. This is a more intrinsic method to motivate. And once the player has discovered something that they believe was only there because they themselves noticed a subtle clue, they will feel far more rewarded than if it was simply handed to them, through a cut scene or the like. Spoon-feeding is easy, it gives a fleeting sense of achievement, like a sugar high, but it won’t give your players anything nourishing for long.


Having a sense of Achievement!

So much emphasis is placed on people only having a feeling of achievement and nothing else, that everything else is pushed to the wayside in many Triple-A games. Achievement is a good feeling to have, and I’m sure you have also had a spike of excitement and happiness when you saw that achievement badge pop up for having the most gold ever. But that’s all it was right? A momentary spike. You want people to have longer lasting emotions.  And to do that you need them to get there through personal exploration and discovery.

This is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Knowing you’ll get an achievement badge for exploring is extrinsic. I bet you that once you have the badge, you stop exploring, right? Exploring on your own and discovering a new area, no badge included and none given, still feels good, actually, it feels better. This is intrinsic, you did it because you had an inclining that you could do it and discover something.

Intrinsic motivation of this sort is good because it hits 3 points outlined in Self-Determination Theory. The first one is that you’ve chosen to go exploring with the expectation of a discovery, this is Autonomy. The next is that because of that expectation you’ve ensured that you had the right skills and sufficient knowledge to overcome the unknown, in essence, to overcome fear, this is Mastery. And finally, you do it because once you’ve done it, you want to tell others, because what’s the point of doing it if only you know about it, that is the Relating part.

Those 3 points are essential if you want to better understand and implement motivation theory and practices. Exploration and discovery are brilliant vehicles to utilize those 3 factors if you want to get people to try out new things and be innovative.


Discovering a secret is really fun

The act of exploration and discovery is basically about trying different things and finding something you didn’t know about or maybe something you shouldn’t know about. Admit it, you and everyone else loves the thrill of when you find out about a secret. Something that other people don’t know about or didn’t want you to know about. It makes you feel exclusive, powerful and in control because you now have more information than the other person does.

It evokes a guilty pleasure is all of us, of wanting to know a secret and then discovering what it is. And it’s always a surprise. Sometimes it’s a good surprise, and sometimes it’s a bad surprise, but either way it does excite us because we as humans love a good surprise. It releases endorphins into our blood and makes us feel better in general, and actually keeps us healthy.

But the most important aspect of a surprise is that it’s a far more powerful and rewarding sensation if you’ve allowed the player to get there on their own strength. It’s that they have the realization that something new has happened because of their discovery. From Software’s games and very good at this, from a mechanical discovery perspective, as the joy that a player feels after finally defeating that particularly tough boss can be indescribable.

Self-Discovery is Very Satisfying

Not only is working out a particular mechanic fulfilling in games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne but also uncovering their hidden narrative can be very satisfying. It’s a different type of exploration and discovery than the geographic and mechanical but it still falls under that labeling. And the Soul’s games are some of the best at it. If you really want to work hard to discover a rich and interesting world of Lore without any of it actively given to you, then you should play Dark Souls (1,2,3) and Bloodborne on the PS4.

The narratives of those games can almost be seen as puzzle’s, with pieces to the whole picture littered throughout the game. In item descriptions, in conversations, in landscape design, and each discovery gives you yet another little piece of what the whole picture might look like.

Crime thrillers or mystery games are also like this. The good old detective story like in L.A. Noire or Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, are other great examples of where you personally want to find out more, to help progress the story yourself, to uncover the hidden clues in the mists and fog of the story.


What’s Hiding in the Fog of War?

The fog of war is another great, but very simple, mechanic in games to promote exploration by players. In the Souls games, it’s the clear fog gate that’s blocking players from seeing what’s beyond the archway. You know it’s something scary, but something about that fog makes you go through it.

Strategy games are where the term fog of war is most commonly used. In strategy games like CivilizationStellaris, Sins of a Solar Empire, StarCraft, etc… all have a fog of war mechanic. And it is surprising how when you see the fog, you yet again want to know what’s in it. What surprises lurk there, what new discoveries are there to be made in its murky depths.

The reason behind the fog of war mechanic is to promote exploration instead of turtling. If you knew where everything was, you would simply stay at home, in your base and never venture out. Perhaps complete information can actually paralyze us from exploring the world?


Exploration and Discovery is about the Self

You as a person want to explore and discover, you want your players to explore and discover. It is a very personal activity. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

The beauty is that leaving players alone, for the most part, allows for empowerment. And nothing is more empowering than going off exploring in a game. You can choose your own pacing, choose where to go, how to get there and how long you want to spend doing that. You are setting your own personal goals, and that is a very strong motivator.

Motivation is an elusive creature. And I don’t presume to know the answer outright in solving it for you. But I hope that I’ve given you a better understanding of how discovery, surprise, and hints can help you motivate yourself or your players. I do recommend that you continue to search what best motivates you, as it’s different for everybody, we’re all unique. And I hope you return here from time to time to see if we as a community have gotten further in figuring this all out.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.



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