How can a game be enjoyable even when I’m losing? Why do I play a game again when I’ve repeatedly lost in the past?
Those questions intrigue me as a gamer and as a psychologist. I’ve been reminded of them while learning to play the board game Terra Mystica. I’ve enjoyed learning, playing, and even losing at this game, and the experience has deepened my answers.
We know that there are particular pleasures in playing games and especially in playing games well. I’ve previously described my love of learning to play a new game and the power of a growth mindset — a belief that I can improve. Certainly, my growth mindset is one reason that I play a game again after losing: this time could be different.
But perhaps a growth mindset isn’t enough to respond to failure with resilience and recommitment. There are other activities at which I initially struggle and to which I never return. By contrast, there is something about how games frame challenge that can catalyze resilience and even enjoyment as responses to failure. To illustrate this, I’ll describe Terra Mystica, introduce some relevant ideas about motivation, and then illuminate how the game’s design and resulting play experience impact motivation.
In Terra Mystica, each player leads a different fantasy race in a magical land rush. Starting with two humble settlements, I try to build up and out to create a sprawling nation of more settlements, trading posts, temples, a sanctuary (i.e., super temple), and a stronghold. In parallel, each nation strives for influence in four elemental cults: fire, water, earth, and air. A game consists of six rounds, and in each round, the players take turns taking actions to convert and spend resources to build their nations. At the end of the sixth round, the game ends.
I win at Terra by earning the most points by the end of the game. Larger nations are worth more points, as are higher levels of influence in the cults. During each round, extra points are available for special achievements (e.g., building a trade post). I have a different bonus marker each round, and when I build a temple, I choose a divine favor. Some markers and favors confer extra points for certain achievements. Finally, some races earn extra points for certain actions.
Terra is significantly more complex than I just described. For instance, I also earn and spend gold and magical power, and most races have special abilities that change the rules. But my description is sufficient for exploring the game’s motivational impacts.
Motivation is a complex phenomenon and psychologists have offered numerous theories and models to explain it. One of my favorites is Expectancy-Value Theory. It’s particularly useful for understanding the presence or absence of motivation when an individual is considering engaging in a particular activity, such as considering whether to play Terra again. As it was taught to me by Jere Brophy, Expectancy-Value Theory can be summarized as:
E x V = M
That is; Expectancy times Value equals Motivation. Expectancy is the strength of my belief that I can succeed — that my ability level is equal to or greater than the challenge level. Value is the importance that I place on success. The factors are multiplied, not added. Just as 1000 x 0 = 0, if either my Expectancy or Value approaches zero, my motivation will be minimal.
This next bit is important to understanding motivation in games: both factors are matters of perception. I may misperceive my ability level, the challenge level, and/or the value of success. Furthermore, an activity may have a distorted challenge level or distorted value, accidentally or by design. In a multiplayer game such as Terra, my expectancy is further influenced by my perception of other players’ ability levels – a perception that may be wrong.
In the midst of playing a game again, I may be surprised to discover that the challenge isn’t as great as I previously perceived, or that my ability level has increased faster than I anticipated. The former can be a bad surprise. I’m usually disappointed when a game proves to be easier to master than I initially thought. One reason is that a board game like Terra requires an upfront investment of money and time just to acquire it and learn the rules, so I hope that it’s worth playing many times. But it’s in the latter phenomenon — the good surprise of discovering that my mastery is growing faster than I anticipated — where we can better understand how losing can be enjoyable.
That good surprise is part of a play experience that emerges from deliberate design choices. In Terra’s case, the most relevant design choices are transparency and minimal randomness.
There is no hidden information in Terra. The state of every player’s nation, resources, and points is always apparent to every other player. For example, I don’t have cards to conceal from my opponents, as I do in similar games such as Settlers of Catan.
In addition, there is minimal randomness in Terra. During setup, a few elements are randomly chosen, including the special achievements for each round, the available bonus markers, and each player’s race. This randomness exists primarily to improve the game’s replayability, rather than to complicate a player’s perceptions or strategy or to offer any press-your-luck choices. Again, this is a sharp contrast to games such as Settlers of Catan, where an unpredictable series of dice rolls can significantly help or hinder a player’s strategy. With Terra‘s Fire and Ice expansion, there is even an auction option to remove randomness in the assignment of races to players. Regardless, once the game starts, there is only the pseudo-randomness of other players’ choices, such as claiming a space that I had my eye on.
All of that means that my success in Terra depends wholly on my attention, effort, and strategies. This can include accurately perceiving other players’ states of affairs, predicting their moves, and thwarting them. Terra‘s transparency and lack of randomness are praised by players on BoardGameGeek, where fans have kept Terra in the site’s Top 10 ranks for years.
When I’m engaged in a particular activity, such as playing Terra or writing an essay, my perceptions of expectancy and value can be dynamic. In other words, my perceptions change from moment to moment as I experience the results of my choices. Alas, for many activities, this feedback loop has a time delay and the results may be less than crystal clear. Hence, my motivation can be unsteady and fragile. For example, I might feel tentatively confident about my choices when writing an essay for a course. But after I submit it, days may pass before I get the instructor’s response, and even then the feedback may be somewhat opaque (e.g., “Nice work, A-“). The feedback loop in human interactions can be even more protracted and opaque.
Anyone who’s ever tried to find proof of reciprocated feelings can relate to this (e.g., “She laughed at my joke and briefly touched my arm. Is she attracted to me, or just being nice?”).
Playing Terra is a crisp contrast to those experiences. Feedback is rapid and clear so I have a tight sense of the challenge level, my current abilities, and my growth. When I couple that perception with my confidence in my general ability to learn, especially to learn a game, it fuels high, steady, resilient motivation. Perhaps it will take me more time to master Terra than my friends, but I believe that I can grow and that I will see my growth as it happens. I may still prefer the enjoyment of winning, but even when I’m losing — and I’ve lost more than I’ve won — experiencing clear growth offers its own flavor of enjoyment. If nothing else, the transparency and minimal randomness mean that I can always find enjoyment in improving my personal high score.
Terra‘s design is not the only recipe for enjoyment. There are many board games that use opacity as a challenge to foster enjoyment (e.g., Scotland Yard, The Fury of Dracula, Nuns on the Run, Letters from Whitechapel). However, such games still provide as much transparency as possible, including clear rules for what’s happening out of sight. Similarly, many games use randomness to challenge players to improvise and adapt. Yet too much randomness reduces my motivation to play again, since I can’t tease out my possible growth from what may have just been a series of good or bad rolls or cards.
Understanding and appreciating design choices like Terra‘s can improve our capacity to develop and enjoy better games. It can also prepare us to apply similar choices in other endeavors, such as fitness, teaching, coaching, parenting, and leadership. For example, consider a hiker striving to increase their weekly mileage. A GPS device can let them clearly see their progress and the work remaining, sustaining their motivation to keep walking. (I use the app MapMyWalk.). Or consider an employee striving to earn a higher formal evaluation from their supervisor. Clear upfront expectations and transparency in the performance evaluation process will help sustain that employee’s motivation. Opacity and randomness would have the opposite effect. I don’t want my boss secretly rolling dice when evaluating me!
I’ve focused on expectancy, but value is also important in Expectancy-Value Theory. With games, my motivation rarely depends on a sufficiently-high value factor, because I usually place importance on playing games just to have fun with my friends. Instead, the value factor includes the importance that I place on playing a specific game well and whether that importance is sufficient to play it again after losing. My perception of that importance is influenced by a self-awareness of key elements in my identity that affect my self-worth. I identify as a gamer, so I see value in playing games well, or at least improving over time. Hence, the value factor with a game such as Terra is closely tied to a clear sense of my growth. Thus, transparency and minimal randomness affect my motivation on the value side, too. This also applies to the broader contexts that I just mentioned, such as hiking and performance evaluation.
All of these issues intrigue me for many reasons, especially because they illuminate a distinct flavor of joy that we can find in productive struggle. Losing can taste bad, but perceiving my growth significantly tempers that distaste. I’ll keep playing Terra Mystica even though I often lose, because I believe I’ll keep improving. It’s no accident that the game sustains that belief. It’s a sign of design choices worth emulating in other games and far beyond them.