The standard Big 5 includes a facet in the domain of Conscientiousness called “Self-Discipline”.
When people take the Big 5 test, the ones who score high on Self-Discipline (‘SD’) mark that they ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with statements like:
- Get chores done right away.
- Am always prepared
- Carry out my plans
Inversely, people who score low on Self-Discipline tend to ‘agree’ with statements like:
- Find it difficult to get down to work
- Need a push to get started
- Postpone decisions
As always when we discuss these personality facets, it is important to remember here that these are self-assessments. We’re talking about how people perceive themselves, which is not necessarily the same thing as a proven fact about how they behave—which tends to make these results even more valuable for us. People will tend to choose entertainments that suit their idea of themselves, even if they might be capable of more varied behavior than they suspect.
As with many of the facets in the Big 5, this one is fairly clear on its face. Most people have a pretty good idea of where they will fall on the spectrum between “Find it difficult to get down to work” and “Get chores done right away”.
So how does this aspect of personality translate into gaming preference?
I’m going to offer a little bit of context on this one. First, though, the answer is that high SD players tend to seek games that offer work or grinding as a primary component, and low-SD players tend to avoid games like that (or look for ways to accomplish their goals in the games they play without having to engage in a great deal of labor). In the 5 Domains of Play (5DP) model, I call this facet of gaming experience “Work vs. Non-Work”. (And, if anyone has a better word for ‘Non-Work’ that is positive/aspirational for people with low scores, doesn’t bleed over into other facets, and makes intuitive sense to designgers, I am all ears.)
The conversations on this facet with my test subjects were some of the more fascinating ones I had, and were difficult to unpack in several cases. Why was that?
Perceived Personal Success
Well, first, let’s remind ourselves that Self-Discipline is one of six personality facets in the domain of Conscientiousness. Remember that as a category, Conscientiousness reflects our varying capacities for impulse control—and impulse control is a concept that is pretty highly-emotionally charged in most cultures. Whether or not we are able to do the things we say we are going to do, or how well we respond to conflicting internal needs, or how easy (or hard) it is for us to apply yourself to something we don’t necessarily want to do—all these things have a major influence on how we tend to be perceived by those around us. Many societies tend to elevate people who can work hard and accomplish difficult tasks, and tend to admonish those who can’t.
What that meant for my interviews is that I found that people who had a lot of low Conscientiousness scores could be pretty down on themselves as a whole (and this was generally stronger the older they were). They would sometimes offer explanations of how their definition of success is just as valid as anyone else’s, and would sometimes point out other aspects of their life where they felt successful.
On the other hand, people who I spoke with who had a lot of high Conscientiousness scores would sometimes express a great deal of self-consciousness about their ‘type-A personality’. The would sometimes offer balancing examples to demonstrate that they didn’t necessarily work all the time. Many would sheepishly explain (after a while) that they secretly liked certain types of work, even though they knew they weren’t supposed to.
(And, while it’s true that there were always a few high-SD people who would express a feeling of superiority for their accomplishments, this was not generally the case. Having strong impulse control does not necessarily lead to the need to brag about it. That turns out to be an aspect of another facet, one in the domain of Agreeableness.)
With that in mind, let’s turn back to the question of what kind of gaming preferences the facet of Self-Discipline predicts.
Work / Non-Work
Generally, people with a high-SD score are not at all daunted by games that ask them to work at the tasks presented. In the extreme cases, such people may identify with the label “grinders”—our common word for people who actively seek out play that involves long chains of repetitive tasking.
Conversely, people with low-SD scores are more likely to be immediately turned off by the idea of this kind of play. They will often use words like ‘mindless’ or ‘boring’ to describe the thing they dislike. They will often stop playing a game when it presents them with activities like that, or switch to another part of the game that doesn’t have that in it.
Work Is Not Boring
While this correlation is probably one of the more obvious one to anyone with game design experience, I feel it is absolutely worth going into slightly more detail here. In my experience, most designers understand that ‘some people like to grind’—but few designers have garnered a deep understanding of what is really going on under the hood for such players.
For example, there is a common misconception is that people who like grinding actually enjoy the feeling of boredom. Once, when I gave a game designer the feedback that the grind experience his team had developed was boring, his reply was “Well, that’s what grinders like.”
Not true! No one likes to be bored.
The secret is simple: for people with a high-SD score, the presence of a legitimate goal converts ‘work’ from boring to fun.
It may be helpful to define exactly what we mean by ‘work’, here. ‘Work’ in this context generally means ‘an activity that needs doing in order to accomplish a desired outcome, but that is not in itself inherently satisfying’. This is the concept of delayed gratification: I do a hard thing right now so that a future-me can live in a better world.
I dig the field and plant the seeds so that future-me (or future-someone-else) can pick a ripe tomato and enjoy it.
Here is a simple way to think about how this works: the higher someone’s Self-Discipline score, the smaller the reward required to motivate them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.
Let’s lay out how this works, because this relationship with reward is essential for game designers to get right. If you screw up your work-vs-reward structure, you are going to have a very hard time convincing people to stick around.
People with low-SD scores require a very high reward to do something they find boring or unpleasant. In gaming, this means rapid leveling curves, high drop rates, clear milestones along the way in long-term quests… that kind of thing. Often, people with the ‘non-work’ motivation feel that their time is precious, and being asked to do repetitive tasks for little benefit can create the feeling that their life is literally being sucked out of them. They will turn aside and look for something with a higher return if it exists — and that always exists in the form of ‘a different game’.
For people with high SD scores, however, much smaller rewards can be motivating—because the reward is not the point for such people. If the reward being offered is clearly connected to a legitimate goal in the player’s mind (’catch ‘em all’, or ‘customize my character’, or ‘finish all the quests’), a reward can become the excuse that unlocks the opportunity to do something laborious.
The activity of walking around for hours in grassy fields fighting the same type of Pokémon over and over and over hoping for the right one to appear would not normally be a fun activity for very many people. Yet, for a high-SD player who has accepted the overall goal of “gotta catch ‘em all”, then the reward of eventually finding one Pokémon—which may seem like a drop in the ocean when there are hundreds to catch—will be enough to motivate those hours of play, and happily.
For a low-SD player, however, that single-drop reward of catching that one Pokémon after hours of searching will not pay off enough for them to continue. Such players will generally know their limits, and will turn down such experiences at the outset.
I call this ‘the Paradox of Work’. Depending on the existence (or not) of a legitimate goal, and depending on the scale of the rewards that can be gathered along the way, the exact same task becomes very satisfying—or horribly boring. Work satisfaction relies on the long-term view.
The facet of Self-Discipline reflects how meaningful the goals must be, and how large the rewards along the way must be, for a player to feel that an activity is worth doing. High-SD players are ‘work’ players. Low-SD players are ‘non-work’ players.
Work / Non-Work is Non-Exclusive
As is probably obvious, game designers have many tools at hand to satisfy both the work-gamer and the non-work-gamer in the same game. There are both beloved methods for this (reduction of activity requirements based on difficulty level, making the grind play side-activities or wholly optional) and methods that can be viewed as more insidious (pay-to-level mechanics, or other accelerators based on business goals). Either way, it is usually possible for the same game to satisfy a wide spectrum of players along this axis of preference.
That said, accomplishing a game that is both 100% grind-free and is also deeply satisfying for heavy-work players will always be a real challenge for the designer, and depending on genre can drift into the realm of the impossible.
Developing Accurate Empathy: High-SD for Low-SD
As I have said repeatedly, I believe (and will continue to grind into your willing minds until you all accept it as fact) that all game designers have a professional obligation to develop ‘accurate empathy’. That is, to learn how people who have a different set of skills and motives and desires experience games. We must pursue this, to be sure that we are not accidentally closing off our game experience to people who we actually want to play our games.
If you are a high-SD designer, developing empathy for low-SD players might seem challenging at first glance. How can you develop an empathy for hating an experience you enjoy?
My suggestion is this: go and find a game whose grind is 2-3x too severe for you. That can be for a variety of reasons – maybe it’s just too long, or maybe the content is not appealing enough for you to work for it. Either way, force yourself to play this game. Play this game until you want to drive spikes into your eyes before you face another combat zone or harvest another bushel of corn. Play this game until you find yourself desperately seeking something to do with your time while you play, because what you are doing moment-to-moment has lost its value.
Now: stop playing. Observe how you feel. What kind of game do you want to play?
Your answer may vary. Mine was generally “Something where I get to blow up a lot of stuff right now”.
That feeling is one good step towards accurate empathy. That is the way low-SD players feel every time they see a progress bar that needs to be filled. That is how they feel when they see objectives like “Collect Skulls: 0/30”
But for extra bonus points, focus on understanding that the desperate need to spend one’s time doing something worthwhile is not something low-SD players feel only when the grind is too steep or is poorly rewarded. They feel it all the time.
Developing Accurate Empathy: Low-SD for High-SD
If you are a low-SD designer, how can you develop empathy for people who love to grind? How can you learn to appreciate something that makes you feel like your life is being sucked away?
My recommendation is to partake in stretching exercises.
Find games that contain experiences within them that are at your upper-limit of tolerance for grinding or ‘work-play’.
Make a deliberate effort to engage with those parts of the game. While you play, avoid the temptation to focus on the long-term goal all the time. That will only enhance one’s boredom – long-term goals are something to be checked-in on every now and then, not constantly dangled in front of one’s face.
Instead, focus on the way the background-presence of the longer-term goal can offer you a convenient excuse to re-play an experience you may have already enjoyed. Perhaps learn to think of the activity loop within the grind as a “new game” of sorts – one that you finish by getting a +1 on the objective marker, or by filling up that bar one more time (or even just making ‘reasonable progress’ on the bar).
I don’t mean to make it sound like goal is to become a ‘work-gamer’. The goal is to focus on the parts of the work aesthetic that are in play during activities that are satisfying for high-SD players.
(One interesting technique here is that as a designer you should have the ability to shorten the grinds in games you are making in order to test them—and if your short-term grind is satisfying to you, then if you only increase the time commitment required it is likely that the modified experience will now work just as well as it did, but for higher-SD players.)
Under the right conditions, work is play. Humans vary in their opinion of how much bang they need for the buck to feel like what they are doing is fun, but labor itself is something that our species is wired to enjoy.
The job of the designer as it relates to the 5DP facet of Work/Non-Work is to generate conditions under which the player will accept the presented goals as legitimate, and then to provide that player a satisfying treadmill to relax into, at whatever scale best fits the fantasy of the game.
Get to it!