Management A measurable version of life

Stimulus Driven Creatures

My favorite VC and I were talking about motivating humans over drinks at Mars Bar. She explained, “Rands, each person needs to hear the same message in a different way. Did you read the language of love piece that stormed around the Internet? It describes the five different ways we might like to receive love: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.”

“Uh, ok, what does…”

“It’s the same basic emotion! And here are five totally different mechanisms that fulfill that emotion. We are stimulus driven creatures, but the way we want to receive the stimulus to satisfy our emotions, our needs, can be totally different.”

The phrase “stimulus driven creatures” immediately lodged itself in my head. One of the many upsides of my job for the past two decades is I am able talk to humans in all of the various emotional states. I’ve seen them up; I’ve seen them down. I’ve watched their boundless enthusiasm about their new job transform into healthy skepticism. I’ve watched them marry and I’ve seen their stated unchangeable worldview be instantly changed by arrival of their children. I’ve heard all their stories a couple of times.

The challenge is these humans are chaotic beautiful snowflakes. Yes, you, good human are a volatile. I know how you tick, but the point my favorite VC makes is there are any number of ways you seek your volatile stimulus.

Hundreds of humans all seeking different types of stimulus multiplied by the fourteen different major projects they work on. Process. Politics. How do you figure out who needs to hear what and in what fashion? The combinations appear infinite and I don’t know where to start, so we’re going to talk about Destiny again.

Still Playing Destiny

I’ve read that game studios employ research and experimental psychologists who are responsible for understanding the gamer mindset. I can see this gig driving two very different outcomes: these psychologists are tasked with making games more addictive or they are responsible for making games more enjoyable. Let’s roll with enjoyable.

As a professional observer of humans, understanding the psychology of video game players would be a fascinating gig. I’m in year two of Destiny and I remain a daily player. There’s this Slack channel with a hundred or so similarly minded humans with whom I regularly romp around the solar system shooting aliens. As I’m apt to do, I’ve begun to notice a handful of archetypes in the game. These humans are motivated by distinct stimulus. Their daily actions are focused on generating more of a specific stimuli because for reasons that are entirely their own, it gives them joy.

They are:

The Collector is motivated by the satisfaction of having all the things. In Destiny, there is a slew of armor, weapons, shaders (the color palette of your outfit), emblems, and countless other trinkets and artifacts. All of this gives the Collector an endless variety of things to collect. Quests and raids grant items or provide currency to purchase them. Some items are crafted from other materials while others are rewards from player versus player competition.

The Collector is searching for a form of completion that is only achieved when all known items of a certain class are acquired. They stare at the completed collection and remember the stories around the acquisition of rare pieces and they revel in telling these stories.

The Collector’s dear cousin is The Finisher. They are similar in that they both are interested in the act of completion, but where the Collector wants the things, the Finisher wants to discover the end of the story. Games like Destiny or World of Warcraft have a story mode where, via a series of quests, you experience the narrative of the game quest by quest. The Finisher is not satisfied until each and every quest (and optional side quest) is complete.

The Gambler loves the thrill of uncertain outcomes and serendipity. I haven’t played the slot machines in Vegas in decades, but I absolutely know their appeal. Slot machines are pure (dumb) gambling. Insert a coin and maybe… maybe… you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll win big. For the Gambler, the prospect of occasionally surprisingly winning big is a massive motivator.

One controversial aspect of Destiny is its inclusion of mechanics that appeal to the Gambler. Upon completing many of the quests and events in the game, you receive a set of awards.
Sometimes rewards are guaranteed, but for many you’re at the will of the random number generator (or “RNG”). Very simply, at the end of a quest or raid, the game picks a random number and based on that number, you receive a certain award. For a great many of those numbers, your reward is average. For a small set of numbers, your reward is above average. For a very small amount of numbers, your reward is epic.

RNG is controversial in Destiny because there is often no guaranteed way to get a specific item in the game short of repeatedly completing an activity and praying to the RNG gods. The Gambler doesn’t pray. The Gambler absolutely lives for the moment the randomness reveals itself because the Gambler knows – eventually – he’s going to win big.

The Optimizer looks at the Gambler and giggles a bit because the Optimizer can do math. She knows the precise probability of whether the Gambler is going to win big because the Optimizer derives her joy from understanding both how the system of the game works and, more importantly, the means by which she can optimize the system for maximum benefit.

Whereas the Gambler is in it for the thrill of unexpected (but fabulous) outcomes, the Optimizer finds the thrill in understanding what results in efficiency. While video games have become a hundred billion dollar industry, they are still simply puzzles that are meant to be solved. You can add cities, economies, and a massive amount of players, but you are still working to solve a puzzle that, however incredibly hard, is designed to be eventually achievable.

All of the puzzles in these games are built on top of math. How many hit points does that baddie have? How many of those materials do you need to make that thing? How much damage does that sword do? What attributes of your character affect how much damage you do? It seems endless, but it is often knowable and the Optimizer derives her joy from understanding the inputs and the outputs, so she can solve the game in the most efficient manner.

The average player doesn’t need to be that efficient to succeed in the game because a well-designed game will do its best to move you along no matter how wasteful you are with your time. The Optimizer has no time for average. The Optimizer is asking, “I need these three materials, they have an average drop rate of 10% on Venus and I can do three other quests while I am there. This is the best investment of my time.”

The Optimizer sounds like a know it all, but, well, they do.

The Improver is, like the Optimizer, delighted about the numbers-based foundation that video game worlds are built on because they can look at a number and clearly answer the question, “Did I progress? Am I improving?”

A higher level. More attack power. More damage per second. More gold. The Improver shares many traits with others on this list: the Collector and the Finisher cherish different forms of completion, the Optimizer loves efficiency, but the Improver is laser focused on how they are doing on relative and absolute bases.

The Improver has another name that describes the basic stimulus desired and it’s the Watch Numbers Going Up-er. The Improver also has a cousin and her name is The Competitor. The Competitor must win. It doesn’t matter what must be collected, measured, or optimized, the Competitor derives her joy from being first.

Top of the leaderboard. Most wins. Most assists. Most points. In a group of fellow players, The Competitor’s first order of business is inspecting her fellow players and making the very measurable assessment, “Are they ahead of or behind me?” If the answer is “ahead”, the next question is, “As quickly as possible, how can I rectify the situation?”

The Storyteller is the human who loves the lore. I’m going on the record right now and declare I mostly don’t care about the story in my game. I understand that the story is an essential part of the world I’m traipsing about, but during my World of Warcraft years, I spent a good portion of my game time blasting through the pages of text that explained why I was looking for that black dragon in that place.

Did I miss something important? Probably. Do I care? Not really. Did I play World of Warcraft for years and years having only a cursory knowledge of what was going down in Kalimdor? Yup. Did I have to look up how to spell Kalimdor? You bet.

The Storyteller cherishes the world. In Destiny, there is a massive backstory which is doled out in a set of virtual cards called Grimoire. The idea is that you read bits and pieces of backstory about how the Traveler arrived at Earth and blah blah blah, when do we get to shoot things?

As a writer and an avid reader, it’s clear to me that it’s the value of this lore that comprises a game. It’s the essential foundation and even though I mostly don’t care, I am sure that if it was absent, the ambiance of the game would be two dimensional and lacking poetry, but, yeah, I mostly want to do battle.

The Smart Dresser I took a long break from World of Warcraft, but one day discovered dear friends at work who also were on break, so, of course, we re-addicted ourselves to the game. One evening during the re-addiction, a friend asked if I’d join in a very old piece of content. A raid released years ago.

Me: “Why would you want to run that raid?”

Him: “There’s a dagger that drops in there that goes great with this outfit.”


As we’ll talk about in a moment, video games are an escape. They give us a break from whatever existential hurry we’re in and allow us to leave the planet for a bit. In those games, we’re often able to construct the hero we aspire to be, but, you know, some nights we want to play dress-up.

Check out my Titan:


The Solo understands the lightweight joy of the Smart Dresser because the stimulus the Solo seeks is also decidedly simple. It’s the absence of complex stimulus.

The Solo is tired from the day and the blissful lack of complications involved in running a quest where his only responsibility is shooting 20 virtual enemies on Mars is all the satisfaction necessary. The Solo is fine running that raid with you, as long as his responsibilities are basic and don’t involve complex decision-making.

Most weekday nights, I’m the Solo because on those nights, I’m using games as a mental health break. Don’t mistake my silence for anything except self-care.

The Sherpa is an archetype I’ve already discussed and one that I actively seek. For much of the content within a game, you can figure it out alone, but when you venture into multi-player quest and raid content, you need someone who understands what is going on and, more importantly, can carefully and clearly explain it.

After a long day of wrangling the humans, it is not often that I want to take 10 minutes to explain an encounter with a boss, determine the different roles each player will serve, and then stumble through the invariable two to three failed attempts as we work out the kinks.

My initial thought was these are humans who thrive on teaching. They are clear communicators and they are excellent listeners. They encourage others to try that which they’ve never attempted. Their patience is seemingly infinite because they know the work it took to understand this complex puzzle set in another world, they know the joy discovered on solving it, and they want you to experience that joy.

The Sherpa mission is actually bigger than teaching. See, these are humans who want to make the world a better place. They teach because they know that simple act of service will infect and multiply. The human they teach will teach other humans and that’s how you start to improve the world.

Be a Hero

An escape. Our daily lives are full of highs, lows, drudgeries, stresses, successes, and failures and a well-designed video game is designed to remove you from that life and allow you to build a fantastic other version of yourself. You can be the guardian risen from the dead to fight for a second golden age of Earth. You can be a Night Elf raised on the island of Kalimdor and dedicated to preventing the second coming of the Burning Legion.

A video game is an understandable and measurable version of life. The reason those psychologists research is to understand basic human motivation so that games can provide that stimulus. The satisfaction, the stimulus, that we’re looking for as humans isn’t that complicated. We want to build, to move forward, to teach, or to win. The challenge is within the real world constructs that we’ve built around ourselves in our companies, teams, and jobs that we ask to provide this satisfaction are terrifically complicated.

A key difference between a video game and your job is that winning at a video game is relatively quite easy. There are legion of designers, engineers, psychologists, and testers who are incentivized to make sure you will succeed. No one is designing your job to be won. In fact, you’re in pretty good shape if once a year someone takes the time to write three paragraphs and spend an hour talking with you about what winning looks like.

Whether you’re a leader or not, be a hero this year. Take a moment to look around and appreciate what you already know. What drives those around you? Brian loves to debate, so debate. Karen thrives when she teaches, so who can she teach on your team? Luke must kill inefficiency, so give him that inefficient process and watch what happens.

Humans thrive when the work gives them satisfaction. It is their optimal state. Video games are designed to be entertainment, but the hours, days, weeks, and months we spend there demonstrate that there are a knowable set of means to provide essential different types of satisfaction.

Take a moment and understand two things. First, how are those around you motivated? What are the small actions you can take every day to fulfill them? Second, take a look at yourself. Sherpa? Collector? Improver? It’s likely a bit of each, but knowing the stimulus that drives you is a great first step to figuring out what motivates humans1.

  1. Special thanks to the following humans for helping me edit this piece: Justin de Vesine, Michael Ulrich, Matt Farrar, John Hyland, Adam Ochonicki, and my other friends on the Destiny Slack Channel 

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5 Responses

  1. There have been many attempts at creating a taxonomy of gamers. The Ur-attempt was Bartle’s Taxonomy of Gamers: which people have been refining or reacting to ever since. Knowing the name Bartle helps you delve into the prior art and see what people have fleshed out in this arena.

    On a slightly different path, John Boyd is the intellectual progenitor of at least one school of thought into how to make organizations more game-like in positive ways through his observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) Loop. Knowing the name Boyd and OODA can help you think about the meta-game properties of the organization and your role as a manager cum game designer.

  2. I loved your article, and I agree 100% on your point, I really like playing Destiny because of all these things and I find myself enjoying so much raids and crucible, getting to know new people and having a lot of fun (I think I “socialise” more on Destiny than anywhere else) keeps me coming back for more.

    I’d love to join you on a raid sometime! (my username on psn is darth_pablitt)

    And yes, I identify myself a little bit with each of the categories 🙂


  3. One you missed: The Self-Improver

    The key motivation of the self-improver is to level up *themselves*.
    It’s got to be difficult – games that are not actually a challenge are just not interesting, somehow.
    But a variety of different types of games, that provide challenges in different directions, and different things to be learned, can be interesting.

    Actually, playing just one type of game will often lead to diminishing returns for the self-improver.
    Switching to new and different games can often then be a quicker way to interesting and meaningfull new things to learn.

    Some classic games for the self-improver are Rock Band 3 with pro instruments (play a game whilst learning musical instruments),
    and programming games like Spacechem.

  4. Some challenges I’ve seen are nailing down one primary motivational aspect but possibly that’s on my part. Listening and actually absorbing consistently might be what’s needed to really understand one another but then Work gets in the way. One nagging question I have is do you try to change what motivates a person? With a growth mindset, I feel like people should change motivation factors along the way but do you force that or do you satisfy what they want first?

    I’m more of a Solo in Destiny most days too. 🙂 I’m always amazed by the sherpas that take us around on raids. So patient. As I keep falling off the flying ships.