It’s one of the most basic video game formulas: do the quest, get the reward. Your time and effort spent fulfilling an in-game objective is reciprocated with more experience, better equipment, a higher standing in the faction, etcetera. An easy way to motivate a player through a quest and to give them a sense of satisfaction at the end is through a reward. It’s the closing of a loop: the player puts in their effort, and the game reciprocates with tangible progress of some kind. However, few people talk about how games can manipulate the expectation of a reward to achieve different narrative tones. Intentionally breaking the Norm of Reciprocity is one way that many RPGs nowadays promote a certain apocalyptic “every man for himself” tone within their setting.
Before we can begin deconstructing what that has to do with the norm of reciprocity, we first have to understand the property itself.
There are two potential understandings of what a social norm is. According to Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp in their 2001 book Social norms, the first potential definition is such that “social norms entail a moral imperative–that is, a sense of oughtness. From this point of view, we identify as a social norm behavior that people believe ought […] to be performed regardless of its outcome for the agent”, and the second definition implies that “norms are merely behavioral regularities that generate social expectations without any moral obligations. From this point of view, we identify certain behavior as a social norm if deviation from that practice results in costs being imposed on an agent.” In short: breaking a norm results in negative sanctions for a person, in some cases even when no one knows it’s been done, because some people believe norms are simply what ought to happen, and as such they internalize and self-perform the consequences of breaking them.
Consider the population of players who cannot select “mean” or “rude” dialogue options in video games, despite the fact that there are no real-world repercussions for this behavior. For these players, social norms relating to politeness and niceties follow more closely the first definition, a sense of “oughtness”. They’ve internalized the social norm, and so the sanctions of breaking this norm are self-imposed, regardless of how the game responds or how other players would react if they knew.
The Norm of Reciprocity gets a touch more specific. It labels the belief and expectation that favors should be repaid. It takes various potential forms across different societies–the culture of honor, karma, universal balance, etc.–but the main principle stays the same: if you do something nice for someone, that favor should be repaid in equal magnitude (Whatley, Rhodes, Smith, & Webster, 1999).
Translated into video games: if I clear the ants from the Boomer’s generators in Fallout: New Vegas, I expect them to at the very least be grateful. And I certainly wouldn’t say no to some experience points for the trouble. A few studies have gone into how reciprocity in cooperative multiplayer violent video games lead to decreased aggressive behavior with others (Velez et al., 2016), but setting aside the real life impacts, how does the expectation of being rewarded for one’s work affect how a player feels during play?
It’s simple: when the norm of reciprocity is unexpectedly broken, a game can evoke a strong emotional feeling of broken trust with the player, which can either bolster the tone of a game or cause a player to quit out of frustration.
Hollow Knight’s banker side-story (if it can even be called a side-story when the events can be completely missed entirely, but I digress) is an excellent study in how games can break this norm to evoke the feeling of an unjust world for the player. The banker appears in one of the lowermost rooms of the Fungal Wastes area. With all the friendliness of a professional, they offer to keep your hard-earned geos (the currency of the world) safe. When the player dies in the game twice in a row, they lose all the money from before their first death permanently. Hollow Knight has some very unforgiving combat, and the safety net for one’s geo can be quite the relief!
Until you store more than 2000 geo with the banker, after which they disappear without a trace. The banker was actually a con artist all along, and their name in-game changes to reflect that.
Unbeknownst to the player (and only hinted at if the player strikes the banker with the dream nail while they still act the part of the benevolent banker), the con artist is still available to interact with, so long as the player has unlocked the area with a simple key. They’ve moved to a spa in the City of Tears, where they relax with every last drop of the player’s savings (and 50% more on top of that–talk about an interest rate!) stored in their shell. Assuming the player has unlocked the area, they can then go and whack their hard-earned geo from the con artist and gain back all of their savings, with a little on the top for the trouble.
While hidden and potentially missable entirely, the effort and money the player put into the banker side-story is rewarded with a gain on the player’s initial investment. In this way, Hollow Knight evokes the tone of a world where every victory must be hard-earned, fighting tooth and nail for any scrap which might help on the journey. This is how a game like Hollow Knight evokes the feeling of a world which can be redeemed, while a game with quest mechanics like Pathologic 2 instead promotes the dread and desperation of living in a dying society and being thrown under the bus for it.
One of Pathologic 2’s biggest strengths is its tone, which it achieves through unpredictability and the absolute brutality with which it treats its players. There are quests in which the probably starving and most definitely broke player is given a sum of money and a basket of food to carry across the entire town. The reward for the player’s self-control, time spent (and time is a very important resource in the game), and charity? A thank you. Not in the way the Boomers thank you in New Vegas–with fame in the faction and warmer welcomes all around–but a solitary “thank you” which results in absolutely no benefit for the player whatsoever (outside the knowledge that they did a virtual good deed, I suppose).
The Norm of Reciprocity is considered a given in most facets of games, so intentionally breaking this norm in key areas can yield dramatic emotional results! Be careful of the tightrope act that this requires, though: too harsh, and players lose their incentive to do sidequests altogether (one of Pathologic 2’s most difficult questions is “will this ultimately help me or is this going to waste my time?”), but go too easy, and the act may not be as effective as it could be (if the Hollow Knight banker had left a note that they’d be at the spa, it wouldn’t feel like a betrayal so much as another step in a side-quest).
Good luck with your games, and happy writing!