Behaviourist Game Design

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of game systems and how to make my game systems something that reward and delight intrinsically. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of designers don’t tend to think like this when making games. I suspect some wouldn’t even consider that mechanics could have a moral dimension.

It seems to me that the very interactivity of games that makes them so compelling also makes considering their ethical dimension more vital. Every game is a system that you interact with; listening to and responding to your actions in a certain way. While the game is responding to you, you are responding back to it even if you don’t realise it. Every game is teaching your brain something, every game is a dialogue with its player.

It worries me that this power of games to teach and train their players is either not understood or being wilfully misused for commercial gain. It doesn’t strike me as ethical to train a player to want to do something that they wouldn’t want to do in the absence of an external reward.

One particular example that always sticks with me is how closely the reward system of item drops in most modern roguelike games closely mirrors psychological research on the most effective methods to encourage repeated human (and animal) behaviour. By which I mean they could train mice to hit buttons over and over again by rewarding them in a certain way for this behaviour, even though the mouse would never normally perform that action. Behaviourist psychologists spent a long time analyzing which type of reinforcement strategy was most effective in conditioning animals to respond how they wanted:


As you can see the ‘best’ schedule on that graph is labelled ‘VR’ or variable reinforcement where a reward is given not every time an action is performed but at a random time conforming to an average. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

# Variable ratio (VR) schedules deliver reinforcement after a random number of responses (based upon a predetermined average)

* Example: VR3 = on average, every third response is reinforced
* Lab example: VR10 = on average, a rat is reinforced for each 10 bar presses
* Real world example: VR37/VR38 = a roulette player betting on specific numbers will win on average once every 37 or 38 tries, depending on whether the wheel has a 00 slot.

Which is also exactly how the random drops work in a roguelike such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. Its no wonder that people will spend hours grinding for loot if their brains are conditioned to do so by the most efficient reward system that we know of. Does this mean that they are actually having a good time? They might be, but they might also just say that they had a good time after the fact. Another psychological effect causes us to post fact self-justify the amount of time we spend performing any action because we never like to believe we are wasting our precious resources of time and money.

Whether designers are doing this deliberately or subconciously I believe its damaging to the people who play these games and obscures what is otherwise often excellent craftsmanship and polish in their production. There can be excellent intrinsically rewarding game design built up around this core unethical mechanic but that conditioning mechanic is still there lurking at the centre.

I believe that we need to be increasingly aware of the physchological effects of the games we design and how these effects can have an ethical dimension

Jesse Schell also believes in the power that psychology in games has to shape behaviour. He recently gave an interesting talk at DICE on where this future is likely to lead, which originally prompted this post. He puts a somewhat more positive spin on it than I despite describing a dystpian future where watching more advertising becomes a game that awards points.:

Jesse Schell’s DICE talk

More in tune with my negativity on where this practice will lead is Sirlin:

External Rewards and Jesse Schell’s Amazing Lecture

Who finishes his discussion of Jesse Schell’s speech with this warning:

I urge you to be vigilant against external rewards. Brush your teeth because it fights tooth decay, not because you get points for it. Read a book because it enriches your mind, not because your Kindle score goes up. Play a game because it’s intellectually stimulating or relaxing or challenging or social, not because of your Xbox Live Achievement score. Jesse Schell’s future is coming. How resistant are you to letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards?

All of which also harkens back to a great talk done by Jon Blow a few years ago which you can find the slides and audio for here:

Design Reboot at Montreal International Games Summit 2007

In which he famously likens World of Warcraft to Mc’Donalds.


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