Last week I posted about the similarities between psychological theories on how to encourage repetitive behaviour and ‘grindy’ reward mechanisms used in popular rogue-like games. While I still stand by my concern about the general effects of this type of reward mechanism being substituted for intrinsically rewarding problem solving; there is perhaps a case where this type of game design might help if you have the right kind of player.
Robert Ashley is a freelance journalist and internet radio producer who slowly crafts thoughtful and extremely listenable podcasts looking broadly at the topic of games under the title of ‘A Life Well Wasted’. There are five episodes so far, all worth listening to, but he also occasionally puts together B-sides to go along with the main podcasts that can be just as interesting. The B-Side for the ‘Why Game?’ episode has been lurking at the back of my mind for a while now, mainly because it features a particularly moving account of the death of one listener’s mother from cancer and the games he used to cope as he watched her die. I can think of similar personal experiences when a bad time in life was accompanied by a comforting escape into the arms of a simpler virtual world. This is gaming performed not to exalt – but to numb, to retreat and to shield. This is an area where I think games can often excel and I think it would be foolish to ignore this aspect of the medium.
I also believe that the kind of repetitive, ‘grindy’ gameplay I was calling out last week might be exactly the best kind of design to provide this comforting effect. I believe that humans in distress will often indulge in repetitive behaviour for a comforting effect. I think we can see this type of behaviour clearly in autistic children for example, who with their liberation from social inhibitions will occasionally indulge in simple repetitive behaviours like flapping their arms when anxious. It’s not just them though, I think that all humans do it. Who hasn’t felt the satisfaction from performing a simple repetitive action like chopping wood or idly bouncing a ball? When distressed these kinds of simple pleasures provide something useful by keeping our minds relatively sane and away from depressive thoughts.
The problem you have as a game designer is that you don’t know the state of mind of someone playing your game, they may find your repetitive grind encouraging reward structure a helpful coping assistant but equally they might also find it incredibly addictive and spend time trapped in its artificial and meaningless reward cycle for way longer than they were gaining anything helpful. In this game designers have a similar problem as junk food purveyors. Comfort eating might be really helpful after a hard day, but once you are hooked on the easy buzz you might find that the long-term effects aren’t as beneficial.
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