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Fighting Indecision (And So Much More) with Games
by Ben Serviss on 03/07/13 09:05:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article originally appeared on dashjump.com.

Harmonix's Frequency
Harmonix's Frequency for PlayStation 2. [Screenshot from Gamespot]

Games are powerful things. They can be compelling, addictive or entertaining; they can leave you with experiences that stay with you and become a part of your identity. There’s an entire subset of games focused on harnessing this power to incite change in behavior – whether through serious games that help players confront PTSD and traumatic experiences, or training tools designed to offer hand-eye coordination practice for doctors and surgeons.

While these specialized games may fulfill very specific functions, there’s an ocean of possibilities to leverage this power to effect meaningful change through ordinary videogames with no overt agenda. Even better, the changes that result from playing ‘normal’ games might be more lasting than from specialized experiences.  So how can this be done?

Here’s an example. Frequency is a music rhythm game that came out in 2001 for the PlayStation 2. The concepts it introduced became the foundation for what would become the Guitar Hero series. So what kind of behavioral change could a music game possible incite?

I certainly didn’t see it coming. But through consistently playing the game, I slowly realized that Frequency was helping me overcome a severe habit of indecision.

Up until that point, I was pretty terrible at making decisions of any kind. I’d constantly weigh the benefits of each option over and over, trying to find the slightest reason why one choice was better. I couldn’t pick which movies to see, which restaurants to go to, even which games to play. And then I started playing Frequency.

Frequency gameplay
As you travel down the note highway/tube, quickly switching to the next instrument track is the only way to master the game.

In the game, you’re constantly progressing forward down a ‘note highway’ as in Guitar Hero. Yet instead of a flat plane like in those games, this is more like an eight-sided note tube, with each surface representing a different instrument. As you played and the song continued, you automatically sped down the tube, rotating to select which surface/instrument to play.

Here’s why it worked: In order to beat the harder levels (and later on, to get the highest scores), you had to instantly make a decision to pick the next instrument track, and then do it immediately. There was no time to weigh the benefits of each side; you just had to pick something and stand by it. Over time, this truism started to sink in to the point where I found myself less caught up in the minutiae of everyday decisions. I had become more decisive in life because I had played this game.

The reason this worked is simple – the ability in question, making decisions, was a necessary skill in order to excel at playing the game. Without overt prodding or explicit instructions, it became apparent that my reluctance to change was competing with what the game wanted me to do – and my desire to keep playing helped overcome that reluctance.

The answer is so simple, yet it seems that this hasn’t really been absorbed by the development community. For serious game developers working with clients, it could be that the stakes are too high to even consider non-traditional approaches. Yet serious games that wear their messages on their sleeves run the risk of diluting the potency of the desired change or message because they’re so obviously trying to force a specific result, while we as humans depend heavily on subtext, body language and non-obvious cues for our information.

Grendel Games' surgery game
In Grendel Games' surgical training game, players use a custom controller (right) to battle more traditional videogame enemies (left).

Though there are benefits in trying new approaches. Take the case of Grendel Games, a developer of serious and entertainment games in the Netherlands. When asked to come up with a game to train surgeons for laparoscopic surgery, the developers noted that existing training methods were technically effective, but too boring to be used regularly.

Sure, surgeons could practice the same motor skills used in the procedure, but after a day of operations and working in the hospital, doing a pure skills workshop was the last thing they’d want to spend their free time doing.

Taking a different approach, the developers instead proposed a more traditional game, complete with a fictional world, little monster characters, respectable production values and a narrative premise that tied in with the input device (Wii remotes hooked up to a custom controller handle). The game is still in development, but it’ll be worth checking up to see if their approach bears fruit.

The thing is, any game can be designed to include behavior-affecting components. The key is simple: tie the desired behavior into gameplay loops that require it to progress. This means that the user can’t get around adapting to the new behavior by trial and error, or through frequent saving and loading cycles. In Frequency, decisions are required every 1-2 bars of music, or roughly every 4-8 seconds, making it impossible to play at higher levels without being able to make quick decisions.

So what other behaviors can we address through regular games? Here’s a few to consider:

Forgetfulness. Instead of rote training like Nintendo’s Brain Training series, require players to recall specific information while playing the game. In an RPG, this could take the form of remembering specific topics to talk to other characters about (instead of choosing from preselected options), or in a sports game, prompt players to choose the best strategy from a wide selection of plays.

Sortasoft's Meriwether
Sortasoft's Meriwether doesn't seek to be educational, but players are bound to learn about history by virtue of playing.

Learned Information. Avoiding the didacticism of most educational titles, consider making the specific information you want to teach relevant to core gameplay. For example, people who play lots of FPS games tend to have a base knowledge of different types of guns, their respective clip sizes, reload speeds and stopping power, even if they've never even held one. Integrate the information you wish the player to retain across all commonly used aspects of your game to help create a similar effect.

Learned Techniques. Instead of purely instructional scenarios, look for ways to implement the desired techniques into gameplay. In Full Spectrum Warrior, players learn to move their soldiers as a cohesive unit, with each soldier fulfilling a specific role in the group. At the same time, there are clear rules of engagement that you must follow that are enforced by gameplay. This design isn’t a coincidence – the game was originally commissioned as a military training tool that later found life as a successful commercial title.

Anyone who’s been affected by a game knows the potential they have to change lives. Whether it’s in resolving indecision, easing social anxiety, healing trauma or opening the door to parts of the world you’ve never seen, games are capable of so much more than simple fun. Has a game helped change your life for the better?

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.


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Comments


Michael Pianta
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I hate open a whole can of worms, but doesn't this have bearing on the whole violence/games debate? By saying that games condition people to behave differently are we not conceding the main point of game critics?
The article states: "The thing is, any game can be designed to include behavior-affecting components. The key is simple: tie the desired behavior into gameplay loops that require it to progress." Then mightn't it be true that a game that encourages people to shoot first and ask question never (that requires that, in fact, to progress) is problematic?

Ben Serviss
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Thanks for bringing this up Michael, it's a tricky point but definitely a conversation worth having.

What I've found is that it's the game mechanics underneath the interaction that can affect behavior, not the content. You know how some people play Tetris to unwind? The quick decisions they need to make through the short core gameplay loop makes it easy to enter a 'flow' state, making it easy to concentrate on just one thing and let your stresses fade away for the time being.

On the other hand, some people get into the same state playing Call of Duty - and it's the tight core loops of quick decision-making underneath those games that helps create the change in behavior or mental state. The content seems to be irrelevant.

Now, if you were playing a game where the mechanics required you to talk to NPCs and come up with reasons why they were out to get you, and in the next stage you have to buy a gun and going on a rampage, that would be different. In this case, the underlying mechanics are forcing you to collaborate with a specific narrative - but at the same time, since the messaging is so overt, it wouldn't be nearly as effective as Tetris's flow state or Frequency's quick decisions.

Aaron Steed
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Indeed, whenever I pass a grocers I jump on all of the mushrooms. I simply can't tell reality from fiction.

Ben Serviss
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(double post removed)

Roberta Davies
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Every experience you've ever had in your life is some form of conditioning. Playing a game, reading a book, digging in the garden -- it's ALL affecting your behaviour at some level. The only alternative to conditioning is being dead.

I think all game designers should learn the basics of behaviour analysis and programmed instruction. Games are so very good at delivering reinforcement that their designers need to understand the power of the tools they're wielding.

"Shoot first and ask questions later" is a valid strategy in some life situations. As Ben pointed out in the article, indecisiveness can be crippling. To be a functional human, you need the capacity to make a fast decision and stick with it, if that's what circumstances demand, just as much as you need the capacity to weigh alternatives slowly and rationally when that's required.

I like to think that 35 years of adventure gaming (stretching right back to the days of Scott Adams) has helped me become more flexible with problem-solving. Things aren't always what they seem on the surface, and improbable elements can be combined to create surprising solutions.

Also that I'm a planet-rescuing hero, so I should be perfectly capable of overcoming acrophobia and climbing a stepladder if I have to.

Arthur Souza
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Conditioning yourself to think faster and make decisions and conditioning yourself to get a gun and shoot several people are very, very different things.

E McNeill
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I find it easy to make decisions when there is a tight deadline or a need to decide instantly. If there's no deadline, though, I'm paralyzed. I've recently been considering making a game in which taking action is crucial, but no decision has a time limit. Games seem like the best medium for exploring this kind of problem.

Gabriel Recchia
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Ben - just wanted to say I always appreciate these thoughtful posts about what games can do (and in some cases, cannot easily do) that go beyond just providing entertainment. Finally got around to adding Dashjump to my RSS. Please keep writing!

Ben Serviss
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Wow, thanks Gabriel! Will do :)


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