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Game Dosing
by Ramin Shokrizade on 07/25/13 05:35:00 pm   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.

 

[The following article was written in March of 2012 but left unpublished due to the controversial nature of the content. Given his recent interview on NPR (http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/07/24/204621796/ONLINE-REWARDS) about this subject, the author feels that now is the appropriate time to put this into the public space.]

Every great thing that has ever happened to you has come with a release of a natural chemical called dopamine. When you eat something tasty, enjoy a kiss or a hug, get a gold star on your paper, or level up in a computer game, dopamine is there to reward you. Sex, cocaine, methamphetamine, 20-hour gaming binges, all do what they do for you because you get a massive hit of dopamine in the process. Since dopamine is in the broader class of chemicals called catecholamines, it also increases alertness but can lead to fatigue much in the same way as adrenaline can (another catecholamine).

When I was studying the link between abnormalities in catecholamine receptors and addiction at UCLA in 1989, I found the work fascinating. I ultimately abandoned it because I did not think research on animals was as conclusive as research on humans, and I had some issues with sacrificing large numbers of animals in every study. Now that I have spent the last fourteen years in the interactive media industry, I have the uncanny feeling that I have found the solution to what stopped my research in 1989. Now I have access to plenty of human volunteers, on the order of one billion of them. We call them gamers.

The way I see it, every time someone plays a game, they are dosing themselves with dopamine. Research has shown that this may have tremendously beneficial effects on a number of disorders including Parkinson's disease, attention deficit disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia. Since dopamine also comes with a general analgesic (pain reducing) effect, games could also be an effective treatment for anyone suffering from chronic pain, as long as that pain isn't caused by sitting for long hours in front of a computer (back pain, carpal tunnel, etc.).

Since the body is organic and adaptive, over time it will adapt to anything you do to it. “Use it or lose it” applies to pretty much every part of the body, including the brain. When it comes to dopamine, anything that becomes predictable has less and less of an effect. This causes us to get bored fairly quickly with the games we play and always want something better. Unless the game is designed to change and keep challenging us, or it contains a dynamic social element, it quickly becomes stale.

Game developers generally view their customers as either “hardcore” or “casual”. I would like to urge developers to abandon this world view and replace it with a perception of gamers as “high dose”, “medium dose”, and “low dose”. If you can do this, the relationship between developers and their customers becomes a lot less confusing. Currently in the industry, most software titles are aimed at the “hardcore” audience, which makes up perhaps 10% of all gamers. Let us call these gamers “high dose”. There has been tremendous expansion in the total number of gamers just in the last few years, in large part due to the success of social network games such as Farmville. Much attention has been placed on the fact that these new gamers are mostly women. Let us call this group “low dose”.

The industry has convinced itself that women want simplistic, cartoonish, and low content games. Let us call these games “low dose games”. Assuming that women are a sub-species that crave low complexity products and will pay well for them not only completely misses what is going on here, but sets up an environment that will be very destructive to the interactive media industry in the long run. Women are not inferior gamers, but in many cases they are new gamers. New gamers can get a tremendous rush from even low dose games, especially if those games are available instantly and anywhere. There are few other pleasures that are so convenient in our society other than food, and obviously food has a number of negative effects when you abuse it as your pleasure source of choice.

All gamers, male or female, start their careers as low dose. Even the most primitive game can be very exciting when it is your first game. I remember being fascinated by chess, Pong, Rogue (ascii/unix), and later Space Invaders, early in my gaming career. As I got increasingly jaded, these games no longer did it for me. I needed a higher dose to have the same effect. After years as a professional cyberathlete, even high dose games like World of Warcraft or EVE Online didn't get my heart rate up that much. I began work in the field of applied virtual economics in order to build games that could compete with reality and win. You could say I fell into the same trap as the vast majority of my peers in the industry: I wanted to make games for me.

You can see that in this case, making games for me and making games for gamers is not the same thing. I represent the top 1% of gamers on the dosing scale. Tons of games are already being made for this group. The group that needs attention is the lowest 50% of gamers on the dosing scale. This group is almost entirely ignored by AAA studios, but they have just as much money and desire as the other 50%. They may not look hardcore, but they are having just as much fun (at least for now) as their more experienced peers.

So who is serving this new group of gamers? I would describe almost all current social network and mobile games as low dose games. These products started off as relatively low quality (compared to AAA), but the quality level has improved markedly in the last couple years. A few companies, like Kabam and Jagex, are getting smart and increasing the intensity of their products to what I would call “medium dose”. They do this by trying to boost social interaction via player versus player combat. I have already written a number of articles on why they are doing this in a sub-optimal fashion, but the key thing is that they are targeting a consumer group that no one else is. [update: It would be fair to classify Puzzle and Dragons as being medium dose due to its complexity] Being able to operate in an uncompetitive environment is an almost sure recipe for success.

How is the dosing model valuable to interactive media companies? By understanding how it works, you can capture all consumer dosing levels and keep them linked to your franchise. This can multiply your revenues easily. Right now almost all companies provide products at only one dose level. This means that every time they put out a new product, they just end up stealing gamers from their last product. If a high dose company like Blizzard (the makers of World of Warcraft) wanted to increase their number of customers, they would start making low and medium dose products linked to their existing franchises. Grab those new gamers entering the space and teach them what it means to be a Blizzard customer. This makes capturing those consumers, and steering them to your higher dose products as they mature, a simple matter. Don't let companies like Zynga capture those consumers first and teach them not to play Blizzard games.

The same advice applies to Zynga and other “casual” or low dose game companies. Don't wait for your customers to mature and get bored with your products. You already have their attention and they are familiar with your brands. Instead of making new low dose products that will just cannibalize your existing products, start introducing medium dose products. Your low dose customers won't stay low dose forever just because they are women. Trust me, dopamine works just as well on women as it does on men. There is no reason why a company with the resources of Zynga can't ultimately make high dose games, other than that they don't know how to yet.

Once companies start following an approach of “cradle to grave” customer capture based on the dosing model, keeping customers and monetizing them gets a lot easier. My final cautionary note is that dopamine, like any good thing, can be bad for you if you get too much. Players get fatigued very quickly in the most intense games and need to be given rest breaks. This is part of the reason for the success of games like World of Tanks and League of Legends that can be consumed in small chunks.

[Now in 2013 I have been using the term Dopamine Driven Design (DDD) privately for the last year to describe the use of techniques to optimize dopamine delivery in interactive media products. It is my belief that DDD is being used on a very rudimentary level in most social network and many mobile games currently. One company, Riot Games, has been deploying DDD capable scientists to optimize their product on a level that is beyond rudimentary. Most if not all major studios have been creating business intelligence units to optimize engagement, which in my opinion is tremendously inefficient without the presence of an embedded DDD capable scientist.

It is my belief that the use of DDD is an essential next step in the evolution of interactive media, which will allow it to meet the entertainment needs of 21st Century humans. When used for entertainment, DDD can be of great benefit to society. When used to manipulate people, it can create social ill. Knowing far in advance that I would eventually be publishing Game Dosing, and that the information here could be used to manipulate people, I have published a number of papers in the last year explaining the associated risks.] 

Front page image by Flickr user Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño / CC BY 2.0


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Comments


Jeff Alexander
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>"One company…has been deploying DDD capable scientists to optimize their product on a level that is beyond rudimentary."

I understand that you can't be sure you're making the best possible product unless your development process involves neuroanalyzing focus test subjects, but I hope I'm not the only one who feels that, at that point, you are clearly trying to hijack psychology rather than improve your product, and you aren't acting ethically regardless of what good or service you sell or what your pricing model is.

Also, Ramin, I'm not sure what editor you use, but in Firefox your blog posts display in larger-than-normal text with smaller-than-normal line spacing and are virtually unreadable for me.

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Simon Pole
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One other question to ask, is if you could have low, medium and high dose in the same game or game mode?

To a certain degree this already exists within MMORPG's with hardcore raid modes (high dose) and landscape questing (medium dose). So MMORPG companies would only have to add low dose games to capture low dose gamers and graduate them to other products.

But can you mix medium and high dose in the same game mode? In my opinion GW2 tried to do this with WvW, sending mixed messages as to whether it was for casual (medium dose) or hardcore (high does) PvP'ers. The result is WvW is what everyone is playing until a better RvR game comes out. (ESO is pitching their RvR game mode directly at hardcore PvP'ers).

Is there a way you can mix medium and high does in the same game mode, or is that impossible?

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Isaac Knowles
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There is an alternative explanation for this trend. If gameplay is all about learning to master game systems, then being an experienced gamer also means that you can more quickly comprehend the more complex, more interconnected systems of "harder core" games. Since today's "social gamers" - women in their 30s and 40s - were largely ignored by game-makers from 1970 to 2005 or so, it would make perfect sense that they would prefer games that are as simple as those I used to play on my Atari. It would also make perfect sense that they would be graduating into more mid-core games after a few years playing the simple stuff. Even people who stood at the frontline of game developement over the past generations also had to learn and master those less complex systems before they could develop the more complex ones that defined the next vanguard.

I'm not saying that dopamine doesn't play a role. I'm just saying that the reason any thing - from media to mathematics - develops complexity through time is because the human race learns how to get better at producing it and using it.

[Edit: typos]

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Isaac Knowles
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The point is not that dopamine isn't a factor; it's that complex games are impenetrable for the novice gamer. The flaw in the "its just the dopamine" explanation of just about any action is the way it fails to account for the fact that the moment we discovered how to refine poppy into morphine, the human race didn't just go extinct. There are, as Ramin notes, other neurochemicals in your body that excite and inhibit action. The brain is capable of developing new structures which, once formed, make courses of action feasible which were before considered infeasible. We do learn. And we dont just learn "because of the dopamine".

People have to learn how to play simple games before they play complex ones. That's why we have things like tutorials. People have to develop the ability to react both physical and mentally to the stimuli of basic game structures. Only after that happens would someone even consider playing a more complex game.

If you combine dopamine and learning, you get a decent theory about why people get stuck in particular genres. For example, if you're a sports game only kind of guy, maybe that's because you got into sports games as a kid and missed SimCity. You might've liked SimCity! Had you played SimCity , you might now find Civ 5 to be a brilliant game. You might even now be a city planner or a state legislator, for whom these games would be fascinating and deeply relevant. But having not gone through simpler iterations of today's complex games, you will simply not consider Civ 5 to be an optoin. Sports games give you the high (there's the dopamine) that Civ 5 would never give you because you never learned how to play games like Civ 5.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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There are many things going on in games, and it is this complexity that makes it difficult for most people to predict the success of a game in advance. You can't just look at one layer and say "this is the only layer that matters". The layer I describe here is, I think, an important one that is often overlooked, but as you can see from my other papers there are many layers that make a game engaging.

While Isaac's argument makes sense intuitively, I have to point out that games have gotten easier in the last generation. Read this: http://hothardware.com/News/Nintendo-CEO-90-of-New-Gamers-Unable-
to-Finish-Level-11-in-Original-Super-Mario-Bros/

You will see that the latest generation of casual gamers is actually somewhat crippled in their ability to master even simple games compared to the previous generation. I propose that this is because this generation is so over stimulated compared to previous generations that the reward mechanisms for games have to be stronger and more quickly delivered to capture the attention of contemporary audiences or otherwise they get bored/discouraged much more quickly.

Thus as our species adapts to "stimulation pollution" our products have to adapt as well to become even more intense. I think this creates a vicious circle with negative health consequences. I have tried to put recovery periods into my designs but consumers can just take these recovery periods and log into Facebook. I personally make sure I am "off grid" several hours a day to reset my demands (not even a phone in my pocket), but when I try to explain this to kids they have a really hard time understanding such a complex concept as addiction and adaptation.

Isaac Knowles
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Measure theory is impenetrable if you only know simple arithmetic. You will simply choose not to take the class in measure theory. You don't randomly choose classes; neither do you randomly choose games. You are in the market for some games, and not for others. And if you're a novice, you're not in the market for complex games, and therefore you will not play them.

I don't believe I'm repeating Ramin's thesis, which as I read it is: " every time someone plays a game, they are dosing themselves with dopamine..." and therefore "[t]his causes us to get bored fairly quickly with the games we play and always want something better."

My thesis is that every time someone plays a game they learn better how to play games, and therefore they consider playing more complex games.

Isaac Knowles
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@Ramin: At the top of that story you cite is a note from the editor stating that the story was based on a satirical report; i.e. no such study took place. http://hothardware.com/News/Nintendo-CEO-90-of-New-Gamers-Unable-
to-Finish-Level-11-in-Original-Super-Mario-Bros/

The "report" that story is based on is here: http://www.p4rgaming.com/majority-of-gamers-today-cant-finish-lev
el-1-in-super-mario-bros/

Ramin Shokrizade
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What is this world coming to when you can't even trust something you read on the internet? :)

Isaac Knowles
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Haha. Nevertheless, it would be an interesting experiment if it could be performed. I'm not sure what the outcome would be. It'd be nice to run the converse experiment, too: Test 1985 kids on Super Meat Boy and compare their performance to that of the 2013 kids.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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@Isaac & Ramin

The experiment, as described, would likely not be possible to carry out as I would bet no baseline data of what completion and failure rates in old games like the SNES Super Mario would be available to compare the performance of today's young gamers with.

I would also suggest care when suggesting that gamers today are overstimulated or easily bored. The younger generation always has a tendency to be"worse" in the eyes of the older, so be careful that you are not falling into a old man shouting at kids to get off his lawn trap. I have personally never seen any particularly compelling evidence to suggest that young people today are no more easily bored that they ever have been (better studied perhaps... and indeed such studies are hard to come by given that there is a general lack of baseline data) and when people talk about it it reminds me of the fallacy that younger generations are getting dumber, when in fact the IQ of each successive generation is still rising and has been for quite a while (called the Flynn effect).

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Ben: There are significant differences between this generation and all previous generations. All previous generations went to sleep and woke up basically alone. Now children in almost all developed countries go to bed and wake up with a smart phone in bed with them. The stimulation is nearly constant. Simultaneously, the preference for electronic communication is inhibiting their social skills. Academia is always slow to figure out what is going on because good studies take time.

Now if you want to wait for the academics to really figure this all out for us, in 10 or 20 years, and then take action, by all means go ahead. I prefer to carefully make observations, read up on whatever I can that can help me see what is going on, and then take a few risks and come to some conclusions that will help me make better products now.

One way to do this study would be to find children that don't have access to electronic devices and expose them to simple games. Compare this with a control group that has regular access to electronic devices. Note that finding a group of children without access to electronic devices will be hard, but that is exactly the point. If I was to guess at a result, I would say the electronic-jaded group would start out more proficient and learn more slowly (due to boredom) and the novice group would have some initial difficulties and then blow past the jaded group.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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I hope that someday someone can run that experiment (or start collecting baseline data now for the future when people worry that the youth of the future can't handle the difficulty of old games thanks to the influence of damn holodecks and neural head jacks).

As you say it would be very tricky to find a comparable control group due to the prevalence of electronic devices. However, to me, this is not the point. The point is is this prevalence harmful or beneficial or a mixture of the two? As I am sure you know there are many articles that claim that exposure to video games actually improves attentional capacity - although, as with much of research in this area these claims are still relatively new and somewhat controversial.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Ben, I think this latest generation, due to intense electronic interaction, is truly different than the generations that came before it. I honestly think their brains are different. This is not to say they are better or worse. They are better at some things and worse at other things. The lists on both sides get longer as we learn more. I don't see us going back so they are the future and the rest of us are relics of a past that, barring a survivable apocalypse, won't be revisited.

Luis Guimaraes
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I find it quite the opposite, that today's gamers are too easily impressed in comparison to us that been seeing games for a couple decades.

While the Play4Real article is clearly a satire, it's very close to real reality:
http://www.lazygamer.net/xbox-360/without-clues-dishonored-was-to
o-difficult/

Steven Reinhart
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>>>It would be fair to classify Puzzle and Dragons as being medium dose due to its complexity

I can't say I'm entirely convinced about the application of high-, medium-, and low-dose categorizations to games themselves based on factors such as complexity. I'm more inclined to believe that these distinctions (or the traditional hardcore, midcore, and casual distinctions) apply to the manner in which a player approaches and plays a game--any game. Surely a gamer can play a "low dose" game in a "high dose" way (e.g. someone with multiple devices and accounts spending 10 hours and $500 a day on their Hay Day farm), just as a gamer could play a "high dose" game in a "low dose" way (e.g. a casual WoW player who logs in to fish in town while they chat with guildies). Are you arguing that a "low dose" game simply lends itself more to being played by "low dose" gamers, but not exclusively?

>>>If a high dose company like Blizzard (the makers of World of Warcraft) wanted to increase their number of customers, they would start making low and medium dose products linked to their existing franchises.

Indeed, that's seems to be exactly what they're doing this year with Hearthstone--a F2P collectible card game based on the Warcraft universe that they are touting as "easy to learn" and "deceptively simple." But again, I'm not sure I would say that Hearthstone is inherently a low-dose or medium-dose game--at least not exclusively. I'm sure that hordes (pun intended) of high-dose Blizzard gamers will be playing it (myself included). The lower entry barriers of F2P compared to subscriptions or package prices no doubt bring in casuals and midcores that never would have come otherwise, but the hardcores will be right there with them getting their full doses.

I suppose this is where this thread could take a turn for the meta, though, and start considering the dopamine release associated with the pleasure of downloading and playing a fun game all for free, completely separate from the pleasure experienced from accomplishments within the game itself...

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Ramin Shokrizade
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I used the word complexity there honestly for lack of a better word. How dopamine works is a bit complex and I don't really want to go into a detailed explanation of how it works in games, for selfish reasons. That said, games generally have a target audience and are best enjoyed by that group. This is not to say that you can't play at a different level than what was intended.
Some games ramp up their difficulty and their dopamine level as you advance. Candy Crush Saga would be a good example. The complexity does not change much but the dose does.

Note that the monetization model in use can have profound effects on dopamine delivery. Pay to win has a large suppressive effect due to it both lowering the difficulty level and increasing the predictability of the result.

Maria Jayne
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A couple of years ago, I had a broken tooth with a swollen, infected nerve. It flared up one evening and I spent the whole night aching and unable to sleep. Anyway, since I couldn't sleep I tried to do things that would take my mind off the pain, the painkillers I had in the house were not dulling it at all. I was considering waking my partner up and asking him to drive me to the hospital, however he had work in the morning and so I ended up going on my computer.

I noticed when I played a video game, the pain would go away the more engaged and immersed I became. It wasn't 100% effective but it made it far more bearable and got me through the night. Reading this did remind me of that time and must relate to the dopamine reference....hopefully nobody got too horrified by this story, I did get the tooth fixed!

Booby K
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I remember when I got the flu or a cold. I played World of Warcraft to pass the time. Playing kept my mind off the flu/cold and it was a bit less suffering. LOL

Judith Haemmerle
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I have done the same thing with migraines. If it's really bad and I can't think, I play solitaire, but if it's just pain and the thinking process is unimpaired, I can do something like Cut te Rope or PAD - with the music turned off and the screen brightness at minimum.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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Hi Ramin,

The view of dopamine you present as a direct pleasure and reward chemical, while common, is not strictly accurate. As the science has moved on in the last few decades around this topic dopamine is no longer really considered to be the straight forward reward and pleasure chemical it first appeared to be. Rather, it appears to be associated in a much more complicated fashion with learning and reward prediction. Indeed, this is the one of the points that is made by Volkow the NPR article that you link to at the top of the page.

For instance, in one classic experiment (http://www.gatsby.ucl.ac.uk/~dayan/papers/sdm97.pdf) in rats it was found that while a being given a reward (juice) which was associated with a new stimulus (a light coming on) there was an increase in dopamine. Which was in line with ideas of dopamine being a direct reward and pleasure chemical. However, as the reward was delivered over repeated sessions the increase in dopamine response stopped despite the fact that the reward (in this case nice sweet juice) was still motivating and attractive to the rats, i.e. it was still rewarding. This suggests that dopamine is more about learning about and anticipating new reward opportunities and less about the impact of receiving (especially regular, expected) rewards have on an individual.

Other similar studies have been carried out. One quick summary of this idea is given by Robert Sapolsky, a biology and neurobiology professor at Standford (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axrywDP9Ii0).

Ultimately, this does still apply to games in that many games use variable (unexpected) rewards in their mechanics. However, the relationship between dopamine and gaming it is not necessarily as straight forward as saying that every time someone plays a game (especially a game they are familiar with) that they are dosing themselves with dopamine, nor that if a increase in dopamine is no longer associated with playing a game that the game will no longer be found to be rewarding or motivating to play.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Ben, I have been following related research, and collaborating with PhD mentors in the space that have more experience with the research than I do. The way dopamine works in gaming environments is complex and may even seem counter intuitive unless you are well familiar with the mechanisms. The points you make here are accurate, and I could present a much more specific explanation for what I think is going on in games as far as interactive media dopamine interactions, but I am choosing not to presently outside of academic circles.

The purpose of this article is to facilitate debate, not to teach developers DDD. I likely will do that at some future time but I think it would be unwise to do that today.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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Fine that you are choosing to hold back for the moment Ramin. However, I have no such concern, and therefore took the opportunity to provide some additional information and and add to your article. In the hope that, as you say, it would facilitate debate and get people to think about this topic from a different angle.

I will keep an eye out for when you do present more information on the topic.

Isaac Barry
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This!

There are lots of ways to present information simply that does not damage it's coherence or quality. If we must oversimplify/overgeneralize (and cock it all up at the same time), then we could do worse than to choose a general model of dopaminergic function put forward popularly by Reed Hoffman's analogy of these as "guidance" systems, involved not just in "reward" but also in movement, decision making, etc. Included in this is the idea that "more" is not the model, but "above expectations." There's plenty of disagreement about that model, sure. Just like there's a lot of controversy all over the field. But almost all of the work that I've read in recent years takes great care to distance itself from views like those in this article. I'm having difficulty understanding the points raised here as "controversial" rather than just plainly "wrong."

I remain open to being educated and surprised, however. Please, Ramin, show your work. Where are your references? I'm not a fan of appeals to authority, but who are these PhD mentors? What do you mean "academic circles"? What you think is interesting, I'm sure, but not nearly so much as what you can show.

[EDIT: Above I meant Reed Montague who does work on decision making, I confused his last name with Hunter Hoffman's, who does work with games and pain. Sorry!]

Christian Philippe Guay
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Some people will never believe anything unless they experience the thing directly, so don't waste your time Ramin on providing more references. If they really care about the subject, they'll do their own research. Otherwise, they don't deserve the truth.

Isaac Barry
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Hey Christian Philippe Guay! It seems like you're suggesting that people interested in the state of the art (including that other guy, the PhD researcher/teacher in psychology who is focused on games, and me, just a fan of brain sciences) "will never believe anything unless they experience the thing directly." Well that doesn't describe me, man! I can only ask that you have more patience for requiring that people support their ideas, especially when they seem to start from an outdated understanding, runs counter to current directions, and so far offers vagaries in defense.

People do really care about the subject, and don't think there's been a call for "more" references, there is a call for "any" precisely for that very reason. I'm running a round table at PAX Dev this year on the subject of psychology and game design (please come!) because I want people to be able to discuss ideas openly, teach each other, and be challenged.

But CPG, hold off on the psychology, and start here (it's awesome!): http://www.amazon.com/What-This-Thing-Called-Science/dp/087220452
9

Ramin Shokrizade
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Okay...here goes. When I was doing related research on non-consenting rats in 1989, all doors were open. When I tried to study related subjects in formal research to produce the hard data that Ben and others are asking for, on consenting humans, something changed. 2009-rejected for non-academic reasons. 2010-rejected for non-academic reasons. 2011-rejected for non-academic reasons. Never any explanation. I have had several senior scientists offer to help me, and have, and all have requested anonymity.

I've had over a dozen graduate students cite my work in their thesis with the blessings of their mentors. I'm seeing related work being done all over the world by industry, which seems to have no reservations about pursuing this line of inquiry. In the last year I've had quite a number of LinkedIn connection requests from members of casinos and online gambling studios, Chinese monetization designers, various scientists, a member of the US intelligence service, and even a scientist doing essentially the same thing I'm doing, but for the tobacco industry.

If I was to drop dead tomorrow this research would continue and would be applied in industry world-wide in coming years, if not this year. If not already. The difference is that while I'm here I am pushing information into the public space. I am doing it very carefully, incrementally, and I would like to think also responsibly. Some may disagree.

The idea that media can be used to manipulate or even control human behavior is not new at all, but the scale and efficacy of what we are now on the verge of is certainly unprecedented. I think the topic deserves discussion.

Let me use an analogy. If someone came up with a deployable model for a device to trigger nuclear fission, would you want them to put that model into the public space so that it could be verified? Or would you rather have society debate the ethics of nuclear fission first before models started flying around? Nuclear fission has a lot of extremely beneficial applications to society, and some not so beneficial applications. If the science was only studied in secrecy, I think this would favor the less beneficial applications. Industry is not waiting on this subject for proof from academics. This subject in particular is held in the greatest privacy by industry, and I enjoy having insiders all over sharing with me their insights, secretly, knowing that those insights will stay secret long enough.

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources"-- Albert Einstein

Isaac Barry
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Whan an incredible response. Literally. Below, I consider it[1], along with your LinkedIn profile[2], as well as a few other posts. Keep in mind, my main objection is about your model of "DDD" which you seem very interested in launching.

The TL:DR is that you appear to be trying to establish your brand as an expert rather than actually posessing (useful) propietary technology or conducting rigorous, novel research. You may be good at what you do, have some good ideas, but what you are claiming in this article is an expertise that you have been totally unable to demonstrate[6][7][8]. You may believe what you write and, again, I invite evidence and reference.

I use references so I can be checked and corrected. They are useful. Here and all over you refer to your many "public papers" but none of those really fit the term[2][9][10][11]. Papers use citations and some kind of review process, not assurance by the author that a nameless anonymous expert has given it their blessing [2][13][14][15][16]. Exceptionally, I saw a reference in one, and it was Wikipedia and a US DHHS website[13]. What you write should be called "posts" or "op eds." That doesn't mean they aren't interesting reads, it means that they are untested expressions of your observation and opinion.

So I know you have a 35-page "paper" (maybe it is full of references). But the only time I see any academic or professional association with an actual name, it's in reference to that paper (which does not have a position on dopamine like you've described here, I hope) I must admit they are significant names, but not in the field of psychology. "After having the paper vetted by professors Mike Zyda and Henry Jenkins at USC (a major feeder school for Blizzard), Blizzard declined to read it."[17] I'd expect you to drop their names constantly since you aren't shy about accomplishment[2]. Is there possibly any relationship between that vetting process and their request, now, to not be named?

In your reply, and elsewhere, you are pretty clearly trying to suggest that there is a relationship between the 7 months of research assistant work you did in the lab in 1989, and the work you tried to get support for leading in 2009-2011 [1]. To understand why your research applications might've been rejected, let's look at your history. Back in 1989, for 7 months, you were an undergraduate research intern in a neuroscience lab at UCLA[2]. This was when you were doing your work with rats, studying cellular catecholamine receptors, to help understand Fetal Alcohol Syndrome[2]. While we could already guess that a research intern is not a key position, that you describe it as "guided research" confirms you weren't a lead of the study, coauthoring any papers, etc[2]. You suggest that you left neuroscience (under a year?) because of ethical concern[1]. Then you got a BS in Kinesiology and went to work in that field for nearly seven years[2]. Because, in your summary, you mention starting to test in 1995 and list nothing between '96 and 2000, I will presume you worked as a software tester until 2000, when you start a year and a half as "Remote Development and QA Lead" for Nexon[2]. Then you worked at Tri Synergy[3] (something of a shovelware company, no SAS, no F2P) for just over three years, overlapping with a writing gig at UnknownPlayer.com[2]. (Incidentally, you claim 500K daily uniques[2] while your source, Scott Miller, says "monthly"[6]. Please correct.) In 2008-2009 you attend Riverside studying graduate Economics, but left without a degree (neither Masters nor PhD)[2]. Since you don't say[1], I'll assume this school is where you begin applying to conduct research on human subjects. For the years '09-'11, these applications were rejected, which you know were for "non-academic reasons" but claim they came "Never any explanation"[1]. Your advisors never offered any guidance on this? Let's presume you weren't trying to conduct neuroscience research (with no prior published work and 7 months of lab experience 20 years before). Still, a proposal to do anything related to using human subjects, would get a high level of scrutiny. Was this field Economics? If yes, then back to my original point of this paragraph: why do you attempt to relate the neuroscience internship with the difficulty getting support for these new studies? I have to conclude that you're trying to lend credence to your notions by suggesting a veneer of "neuroscienc-ness" that you have no business claiming. This would explain why you might continue fumbling with it[6][7][8].

Several senior scientists have offered help, just as long as it's anonymous[1]? Fields? Affiliations? "I can't name" and "I can't offer any details" are different things. You make claims of citation[1]. But who is citing? Can you point to any of these theses? Were they all rejected? Are they also "anonymous"? What are they citing? Your untested, secret paper? Your blogging? Do you have any published anything that isn't on Gamasutra or gaming forums? Peer-reviewed work? (This is an honest question, man, I am interested! Learning new things is awesome!) For example, on your LinkedIn page and elsewhere, you claim your work was "cited" by NPR[1][2], that it's somehow relevant to what's here; you post now because of that story. So I follow the link and your work is not really cited at all so much as you are quoted[3]. That's NOT the same thing. News organizations often seek out expert opinion, quote them to provide dimension to the story they are doing, and nothing about that process actually lends support to the work of those experts other than as promotion of that expert's brand. It puts the expert's voice out there, but doesn't really inspect or critically review their work. It is, however, good for getting the expert more phone calls and speaking/consulting gigs. Doesn't everyone know this? Is that what this whole thing is[11]: self-promotion? (NPR repeats the timeline you frequently imply "...studied neuroscience before switching careers, and now he helps video game companies monetize their games."[8] That's a convenient framing of your career path.)

In the last year you've gotten a lot of LinkedIn requests[1][2]. Well, you've been working in monetization, and that's a field that super hot and non-BS expertise super rare[10]. You've been knocking out these Gama blog posts, building your brand. You have direct work experience and claims of proprietary technology[2], so it's not at all surprising that casinos and all manner of people are reaching out to you. Hell, I don't believe you have any secret sauce, yet I'M INTERESTED in your "one weird trick" marketing. I have no doubt that people in all sorts of industries and agencies are working on behavioral economics and control, and that this work is similar to the work you do. But LinkedIn is a place where people that have never worked with somebody will endorse their skills and expertise anyways, so how can a request to link, no matter who it's from, mean anything?

Let me use an analogy. If someone said he had a bomb in a box, but wouldn't show it, couldn't explain it, and told you that for a little while (so long as you're cool, right) you could threaten your enemies with it, for a fee... would you spend a lot of time worrying about that bomb?

"Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn't explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan." — Kurt Vonnegut[18]

[1] Shokrizade R., Gamasutra, "Game Dosing" comment, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130725/196848/Ga
me_Dosing.php#comment211216
[2] Shokrizade R., LinkedIn: Ramin Shokrizade, http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=2833343,(Accessed 7/29/2013)
[3] IGN, List of Tri Syngery Games, http://www.ign.com/companies/tri-synergy
[4] Miller S., LinkedIn: Scott Miller, http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=2832258,(Accessed 7/29/2013)
[5] Shokrizade R., Gamasutra, "Game Dosing" comment, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130725/196848/Ga
me_Dosing.php#comment211119
[6] Shokrizade R., Gamasutra, "Game Dosing" comment, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130725/196848/Ga
me_Dosing.php#comment211240
[7] Shokrizade R., Gamasutra, "Game Dosing" comment, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130725/196848/Ga
me_Dosing.php#comment211242
[8] Henn S., NPR Blog: All Tech Considered, "Online Marketers Take Not of Brains Wired for Rewards", http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/07/24/204621796/O
NLINE-REWARDS
[9] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "Next Generation Monetization: Supremacy Goods" comment,
http://gamasutra.com/view/feature/177190/next_generation_monetiza
tion_.php#comment168092
[10] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "The Top F2P Monetization Tricks",
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130626/194933/Th
e_Top_F2P_Monetization_Tricks.php
[11] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "Ramin Shokrizade's Blog" home,
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/author/RaminShokrizade/914048/
[12] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "Systems of Control in F2P",
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130516/192386/Sy
stems_of_Control_in_F2P.php
[13] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "Monetizing Children",
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130620/194429/Mo
netizing_Children.php
[14] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "Monetizing Children" comment,
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130620/194429/Mo
netizing_Children.php#comment207214
[15] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "Monetizing Children" comment,
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130620/194429/Mo
netizing_Children.php#comment207339
[16] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "The Top F2P Monetization Tricks" comment, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130626/194933/Th
e_Top_F2P_Monetization_Tricks.php#comment208132
[17] Shokrizade R. Gamasutra, "The Barrier to Big" comment,
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RaminShokrizade/20130531/193353/Th
e_Barrier_to_Big.php#comment203618
[18] Vonnegut K., Cat's Cradle, ©1963 Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Nils Pihl
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@Isaac Barry, I want to have your children. Thank you for this.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Isaac this is a very thorough assessment, and as I don't yet want to put my more sensitive work into the public space I am a bit helpless to defend my work on an academic level presently. This is probably why I chose not to publish this March 2012 paper when I wrote it, but felt the timing was appropriate given the nature of questions that were presented to me during the recent NPR discussion. As I've stated here repeatedly my primary purpose here is to generate discussion, not prove anything or generate more work for myself. I have all the work I need at the moment but again you have me at a disadvantage since I cannot yet discuss it.

Many of these conditions will change in the next few months and I've had no plans to publicly delve deeper on this topic until then, other than to participate in any community discussions on the ethical and technical implications of neuroscience in game development. At that point whether I go further into detail as to my work may very well be up to my employers as they may want me to keep my (shared) proprietary work in this area secret until the projects it is being used on are made public.

[7-30-13: I've written another paper that clarifies the obsolete components in this old paper, and explains some DDD fundamentals. I'm not sure yet when I will publish this. I will decided when I get back from Europe.]

So if your interest is to learn more on this subject from me, I'm afraid you are going to have to wait anywhere from a few months to over a year. Hopefully the wait will be worth it.

As far as my work at UnknownPlayer.com, it seems that Scott Miller states on his profile "I grew the site from 100 to 500,000 readers per month in under a year". I was writing for UP for 4 years and his statement here in no way contradicts my statement. I will contact him for clarification, but to cite this without contacting him for clarification and then asking me publicly to revise my LinkedIn profile gives me the impression that you are going to extreme lengths to both troll and misrepresent me. Please realize that this was at a time when EQ had 400,000 participants (which broke all previous records for online gaming) and we catered to the online gaming audience. Thus the majority of online gamers in the West were visiting our site fairly regularly during our peak years, and I was the senior writer there. Honestly if you were not active in the community back then and you would like to interview us I would be all for that.

Paul Marzagalli
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Ramin, this is an interesting addition to the ongoing discussion of video games' effect on individuals and society. Apropos of what you wrote, I expect to see more ill come from this than good, but it is good to have this information out there. Thanks for sharing this.

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Christian Philippe Guay
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I agree with the dosage concept. However, I think it's wrong to design games for a specific dosage.

If your game is well designed, then everyone can find his dosage. And what I mean by that is in Guitar Hero, if you need a small dosage you set a the game to a lower intensity and the ones capable of dealing with higher dosage can play at higher difficulty settings.

In a competitive game, the ranking system handles the dosage. The less epxperienced players can play with others of similar skills, while the most experience players will rank up and the best players (highest dosage) will play together.

If the game is about speed runs like a Trials HD or racing games, anyone can finish the levels, but to beat your past records is totally up to you.

Anyway, I'm sure you got the point. To dumb down games, instead of appealingto more people, will prevent the players that are looking for a medium or higher dosage from enjoying the game. ANd as players evolve as they play and better understand the game, to make a game strictly for a very low dosage wouldn't make much sense either.

But now that I'm putting it this way, I would much prefer to use the words ''gameplay depth'' and intensity instead of ''dopamine'' or ''dosage''. Maybe even skills...

Ramin Shokrizade
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Christian, while I agree with your points, I just must mention that adaptation to game mechanics/skills and chemical adaptation occur in different ways, at different rates. I think a consumer is best served to use the minimum dosage that will meet their needs. Hitting a player with too much too soon could cause... problems. Exactly what those problems look like I still can't say, but I see us heading down this rabbit hole very quickly and these situations will be upon us more quickly than we can imagine. It is best to start thinking about it now than after the fact.

Now doing what you say is fairly straight forward in single player (or co-op) games, but doing what you describe in a large scale multiplayer game is harder than you make it sound. This is where a lot of my more recent work has been focused.

Mitchell Fujino
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This article uses a lot of scientific language, but is missing any actual science. Specifically, experimentation and evidence.
What I mean by that is you have an interesting hypothesis, one that I'd like see more study on, but then you instantly go on to make assumptions, categorize games based on your assumptions, and then make some conclusions, without ever *testing through experiment* your initial hypothesis. And that's where the real science would be.

For instance, dopamine is actually measurable. Why not start by seeing if your low-mid-high dose guesses are correct?

Ramin Shokrizade
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Michell, I am currently corresponding with scientists world-wide that study related subjects. I plan to stay "in the trenches" for at least the next three years while I support these scientists (and vice versa) as they do exactly what you would like to see done. I'm just one person, I can't do everything so I am doing what I do best which is act as a bridge between the interactive media industry and various related scientific disciplines.

Jacek Sliwinski
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I agree, the approach is quiet interesting but lacks a real scientific basis. Once this is established, a practical value for the industry can be derived. Of course, a thorough neurophysiological analysis cannot be conducted so I would like to see a quick & dirty method for testing players to determine the right level and implications for a specific game. Maybe the dopamine level (and that of other substances) is correlated with psychological traits which are a lot easier to measure, e.g. sensation-seeking.

Eric Robertson
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Excellent article. I believe it is possible and helpful if a game allowed various dopamine level gameplays to encourage each other, and possibly create a healthy gateway for dopamine level hopping.

Example: Online game with low dopamine group (PvE hunter/gatherers) who provide resources for a mid dopamine (PvE Group quests + Support PvP), who provide resources/support for the high level dopamine group (PvE Raiders + Competitive PvP).

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Ramin Shokrizade
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I am of the opinion that long term peer to peer interactions have the greatest effects on engagement, and probably dopamine release. These sorts of interactions tend to be cooperative rather than competitive. Even those that battle each other for months or years tend to form a certain amount of camaraderie that leads to long term friendships and respect.

When a combat between two people is one-sided, and especially if it is non-consensual, I call this PvV (Player vs. Victim). Most games that are advertised as PvP-centric are actually PvV-centric, due to poor game design or the presence of a pay to win monetization model. PvV environments yield close to zero dopamine for the initiator due to the predictability of the result, and can actually suppress dopamine below baseline levels for the victim. Since dopamine is also a neurotransmitter this can be extremely uncomfortable for the victim. Repeated exposure can cause depression so in such situations churn is almost a certainty even in the presence of positive peer to peer effects.

So Matthew, what I am trying to say is that since you are a fellow high dose player you may not like contemporary PvP games because they are in practice low dose or at best medium dose games. This is not because of low complexity or challenge, but because of a mismatch between how the game is designed and what the brain is craving.

WoW-like PvE raids are also very poorly designed from a DDD perspective because the time between rewards can be excessive, leading to fatigue. Further, when the group size gets large enough the opportunities for individual heroics to be recognized diminish, limiting the peer to peer reinforcement that should be driving these types of play environments.

Nils Pihl
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"When a combat between two people is one-sided, and especially if it is non-consensual, I call this PvV (Player vs. Victim). Most games that are advertised as PvP-centric are actually PvV-centric, due to poor game design or the presence of a pay to win monetization model. PvV environments yield close to zero dopamine for the initiator due to the predictability of the result, and can actually suppress dopamine below baseline levels for the victim. Since dopamine is also a neurotransmitter this can be extremely uncomfortable for the victim. Repeated exposure can cause depression so in such situations churn is almost a certainty even in the presence of positive peer to peer effects."

Source please.

Katy Smith
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Hi Ramin. I don't know if I agree with your premise that the reason people play video games is because pleasure can be derived from dopamine "dosing". While an older model of research did hypothesize that dopamine was a pleasure reward, newer research is looking at it as a reward for learning or novel situations. I know there has been research done that shows dopamine decreases even when a pleasurable / rewarding stimulus is present. The takeaway here being that the learning about the novel situation was what was causing the dopamine response, not the pleasurable stimulus. Does grinding dailies in WoW still give a dopamine reaction? If not, why are people still playing? Also, this theory does not take into account behaviors that don't have an explicit stimuli -> reward scenario. For example, behaviorists would say that if my phone rings, I should answer it. Most of the time, they are right. Phone ringing, conditioned stimulus makes me get up and answer the phone. However, there are a lot of times where the phone is ringing and I don't get up to answer the phone. Why is it that sometimes I will answer the phone and other times I won't? Personally, I'm not a fan of reductionism, but I am interested in seeing any supporting research that you have.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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Katy, it sounds like you are disagreeing with my paper by telling me that I should have discussed the novelty effects associated with Dopamine. I actually do discuss these in the 4th paragraph of the paper.

Dopamine is primarily released in response to activities when those activities are perceived as "successful" and "novel". This is nature's way of rewarding you for trying something new that works out well. The diminishing returns every time you repeat the action is nature's way of preventing you from getting addicted to that behavior, or becoming dogmatic and not trying something else new.

The result is that we tend to value watching a movie the second time a lot less than the first, and computer games get stale quickly for us. This is great for us an an industry because this means we can continue to make and sell new games because the consumer has a constant demand for new content. Unfortunately, most developers don't realize this and they attempt to copy what has already sold well, not realizing that this is much less likely to be appreciated to the same extent it was initially.

I'm pretty sure I did not go into this detail, intentionally, in my original article here. Grinding in WoW is so unpleasant after a while that it can actually suppress dopamine levels and become painful. This is why players of WoW will actually pay other people to play the game for them. Clearly this leaves a lot of room for design improvement.

Katy Smith
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Hi Ramin. What I was trying to say was that the current research notes that the relationship between dopamine and pleasure is more complex. Instead of saying "insert new stimulus receive dopamine" it is starting to look like it is related to predicting rewards and learning. So, while this approach might cover some aspects of the types of rewards players get when playing games, it does not show that a decrease of dopamine will stop game playing behavior.

Also, as an anecdote, I did not like "Fargo" the first time I watched it. I thought it was extremely slow. However, it's one of my favorite movies now. Several people I know have also had experiences with media that at first they were "meh" about and now really love.

Kale Menges
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If we're determined to reduce the entertainment value of video games down to a neuro-chemical reaction, then theoretically we could someday have the technology to simply measure the exact brain-juice cocktails created by specific stimuli in specific games and literally recreate games in pill form, right? Here, have 500mg of Super Mario Bros, or how about a dime-bag of WoW? Maybe it's just me, but I think the pursuit of this kind of over-analysis of why people enjoy video games is somewhat dehumanizing and an insult to the creators and designers of games, their intelligence and imaginations, and those of their audiences. Would "DDD" have made Shakespeare a better playwright or Picasso a better artist? In theory, you could make any audience thoroughly enjoy even the most poorly designed or crafted "entertainment" just by giving them a shot in the arm during the opening credits, right? I see this kind of data becoming more of a crutch than anything else...

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Ramin Shokrizade
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@Kale: While there are a lot of ways to get dopamine, none show the promise of interactive media in that IM is infinitely scaling and can be deployed almost anywhere at any time. It can be used almost anywhere, is legal, and does not usually cause negative externalities. It is cheap. The dopamine you get is endogenous, meaning you make it yourself.

When you take dopamine exogenously (from a pill or an injection) you run the risk of depressing your body's own natural production of dopamine. This happens when athletes take testosterone exogenously. Their own testes (in the case of males) shrivel up because they are no longer needed to make testosterone. This results in dependence. Here you don't want to make someone dependent on exogenous dopamine. Since it is a neurotransmitter this could be very dangerous.

TC Weidner
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@Ramin you say When you take dopamine exogenously (from a pill or an injection) you run the risk of depressing....
----------------------------------

Problem here is that we know games, especially online games can be addicting as well. If these dopamine designed games were to become the norm, who is to say that this addiction problem in gaming wouldnt greatly increase?


and you also state
When used to manipulate people, it can create social ill.

I dont know much about much, but I do know this, if money is involved you can count on some humans to ALWAYS do the wrong thing for an easy buck.

I appreciate your work in this field, but to be honest I almost dread what you will uncover. For gaming isnt just for adults, its kids, and kids and their developing brains can be manipulated much easier, either by misplaced trust, or in this case science.

Ramin Shokrizade
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TC Weidner, I would say you understand my dilemma pretty well. Unfortunately, we all share this dilemma.

Christian Philippe Guay
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I would just like to thank you Ramin for the article. More people should take the time to share their knowledge and researches.

Redge Hammer
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Video Games are way better than any opiate.

Ian Young
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This is something I've begun to think about more often over the past year. I always had an idea that in order to make a game enjoyable, you had to create situations which would trigger a dopamine release, at some level. Whilst I don't agree with using this to manipulate human beings into purchasing products, I don't think anyone would disagree that enjoyable experiences in games do provide this trigger. With that in mind, I do feel that more research is required on this subject, but it is, sadly extremely open to abuse, and even more open to being done incorrectly. F2P games do this, where enjoyable experiences are given out, and then players are required to either pay up, or settle into either extremely limited, or monotonous gameplay. A truley good game, should not withhold these experiences, but should carefully control the level of dopamine release, so as the flow of experience should gradually increase over time, peaking at the endgame. Examples of this ar that in League of Legends, play intensity increases with higher skill levels, triggering much stronger releases. Historically, single player games would give you beautifully crafted cut scenes, unlocks etc, as well as extended "doses", such as in Zelda games, where defeating a dungeon would not only grant new items (large release), but would unlock new areas of the game (many more smaller releases). Measuring dopamine releases during gameplay, could be used as a partial measure of the "fun factor" of games. At the end of the day, people play games for pleasure, and if that pleasure is given to us by the release of dopamine in the brain, then for better or worse, This is already being exploited, whether we realize or not. It does raise ethical questions however, in how we treat certain types of games. Could it be said that each human being is born to be a dopamine addict? And if so, which games encourage the addiction, and which merely satiate it?

Ramin Shokrizade
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Ian, I agree with your insights. I consider dopamine to be an essential part of life. It is not a nutrient because it is produced internally. While I know of no such study, I would assume that when you put a human in isolation (solitary confinement, etc.) they become dopamine depressed, and that this is extremely traumatic for humans. Entertainment in all its forms is kind of like a nutrient for humans in that this is a major source of dopamine release. This is why when I see people talk about making budgets for themselves that right there with food and rent there is a line for "entertainment".

Thus much good can come from us learning how to deliver dopamine to the masses cheaper, more effectively, when they want it, and where they want it. I hear many people complain that their intimate partners "pay more attention to their games than to me". This is because a good game can be a sexual competitor in that it can provide a more reliable and sustainable flow of dopamine and other enjoyable chemicals than sex can, in many cases. This could become a more serious issue in the future, but if people's needs are being met and we have overpopulation already, I don't see this as a short term concern. Now if we find that humans need oxytocin for health and that they are avoiding direct human contact in lieu of games, then this might lead to disease states we still do not understand. There is so much to learn here and technology is advancing much faster than we can figure out side effects of that same technology.

But what if, knowing this, you give someone "a taste" for free in a game, and then once they are on the drip you stop the flow and say "pay me or else". This is an obvious and easy approach because it works. It certainly is not very consumer friendly though, and in the case of children and other vulnerable populations it could be flat out unethical.

Mitchell Nelson
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Dopamine is not the only agent at work here. Dopamine release is enhanced by anticipation and novelty. The opiod peptides provide much of the stronger rewards. Serotonin, GABA and certainly epinephrine levels can change in response to game play. Games can even trigger punative chemicals like substance P.

The important point is, these chemicals can be life changing. Entertainment is not a nutrient. Passive entertainment is corrosive. It makes us feel rewarded for sitting idle, like sugary foods can reward us for eating something unhealthy. Only ludic entertainment can be sufficiently educational to make worthy use of the brain's chemical reward mechanisms.

Remember that dopamine is essential for motivation. A person with low dopamine production may be unable to stand up and walk out of a burning room, even though they are physically able. Dopamine is not limitless and there are reprecussions. Note that more young adults in Japan now report the complete lack of motivation to have sex, a most primal drive. This is likely due to a continual dopamine drenching by passive, mass media and to some degree games.

Don't get me wrong; I love games, I work in the industry and believe games can help humanity. But. We do have a responsibility to handle player's brains with care.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Mitchell, I'm glad you brought this up, because I was hoping someone would before I just threw it out there. I'm not naive enough to think there is just one chemical at work here. There are many, of which we still have little knowledge, and most if not all of them affect multiple other chemicals when their levels change. The body acts as a complex organism, just like an economy does. Changing one thing changes many other things. All of these have repercussions and without knowing these in advance you can do a lot of harm by attempting to play God. Or Doctor. Or Economist.

Trying to come up with sustainable ways to deploy science in games is a lot harder when you start to try to include ways to improve health or at least reduce harm. Nonetheless this is an essential step if we are going to make this work and not be seen as a threat to society.

So when I talk about "dopamine" here, I use that single term as a means to reduce the complexity of the discussion. I don't mean it to be completely accurate because there are a lot of chemical interactions going on. A full and proper discussion would be beyond the patience of most Gamasutra readers and thus these more intense discussions I have only in private with concerned academics and industry leaders. As the community becomes more aware of the related issues I will be releasing more complex concepts.

Booby K
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Hey Ramin you got mentioned in this article:

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/theres-reason-why-candy-crush-14040
0342.html

Ramin Shokrizade
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The relationship between game companies and consumers is increasingly becoming adversarial, and to some possibly unethical. It is a hot topic and has been going viral into non-gaming journalistic spaces for the last month now.

What is different here is that interactive media is potentially much more powerful than traditionally passive forms of media. This means its potential to affect society, for good or bad, is much greater. Right now the focus of developers is decidedly in the "bad" camp and this should cause the concern that you are seeing.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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Joshua, clearly the only thing that is going to give pause to the misguided people at the helm of this industry is going to be a consumer backlash, and I believe we are seeing the front end of that now. If that proves insufficient then the next stage of resistance would be regulation.

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Dave Hoskins
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A good human story and an occasional sense of achievement works for me every time in games, well, in life in general. ;)

I've thought for a while now that games shouldn't get harder as the player advances, that's a 30 year old concept from the arcades. But they should get more interesting and with a wider perspective. Journey is a great example, but I would have preferred more to do, rather than being just an audio visual experience.

Benjamin Sipe
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Nice article. I haven't exactly thought of games like this in a while, but definitely explains why I feel "gamer depression" lately. I can't find a game that excites me enough in the short time I have to game now.

Which brings me to my next point. What do you do as a "high dose" gamer who's now a parent with little time for games? I play Order & Chaos on my iPad, but I need to find more "high dose" games... or maybe I need to "make them" since many gamers will eventually end up with families. :)

Kelly Mergens
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Yes, this is an excellent article, and I fully applaud the research you are doing, Ramin, as perhaps it will one day be applied to the gaming industry in a positive, rather than a negative way! As a female --who became a gamer as soon as there were any games to play (Pong, Space Invaders, Adventure (Colossal Cave), Zork, and everything from then up until my newest favorite games: Portal and Portal II!)-- I feel I might have a unique perspective.

I was at one time a student of Psychology, and am now actually in school studying game design. I want to be able to create games that will engross and excite players, while being socially conscious as well. I am also a mother, and I’ve directly and indirectly raised my kids to be gamers (whether they were just watching me play or were participating). It’s always been a family activity, whether we were all playing something on a video game console together; or whether we were locked in our separate rooms glued to our computer screens; gaming has been a huge part of our family dynamic.

I taught my kids how to use computers by playing Sierra’s adventure games with them (Quest for Glory series, King’s Quest series, Space Quest series). These were games that had a great appeal to a wide audience because the player could choose their character type, name their character, then go on adventures solving puzzles, collecting objects, doing some minimal “fighting” which was never gory or overdone. These were “thinking” games that had great stories to them; and also were re-playable since they had different outcomes depending on the choices initially made by the player (whether to be a magic user, a thief or a fighter), and were based in interesting and fun fantasy worlds. Also the Kyrandia series of games were like this, and had zero fighting but had such a great deal of humor, we wanted to play them over and over again even if the results of the “rewards” hardly varied!

One thing I've also noticed is that any quote from a beloved game can bring renewed “reward” or a pleasurable “fix” by way of giving a feeling of nostalgia and satisfaction for what it felt like to play it for the very first time. Ask me about Tales of Monkey Island, I’ll tell you that you “Fight like a dairy farmer!”; ask me about Kyrandia III, Malcolm’s Revenge, you’ll learn that “Those Kyrandian Squirrels are killers!” Likewise, anyone who grins when they hear the words “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue” will be able to tell you all about Zork and how great it was to even be able to play a text based game that had zero graphics and zero social interaction with other players.

Interestingly, too, after reading your article I thought back to when I played Space Invader’s on my Atari as a thirteen year old girl: I was literally obsessed with getting the highest score possible, and it wasn’t to impress a boy or a group of friends (I was a total introvert!). I simply HAD to see how high the scoring system would allow a person to go! I played one day for over three hours straight without “dying” in the game, until my hand stopped working because I’d used the joystick too much and had worn out the muscles and tendons on my hand! Fast forward to the present, and I am no different at age 49. I fell in love with the Portal games, and will stay up all night solving the levels because the challenge is so rewarding. The graphics are phenomenal, there are elements of humor (the evil computer GLaDos: “This is your fault. I'm going to kill you. And all the cake is gone. You don't even care, do you?”) and a great deal of science/science fiction and physics involved in these games; plus I don’t really care about competing with anyone else, I simply play for the fun and pleasure of it. I love solving puzzles and ciphers, but this game just blows away all other games as far as excitement for me. I don’t get into shooting games much (Although I have to admit I have a fondness for Team Fortress 2 and love all of the silliness even when players blow each other to bits!); but a game has to be fairly technical and well written to hold my attention. I tried to enjoy “games” like Farmville, but just couldn’t stand the repetitiveness and blandness (the first thing I did was to arrange all of my hay bales into a gigantic Space Invaders t.v. display screen!). I also hated that whole thing about extorting money out of people every five minutes, so I quit. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the people who make and distribute games completely deserve to be compensated for their talent, and I don’t mind buying a game when it first comes out and paying full price instead of waiting until it goes on sale; but I don’t like it when I feel like I’m sitting in front of a slot machine mindlessly plopping in quarters just to be able to continue perpetuating a make-believe world, full of make-believe plants and animals.

I just want to add one more thing and then I’ll quit rambling: I don’t know about other people, but I like it when a game initially feels difficult to solve. As a matter of fact, the first thing I do whenever starting a new game is try to find out all the ways you can die in it just to see what happens! This to me has become rewarding in itself, because many of the game designers were so cool as to make the death sequences funny in some way, so instead of feeling frustrated, invariably I would find myself laughing my head off as my character fell to their doom!

Anyway, thanks for posting this article, Ramin. I can see why you hesitated as it is indeed controversial; but in the end I think it will be important for developers of social applications like computer and video games to be able to improve their work not so much for the purpose of manipulation of public consciousness and behavior; but rather for the purpose of heightening the element of entertainment. I for one want my players someday to feel like I am giving them a gift; because that’s how I feel about all the people who poured their hearts and souls into creating all of the games that me and my family love so much. For what it’s worth, I am really grateful to each and every one of them for the hours of pleasure and “together” time their work has given to us as individuals, and as family members!

Ramin Shokrizade
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Kelly, what a great post! With all of your gaming experience you can look back and see what really was memorable and why, and what was not. I agree that developers should get paid for their work, and if their work is really amazing they should get paid amazingly! At the same time I think the customer should know ahead of time, transparently, what is for sale and what those things are worth to them. This model has worked in restaurants for a long time, and does not require the owners to tease you then jack up the prices when you are really hungry!

Some restaurants keep the prices low, but after you order you find that the portions are microscopic. While I may fall for this once, it upsets me and I don't come back. Of course if I am warned the portions are tiny in advance that is different. Then at least I have informed consent before I make a purchase. Of course the trick is how do you effectively do this in games, especially multiplayer games? Often we sell things to one player that end up hurting another player. This is a poor business model that rarely is allowed to exist outside the automotive and arms industries (and even in those industries, those days are numbered).

While I don't want to show just how far along I am in solving these problems, since I don't get paid to write and have to make a living selling something, I do feel compelled to release information at a reasonable pace so that the industry can better understand the predicament they are in currently with their outdated business models, and to teach them that there are alternatives. I'm not the only one that can come up with solutions and I strongly encourage others to do so.

Kelly Mergens
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Thanks, Ramin! Keep up the great work! :)

Tao Phoenix
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More Hypotheses, as I have no research to back these up (yet!?)

1. Let's say that all of the chemicals in the brain's reward system can be simplistically lumped under "Neurochemical Rewards" for the sake of his original points. I don't wish to get into precisely which neurochems are firing at any exact time.

2. There's a release of something in any enjoyable activity. However, I would like the discussion to consider general media entertainment as well, because the novelty of TV, movies, and general web content is providing some of the boost that is interacting with the role of games. For example, look at this - we're all posting remarks onto a bulletin board to discuss an article posting!

3. I think there's a clash between "Dopamine" spikes vs Mihaly C's Flow.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi
So for example if your choice is between playing a seven hour raid that takes some complex prelim prep, or looking at webcomics, I think that's a fight between two different reward systems. Game wise, you could log onto Farmville for ten minutes and add some stuff to your farm, but not be ready to play twelve levels of a tower defense game for three hours because of the initial barrier to entering Flow.

4. "Boredom". Not counting the de-sensitization, we might have to draw on anecdotal info for this one. Don't any of you remember endless (in a bad way!) Thursday afternoons after class/work from say 6PM to midnight because none of the good stuff for the weekend was here yet? Didn't y'all at least some of those days go hang out somewhere with every hour someone mentioning "I'm bored"? Whereas now, I am never bored, not in that way. I can pick any of a thousand blogs and find something to read (and respond to if the signup process isn't too bad!). I retired from most video games because they take too much time!


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