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Validation Theory
by Taekwan Kim on 06/09/10 05:37:00 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.

Today, I’d like to propose a very basic idea: a consequence is a reward whenever it validates the player. Conversely, and more importantly, a consequence is a punishment whenever it invalidates the player. Simple, yes? Perhaps simplistic even.

If we take the premise as granted, however, a careful examination should produce some practical insights into how validation shapes player activity. So, let’s talk about validation.

Validation: The Source of All Rewards

The pursuit of validation—objectively, the psychological result when reality matches schema; subjectively, the feeling that an investment (intellectual, emotional, material, etc.) has been justified—is one of those things that, because it so thoroughly and expansively permeates human behavior, largely escape our conscious awareness.

But the cascade of psychological activity involved in validation serves a very real, evolutionary level purpose as a basic and essential survival tool. The neurochemical outcome of validation makes pursuing new, potentially dangerous or time-consuming discoveries (e.g., that fire can be artificially produced and harnessed, that agriculture provides a renewable food source, etc.) memorable and worthwhile. By the same token, invalidation is emotionally painful in order to reinforce learning and help prevent repetition of mistakes.

At any rate, the point is that validation is the fundamental, primordial motivating force—next to, and sometimes even superseding, survival itself1. And, for our purposes, every ludic decision can be thought of as the emotional equivalent of an opportunity to validate oneself.

This reality is implicitly recognized by social games, achievements, or BioWare or Naughty Dog introducing things like social updates in single player games—the goal of which is to provide objective conduits for externalizing in-game validation for peer recognition. But these, too, are simply the latest developments in a long line of incentivizing validation mechanisms grasped by designers from the very beginning, starting with the device of the high score.

Validation Momentum -> Avoidance Behavior -> Invalidation Momentum

Significantly, validation always comes with the integral, inseparable threat of invalidation. (We can see the archetypal manifestations of this psychological certainty in cultural constructs such as the unbreakable correlation between hubris and nemesis, the ouroboros which both destroys and renews, etc.).

Pursuing validation and averting invalidation are often one and the same thing, and the satisfaction of achieving the former is doubled by the thrill of denying the latter. This duality produces a psychological state such that the pressure of the one propels the other (hence the circular, snake biting its own tail imagery of the ouroboros). The positive effect of this validation momentum or flow on engagement has been much discussed, but it also contains an ugly underside which is just as vital for design considerations.

Specifically, long validation chains acutely intensify the pain of detachment from a specific schema. The longer a schema has proven valid, the more emotional investment the player has in that schema, the more all other schemata seem invalid (sometimes to the point where simply leaving a game feels threatening). This consequently increases the activity of ego defense mechanisms related to cognitive dissonance (such as confirmation bias) which can lead to a state of invalidation momentum.

That is to say, because validation relies entirely on willful perception (it has less to do with fact than it does to do with what one wishes to believe as fact), it is therefore absolutely possible to misconstrue, and aggressively continue to misconstrue, an invalid schema for a valid one.

Regressive Attachment

That’s all well and good, but how does this actually affect gameplay? Mr. Meier has already mentioned how players would rather disengage and blame the game than admit to a misinterpretation of probability. And the same aversion to invalidation can also lead players to deliberately leave significant portions of a game’s features untouched for fear of emotional or ludic punishment.

What’s more, since emotional attachment to a preceding strategy increases the apparent cost of diverging from that familiar feature set, it really takes very little for unknown features to appear prohibitively expensive (recall Mr. Molyneux admitting that, “more than half the people who played Fable II understood and used less than half the features in the game”).

Let’s consider a particularly negative possibility. Occasionally, a person’s attachment to a specific schema reaches a level where it momentarily becomes comparable to his emotional regard for his overall worldview. For a player lacking emotional awareness or critical distancing skills, the defense of his play will then end up feeling about as dire and personal as a defense of his actual worldview.

This can create a lethally fastidious adherence to a specific style of play, where players stubbornly refuse to change even blatantly losing strategies. Such intellectual inflexibility also cripples the player’s ability to adapt to the natural rise of a difficulty curve, which makes even previously valid strategies invalid. Finally, the attachment becomes perversely stronger the longer the player remains invalid, crossing a point of emotional no return.

That is to say, the longer the player has avoided acknowledging invalidation, the more he has to lose when he finally does, thus the more he will refuse to give it up. Not only would admitting to error invalidate the player’s current position, but it would invalidate everything causing and preceding that position, from his time investment to his fundamental understanding of and skill in the game (and the totality and weight of this at this point will feel as heavy as the player’s worldview2). The only recourse for many will then be to bludgeon onward and insist on one’s validity.

Invalidation which lacks awareness therefore has the paradoxical tendency to perpetuate itself in the same way as validation (“ignorance is bliss”). Just as emotional investment in a valid schema increases with time, so too can investment in an invalid schema. The pursuit of validation then quickly degenerates into a psychologically regressive, viscerally personal hunt for vindication (hence we have the ego defensive mantra, “it’s just a game”).

Our goal, then, becomes quite clear. We need to increase player awareness and broaden perspective in order to help prevent or break invalidation momentum. And a lot of this can be done simply by improving the quality of information and data available to the player.

(For clarity, in the next sections I will be using the term ‘information” to denote knowledge available to the player prior to ludic action. “Data,” then, will be used to refer to knowledge available as a result of ludic action.)

Front End Prevention: Information

In essence, information softens the threat of invalidation by outlining where the pitfalls might lie. The more of it a player has, the more he feels in control of his play, the more likely he is to experiment and venture outside the boundaries of his play.

Since the player relies on such pre-decision information to map out hypothetical paths, what knowledge is made available to the player therefore takes on disproportionate (and thus distorted) importance. Poorly documented/communicated features are thus effectively the same as misinformation. This also means we generally need to overcompensate just to reach an adequate level of accuracy.

Let’s expand a bit on the topic of players preemptively forgoing unknown features. Take the following example skill description from Dragon Age for the “Mana Clash” spell, hands down the most effective anti-caster skill in the game:
The caster expels a large amount of mana in direct opposition to enemy spellcasters, who are completely drained of mana and suffer spirit damage proportional to the amount of mana they lost.
This language is inadvertently off-putting as the actual mana cost for activating the skill is really relatively low. It’s also worth noting that we tend to regard information which comes first as more important than that which comes later (in this case, “large amount” comes before “completely drained”).

Moreover, while the tooltip does provide an actual numerical cost, we can expect that players inexperienced with the game will have very little concept of the size of the effective mana pool (both for the player and for enemies), which means the player will be unable to comprehend the potential damage or cost in real terms. This is rather like quoting an 18th century monetary unit without contemporary comparisons which establish meaningful value.

Indeed, the tooltips for the entire branch of spells prerequisite to Mana Clash similarly fail to provide for useful cost to payoff ratio assessments, resulting in the whole branch being woefully underemployed by new players. The fact that players need to spend what limited talent points they have on all the preceding spells just to get to Mana Clash is the last straw that makes investing in that spell seem completely untenable3.

This wouldn’t be all that terrible if it wasn’t that at least two of the spells involved in that talent branch (Mana Cleanse and Mana Clash itself) are basically mandatory in their importance. Their absence makes many key encounters—and consequently, the entire game—far more difficult than they should be.

Importantly, it’s not that Dragon Age does such a poor job but that the game just doesn’t do enough. Once again, not enough information becomes the same as misleading information. Similar lapses that amount to time cost inflation also occur frequently in Dragon Age’s dialogues, even when discounting cases where information is withheld for narrative purposes4. Here too, it is lack of context that restricts the player’s ability to plan an outcome.

Normally, conversation relies on tone and body language in order to deliver the intent of wording. These, however, usually aren’t scripted in games to deliver until after the player actually makes a choice, if at all. This forces much of the language used for player choices to be extremely dry in order to prevent misinterpretation, a tactic which typically fails anyway.

Dialogue choices in most games are thus, in effect, reduced to poorly realized feature descriptions. A great deal of time is then spent just trying to figure out what exact ludic (to say nothing of narrative) action the player is taking, often with the effect of considerably impeding validation momentum, or sometimes halting it altogether5.

In the case of Dragon Age, something as distressingly simple as an optional display of companion approval changes next to dialogue choices would have completed the picture and significantly reduced down times caused by dialogue wrangling. The mistake to be avoided is thinking that such information somehow ruins anticipation, immersion, or challenge, as opposed to merely providing the necessary context—it’s not as if the dialogue choices don’t already (failingly) attempt to provide this information.

These examples were both caused by the imprecision of language, but information obfuscation occurs in many other forms. Hiding through layers of menus and obtuse decentralization (Facebook’s privacy options or EVE Online); maps that don’t mark where you have been or do a poor job of displaying obstacles and differences in elevation; ludic events which suddenly drop without any preceding environmental cues—all of these can break player trust in the designer’s intentions and prevent investment.

All of the above, then, can be summed up in two words: information transparency. And the ultimate goal of information transparency should be to maximize as much as narrationally possible the player’s capacity (through due diligence) to accurately predict and make informed decisions from available information as to what will result from a given ludic action6.

Back End Correction: Data

If then there is information transparency, there is also data transparency. The better able the player is to connect outcomes to causes, the more able the player will be to hypothesize a solution. We want to make the loop between information and data as seamless as possible. The explicit purpose of data collection in games, then, should be to make changes observable.

To put it another way, if the player can’t perceive any change (be they beneficial or detrimental), the player will believe there actually is none. This is quite consequential for what it means for ludic results to be rewarding or punishing. Let’s examine a real life example of data collection from an article in the New York Times for reference:
A few months ago, Barooah began to wean himself from coffee. His method was precise. He made a large cup of coffee and removed 20 milliliters weekly. This went on for more than four months, until barely a sip remained in the cup. He drank it and called himself cured. Unlike his previous attempts to quit, this time there were no headaches, no extreme cravings. Still, he was tempted… he told himself that he could probably concentrate better if he had a cup...

Barooah wasn’t about to try to answer a question like this with guesswork. He had a good data set that showed how many minutes he spent each day in focused work. With this, he could do an objective analysis... The data had delivered their verdict, and coffee lost.

He was sad but also thrilled. Instead of a stimulating cup of coffee, he got a bracing dose of truth. “People have such very poor sense of time,” Barooah says, and without good time calibration, it is much harder to see the consequences of your actions. If you want to replace the vagaries of intuition with something more reliable, you first need to gather data. Once you know the facts, you can live by them.
A couple of applicable conclusions can be drawn here.
A) Barooah is able to quit drinking coffee like never before because his progress is exactly measured and the results (decreasing intake + lack of headaches, cravings, etc.) validate his progress. If this were a game, one might call this increasing agency, and his good usage of time is both validated and in fact made possible by accurate data collection.

B) Barooah has “lost” in terms of his strategy to improve concentration through coffee, and yet he still feels like a “winner” because the data have proven that quitting coffee was a valid decision (he is both “sad and thrilled”). That is to say, a ludic failure is not actually invalidating if it permits a change in the player’s schema.
In other words, by increasing the visibility of certain changes over others—that is, by affecting the player's perspective—data can alter (and give the player agency over) player goals.

Think of it this way: player data is essentially the same thing as a character build, only it's one which almost always can’t be respecced. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, how simply giving players the option to play servers without kill/death ratios or win/loss counts (or turn them off, with the appropriate abuse prevention mechanisms) would tremendously reduce the barrier to entry for “hardcore” FPS games.

Data collection, then, needs to be more than just an afterthought about scorekeeping. It needs to anticipate common player strategies and failures so it can provide relevant data that act as guideposts towards improving gameplay. Such data allow us to reduce or even eliminate confirmation bias, thereby breaking invalidation momentum and converting invalidation events into paradigm shifting ones.

Closing Thoughts

This whole discussion might seem to be stating that we need to eliminate invalidation altogether, but this is entirely untrue. It is simply that we want to always provide the tools for players to turn invalidation into validation. Plus, a schema that goes unchallenged for too long ceases to be validating, as the perceptibility of the matches between reality and that schema diminishes with time (“if the player can’t perceive any change…”).

Game balance, then, can really be considered the same as validation balance: when the validation to invalidation ratio of a game can sustain engagement, that game can then be said to have achieved balanced.

In the end, it is important to recognize that validation is not a toy. As designers we need to respect the psychological processes involved, take player engagement seriously, and understand that the attachment that comes from validation momentum is a double-edged sword.


Addendum: Invalidation Momentum -> Crisis -> Reverse Validation

Given invalidation momentum, one might say that validation seems to be a rather counter-productive survival mechanism. So, in order to provide a fuller understanding of the experience of validation, I’d like to talk here about how invalidating events can sometimes become profoundly validating—something one might call “reverse validation.”

Let’s take a moment to conduct an archetypal study. As I mentioned, it is exceedingly difficult to depart from an entrenched schema without a drastic change of perspective (“new wine must be poured into new wineskins”). Here, it is useful to bring up the phrase “damascene moment.”

“Damascene moment” (meaning life changing epiphany) refers to the tradition of the sudden revelation and complete reversal of Paul of Tarsus from a violent persecutor to a devout apostle. The story shares common elements with Oedipus Rex in that both revelations are only made possible by blindness (the blindness of Paul in the former, the blindness of Tiresias in the latter, which subsequently leads to Oedipus’ own blindness).

The Pauline tradition also contains the additional feature of the resurrection symbolism of three days of crisis (blindness) preceding a cure, immediately followed by Paul’s baptism. These motifs are combined in the myth of the phoenix, whose fiery rebirth is only made possible by its own death.

The common, archetypal theme, then, is that the individual experiences a massively invalidating event which occurs at a moment when attachment to a specific schema is so strong that the individual is blind to all other possibilities. This sudden, complete, and undeniable invalidation forces the individual to find a new schema, a process which irrevocably breaks the old enthrallment and allows the individual to emerge with a totally new paradigm.

Can such moments be achieved in games before they alienate the player? Absolutely. The conflict between ludic and narrative goals, for instance, indicates one pathway towards realizing them. Since games can be simultaneously ludologically validating and narratologically invalidating, and vice versa, the key is to pit strong attachment to ludic goals against strong attachment to narrative ones, thus generating a crisis and reevaluation of prioritized values.

Finally, we can create a similar experience simply by introducing a completely new perspective which is wholly validating or archetypally true without first cornering the player into invalidation conflict. Examples of this can be seen in the revelation of Revan in Knights of the Old Republic and the final expulsion of the Vault Dweller in Fallout. The danger with this method, however, is that it is mostly restricted to narrative devices—we don’t want the player to feel that he was barred from a better ludic solution until late in the game just so the designers could do something “cool.”



1 The drive towards validation is so strong, and its capacity to distort perceived value so great, that entire religions have been built around addressing or redressing it—at least, in terms of their effective psychological goals. Predestination and divine will in some cases (“everything fits the schema”), enlightenment or negation in others (“no schema is the schema”), etc. And of course, there’s always the idea of progress in the after/next-life which justifies the current one (subordinating even self-interested survivalism with anticipated post mortem validation).

2 We might label this, in parallel to the term worldview, the player’s “gameview”—the sum of the player’s conception of the operation of, and his place within, the world as defined by the boundaries of a game (Huizinga’s “magic circle”).

3 This, of course, is a discussion of the base game before the expansion and the introduction of the Manual of Focus.

4 Consider this dialogue from Dragon Age, one that takes place after a romantic encounter between female Warden and Alistair:
Alistair: Hmm. You know, according to all the sisters at the monastery, I should have been struck by lightning by now.
* That so?
* It could still happen.
* Not for that performance.
If you exclude the first two choices, or even if you don’t, can you tell the last is necessarily meant as an admonishment?

5 This is what Armando Troisi meant when he explained at GDC that Mass Effect was “BioWare’s attempt to tell an ‘objective story.’” Rather than relying on the subjectivity of wording and overly verbose NPCs to deliver context, the content is eschewed in favor of delivering just the intent (that is, the ludic result) of a choice. This ends up reducing interpretation problems and (perhaps paradoxically) creates a much fuller or exact picture beforehand of the decision the player is making.

6 This is not to say that everything needs to be predictable, merely that a reasonably accurate projection of data should always be possible from among the set of projections which can be made given the available information. It’s still up to the player to connect the dots, so to speak.


Preceding Related Posts

What Can the Socratic Method Tell Us About Gameplay?
Aggressive Games and Aggressive Behavior
Considerations in Narrational Navigation
Why Metrics Matter for Team Play and Player Satisfaction
Dragon Age: Gazing into the Abyss

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Corey Sauve
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This is the first article I’ve read that’s actually motivated me to post a comment. Congratulations on defeating one of my momentum building schemas-apathy!

I was hit with the shock of recognition while reading the articl: one of the definitions for insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Regardless, in games I find myself blindly executing the same failing strategies(schema) over and over. Once I’ve died 20 or more times I finally-reluctantly- decide to abandon my existing schema and experiment with something new.

For example, in Bioshock I got used to using a set number of plasmids and weapons. They had worked for me (hours of validation chaining) which made me build up a resistance to changing them.

At a later point in the game I was so consistently overwhelmed in combat that I cursed the combat for being “broken” and gave my controller the proverbial throw. If I wasn’t so otherwise impressed with the game I might have “rage quit” it for good. As a last ditch effort I tried combing plasmids with weapons in novel ways and defeated the enemies handily. Why was this a tactic of last resort? Why wasn’t it the first thing I tried after dying once? Why the psychological impulse to plod on with a losing strategy?

The frustration this creates is sufficient to quit a game. Either I’m an idiot or this is poor game design. There must be a way to encourage or guide the player into expanding their schema without them feeling the uncertainty of abandoning a working model or feeling burdened with new features they don’t know they want.


This is where information becomes key. You used the example of a description of a spell from Dragon Age to illustrate information being given to the player. I think the level design that follows the acquisition of a new feature ought to do the job of providing said information.

If a player can receive-or purchase- a new ability at anytime in a game than there is no way to hone the gameplay immediately afterward so that it encourages the use and perfection of said ability. On the otherhand, if the acquisition of a new ability is a scripted event at a particular point in the game than the gameplay that follows can be crafted as a means to incorporate the new ability into the player’s schema.

Consider the Zelda series. Additional features such as the hookshot are usually attained in a dungeon. The dungeons are compartmentalized bits of gameplay separated from the overworld and other levels. In this way they serve as tutorial levels; you are introduced to a new feature and forced to use it to slove that dungeon’s puzzles and defeat its boss. Its formulaic but I find it extremely satisfying(validating?)

By the time you’ve completed a dungeon you emerge into the larger game with all the confidence needed to employ the new feature. There is no reluctance in using it. In fact it’s engaging looking for new areas to use it.


One last thought. I play Wii Sports Resort Frisbee Golf with friends of mine and an odd thought occurred to me while playing it. I had a difficult shot to mak: I had to shoot the Frisbee between two trees, account for the wind, read the elevation of the terrain and angle the Frisbee. Each of these considerations could be considered part of my schema for the shot. They were each neat, separate variables that I could account for independently and incorporate into my throw. The throw would only work if I’d competently accounted for all of them. I took the shot and scored. In that moment I felt more satisfaction (validation?) for making a single throw with a Frisbee than I have felt clearing entire FPS levels of zombies/aliens/mutants.

Maybe that simplified, rarefied validation of schema is overwhelmed by the sound and fury(“production values”) of most games today.

Thanks for an insightful and thorough article.

Taekwan Kim
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Mr. Sauve,

Thank you very much for reading (I'm sorry it was so verbose!) and for commenting. Those were great examples which I hope I can add something more to.

That's an excellent point about level design being key to introducing players to new features. It really helps when something is first presented at the same time as a reason to use it, along with a relatively safe environment to try it out in. This is very much “information” in the sense I used it above; A) it provides a fairly clear idea of what to use a feature for, and B) such environments typically also give a pretty good grasp of how the player might fail.

I believe there's a similar component in that level design should also cause the player to switch things up at a regular pace. When a player can play a game for half the game with exactly the same tactic, the player will more or less assume the game is telling him it will work for the entire game. That’s fine if this is true, but as you mentioned, this will basically be experienced as a sudden difficulty spike/wall when it no longer works. Too great a disconnect between the player’s projected future of the difficulty curve and the reality, then, is also a failure of information (knowledge which allows accurate projection) and validation balance.

On your example of rarefied validation, I believe it was also perhaps a case of “high stakes” or “identity” validation. This is a magnification of validation caused by A) perilous difficulty (which makes the threat of invalidation very close), but more importantly, B) peer observation which provides instant feedback. The immediate threat of invalidation ramps up the satisfaction felt when that threat is escaped, which adds to the validation one feels when one’s actions achieve their goals.

The part of the perilous difficulty is made even more meaningful, though, when it’s something you have to undertake alone within a peer setting. This automatically places you in a position of comparison to the data set (as well as expectations/projections) produced by other players. In such cases, the schema at stake becomes not so much the game strategy as the player’s sense that he is a skilled/valid player (a sort of identification with one’s game strategy itself). This also has to do with the concept of the “gameview” I mentioned in the footnotes—the player is confirmed that his understanding of his place in the game is completely valid. I believe I’ve had similar experiences in Guild Wars or CounterStrike, for examples, when my entire team was down and it was just up to me to carry the team.

Once again, my thanks for the great examples you provided. Good stuff!

Tejas Oza
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This was a very insightful article Mr.Kim and the examples provided by Mr. Sauve were apt and if nothing else gave more varied examples of this validation theory. I can see how this works, especially when I look back at games I've played.

The best example that comes to mind is during the Protoss campaign in Starcraft 1. I'd developed a habit of turtling somewhat after the first terran campaign and that carried through into the Zerg one where it was harder to pull off but not entirely impossible to win. (Just took a hell lot of time) Anyways, this schema of building up an impregnable wall of defensive turrets and troops, researching everything possible before a final assault(s), wasn't doing me much good in one level where i found myself up against three bases (level 7 of the Protoss campaign if anyone is curious). I spent hours and days trying to get past it but couldn't and finally gave up... Until one day my younger brother who's much more aggressive finished the level in one go. That was my damascene moment. Imagine teaching your little brother to play the game only to have him beat a level you couldn't... Anyways, since then I've learnt to look at each level differently and deal with each one differently and try not to rely on a fixed strategy all the time. Yeah, so that's my example...

Also worth pointing out are DotA players (I know a lot of them). Many stick to fixed builds for characters and when those builds don't help them make the double and triple kills they love so much, they blame everyone from team mates, to faulty mouses, to (rarely) better opponents but never acknowledge that a different build might have been more effective.

So, yes, this was a brilliant article and one I intend to think about for a good long while. Thank you for it.

Tejas Oza
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repeated post deleted

Taekwan Kim
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Man, these are all really excellent examples all around. That's awesome!

Mr. Oza, thank you for sharing your experiences as well. That Protoss campaign example--I know exactly what you mean. It took me forever to stop relying on depot/bunker type defense and utilize the awesomeness of Arbiter drops and cloaking. And that was something I carried over from Warcraft 2 days with farms before Starcraft, so I'd had that with me for a long time.

I also see the same thing about DotA players in Guild Wars too, especially in random arenas and such. People start to get hypercritical when their own build fails so as to deflect blame (darn those ego defense mechanisms!). It's sadly just easier (less psychological cost) to eschew responsibility than it is to have to go back and build something new. They're missing out too, though, since there's so much validation fun to be had in testing out different strategies and optimizing your game even more.

Thanks for the comments!

Mark Harris
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Awesome article! As a Psych grad it's great to see someone using the more pertinent aspects of that discipline in studying game design. Keep up the good work.

Jesse Broussard
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I would have to say that this doesn't stop in the Psych department, over here in the Ed department, this is brilliant.

If other teachers could see this -- then perhaps the general opinion of games would change. The would stop seeing a useless diversion and find a powerful ally.

Luis Blondet
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This explains most of the absurd rules (and bans!) of many tournament games. Thank you for this.

Mark Harris
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Good point, Jesse. Especially with the recent endorsement by Sandra Day O'Connor that games are an exceptional teaching tool, that argument could go a long way.

Taekwan Kim
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Much thanks everyone, for reading and commenting. I very much appreciate it. I'm also glad this has cross-disciplinary relevance and interest--that's really exciting!

Max Haider
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This article makes me think of Smash Bros. tournaments, and not in a good way.

Alex Weldon
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Excellent article, thanks. Reminds me of an article on poker strategy I once read, in which the author discussed "increasing commitment to a failing course of action," which is essentially the same as what you call "invalidation momentum." For instance, you've seen the pros bluff each other on TV, so you believe bluffing a lot is a good way to play poker. Faced with a beginner who doesn't fold in situations when a stronger player would, the correct thing would be to say "okay, so this guy calls any bet if he has a pair, so I will just check/fold when I don't have him beat, and put lots of money in the pot when I do." Instead, many players will get angry that the opponent is not folding when he "should," and will try even harder to bluff him.

nicolas cerrato
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thank you this is very interesting!

Neil Sorens
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From the player's point of view, bad design is design that fails to validate actions/approaches the player feels should be validated.

As game designers, we can create good design by:

1) as the article says, providing clear information regarding choices and the relationship between actions and outcomes, anticipating as many possible player actions/approaches as possible

2) modeling the design on real-world systems or cause/effect relationships with which the player ought to be familiar.

Typically, it is in 1) that we fail, as players often play in ways we don't expect, and time/budget limits the actionable feedback we receive during development.

This is one reason that sequels are so popular. Players have a better grip on what actions the game does or does not validate, making success more common and failure less frustrating, and developers have a better idea of what players are going to do.

Bart Stewart
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Another excellent, thought-stimulating piece.

Something I'd like to suggest: if we're going to talk about psychological validation, I'd say it's crucial to recognize that, as in life at large, different people find validation (and invalidation) in different styles of play.

At their core this is exactly what the theories of styles of play of Roger Caillois, Nicole Lazzaro, Richard Bartle and others are all about. Their models recognize that there are several different kinds of things that give an individual person a feeling of psychological validation when rewarded for doing them well. In other words, I'm suggesting that there's a very strong connection between a person's perferred style of play and their overall worldview.

If that's the case, then it provides an explanation for the folks who seem stuck on a particular schema. I would argue that in most cases this isn't a player being "broken." What it really implies is simply a mismatch between the player's preferred form of validation and the forms of validation that are offered by that particular game.

Let's say my most preferred form of validation is security-seeking -- I like being rewarded for being good at collecting assets such as items and visible forms of prestige that establish my position within a hierarchy. If there are "playstyles," then I'm going to feel most positively toward games whose primary reward type is loot and/or leaderboards, or other public markers of status and achievement. If instead I'm presented with a game that's designed to primarily validate a style of play that's based on forming meaningful relationships with people and people-like characters (i.e., storytelling/narrative/roleplaying), I'm probably going to feel that my preferred style of play is being actively invalidated. I'll probably stop playing that game, and if money and surprise are involved, I may even go so far as to angrily criticize that game in online comments. (A similar case could be made the other way around, or for a player who primarily prefers to have his knowledge-seeking gifts validated who winds up playing a mostly random, risk-oriented game like roulette, and so on.)

In all these examples, I would submit that each player is not somehow defective for preferring a particular playstyle if some game turns out not to emphasize that particular playstyle in its rewards. If something were broken, we might equally say that the game is defective for failing to provide adequate rewards for the preferred playstyle of potential players... but that's equally not a fair criticism if the reality is just a mismatch between what particular a player enjoys and and what a particular game offers.

If anything, this analysis underlines the importance of providing the transparency recommended in the original blog post: games need to be very clear about what kinds of games they are -- that is, they need to directly tell potential purchasers which is the primary form of play they validate.

To some extent, that's what genres used to do. When we say "turn-based strategy," for example, that's a signal that the behavior (i.e., the gameplay style preference) primarily validated will be knowledge-seeking -- that is, perceiving complex patterns and thoughtfully formulating high-level plans for producing desirable goal-states through acting on those patterns -- and not about collecting loot or telling an emotionally engaging story or adroitly manipulating weapons or tools. To some extent all those things may also be in a game defined as "turn-based strategy," but they won't be the primary elements or the genre name would be different.

Similarly, it was once clear that an adventure game was about telling a story (relationship-seeking); a shooter was about adrenaline-pumping action (sensation-seeking), and a MMORPG was about grinding for loot (security-seeking). Thus, genres served to alert players, "Hey, here's the particular kind of gameplay style preference that this game will validate."

Or at least they used to do so. Lately there's been a lot of genre-mixing. Is a game like Borderlands primarily about action or about loot-collecting? Will Star Wars: The Old Republic mostly be about grinding for loot or engaging with interesting characters through deep stories?

Certainly it's possible for a game to be satisfying to multiple gameplay style preferences. I'm replaying Deus Ex now (in widescreen with enhanced textures), and it's noted for providing multiple approches to solving many of the challenges. I happen to really enjoy that kind of game, which is actually designed to try to validate various playstyles... but the sales numbers of such games suggest that most gamers don't care about anything other than being rewarded for following their natural primary schema.

It doesn't hurt to encourage people to try different kinds of games and different kinds of gameplay behaviors within a given game. On the other hand, there's also something to be said for having introspected enough to know what one likes, and to want to find and play games that cater effectively to that interest.


So there, at any rate, is another way of looking at "validation." I definitely think you're onto something with that, and with the importance of transparency in acknowledging what style of play a particular game primarily validates. Let's hear it for accuracy in marketing! :)

And maybe two cheers as well for game designers who understand how gamers are different and who consciously build their games around the reward structures that appeal best to the intended audience of their game.....

Aubrey Hesselgren
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First off, you are cool.

Second, this article reminds me of Doug Church's article on percievable consequence. You have, however, illucidated exactly why it's important from a psychological angle - the construction and maintainance of a mental model is very important. And the idea of transparency/obfuscation touches on something I always called "perceivable randomness". If a system is sufficiently complex and or obfuscated, the result will initially be perceived as random. Even without sufficient transparency of the underlying data, constant re-evaluation of the system may result in some form of intuition to the outcome, however (or, atleast, a subjective understanding - probably superstitious). StreetFighter 4 is a good example of this. Frame data is available online to evaluate which is the best move to use in any given situation, but this is obfuscated from the casual player. Most people will start by making choices fairly randomly, and then allow punishment and reward to chip away at their mental model of the gameplay systems.

Interestingly, after establishing a mental model, it's more than possible to subvert it with expertise - a bit of a psychological "cheap trick". An excellent example would be the giant, post boss treasure chests in Castle Crashers. The player is repeatedly taught to expect that when one appears, whacking them a few times unleashes a massive stream of gold and jewels. (Spoiler coming) However, in the final boss battle, the player defeats what seems like a suspiciously weak boss, and is presented with the giant treasure chest, as expected. The moment the third hit (which would normally break open the cask) is delivered, the chest transforms into a real-deal boss, subverting expectations expertly. Of course, this surprise can only work one time, and is only so joyous because it feels intentional, rather than a lapse in design judgement or a bug.

Taekwan Kim
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Once again, thank you all for reading and taking the time to comment.


Mr. Weldon, that’s a very good point, I should have mentioned the idea of being pot committed. I think this sort of forced commitment because the losses are (or seem) too great happens too frequently in too many areas of human activity—usually with the result that we end up losing more. Very unfortunate.


Mr. Sorens, these are excellent points. A similar thought occurred to me when Mr. Schell talked about how in the future we might introduce ludic point systems into everything we do. You might be able to get points for buying a certain brand of spaghetti, but why would that matter to most of us? It’s hard to believe that it will suddenly become validating if you could care less about it in the first place.

(Although, the fact that we can earn points in something does sometimes cause us to care about it because the self-image which the subject matter promotes appeals to us. The Ford Hybrid dashboard example, for instance; or for achievement hunters, the idea that they can achieve everything they put their hand to; etc. If, for example, that brand of spaghetti somehow reflected on our socioeconomic status… But again, in these cases we already care about such self-images, so similar situation.).

But you’re absolutely right about only being able to anticipate so much with actionable feedback. It’s just that it’s too bad player data tracking usually takes such a second class role in the design process. If a designer provides a ludic decision, he should also provide at least some form of recognition or chance for recognition for that. We expect at least as much from narrative designers.


Mr. Stewart, that’s really excellent! I actually agree to a large extent that, for the most part, our playstyle is an extension or manifestation of our worldview or the same psychological framework which processes our worldview.

But, I think this is really the key thing: “On the other hand, there's also something to be said for having introspected enough to know what one likes, and to want to find and play games that cater effectively to that interest.”

This is actually surprisingly hard to achieve for many players, mainly because a certain self-image presented by a certain type of game is too alluring (because of the social or self esteem that that image contains) for the player to want to recognize that he is actually incompatible with that self-image. Who doesn’t want to be a badass whirlwind of headshots that can take down the entire 12 man terrorist team single handedly, or that ridiculous DPS guy who can solo whatever elite dungeon du jour?

If we expand back to the idea that we operate in games through the same psychological framework that we use in everyday life, we can see similar situations in which many don’t know what they really want to do with their lives, or pursue a certain, specific career or material goal at a detriment to everything else. Again, it’s rather astonishing how difficult it is to overcome what seems should be so fundamental. It’s the same sort of validation/invalidation momentum problem: if you’re already deeply invested in or attracted by a specific self-image, it’s extremely difficult to let that go.

But I believe good game design causes us to reevaluate what we enjoy, and perhaps enjoy what we hadn’t before—it causes us to try out new psychological frameworks. It’s definitely a good thing for there to be games which specifically validate specific playstyles, but it’s also a good thing for there to be games which successfully encourage players to step outside their boundaries. Because if we accept and take for granted that our “natural primary schema” is a static, unchanging and immutable thing, isn’t that just going back to the same psychological momentum problems all over again?

(I think, however, I took up your exact position here in my post on narrative replayability that it seems unreasonable to expect the player to adopt a different emotional framework just to get a little extra narrative out of a game. Indeed, that whole post was basically about how to allow the player to keep the same playstyle and still experience new content. I really can’t reconcile this contradiction, except to own that, man, I’m really attached to my moral framework. :(

But to be honest, just in the time since I wrote that post, that attachment has loosened up significantly just from playing Dragon Age so much. The dark ritual was possibly the first time in a game I consciously decided a self-serving choice over a self-sacrificing one. Before, there was basically no way you could get me to try out the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood quest lines in Oblivion, even if I really enjoyed the whole stealthing around and backstabbing thing. But now, I’m about to start a new character just to try those quests out. So you can make of that what you will… Sorry for the boring personal story!)


Mr. Hesselgren, first off, thank you for the compliment :D! I laughed when I read that.

Yes! The perceivable randomness problem also happens all the time in Counter-Strike (or FPS games in general), except there the result is usually that people get accused of hacking, and everyone ends up feeling cheated (both the skilled player who is falsely accused and the unskilled who feels like his loss is completely not his fault). And it really doesn’t help that a player probably isn’t going to learn the exact spread of different guns or the precise amount of impact movement has on accuracy without serious (i.e. non-diegetic) experimentation. Not to mention the problem of hitboxes seemingly not accurately registering, inability to see where exactly bullets went, etc. etc.

About Castle Crashers—that’s a really good example, thank you for bringing that up. I believe this is a pretty good case of ludic “reverse validation.” It also raises another interesting point about information transparency, or actually, about game language. In film language, we typically have edits where there’s a closeup of a person’s face looking at something, and then we get the reverse shot from that person’s perspective. This establishes to us that we are now seeing what that person is seeing.

In your example of Castle Crashers, I haven’t actually played the game, but let me propose a speculation. Suppose that the boss which came before the actual final boss was really difficult—about what you would expect from an end game boss. But then the same thing happens afterwards: the player hits the chest, and then the actual final boss comes out. In such a scenario, it wouldn’t be so much a pleasant surprise as it would be the player feeling like the game totally ripped him off. The fact that the earlier boss was so easy _informs_ the player that something is up. When the final boss does indeed come out, then the player is nicely validated in his difficulty expectations (the other case would be the player being cruelly invalidated in his difficulty expectations).

Similarly, the treasure chest after the initial “boss” sends a conflicting signal that perhaps the game is at an end. It might be said, then, that this isn’t so much the game gently subverting a mental model as it is the game setting two different models in competition: the player’s difficulty expectations versus the feeling that the game is over. This works really well because the player is much more invested in the first than the latter. After all, it’s gotta be something of a letdown if the end boss turns out to be so weak—the player feels robbed of a validation event. So when the real boss appears, the player is enjoyably surprised that he will get a real chance to demonstrate mastery over the game, and the real boss feels that much more meaningful because the player has just escaped the possibly invalidating idea that, “man I just spent that whole game just to end up fighting such a weak boss.” (End of speculation.)

Aubrey Hesselgren
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Your speculation is spot on - I mentioned that the pre-final boss feels a tad weak thinking it was probably an important detail, and you've explained why, fully! Once again, excellent illucidation.

You are so cool to me! I like you!

Taekwan Kim
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Ahaha! Oh man, thanks again. I laughed. LOL!