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July 15, 2020
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Building a Vastly Better Team Using Neuroscience

by Ramin Shokrizade on 11/06/17 10:41:00 am   Expert Blogs

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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.


When I was on the coaching staff of the UCLA women's track team we had a winning formula for recruitment. When we found a record setting athlete that no one could beat who said they “preferred to train alone”, then DING we had a winner! We sent that athlete straight to USC and then it was a guaranteed PAC-10 win for us at UCLA that year. USC fell for it every time. It seemed to work on their football team too. Gaming our private and expensive sister school's culture of elitism was great sport then, but recent scandals at USC show that this institution is still vulnerable to the same trick. When a year of coverups forced them to purge their elite dean, his replacement proved to be not much better. I'm a 3rd generation UCLA grad (my grandmother was one of the first female Bruins), so while I may have a bias, I will be the first to admit that the culture at UCLA has become increasingly similar to the culture at USC over the last 30 years, and the same trends are coursing throughout American industry as you can see daily in the news. 

The people we looked for to add to the UCLA track family were those that may not have been the very best in terms of times, but who showed high aptitude for team orientation and desire to be coached. We trusted that we could mold them into champions.

UCLA's track community also attracted the top athletes in the USA so it became the place where all the female short distance American track Olympians trained prior to the 1988 Olympics. We produced world records that are still considered unassailable  30 years later.


But the thing is, if you don't know why something worked out just right, you can't improve upon it. You can't even reproduce it except by chance.


While I would like to think our coaching staff was top notch, with the possible exception of myself since I was only 22, that's not what really made our team golden. It was our focus on community which is also why we always outperformed the USA Olympic training center year after year. With all their scientists and high tech facilities, they could not escape the repuation that the Colorado Springs center was where track athletes went to end their careers. Google recently spent years successfully figuring out what the most successful and productive teams looked like, and that looked like teams that had power, opportunity, and participation distributed evenly across all members. Basically, the model we used at UCLA, but we also had secret sauce.


But even knowing what the best team looks like doesn't mean you can reproduce it. To do that, you have to know why it works.


A lot has been made of various research studies that have found that technical ability, what we usually use as the primary criteria for hiring new employees, is one of the least important indicators of success on both the individual and team level. Emotional intelligence is actually much more important. So those responsible for team building and recruitment have increasingly made “cultural fit” the most important criteria for new hires, as long as the technical qualifications are reasonably close to fulfilled.

But this doesn't seem to be working any better than our previous focus on technical ability. Why is that? Well when we go beyond just statistical analysis of the problem like Google and Carnegie did and actually look at what is going on biologically here, we find out that this new focus actually creates teams prone to interpersonal aggression. It can be very frustrating to sacrifice in so many areas (especially technical proficiency) to try to build teams that get along well, just to find that you created exactly what you were trying to avoid.

How is it possible that all of these amazingly talented teams of researchers are struggling with this? My answer would be because they are not looking at humans as complex biological organisms. They are looking at them as a collection of data points. The Colorado Springs Effect. Data points tell you what just happened, but they don't tell you why it just happened.

It turns out that humans produce some chemicals that have a profound effect on our social behavior. Because we are complex organisms, our systems tend to be interconnected so that almost every system in the body is affected by changes caused by social interaction. Our adrenal axis (which includes chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol) governs our flight or fight response. When we are anxious or threatened it makes us faster, stronger, more alert, but also narrows our field of vision and makes us more aggressive. This helps us take out a single opponent, but doesn't help our ability to understand or work well with our teammates.

Oxytocin is a very powerful social hormone that has only very recently started to reveal its secrets. If you are familiar with it, you've probably heard it described as “the love hormone” or “the moral molecule” ( I am grateful for Dr. Paul Zak's work to reveal how this hormone works, because it has a profound effect on us in our personal lives and our professional relationships. When oxytocin is coursing through our veins it makes us more generous, selfless, empathic, and much more effective on teams.

So perhaps we just need to figure out how to get more oxytocin into our employees and our productivity will skyrocket! Hug breaks every couple hours! Except … there is a big asterix here that almost never manages to make it into Ted Talks, best selling books, or advertisements for oxytocin (which has such a short half life that you can forget trying to buy it).


Oxytocin can increase aggression.

Not just in a little way either. Under the right circumstances oxytocin can drive us into an almost supernatural frenzy with the objective of annihilating any threats to our loved ones. This is a key survival trait and reason for our success (at least until recently) as a species. It's why we are a species with over seven billion members and why other species are becoming extinct at mind blowing rates.

While losing the rest of the species on the planet might bother some, the real problem for us in business is that oxytocin doesn't just trigger aggression towards other species. Other humans are fair game if they are seen as a threat, and given the rise in human population and various trends in our culture, humans are becoming a lot more threatening to us.

So how does this all work? How can we understand what is going on so that we can make it work for us, not against us? The absolute most important concept here is that how we react to that oxytocin coursing through our veins is determined by our perceptions of Tribe.


What is Tribe?

If you go back in time far enough, we lived in tribes. Everyone we knew was part of the tribe. All of those people we knew from birth. Oxytocin was key to both preventing fratricide and boosting aggression levels when something that wasn't part of the tribe threatened us or our loved ones. As individuals, we were tiger bait. Maybe even coyote bait. As a tribe we were unstoppable.

It turns out we were reproductively compatible with the neanderthals and did sex it up with them quite a bit. Recent research shows that a substantial amount of our DNA came from them (around 2% in northern races). But as population pressures started to mount at some point we didn't see our sister species as part of our tribe anymore. They were “not tribe”, what I call Xeno. Almost overnight the neanderthals went bye bye. They've been long gone for a while now.


Tribe versus Xeno


Humans are wired to put other organisms into two boxes: Tribe or Xeno. We are amazingly cool and nifty organisms when in-tribe. We are aggressive towards anything or anyone we see as not in our tribe. When it is inappropriate to be violently aggressive, we typically are "passively" aggressive, and what is "appropriate" is largely determined by how activated our adrenal axis is. We go to a great deal of effort, especially in recent years, to make sure we know who to put into which boxes. In the USA, in case it wasn't clear to us growing up, we had signs like “White” and “Colored” all over the place so that we would know what was tribe and what wasn't our entire lives. These signs dictated our most basic biological functions like drinking water and going to the bathroom so they were some of the first things we learned.

Even after those signs went down, we came up with new signs that said left or right, rural or urban, elite or working class, educated or not, this religion or that (or not), straight or gay or bi or poly or pan or “I watch Fox News”. This is important because while oxytocin may control how you respond to tribe vs. xeno, it is our culture that determines what is tribe or xeno. Cultural shifts and choices can dramatically affect how aggressive we are as a species, and where we focus that aggression. This is why before a group goes to war, its leadership always floods their members with messages that make it clear that the enemy is xeno. Make no doubt, as a species we are wired for violence just as much as we are wired for love and compassion.


Size Matters

So what this all comes down to is that every person has a set they call Tribe that includes everyone that is on their team. Everyone and everything else is xeno. How “nice you play with others” is directly affected by how large your Tribe is. The larger your tribe, the nicer a person you are. The smaller your tribe is, the more aggressive you are. The most “enlightened” members of our species see their tribe as going beyond class, gender, age, race, religion, or even species. They literally play nice with everything.

So wait, some clever person in the back is asking “So if I'm white and I see all white people as being tribe, and those that aren't white as xeno, and a person of another race sees their race similarly, does that make me the nicer person if the area is 90% white?”

Yes. Yes it does, at least statistically. And here is part of the reason why statistics (which those previous studies we all are trying to make use of in our work place relied on) can end up telling us what we want to hear, and not what we need to hear. This also means that in any community, those that are disempowered and under-represented are much more likely to be seen as trouble makers. Those of the majority often don't know such problems exist for anyone.

When a bunch of people with a common race-related sense of tribe recently came together in Charlottesville, Virginia, the chance to finally really bond and bromance with their fellow tribe members was euphoric. All that oxytocin generated by being with their own kind, the people who really get them, got them pretty high. They might not remember the last time they were so happy. If you ask them if their fellows are good people, they will tell you “these guys are THE BEST, I LOVE these guys!”. They mean it, and love is good, right? Well yes, until they encounter xeno while hyped up on an overdose of oxytocin. Then they can very easily Hulk Out, especially if their tribe becomes threatened. Under these conditions, concepts of right, wrong, legal, or fair don't matter. If the situation is not de-escalated rapidly, biology takes over and the results can be dire.

Yes the group that has defined their tribe very narrowly make themselves a threat to all they see as xeno. Those that have set their tribe to be large and inclusive may see protesting against the small tribers as the right thing to do. But once they line up against each other, biology takes over. Chemically they are experiencing the same thing. When our president says the two groups were behaving similarly, on a chemical level there is some truth to this. 

If both groups set their tribe large enough, then all of them would be in the same tribe. Conflict would end, at least between humans. What's causing them to not do this is not biology, but culture. We are born into culture. We are constantly programmed by it. Technology has made such cultural programming and reprogramming much more rapid and precise. If we wanted to use that technology to make our perception of tribe larger, and our people nicer, we could.


But we are not.


This is happening not only on a macro scale, but also on a micro scale.


Tribe in the Work Place


Whether our company ends up being very team oriented and productive, or filled with division, harassment, inequity and turnover, is determined by our approach to hiring. We often start with a company culture, embodied by the first few hires, and we are very careful to make sure that everyone else we hire is a “good fit” with the people we have already hired. Every company I have interacted with that uses HR to hire uses this system. Every company that I've seen that hires using HR is also a train wreck. This isn't because HR people or departments are bad, but because they are operating in a broken and unscientific manner.

Conventional wisdom in hiring is to identify the characteristics (the content) of the existing employees and look for new hires that have similar characteristics. If we have characteristics A, B, C, D, E, and F on our team, we look for those with A through F and skip over employees with G through Z. The result is that we ensure a “good fit” by creating homogenous teams. Racial, gender, political, age, and religiously homogenous. This is exactly what we observe in American companies, especially high tech companies and as you go higher in the command chain.

Having the same characteristics as someone else does not make you team oriented. Having a very large Tribe makes you team oriented. In high tech we have reliably started with a core group of highly skilled individuals and then hired people around them that will get along with them. This is the exact opposite of what the Google study found to be most effective. But, even Google was set up this way.

Instead we should be hiring people who have very wide concepts of Tribe. Then we don't have to worry about whether they will get along with someone else, because these people get along with everyone. Sure they can be prone to xeno aggression just like anyone else, but only if they are under imminent threat of harm.

Instead of hiring people who are a “good cultural fit”, we need to be hiring people who are able to transcend culture. Culture is what puts us in boxes and creates opportunities for aggression. Hiring a person who is a proven team player on a homogenous non-diverse team is only a predictor of “cultural fit” if your team has the same lack of diversity.

This is one of the great things about team sports, especially those that aren't racially homogenous. Everyone uses the same locker room, gets naked together, and their success or failure is absolutely determined by all the other members of the team. At UCLA our top athletes, typically seasoned Olympians, were mentors to all our women. They did not train separately. The coach that came up with the "elite athlete bomb" trick was three times my age. His running days were long gone, and he had never heard of oxytocin, but he really understood people and he mentored me in the same fashion. He also never looked down on me because of my age or because it was my first year coaching at UCLA. I was tribe and I was hired there at the request of the athletes, some of which had known me since I was a homeless 17 year old. I took what they taught me and brought their winning system with me wherever I went even though it would take me 30 years to figure out scientifically why it worked so well.

I realize that recruiters and interviewers think they are looking for good team players, but from my experience they really aren't. Have I ever been asked in a tech interview if I have a history of civil rights activism? No. Did they ask me if I've ever been involved in team sports? No. I've also never been asked if I've ever complained about a lack of diversity in my work place, or if I've risked being fired by coming to the defense of a minority coworker, or if I am a feminist. Under the current team building paradigm, answering yes to any of those questions in a tech work place could be seen as a red flag. This person is a troublemaker. Large tribe candidates and employees, the ones that are key to high team productivity, morale and cohesion, will be quickly eliminated under these conditions.

I once had an interview in Houston, Texas with a company that had been chasing me for years. I wanted to know if they were team players. So when they asked me what I do in my spare time (trying to see if I have A-F or G-Z characteristics) I told them I volunteer to support LGBT rights, just to see how they would react.


I have to say, that company set a world record for how fast they had me in a cab to the airport.


This studio wasn't looking for people who were good team players. They were looking for people who were on the same team as them, and their tribe was set pretty small. It's a subtle but very important distinction. You could say they had a "Small Tribe Framework" to team building. Small Tribes maximize opportunities for aggression and conflict.

I realize that with jobs as scarce as they are these days, it is tempting to fake having the certain characteristics, or fake not having other characteristics in order to “fit” into a team. But that's just contributing to the problem. Being good at lying to your teammates doesn't make you a good team player. Be honest. Get that super fast cab ride to the airport if that's the result of being honest about yourself. It's better to get that ride right away, than after you've moved and committed to a project. Small tribe teams are work environments filled with fear and intimidation, not happy employees. Just save yourself the pain. These teams also rarely find success, and tend to blow up spectacularly.

One note of caution: If you are thinking “oh I better not hire a non-neurotypical person because they have low emotional intelligence”, then you have missed the point of this article. The reason 60% of non-neurotypicals are unemployed is because they have a smorgasbord of G-Z characteristics and will rapidly be the subject of aggression by small tribe neurotypicals. Non-neurotypicals may not filter effectively, but that does not mean they are not team oriented. What it does mean is that they typically fail at cultural adoption, and this can actually be an advantage when it comes to avoiding a small tribe world view. 

When I was working at the Lesta Studio in Saint Petersburg, one day I was sitting on a couch reading my emails when I noticed a woman was struggling to drag a large and heavy-looking potted plant across the office. There were five young Russian men closer to her that could see her but were ignoring her. I put my laptop down and then asked her where she wanted the plant in my best sign language (in case she didn't speak English). She pointed, and I picked it up and put it down there. Then she said in a purposely loud voice so that the other men could hear her “See here is a real man!” in very good English. It was a funny moment, at least for her and I, but I didn't help her because she was a woman. I helped her because she looked like she needed help, I happened to have a trait that could help her, and I saw her as Tribe even though I had never met her before.

When we were setting up the Wargaming Austin think tank, we hired an executive producer who was Mormon. He had six kids, a wife, and a house thousands of miles away and I knew being separated from them was going to be a big deal for him. He had been with his wife his whole adult life. So instead of putting him in a hotel for 3 months while he figured out how to bring them to Austin, I made it clear he was tribe and I invited him to stay in my house. I'm non-religious, non-traditional, and my biological family is almost non-existent. My relationship structures involved words he had never heard of before. I'm also vegan because the size of my tribe includes animals. I'm about as Z as it gets, and he was about as A as it gets. Against his better judgment he took me up on my offer.

And you know what? We had THE BEST TIME. I got to experience what it was like to be A-F and it was actually pretty okay. He got to see letters he didn't know existed and he had a lot of fun. Neither of us spontaneously combusted. We were both surprised at how much we had in common, like our strict non-consumption of alcohol or drugs. Of course he swore me to secrecy, but we became life long friends and the strength of that connection went a long way to building a strong team there at Austin.

When one of our team had a medical emergency and passed the hat, I wrote a check for half my monthly paycheck within 60 seconds without even asking what the emergency was. I knew she needed it more than I did or she wouldn't have asked. Both of us were cells in a larger organism that might not survive the loss of even one cell. The studio itself was perceived as xeno by most of the rest of the company (we were pretty weird) so it was closed after two years, but in that time we did some amazing things that are still sustaining the company years after it closed.

That was made possible because our tribe was set to include everyone that had skills we needed, and we shared those skills with each other readily with a focus on team success, not individual success.


If you are wondering if the same concepts transfer over to game design, yes they apply completely to game design. When you combine team elements with xeno and adrenal axis inputs, the result is aggression and dramatically improved engagement. When you combine team elements with tribal inputs and cooperative challenges you get dramatically improved engagement and retention. Both approaches have profound affects on life time spend. This is also why pay to win techniques reduce conversion rates by over 90%, by triggering tribal minimization. This is just scratching the surface, a comprehensive explanation of how neuroscience can be applied to game design is being prepared in book format.

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