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Compulsion Engineers

January 16, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 7 Next

The Compulsion to Learn by Experimenting in a Safe Environment

Experimentation with any kind of low-risk, unknown, dynamically responding system tends to be fun. Little kids are known to poke, prod, smell, and taste nearly everything they come in contact with. In my case this included a hot stove (I learned something useful).

There is a game called Garry's Mod, which basically consists of a toolkit to help you abuse the Source engine physics system. You can spawn characters and items. You can pose characters, or attach items to characters, vehicles, or each other. You can create thrusters and explosives and trigger them by remote control. It's a physics playground, and it is popular because it allows so much experimentation.

The Sims is a good example of this as well. I enjoyed locking my Sims in rooms and seeing how long it took for them to starve to death, or seeing how the game reacted when I did strange things which I would never do in real life.

The strength of games as experimental tools is that there are no consequences in the game. This means we can try out crazy new ideas which we would never do in real life. Realistic flight sims can be used to try out unorthodox fighter tactics, for example.

Another interesting this about experimentation is that it becomes boring as soon as we fully understand a system. In order for a system to be continuously experimentally fun, it needs to continuously display unpredictable but logical responses. The entertainment value of a system will fall off as the player learns to accurately predict its output. There is no reproductive advantage in studying a system you already know.

Similarly, if a system is so random as to be incomprehensible, there is no entertainment value. There is no reproductive advantage to studying a system which is random since it cannot be understood. Like already-learned systems, unlearnable systems will not trigger this compulsion.

This principle is one of the main determinants of replay value. Games which depend on the experimentation compulsion can be replayed as long as the system they present offers logical but somewhat unpredictable results -- as long as the player is continuously learning.

The Compulsion to Gain Social Status

After a person's material needs are satisfied, and they are securely safe from predators and enemies, hunger, heat, and cold, the main remaining avenue to increasing reproductive success is by increasing one's social status. Status allows access to more mates and higher quality mates. Accordingly, human beings are programmed to pursue social status. In a modern post-scarcity society, shifts in social status and social position are the main drivers behind most of our serious emotions.

Once, walking into a socially competitive nightclub, I noticed is how people were huddled together in tight groups. They looked like people in the Montreal winter, trying to escape the windchill. The men huddled at the bar, or along the walls. The people on the dance floor huddled in circles. Nearly nobody was alone, or if they were, they were walking or talking on the phone.

The comparison to huddled masses in a cold wind was not far off, because standing alone in a club is just as painful as standing alone in a freezing wind.

Standing alone causes a perception of friendlessness, leading to a loss of social status. The human unconscious is tuned to recognize status shifts, and to pump you with the appropriate motivating chemicals. In the case of standing conspicuously alone in a club, the subconscious will pump the brain with pain emotions.

Therefore, just as huddling together in winter keeps us from the physical pain of cold, huddling together in the club keeps us from the emotional pain of status loss. If you watch for it, you can almost see the gusts of status blow around the room, following attractive people, and you can watch everyone else shuffle around to stay warm.

This is just one expression of one emotional trigger related to social status. Human beings have countless compulsions and emotional triggers like this. There is an entire class of emotions -- embarrassment, triumph, pride, humiliation -- which are used to describe feelings caused by status shifts. As compulsion engineers, we can compel players to play our games by triggering these emotions properly.

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