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Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach
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Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach

April 2, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Evidence of how the social environment affects behavior

In real life, people are capable of an incredibly wide variety of behaviors. People go to a bar on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning and manage not to get kicked out of either. How? They don't sing hymns and pray while at the bar, and don't smoke and drink during the sermon.

In academia, social psychologists have demonstrated how far they can push human behavior by controlling the perceived situation. One of my favorite studies was done in 1973 by Darley & Batson about "bystander intervention". They wanted to determine the effect that the situation had on the likelihood that people would help a stranger in need.

In their experiment, they told Princeton seminary students that they had to go to the building next door to record a sermon. Some of them were told that they were late, and should hurry next door. Others were told they were early, but should go next door and wait there. While moving between buildings each person had to walk by a man who slumped in a doorway, coughing and moaning.

Of the ones who were told to hurry, 10% stopped to help the man in distress. On the other hand, 63% of the ones who felt they had plenty of time stopped to help the man. Some of them literally stepped over the distressed man while rehearsing the sermon to themselves!

The topic of the sermon? The parable of the Good Samaritan, of course. (Who says psychologists have no sense of humor?)

Examples of successful social design in real life

Psychological experiments are interesting, but they have no value if they don't lead to influencing social behavior in real life. In part, the situation affects us so often and so much that most people don't even notice good social design. For example, one brilliant piece of social design comes from the first psychologists: bartenders.

Telling bar patrons that they can't have more alcohol because it is closing time can be an ugly situation. Their solution: many bar tenders give first call about an hour before they close and second call about 15-20 minutes before they close.

This advance warning before last call minimizes the potentially socially difficult (and even dangerous) situation of surprising drunk people with the news that the party is over. Bartenders could do many other things -- call the cops, refuse to serve the annoying patron in the future, etc., but they risk losing the customer if they go to those extremes.

A more relevant example is how the movie industry changed the culture of moviegoers in response to the threat of cell phones. Prior to the popularization of cell phones, people had one main behavioral response to a ringing phone: answer it.

When cell phones were introduced, some people applied their "just answer it" behavioral response everywhere they went... including movie theaters. During the movie. After all -- what were they supposed to do? Not answer?

The theater industry initially ignored this threat to the social experience of going to the movies, but in the past few years has aggressively begun running "silence your cell phones" ads immediately before the show.

My personal experience is that that cell phones don't ring nearly as much during movies now as they did 10 years ago. And people actually talking on them during moves is (thankfully) rare. The theater industry recognized that their unique value (over watching movies at home) is the social experience, and moved to silence that threat (sorry -- couldn’t resist). The health of their industry depended upon their changing the rules of acceptable social behavior in theaters.

I'm not citing this example to say that games should run ads before going online saying "don't be a jerk" -- that would be naïve in the extreme. The point of that example is that the movie industry recognized that some of its patrons were pissing off the majority of their other patrons.

And so they (eventually) took effective steps to reduce it. The belief that "jerks will be jerks" is neither true nor useful -- it is a belief that permits us to wash our hands of our ability to gain a wider audience. It isn't a responsibility for us any more than it was for the movie industry -- but the economic incentives are the same.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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