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10 Years of Behavioral Game Design with Bungie's Research Boss
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10 Years of Behavioral Game Design with Bungie's Research Boss

June 15, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3


The ethics of applying behaviorism to game design are still very much a subject of debate. Behavioral Game Design has been called "creepy", "freaking disturbing", and accused of promoting addiction.

For me, the starting place for this discussion has to be the fact that contingencies always exist and reinforcement learning is always going on. Game designers can be completely ignorant of the psychology involved while still creating mechanics that draw on these principles. People had been making games with random loot drops for years before anyone pointed out that they were creating variable ratio schedules. Contingencies are the essence of games, and those contingencies shape player behavior.

The designer is responsible for the reward system they create and its consequences. In my opinion, this means that ethical game design requires the designer to consider the sort of contingencies they are creating.

Note that this would be even more true if the critics were correct in thinking that these reward structures are a subversive influence. The more powerful these contingencies are, the more seriously game makers should take our responsibilities to design them well.

In my personal view, contingencies in games are ethical if the designer believes the player will have more fun by fulfilling the contingency than they would otherwise. You have to believe in the fundamental entertainment value of the experience before you can ethically reward players for engaging in that experience.

Contingencies are a larger structure, a molecule made up of atomic actions and rewards. Both the actions and rewards must be genuinely fun things for a game contingency to be ethical. Designers often toss achievements semi-randomly into their games, rewarding players for playing in a way that's fundamentally unfun and sabotaging otherwise fine game design. This was actually the entire point of the original article -- the idea that designers who understand their contingencies will produce games that are more fun.

The Future

Finally, I think the most hopeful thing about the current state of this topic is the way that it is recapitulating the early history of psychology. Before behaviorism, psychology was an extremely subjective field, driven primarily by opinion and introspection. The radical behaviorists represented an overreaction to that, refusing to acknowledge any aspect of the mind that couldn't be measured objectively by an outside observer.

The radical position was obviously wrong, but its focus on provable data and its profound commitment to Occam's Razor were effective and useful and have become permanent parts of modern psychology. Radical behaviorism was overly simplistic, but it laid necessary groundwork for later, more complex approaches such as cognitive psychology.

I believe that something similar is happening in games. Right now, there is an overemphasis on this topic. We talk a lot these days about rewards and investment mechanics, achievements and gamification. In a few years, the industry will move on and the topic will be taken for granted, but we will have permanently shifted towards a more empirical approach to game design, and our players will benefit from that.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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