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[In a thought-provoking article, Page 44 Studios (Freekstyle) designer Lorenzo Wang looks at recent research on happiness, and the six key findings that can help us all make better games.]
It is our implicit goal, as game designers, to create addictive games that by definition hook our players on pleasure. Games are used as pleasure delivery vehicles. A tremendous amount of research has come out in recent years to address the issue of human happiness, and I think we sometimes need to take a step back from pleasure and address gamer happiness, which is a more "wholesome," long-lasting experience of which pleasure is just a small part.
In this article, I will examine some major findings of recent happiness research, and offer game design approaches that address them. These findings have been appropriated; they were meant to help us understand how and why some people are happier, barring socio-economic factors.
Now, those factors are important, but I'd like to focus on what decisions and expectations that the gaming experience shares with life experience. To do so, it is necessary to define happiness from pleasure.
Happiness comes from the resolution of anger, ennui, fear, frustration, insecurities, and unimportance. Pleasure is an immediate, short-term rush, often visceral, and designers usually to call it "fun." You can have one without the other.
For example, we all know friends who play a certain game constantly while complaining about its every flaw, like my wife when she plays World of Warcraft. She gets no happiness, having played the game to death, alone and guildless. But she gets a visceral pleasure in continuing to kill mobs, farm items, and level new characters.
Quarters were sunk not because I found it fun, but because of the anticipated glory of finishing.
Conversely, playing Dragon's Lair for me was a happy but pleasure-less affair (the play mechanics are merely rote memorization), but the participation in (and completion of) such a challenge, and getting rewarded with a beautiful animated movie satisfied my dedication, even if I hated every unfair death I had to die to get there. The idea of unhappy pleasure versus pleasure-less happiness is a bit extreme, but can be an enlightening distinction.
Finding #1: Happiness is relative.
Reason: Would you rather earn $100,000 while your co-workers earned $200,000, or would you rather earn $50,000 while your co-workers earned $20,000? Most choose the latter. The things that make us happiest in life address secondary emotions, the ones that come after hunger, shelter, and sex. This means that after those primal needs are satisfied, we have no way to classify how happy our circumstances make us except by comparing with others.
It turns out that both lottery winners and prisoners return to their original level of happiness quite soon after their respective life-changing events. Psychologists call this setpoint theory. While the wealthier people in the world are happier overall, the effects of affluence diminish sharply.
Application: There are a few design lessons to take from this. Firstly, keep rewards roughly equal across players, especially in multiplayer games. Fairness, or at least the impression of fairness, is extremely important to generating player trust in the complicit agreement to play that we call a game.
Studies have also shown a strong correlation between trust levels and national prosperity. Particularly in MMORPGs, trust in the fairness of a virtual world is instrumental in the players' willingness to indulge in its fantasy, as well as being productive, well-behaved gamers.
Players will invariably compare their efforts and the resulting rewards with other players. Unfairly treated players will have Robin Hood syndrome, and not respect the game or their peers. They will expect equitable happiness.