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Ethos Before Analytics

September 15, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this article, designer Chris Birke takes a look at research, examines what's going on in the social games space, and argues for an approach that puts creative ethos before data-driven design -- but without ignoring the power that game designers wield over players.]

A little over 10 years ago I read an article titled Behavioral Game Design written by John Hopson. Now, looking back, I see what a huge influence it's been on my game design philosophies. I have been following psychology and neuroscience ever since, always uncovering new ways to incorporate them into an ever-growing design toolbox.

Technology is moving very fast, and 10 years is very long in internet time. Wikipedia was launched 10 years ago; Facebook, World of Warcraft, and Gmail have been around since 2004. The iPhone was born in 2007, and FarmVille recently turned two. Science is moving just as quickly, and behavioral theory is now being underwritten by neuroscience, and the revelations of high resolution, real-time brain mapping (fMRI). On top of this we now design with the aid of analytics, the real-time data-mining of player behavior. We can roll out a design tweak once a day, if necessary, to maximize profits.

What are the ethical implications? As a curious proposition, "Behavioral Game Design" seemed innocent enough. Now that design toolkit verges on a sort of mind control, and the future is promising only refinement of these techniques. What are we doing to players, and what have we left behind in those innocent days of chasing "the fun"?

Personally, so long as I can make enough money to eat (and maybe have a good time), I feel obligated to design socially responsible games that benefit the lives of players, not just exploit them. I want to explore ideas of how to use these new technologies in a positive way, and to encourage those who feel the same.

I would like to share some of the neuroscience that attempts to explain how conditioning behavioral conditioning works in games, and go into how this can be used in the context of analytical game design to maximize player compulsion. Then I will go into some ideas for how to use these tools ethically, and hopefully inspire discussion in our community. But first, a brief review of behavioral conditioning.

"They're waiting for you, Gordon, in the test chamber..."

Most behaviorists don't use the words "Skinner Box." Skinner himself didn't want to be remembered as a device, preferring to call it an "operant conditioning chamber." It is a cage used to isolate the subject (usually a pigeon, or a rat) with only a button to operate and a stimulus (a light, for example) to be learned. Pressing the operant (button) releases a reward (food), but that's reliant on pressing it correctly in response to the stimulus.

It was with this that Skinner explored the nature of learning and, further, how to maximize or disrupt the compulsive behaviors of his subjects. The results, in short, showed that the schedule of rewards in response to stimulus greatly affected how animals (like you and me) responded to their training. The most compulsive behavior was not driven by "fixed ratio" rewards, where a stimulus meant a consistent prize for correct actions, but instead by a semi-random "variable ratio" schedule. Maybe you would win, or maybe not. Keep trying, just in case -- you'll figure it out eventually.

If you have been designing games at all in the past few years you ought to be familiar with this. Applying and combining the results of these studies have been proven to work. No one can deny the incredible feeling you get upon hearing the familiar "ting" (YouTube link) of a rare ring dropping off an enemy in Diablo. It's the combined reward of the long term chase for better stats with the instant gratification of a high pitched chime over the clank and groans of battle. It's rare and semi-random.

You can't argue the benefit of front-loading content onto the learning curve like in Rift (or any other MMO) either. Dishing out rewarding content more slowly in the late game not only maximizes its use, it's fitting nicely to the documented results of the most compelling reward scheduling. Just add some compelling random combat encounters to keep it fresh. Reviews (for example, Gamespot's Review) call this out as good design, because it's more fun that way, right?

Since I'm being such a depressing reductionist, let me tell you I believe there is such a thing as "fun." It's a specific brain activity within us, electric and chemical. It lives in there, and you can probably graph it with powerful magnets, sales, focus groups, or the staggering 275 million daily active users playing Zynga's games on Facebook (AppData). Even if you don't think current Facebook games are fun (and I'll suggest how that might work), someone out there does.

What is fun, anyway?

In my opinion, neuroscience is quickly extending behavioral theory as the most effective means of manipulating people (players). There are a few different theories of what's happening in the brain to create the consistent results found in behaviorism (and FarmVille), but I'll only share my favorite for sake of brevity.

If this isn't the true mechanism of fun, I'd at least like to warn you: it will be discovered soon. A early paper on the topic entitled "Predictive Reward Signal of Dopamine Neurons" is the sort of thing that makes me giddy. This research describes in detail how the behavior of a particular type of neuron in the brain specializing in the neurotransmitter dopamine works as the "reward system" to drive learning and motivation. It's fairly simple theory called "incentive salience," and the key is novelty.

All of our brains are similar. Just as the average person is born with the same sorts of cells in the fingernail cuticle on their ring finger, so, too, do we all share the same brain areas. They work to perform the same tasks in all of us (moods, facial recognition, Counter-Strike, etc.). They've specialized.

An important central structure, the ventral tegmental area (VTG), is made up of neurons that specialize in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It stretches out into other brain areas, lining them and waiting for a queue to act. By releasing dopamine, this structure can intensify brain activity in those areas, acting as a sort of throttle. And what's controlling the throttle? Reward.

(Fig. 1) The reward system.

These rewards are the same sorts of delicious rewards given in Skinner's Behaviorist research, as well as other things we're wired up to like. (Social status, pleasant noises, sex, explosions, epic loot, etc.) These things trigger the signals dopamine neurons are carefully monitoring, and each expects a precise level of expected reward.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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