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Shifting gamers’ motivations: Promoting serious play among competitive Overwatch PTR gamers

Many Overwatch gamers playing competitive PTR matches do not play with the same effort as when they play competitive live matches. In a series of two posts I utilize psychology to examine the issue and offer possible solutions.

In my last post I focused on the importance of reward among Overwatch Public Test Region (PTR) competitive players. Progress accumulated in PTR does not transfer to a player’s main account, and as a result many players do not engage in effortful play. Beginning with offering players a reward for their efforts, I focus this post on possible ways to harness psychological knowledge to encourage exertion among PTR players.

Decades of psychological research on operant conditioning demonstrates the importance of rewards on behaviors. Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, is based on Thorndike’s Law of Effect. The law states that desirable outcomes (such as rewards) following a behavior increase the chances of the behavior reoccurring, while undesirable outcomes decrease the chance of it reoccurring.

Thorndike formulated his law following experimenting with hungry cats in puzzle boxes. The cat could only escape by pressing a lever or pulling a loop. At first, the cat would try many different behaviors to escape. However, once it discovered the correct behavior to gain its freedom, it was more likely to enact only that behavior on subsequent trials.

Although all games promote learning and mastery by rewarding players for enacting the correct behaviors (e.g. not getting killed when battling well, or earning XP), one of the clearest examples of this may be Valve’s Portal game. In Portal, players are promised cake in exchange for escaping a series of rooms, which are puzzles that must be solved with physics and a big gun (everyone knows that physics are more fun in the presence of big guns). The Law of Effect predicts you will complete your second game of Portal faster than the first. It also predicts that if you do not feel rewarded for escaping, you will stop playing.

As transferring PTR progress is not feasible, players’ needs for extrinsic competence recognition, and avoiding loss must be reconciled in a different manner. That is, they should be offered something they value. This is clearly no simple matter.

Blizzard has brilliant minds working for it, and I am certain they have tried a number of options. Additionally, much like the inability to transfer PTR progress, I am sure there are additional constraints that I am unaware of. Therefore, my recommendations may be impractical, or have already been tested and have failed. However, I believe that pointing out a system’s shortcoming should always be accommodated with a recommendation for improvement. Therefore, I offer some general ideas for promoting serious play in PTR.

One way to promote competence and decrease loss is to make progress in PTR and live play qualitatively different. Players feel that the PTR progress is “lost” because it is identical to the regular progress, making it clear what they are not gaining. However, if the form of progress in PTR was different than live play (e.g. instead of medals you get badges, progress variables are slightly different, or focus more on utilizing the beta features), it would give players a measure of progress and competence without loss.

For example, instead of the end of game screen showing how many eliminations or objective kills a player had during the game, it could focus on how well the player utilized his or her hero’s special skills. Thus, someone playing Soldier76 might learn how much damage, and how many kills he or she achieved with the helix rockets versus their gun. This would allow the player to learn about performance, but since the measure would be incompatible with the performance metrics in the live game, there would be no expectation for it to carry over.

Another possibility for promoting serious play might be to implement some constraints in PTR competitive play. Although team composition is not regulated in live play, doing so in PTR may promote benefits that outweigh the drawbacks. Constraining players in PTR in a way that allows them to only to select heroes they are experienced with, and only from categories that will ensure a balanced team, may further increase the likelihood of producing useful data and promoting better play.

Although the above constraints may appear to players as unwarranted restrictions and an attempt at stripping away their control, this may be overcome in two ways: having players explicitly relinquish control, and making them believe that relinquishing it is beneficial.

Sherman has demonstrated that explicitly endorsing a choice—even one that was done only because someone asked you to make it—promotes an increased likelihood of following through on it. Additionally, at least when it comes to cheating, reminding people of honor codes is often enough to change their behaviors

Although it remains to be seen if these effects generalize to inducing appropriate effort, it is possible that having participants agree to playing with the same effort they exhibit in the regular game prior to entering PTR will energize them to do so. Furthermore, by prompting players to accept certain restrictions due to PTR’s beta nature (as it is important to explain why a restriction is not a punishment), players should feel less upset in the face of restrictions.

Increasing players’ perception that accepting restrictions in exchange for the chance to play with new features in PTR is a good deal might be done by increasing PTR’s appeal through scarcity. As Eyal explains in his blog, Nir and Far, by utilizing the psychology of scarcity companies can boost their product’s desirability. As people are influenced by the scarcity heuristic, context is imperative. In the case of Overwatch PTR, scarcity may be manipulated by lowering the number of players allowed into PTR to below what the average number of current players is, so that PTR access is limited and is not readily available. Adding a waitlist may further scarcity perceptions and manufacture appeal, which, in turn, should allow Blizzard to enact restriction with minimal backlash from their player base.

By avoiding a perception of loss (e.g. by offering qualitatively different progress than regular play), and enhancing its desirability, Blizzard may encourage PTR players to feel compelled to play effortfully—especially if they require players to endorse doing so prior to play. These strategies would help combat players’ dominant motivation shift and loss aversion, and promote PTR play as enticing in its own right. However, in the end, Overwatch is already a fantastic game that incorporates many psychological principals to encourage a great experience for its players (myself included), and it appears to be continuously improving.

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