"don't play this game" - how to apply reactance in game design

You can make anything more desirable by forbidding it. That something can be anything: an item, an action, an idea. This is known as the reactance theory. Reactance is the feeling you get when someone limits your freedom or options.

You can make anything more desirable by forbidding it. That something can be anything: an item, an action, an idea. This is known as the reactance theory. Reactance is the feeling you get when someone limits your freedom or options. Reactance is what happens when you’re not allowed to do something or when you are told you have to do something. 

This feeling results in you:
1. Wanting the forbidden option even more.
2. Trying to reclaim your lost option.
3. Experiencing aggressive and angry feelings towards the person (this person may be fictional or an AI) who limited your options or freedom in the first place. (These feelings can be very subtle and barely noticeable but motivate you to do the opposite from what you have been told to do.)

The first psychologist to talk about the idea of reactance was Brehm (1966) in a theory of psychological reactance. He researched reactance and explains it as a motivational state people experience when their freedom is removed or threatened. You probably already know the reactance theory as reverse psychology. That is what reactance basically comes down to: getting people to do something by telling them they are not allowed to do that something or the other way around. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t always hold up. Some people are just not as sensitive to experience reactance as others and circumstances matter too. For instance: reactance breaks down when people can rationalize why they shouldn’t do something. If someone just told you not to buy the bag you really wanted, you’d probably buy the bag. But if that someone explained that he bought the same bag and it broke after 2 days, you’d probably think twice before buying the bag.

Portal 2 applies the idea of reactance brilliantly in their level design when the player enters Aperture’s dungeons. Along the way, a player encounters several warning messages like the ones you can see in the picture below: “warning”, “do not enter”. Of course these warnings are not to discourage the player, they are meant to lure the player closer. Reactance helps the storyline feel less linear than it actually is. Player is more attracted to this option and goes on to explore it. It also guides the player through the level more naturally because they want to explore this forbidden option rather than going somewhere else.

The Stanley parable also applied the reactance theory to their narrative design. The player is encouraged to try all storylines since ‘the end is never the end’ in the game. In fact, the game is all about discovering new endings and alternative storylines and that means you shouldn’t listen to the narrator most of the time. The blue door ending is a great example: the narrator tells Stanley to walk through the red door when the player approaches a room with a red and blue door. When you ignore the narrator and walk through the blue door, he’ll send the player back and tells Stanley to walk through the red door again. The blue door becomes a more attractive option now, so the player choices the blue door again. The player will be send back to choose the red door again but this time the blue door is moved behind the player. The narrator stresses Stanley he has to walk through the red door. The blue door has never been a more attractive option.

The reactance theory can easily be applied to your own games. It can help you design interesting levels or create interesting narrative for games that rely on (branching) narration. When you want to implement the idea of reactance into your own game you can make something more desirable by forbidding it or you can make something less attractive by forcing it. This something can be anything: an item, a choice you want the player to make, a path the player should walk, an action you want the player to perform. Be creative! Keep in mind that not everybody is equally sensitive to reactance and that the effect breaks down when the player can rationalize why they shouldn’t do something.

Here are some ideas for you.
Level design:
–  Use some art! Show something is dangerous or advise the player not to go there with signs or writing on the walls. It doesn’t have to be art-heavy, just tell a player the area is closed off and that they are not allowed to enter.

Narration games:
–  Somewhere during the narrative you can tell the player they are not allowed to make a certain choice (remember: don’t explain why). You can also “force” players to make a certain decision like the red door in the Stanley parable.
–  Empower the player by telling them they aren’t good enough to do something, while they clearly are.
–  Tell the player that he/she has to do something a certain way, they will do the opposite.

–  Tell your player is a forbidden item and they shouldn’t take it.

Want to read more (scientific) stuff on the reactance theory?

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