In a new Gamasutra feature
, game design veteran Chris Birke takes a look at how social games create "fun" from a neuroscience perspective, and urges developers to look past this simple construction to deeper, more meaningful design.
Birke starts his analysis by asserting that the "fun" of a game is merely the controlled release and reception of dopamine in the player's brain as they come to expect in-game rewards. He goes on to describe how this process can change and weaken as the game experience gets more familiar.
By way of analogy, Birke lays out how simply waiting in line for ice cream can be exciting to a new ice cream eater, while the line quickly becomes a simple chore once the memory pathways associated with ice cream are all wired up.
"They simply expect their reward of the ice cream in due time," Birke says. "With nothing new to learn, they no longer trigger excitation. Standing in line for ice cream now sucks."
Social game designers have taken these lessons to heart, monitoring how people play their games and using A/B testing, demographic analysis and constant updates to figure out which design changes maintain player interest and financial returns.
But social game designers can do much better than such basic manipulation of player dopamine levels, Birke says, citing games like the Final Fantasy
series that create whole subcultures of devotion. "The virtues of [The Legend of Zelda
's] Link are present in a generation, whereas the ethics of CityVille
will never be," he points out.
Though the financial rewards of a simpler model mean such analytic-driven design is not likely to go away anytime soon, Birke urges designers to think about the ethics of their designs if at all possible.
"With all the zombies pulling slots in Vegas, all the hipsters swiping down on their mobiles in hopes of a new Facebook update, and all the worn paths paced by desperate animals in the zoo, I don't want to make another game like that," he says. "But I probably will."
There's more in Birke's full, in-depth feature, which is now live on Gamasutra