6 min read

Getting Players to Care - Part 2

What makes players care about a game's goals and characters? Dan Felder dives into a ten week series of game design experiments to find out!

Previously on, "Getting Players to Care"

I talked about all sorts of interesting stuff and laid out the foundation for this article series. If you haven't read it yet, check out Part 1 and skip along merily through my linear corridor of an article-design. I'll work on a non-linear article series next time, I promise. 

Getting Players to Care

It's crucial, before moving forward, to establish which stakes players care about most deeply and thus are the most powerful bedrock to base a story’s conflict upon. My examination of this issue forms the basis of my model and goes a long way to explaining why Mass Effect 3 failed to satisfy the emotional investment of its fans.          

Sick of Saving the World

I've saved the world exactly five times since I began this investigation. I’ve long lost count of how many times I saved the world before this. When attempting to answer the question, “Why does this event matter?” Writers tend to reach for the largest stakes they can think of and respond, “Because if you don’t defeat the villain, billions of people will die!”

However, while this is certainly a high-stakes scenario in terms of sheer numbers; its power has become diluted with overuse. Many gamers have saved the world time and time again across a variety of titles. The device has become clichéd almost to the point of irritability. In fact it’s become something of a joke.

Any device will find its power diluted with overuse, but there is another reason why saving the world is of limited value to the writer. This second reason lies in a fundamental aspect of human psychology, and is best demonstrated in an experiment performed by Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein and Paul Slovic.

The Rokia Experiment

The Rokia Experiment is described in the above researchers' paper, "Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims". It began by examining whether people will give more money to a charity when the request is phrased emotionally instead of analytically. The first step in the study was to have participants fill out a questionnaire and receive $5 for their efforts. The questionnaire was meaningless, an excuse to make sure the participants had some cash on hand for what was to come.

After the survey was completed, each participant was given a charity request letter. One group was given the following analytical letter, which focused on describing the scale and statistics of the problem.

“Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans — one-third of the population — have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.”

It's interesting to note that the language used here is designed to make the problem look very large, emphasizing the sheer quantity of people who are suffering. It is, in many ways, analogous to the cry for the players to “save the world”. If this is an effective method of Creating Emotional Investment, the participants will act against their own best interest and take a financial loss in order to act on their emotions – giving to the charity. In the end, those who received the above request donated an average of $1.14 of their $5 to the charity. This result was then contrasted against a second group whom received the following request-letter. The second letter was designed to emphasize the plight of one individual, a girl named Rokia.

“Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia's family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her, and provide her with basic medical care.”

It might seem unfair to compare a letter that only talks about the plight of a single girl to one that emphasizes the needs of millions of people. However, the results speak for themselves. The average donations of the Rokia group was $2.38 out of $5; more than double the $1.14 donated by the group confronted with the full scale of the problem. Astonishingly, the participants seemed to care far more about saving Rokia than they did about, “saving the world”.


This result has sharp implications for Creating Emotional Investment. If people care more about helping one, specific person than they do about the faceless masses – then it is little wonder that “saving the world” has such low impact these days. Of course, one might question if the experiment was representing a false dichotomy. Perhaps if both the individual plight of Rokia and the statistical scale of the issue were combined, the result would be greatest of all.

This was not the case. The third group whom read about both Rokia and the statistics gave only $1.43 on average, significantly less than the average of $2.38 for the request that centered purely on Rokia. This has been referred to some as the “Mother Teresa Effect” due to her famous quote, “If I think of the many, I will never act. If I think of the one, I will.” I also feel that the converse is appropriate here, represented in a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

It is clear from these studies that people emotionally invest in individuals more readily than they do in the faceless masses. If this is so, then it means that many game designers are using a fundamentally flawed emotional appeal. They are attempting to use abstract, faceless masses to motivate their players in their call to, “Save the world!” If the results of this study are correct, then it's far better to appeal to players by providing them with the plight of a single individual they know something about rather than a call to save the faceless masses.

Okay, enough brain-thinking. It was time to put the idea to the test in one of my gaming sessions! Tune in for Part 3 tomorrow to find out how it went.

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