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Edward McNeill, Blogger

May 2, 2012

7 Min Read

Some games are designed to addict players and take their money. That is their purpose in this world. If the player engages with the game repeatedly, the game verbs are declared “fun”, no matter how vapid they may be. The usual pattern is to get players emotionally invested in the game loop and then hold that investment hostage until the players pay up (or spam their friends). Tadhg Kelly would call these behaviourist games (though here I limit my critique to the profit-oriented ones); some classic examples are Farmville and Slots. I generally despise these games as unethical time-and-money sinks that give nothing to their players in return. They exemplify black hat game design at its finest.

A common design technique in these games is simply to schedule as many “rewards” as it takes to hold the player’s attention, no matter how little-warranted this feedback may be. Raph Koster explains: “It is remarkably easy to trick the brain into thinking that it has accomplished something when it really has not. This can result in the player getting hooked on the feedback for a black box system that is actually remarkably simple — or even designed to not teach the player anything at all, as in gambling. In design, we often terms designs ‘juicy’ when they provide plenty of rich feedback, but we sometimes call them ‘exploitative’ when they simply abuse feedback to keep someone going.” Other techniques of exploitative games include tapping into logical fallacies (e.g. sunk costs, loss aversion) and ruthless metrics-driven design. Essentially, they’re about psychological gamesmanship (which, as has been pointed out before, can be far more interesting than the actual game being designed).

Several parodies exist to lay bare the tricks used by behaviourist games. Progress Quest, Cow Clicker, and AVGM each flay behaviourist game design in their own ways, and they’re all hilarious to the knowing critic. However, the joke is eventually spoiled by the fact that each of them is also depressingly effective at holding people’s attention. All three parodies received far more fans and playing time than their creators expected or hoped for. Even when stripped of any serious pretense, they worked.

Behaviourist techniques tug at our brains even when we see right through them. That kind of power scares me. Yet I have to recognize that it’s also a power that’s harnessed in games that I love, from Left 4 Dead to Minecraft to Diablo 2. And I honestly don’t know how to reconcile these facts.

What I’m ultimately asking: Are behaviourist techniques always exploitative?

Diablo 2 is full of randomized item drops; is this a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule, or the foundation for a slew of deep game mechanics? Super Mario Bros. is constantly putting minor pickups and surprises in my path; is it stringing me along or just ensuring proper pacing? I once argued that Minecraft needlessly included grinding and gambling; should these elements be pulled out? I agonized over including a checklist in my own game; is it an exploitative bait for completionists, or a useful byte of feedback?

Is there a bright line between entertainment and exploitation? Are behaviourist techniques perhaps just tools that can be used for good or evil? Or should they be minimized wherever we find them? Can Poker be sublime even though it’s associated with gambling and, thus, addiction?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’d welcome some guidance on this topic. I feel that the truth must lie somewhere in the separation of a game’s pure ludic appeal and its presentation. The games I hate are all about effectively doling out empty rewards. The games I respect are the ones about creating rewards: providing a platform for experiences that are deep and substantive and revelatory. And the best games are the ones that can both create and deliver those experiences while holding my attention.

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