Liberty Bell, Liberty Bell…Cherry: Gaming, Gambling and the Near-Miss
Regular Gamasutra contributor and gambling psychologist Dr Mark Griffiths (Nottingham Trent University) has commented extensively on the parallels between gaming and gambling - a particular interest of mine. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Dr Griffiths, in which he touched upon a topic with relevance to both spheres: the ‘near-miss.’
The structural similarities between videogames and certain gambling activities (particularly slot machines), including player rewards, reinforcement schedules and competition, have been explored in a number of studies (referenced below.) However, the near-miss has been comparatively neglected in serious discussion, which is odd given its capacity for stimulating compulsive play.
Incorporated properly, the near-miss is an invaluable tool for creating and sustaining engagement, but when misused can lead to dire consequences for players, akin to the consumptive effects of pathological gambling. Therefore, this post will take a measured run at the near-miss, assessing and demonstrating its use and abuse through several case studies, supported by existing literature.
We Never Lose – We Just ‘Nearly-Win’
Put simply, the near-miss is a psychological ‘pseudo-reward’ in which failures are seen as ‘nearly successful.’ In games of skill, near misses offer useful feedback and encourage improvement. However, Dr Griffiths argues that games of chance effectively ‘highjack’ this psychological pseudo-reward, providing “absolutely no likelihood as to the chances of future success” despite gratifying the player with a sense of almost-accomplishment.
The near-miss is an essential component of slot machine design. In 2009, Neuron magazine conducted a small scale study in which researchers scanned the brain activity of 15 volunteers while playing slot machines, finding that near-misses stimulated pleasure centres almost as much as actual wins. The fact that none of these volunteers were regular slot players or addicts indicates that “the brain may naturally respond to near-misses in this way.”
According to a 2010 research paper by Karen Collins, a near-miss ratio of around 12:1 hits a psychological ‘sweet spot’ that keeps players compulsively returning to any given activity. While Collins offers no examples of the near-miss’ application in game design, there are in fact a multitude of possible case studies, from close-run boss encounters to narrow losses in online multiplayer matches.
Unlike the design of slot machines, neither of these near-misses is determined wholly by chance and both provide useful feedback that allows the player to refine their approach and succeed in future. However, there are other examples of the near-miss in game design where the ‘close-but-not-quite’ pseudo-reward is purely random. This, in my view, is where such a tenet becomes problematic.
Operant Conditioning: Trapped in the Skinner Box
In psychological terms, the near-miss is a form of operant conditioning: i.e. it is designed to control player behaviour. While operant conditioning is usually associated with RPGs, the majority of videogames utilise such 'behavioural design' in some form or another - this article by John Hopson provides a great treatment of the topic.
The morality of such an approach is debated, but it is generally accepted that good game design will not rely solely on ‘Skinner Box’ principles to ensure player engagement. However, designers frequently employ near-misses with little thought to their effect on the player.
Take Bejewelled, whose alleged ‘addictiveness’ has been widely acknowledged, albeit anecdotally. It is undoubtable that success in Bejewelled is, in no small part, dictated by skill. However, the appearance of new jewels is randomly determined, meaning that theoretically ‘perfect play’ can still be scuppered by the hand of fate.
This is not a problem, in and of itself, until you consider the impact of near-misses as a psychological reinforcer. At a critical stage of the game, with one’s high score approaching, a perfectly positioned cascade might be unattainable because a blue gem simply refuses appear in time. The player experiences the failure to top their high score as a ‘near-miss,’ which becomes infinitely reinforcing as their score continues to climb. It is really no surprise that Bejeweled has been adapted for real-money play by online casino operators.
This issue equally applies to any game with randomised elements and no concrete objective, from Tetris to Temple Run. However, it can also be identified in more ‘sophisticated’ fare. The most striking example in recent memory is possibly the ‘Director’ in Left 4 Dead – essentially an algorithm that randomly determines enemy placement in the games’ fixed levels. Several YouTube videos demonstrate players heuristically attributing ‘near-victories’ to the machinations of the Director.
However, the clearest evidence of near-misses in a popular videogame franchise can be found in the Mario Kart series, where the difference between victory and defeat is often one randomly-distributed blue shell. Player skill is usually determinant in the ultimate outcome of a race, but even the most seasoned veteran can have their win stripped from them by an inopportune item drop.
While the near-miss is undeniably a source of engagement in these examples, when combined with visual and sonic reinforcement, such operant conditioning limits player volition and creates the ideal conditions for compulsive play. So, how can the near-miss be employed responsibly while remaining an effective reinforcer?
Nailing the Near-Miss
The near-miss serves as a cornerstone of game design and should stem organically from a balanced difficulty curve. As I have mentioned, the frustration of falling to an end-level boss despite whittling his HP down to single digits provides useful feedback that does indicate the likelihood of future success. If you nearly had him this time, you’ll probably get him on your next play-through.
What literature exists on the negative effects of the near-miss has focused on RPGs, where random elements like critical hits and loot drops are operant conditioning techniques that reinforce repetitive activity, such as grinding.
A 2010 thesis by Fatlin Karlsen, focusing on the “psycho-structural elements in gambling games and MMORPGS” draws parallels between the ‘near-miss’ experiences of gamblers and a pool of respondents from the World of Warcraft community. In the thesis, Karlsen presents difficult raids as a common source of ‘near-misses’ that frequently resulted in subjects exceeding their usual play schedule:
“All of my informants who had been raiding seriously had examples where they had exceeded normal raiding hours in order to defeat a boss.”
I would argue that this behaviour falls within a rational remit: investing time in defeating a difficult boss has a clear ROI in the form of experience, community prestige and powerful item drops. Furthermore, as a discontinuous activity (you only get one shot at the boss per raid) such behaviour does not conform to the typical conditions for compulsion.
To my mind, randomly-determined ‘non-rewards’ and ‘near-victories’ are morally dubious strategies that should be avoided in game design. However, in many cases the pseudo-reward of the near-miss is evidence of a well-built game. Dev teams must balance challenge, reward and reinforcement in such a way that players consistently return to complete difficult objectives.
If the player gives up in frustration or is not sufficiently engaged to attempt another run, the developer has missed the psychological ‘sweet-spot’ represented by the near-miss. Getting players to keep coming back for more, despite falling just short of the mark, is the secret to nailing the near-miss.
Collins, Karen. “Addictive Gameplay: What Casual Game Designers can Learn from Slot Machine Research.” Internet Journal of Mental Health, May 4, 2010, accessed 07/04/2014. http://www.academia.edu/690446/Entrapment_and_Near_Miss_A_Comparative_Analysis_of_Psycho-Structural_Elements_in_Gambling_Games_and_Massively_Multiplayer_Online_Role-Playing_Games
Griffiths, Mark. “Save all your misses for me: The psychology of the near miss in gambling.” Dr Mark Griffiths Personal Blog, January 3, 2012, accessed 07/04/2014. http://drmarkgriffiths.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/save-all-your-misses-for-me-the-psychology-of-the-near-miss-in-gambling/
Hopson, John. “Behavioural Game Design.” Gamasutra, April 27, 2001, accessed 07/04/2014. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3085/behavioral_game_design.php
Strickland, Eliza. “Slot Machine Near Misses are Perfectly Tuned to Stoke the Addiction.” Discover, February 12, 2009, accessed 07/04/2014. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/02/12/slot-machine-near-misses-are-perfectly-tuned-to-stoke-the-addiction/#.U0O66_ldV_9