7 min read
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Stop Insulting Me: When Negative Reinforcement Turns Ugly

Oftentimes players fail at a game, not the activity the game is trying to model. While negative reinforcement can be helpful and even amusing, it is often a turn-off, especially when the an exceptional player is struggling against an imperfect game.

I was recently sucked into the world of karaoke games. My wife is to blame for this -- she loves to sing, and is very good at it. On the other hand she holds a game controller the way an arachnophobe might a tarantula, and so Lips, on the Xbox 360, and Singstar, on the PS3, have become the primary way we share my hobby.

To the uninitiated, the Lips and Singstar will seem almost identical.  They have different song libraries, different mics, and a few different gameplay options, but fundamentally they are the same. There is one difference, however that came to light as soon as we started to play them. Singstar is mean and Lips is nice. To use a (dated) American Idolmetaphor, Singstar is Simon Cowell while Lips is Paula Abdul.

You see, Lips almost entirely lacks negative reinforcement. It tells you when you're doing well and remains silent when you're doing poor. To the extent Lips criticizes, it does so in euphamisms. Singstar, on the other hand, brays and boos and is always on the ready with a sharp insult. 

At the end of each song you are given a score and rating. Lips uses an intergalactic scoring scale, which begin at rock (as in, a stone) and goes as high as "Big Bang"." Receiving the low score of rock means going out of your way--way, way out of your way--in pitch. And just as in outerspace, if you travel far enough out of your way you end up back where you started. Only an octave higher. Which is fine, as far as the game is concerned. Suffice it to say you generally won't do much worse than "Planet."

Now take Singstar. An above-average, though far from perfect performance on Singstarwill see you rated as a braying mule. There are roughly five ratings lower than braying mule, and you'll be seeing them often, even on moderate difficulty. 

My wife, as I learned, is not a big fan of negative reinforcement. She finds it discouraging. I don't mind, generally speaking, but as soon as she pointed it out I started to find Singstar's system annoying, to the point that it distracted from the fun of the game. For one, it discourages horseplay. If you try to enjoy the game as you'd like, not as it's intended, the game essentially scolds you.

But consider for a moment how karaoke games work. The developer notates a song, coding in the precise duration and pitch of each lyric. As a player, you are scored on how well you mimic the performance. In real singing, this isn't always a good thing. After all, you don’t want to sound like a parrot. But on a more technical note, small deviations can allow you to better fit a song to your range, add vibrato, or simply go where the music moves you. While a human judge is able to evaluate deviations from the standard melody, Singstar cannot. This isn't even accounting for the inadequacies of the mic itself. What this means is that Singstar is often punishing you for its own technical limitations. Which is obnoxious, especially when it brays. 

Nintendo’s Wii Fit suffers from a similar problem. Nintendo found itself in hot water because if its reliance on a player's BMI, or Body Mass Index, as the primary indicator of player health. A person’s BMI has been largely discredited as a useful indicator of human health when taken in isolation. Stating that a person is overweight based only on the ratio of their weight and height can be downright dangerous if it leads to unhealthy dietary changes or worse, an eating disorder.

But while using a person’s BMI may be the most dangerous “feature” of Fit, it isn’t the most obnoxious. The player is given a simple balance game when first starting Fit. The player's success at this game determines his or her starting "age," which is the number used to determine your health (being old is bad). I have excellent balance and reflexes, but when I first booted Fit I initially struggled with this balance game, in large part because I could not decipher the onscreen graphic used to indicate your balance. Once I processed what the game wanted, I performed exceedingly well. However, my "age" remained quite high and the game suggested I needed work on my balance (in a not so gracious way). My initial stumbling carried forward, and I was made to endure forever after a good deal of taunting about my balance.

I will give one more, slightly different example. I recently completed God of War III. I like action games, and what’s more I am good at them. Generally speaking, completing GoW didn't pose any problem. I aced the combat in most instances, and the puzzles only took me moments to solve. However, two aspects of the game's design gave me fits: the platforming and the level design.

As many have noticed, God of War III implements a vexing double jump. After Kratos hovers for a certain amount of time, the second jump cannot be activated. This quirk—and it is a quirk—often lead to the invincible hero plummeting to his death. So, the player dies as a result of poor control implementation (or at least unusual implementation), in a game designed to be action-focused, rather than platforming-focused. Add to this occasionally vague layer design, which lead me to jump onto apparently “live” areas that were in reality off-limits. But the problem I want to draw attention to isn’t the questionable platforming, it’s the way the game deals with repeated failure.

If you die enough times in between checkpoints, the game will ask you if you want to switch to an easier difficulty. To begin with, this wouldn’t ease the player’s struggle as difficulty only affects combat (it doesn’t automate jumping, say). Worse is that the message undermines the game’s primary goal, which is to make the player feel like a God of War. Gods of War don’t complete games using easy difficulty. And as with Singstar and Fit, my difficulty was largely owed to shoddy game design, not my shortcomings as a player. Unless the game is precise and controls perfectly (Super Meatboy comes to mind) you run the risk of insulting players for what is in essence a developer problem. Not fun.

The concept of “easy mode” has ironically been introduced as games have, on the whole, become easier. Not simpler—easier. Games like Uncharted provide a largely on-rails cinematic experience, whereby the player character accomplishes something awesome with only a few arbitrary button presses; however, it's often the case that the player can't determine what highly specific task the designer wants them to do (especially veteran gamers who try to think outside the box). I experienced this numerous times in Uncharted 2, and though I loved the game, these moments of frustration really took the wind out of the cinematic sails. In many cases I was being punished for being clever in a way the game hadn't anticipated, or simply for not seeing through the same eyes as the level designer. Again, coddling the player has the unanticipated effect of causing frustration.

Of course negative reinforcement is often unavoidable. After all, if the player can do no wrong, there ceases to be a game. But one of the fundamental qualities of game design is player limitation, be it due to technical realities or as a design choice. Learning to work within these limitations is what it means to be a successful gamer. A designer usually means to test more general skills -- reflexes, intelligence, memorization, etc. In other words, designers generally hope that the contrivances of the game world don’t become problems unto themselves.

Singstar requires a very specific style of singing because it lacks human ears. Wii Fit passes judgments on your overall fitness even though it lacks the ability to measure heart rate or body heat or how you are breathing. But the goals in both these games are to improve the player’s singing and make the player fitter. The developers of these games should consider their limitations when determining how they will indicate player success and failure. Otherwise people like my wife—the lead singer in a band—will refuse to subject themselves to an otherwise entertaining, and yes, enriching, diversion.


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