Sponsored By
Taekwan Kim, Blogger

June 9, 2010

18 Min Read

Today, I’d like to propose a very basic idea: a consequence is a reward whenever it validates the player. Conversely, and more importantly, a consequence is a punishment whenever it invalidates the player. Simple, yes? Perhaps simplistic even.

If we take the premise as granted, however, a careful examination should produce some practical insights into how validation shapes player activity. So, let’s talk about validation.

Validation: The Source of All Rewards

The pursuit of validation—objectively, the psychological result when reality matches schema; subjectively, the feeling that an investment (intellectual, emotional, material, etc.) has been justified—is one of those things that, because it so thoroughly and expansively permeates human behavior, largely escape our conscious awareness.

But the cascade of psychological activity involved in validation serves a very real, evolutionary level purpose as a basic and essential survival tool. The neurochemical outcome of validation makes pursuing new, potentially dangerous or time-consuming discoveries (e.g., that fire can be artificially produced and harnessed, that agriculture provides a renewable food source, etc.) memorable and worthwhile. By the same token, invalidation is emotionally painful in order to reinforce learning and help prevent repetition of mistakes.

At any rate, the point is that validation is the fundamental, primordial motivating force—next to, and sometimes even superseding, survival itself1. And, for our purposes, every ludic decision can be thought of as the emotional equivalent of an opportunity to validate oneself.

This reality is implicitly recognized by social games, achievements, or BioWare or Naughty Dog introducing things like social updates in single player games—the goal of which is to provide objective conduits for externalizing in-game validation for peer recognition. But these, too, are simply the latest developments in a long line of incentivizing validation mechanisms grasped by designers from the very beginning, starting with the device of the high score.

Validation Momentum -> Avoidance Behavior -> Invalidation Momentum

Significantly, validation always comes with the integral, inseparable threat of invalidation. (We can see the archetypal manifestations of this psychological certainty in cultural constructs such as the unbreakable correlation between hubris and nemesis, the ouroboros which both destroys and renews, etc.).

Pursuing validation and averting invalidation are often one and the same thing, and the satisfaction of achieving the former is doubled by the thrill of denying the latter. This duality produces a psychological state such that the pressure of the one propels the other (hence the circular, snake biting its own tail imagery of the ouroboros). The positive effect of this validation momentum or flow on engagement has been much discussed, but it also contains an ugly underside which is just as vital for design considerations.

Specifically, long validation chains acutely intensify the pain of detachment from a specific schema. The longer a schema has proven valid, the more emotional investment the player has in that schema, the more all other schemata seem invalid (sometimes to the point where simply leaving a game feels threatening). This consequently increases the activity of ego defense mechanisms related to cognitive dissonance (such as confirmation bias) which can lead to a state of invalidation momentum.

That is to say, because validation relies entirely on willful perception (it has less to do with fact than it does to do with what one wishes to believe as fact), it is therefore absolutely possible to misconstrue, and aggressively continue to misconstrue, an invalid schema for a valid one.

Regressive Attachment

That’s all well and good, but how does this actually affect gameplay? Mr. Meier has already mentioned how players would rather disengage and blame the game than admit to a misinterpretation of probability. And the same aversion to invalidation can also lead players to deliberately leave significant portions of a game’s features untouched for fear of emotional or ludic punishment.

What’s more, since emotional attachment to a preceding strategy increases the apparent cost of diverging from that familiar feature set, it really takes very little for unknown features to appear prohibitively expensive (recall Mr. Molyneux admitting that, “more than half the people who played Fable II understood and used less than half the features in the game”).

Let’s consider a particularly negative possibility. Occasionally, a person’s attachment to a specific schema reaches a level where it momentarily becomes comparable to his emotional regard for his overall worldview. For a player lacking emotional awareness or critical distancing skills, the defense of his play will then end up feeling about as dire and personal as a defense of his actual worldview.

This can create a lethally fastidious adherence to a specific style of play, where players stubbornly refuse to change even blatantly losing strategies. Such intellectual inflexibility also cripples the player’s ability to adapt to the natural rise of a difficulty curve, which makes even previously valid strategies invalid. Finally, the attachment becomes perversely stronger the longer the player remains invalid, crossing a point of emotional no return.

That is to say, the longer the player has avoided acknowledging invalidation, the more he has to lose when he finally does, thus the more he will refuse to give it up. Not only would admitting to error invalidate the player’s current position, but it would invalidate everything causing and preceding that position, from his time investment to his fundamental understanding of and skill in the game (and the totality and weight of this at this point will feel as heavy as the player’s worldview2). The only recourse for many will then be to bludgeon onward and insist on one’s validity.

Invalidation which lacks awareness therefore has the paradoxical tendency to perpetuate itself in the same way as validation (“ignorance is bliss”). Just as emotional investment in a valid schema increases with time, so too can investment in an invalid schema. The pursuit of validation then quickly degenerates into a psychologically regressive, viscerally personal hunt for vindication (hence we have the ego defensive mantra, “it’s just a game”).

Our goal, then, becomes quite clear. We need to increase player awareness and broaden perspective in order to help prevent or break invalidation momentum. And a lot of this can be done simply by improving the quality of information and data available to the player.

(For clarity, in the next sections I will be using the term ‘information” to denote knowledge available to the player prior to ludic action. “Data,” then, will be used to refer to knowledge available as a result of ludic action.)

Front End Prevention: Information

In essence, information softens the threat of invalidation by outlining where the pitfalls might lie. The more of it a player has, the more he feels in control of his play, the more likely he is to experiment and venture outside the boundaries of his play.

Since the player relies on such pre-decision information to map out hypothetical paths, what knowledge is made available to the player therefore takes on disproportionate (and thus distorted) importance. Poorly documented/communicated features are thus effectively the same as misinformation. This also means we generally need to overcompensate just to reach an adequate level of accuracy.

Let’s expand a bit on the topic of players preemptively forgoing unknown features. Take the following example skill description from Dragon Age for the “Mana Clash” spell, hands down the most effective anti-caster skill in the game:

The caster expels a large amount of mana in direct opposition to enemy spellcasters, who are completely drained of mana and suffer spirit damage proportional to the amount of mana they lost.

This language is inadvertently off-putting as the actual mana cost for activating the skill is really relatively low. It’s also worth noting that we tend to regard information which comes first as more important than that which comes later (in this case, “large amount” comes before “completely drained”).

Moreover, while the tooltip does provide an actual numerical cost, we can expect that players inexperienced with the game will have very little concept of the size of the effective mana pool (both for the player and for enemies), which means the player will be unable to comprehend the potential damage or cost in real terms. This is rather like quoting an 18th century monetary unit without contemporary comparisons which establish meaningful value.

Indeed, the tooltips for the entire branch of spells prerequisite to Mana Clash similarly fail to provide for useful cost to payoff ratio assessments, resulting in the whole branch being woefully underemployed by new players. The fact that players need to spend what limited talent points they have on all the preceding spells just to get to Mana Clash is the last straw that makes investing in that spell seem completely untenable3.

This wouldn’t be all that terrible if it wasn’t that at least two of the spells involved in that talent branch (Mana Cleanse and Mana Clash itself) are basically mandatory in their importance. Their absence makes many key encounters—and consequently, the entire game—far more difficult than they should be.

Importantly, it’s not that Dragon Age does such a poor job but that the game just doesn’t do enough. Once again, not enough information becomes the same as misleading information. Similar lapses that amount to time cost inflation also occur frequently in Dragon Age’s dialogues, even when discounting cases where information is withheld for narrative purposes4. Here too, it is lack of context that restricts the player’s ability to plan an outcome.

Normally, conversation relies on tone and body language in order to deliver the intent of wording. These, however, usually aren’t scripted in games to deliver until after the player actually makes a choice, if at all. This forces much of the language used for player choices to be extremely dry in order to prevent misinterpretation, a tactic which typically fails anyway.

Dialogue choices in most games are thus, in effect, reduced to poorly realized feature descriptions. A great deal of time is then spent just trying to figure out what exact ludic (to say nothing of narrative) action the player is taking, often with the effect of considerably impeding validation momentum, or sometimes halting it altogether5.

In the case of Dragon Age, something as distressingly simple as an optional display of companion approval changes next to dialogue choices would have completed the picture and significantly reduced down times caused by dialogue wrangling. The mistake to be avoided is thinking that such information somehow ruins anticipation, immersion, or challenge, as opposed to merely providing the necessary context—it’s not as if the dialogue choices don’t already (failingly) attempt to provide this information.

These examples were both caused by the imprecision of language, but information obfuscation occurs in many other forms. Hiding through layers of menus and obtuse decentralization (Facebook’s privacy options or EVE Online); maps that don’t mark where you have been or do a poor job of displaying obstacles and differences in elevation; ludic events which suddenly drop without any preceding environmental cues—all of these can break player trust in the designer’s intentions and prevent investment.

All of the above, then, can be summed up in two words: information transparency. And the ultimate goal of information transparency should be to maximize as much as narrationally possible the player’s capacity (through due diligence) to accurately predict and make informed decisions from available information as to what will result from a given ludic action6.

Back End Correction: Data

If then there is information transparency, there is also data transparency. The better able the player is to connect outcomes to causes, the more able the player will be to hypothesize a solution. We want to make the loop between information and data as seamless as possible. The explicit purpose of data collection in games, then, should be to make changes observable.

To put it another way, if the player can’t perceive any change (be they beneficial or detrimental), the player will believe there actually is none. This is quite consequential for what it means for ludic results to be rewarding or punishing. Let’s examine a real life example of data collection from an article in the New York Times for reference:

A few months ago, Barooah began to wean himself from coffee. His method was precise. He made a large cup of coffee and removed 20 milliliters weekly. This went on for more than four months, until barely a sip remained in the cup. He drank it and called himself cured. Unlike his previous attempts to quit, this time there were no headaches, no extreme cravings. Still, he was tempted… he told himself that he could probably concentrate better if he had a cup...

Barooah wasn’t about to try to answer a question like this with guesswork. He had a good data set that showed how many minutes he spent each day in focused work. With this, he could do an objective analysis... The data had delivered their verdict, and coffee lost.

He was sad but also thrilled. Instead of a stimulating cup of coffee, he got a bracing dose of truth. “People have such very poor sense of time,” Barooah says, and without good time calibration, it is much harder to see the consequences of your actions. If you want to replace the vagaries of intuition with something more reliable, you first need to gather data. Once you know the facts, you can live by them.

A couple of applicable conclusions can be drawn here.

A) Barooah is able to quit drinking coffee like never before because his progress is exactly measured and the results (decreasing intake + lack of headaches, cravings, etc.) validate his progress. If this were a game, one might call this increasing agency, and his good usage of time is both validated and in fact made possible by accurate data collection.

B) Barooah has “lost” in terms of his strategy to improve concentration through coffee, and yet he still feels like a “winner” because the data have proven that quitting coffee was a valid decision (he is both “sad and thrilled”). That is to say, a ludic failure is not actually invalidating if it permits a change in the player’s schema.

In other words, by increasing the visibility of certain changes over others—that is, by affecting the player's perspective—data can alter (and give the player agency over) player goals.

Think of it this way: player data is essentially the same thing as a character build, only it's one which almost always can’t be respecced. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, how simply giving players the option to play servers without kill/death ratios or win/loss counts (or turn them off, with the appropriate abuse prevention mechanisms) would tremendously reduce the barrier to entry for “hardcore” FPS games.

Data collection, then, needs to be more than just an afterthought about scorekeeping. It needs to anticipate common player strategies and failures so it can provide relevant data that act as guideposts towards improving gameplay. Such data allow us to reduce or even eliminate confirmation bias, thereby breaking invalidation momentum and converting invalidation events into paradigm shifting ones.

Closing Thoughts

This whole discussion might seem to be stating that we need to eliminate invalidation altogether, but this is entirely untrue. It is simply that we want to always provide the tools for players to turn invalidation into validation. Plus, a schema that goes unchallenged for too long ceases to be validating, as the perceptibility of the matches between reality and that schema diminishes with time (“if the player can’t perceive any change…”).

Game balance, then, can really be considered the same as validation balance: when the validation to invalidation ratio of a game can sustain engagement, that game can then be said to have achieved balanced.

In the end, it is important to recognize that validation is not a toy. As designers we need to respect the psychological processes involved, take player engagement seriously, and understand that the attachment that comes from validation momentum is a double-edged sword.


Addendum: Invalidation Momentum -> Crisis -> Reverse Validation

Given invalidation momentum, one might say that validation seems to be a rather counter-productive survival mechanism. So, in order to provide a fuller understanding of the experience of validation, I’d like to talk here about how invalidating events can sometimes become profoundly validating—something one might call “reverse validation.”

Let’s take a moment to conduct an archetypal study. As I mentioned, it is exceedingly difficult to depart from an entrenched schema without a drastic change of perspective (“new wine must be poured into new wineskins”). Here, it is useful to bring up the phrase “damascene moment.”

“Damascene moment” (meaning life changing epiphany) refers to the tradition of the sudden revelation and complete reversal of Paul of Tarsus from a violent persecutor to a devout apostle. The story shares common elements with Oedipus Rex in that both revelations are only made possible by blindness (the blindness of Paul in the former, the blindness of Tiresias in the latter, which subsequently leads to Oedipus’ own blindness).

The Pauline tradition also contains the additional feature of the resurrection symbolism of three days of crisis (blindness) preceding a cure, immediately followed by Paul’s baptism. These motifs are combined in the myth of the phoenix, whose fiery rebirth is only made possible by its own death.

The common, archetypal theme, then, is that the individual experiences a massively invalidating event which occurs at a moment when attachment to a specific schema is so strong that the individual is blind to all other possibilities. This sudden, complete, and undeniable invalidation forces the individual to find a new schema, a process which irrevocably breaks the old enthrallment and allows the individual to emerge with a totally new paradigm.

Can such moments be achieved in games before they alienate the player? Absolutely. The conflict between ludic and narrative goals, for instance, indicates one pathway towards realizing them. Since games can be simultaneously ludologically validating and narratologically invalidating, and vice versa, the key is to pit strong attachment to ludic goals against strong attachment to narrative ones, thus generating a crisis and reevaluation of prioritized values.

Finally, we can create a similar experience simply by introducing a completely new perspective which is wholly validating or archetypally true without first cornering the player into invalidation conflict. Examples of this can be seen in the revelation of Revan in Knights of the Old Republic and the final expulsion of the Vault Dweller in Fallout. The danger with this method, however, is that it is mostly restricted to narrative devices—we don’t want the player to feel that he was barred from a better ludic solution until late in the game just so the designers could do something “cool.”



1 The drive towards validation is so strong, and its capacity to distort perceived value so great, that entire religions have been built around addressing or redressing it—at least, in terms of their effective psychological goals. Predestination and divine will in some cases (“everything fits the schema”), enlightenment or negation in others (“no schema is the schema”), etc. And of course, there’s always the idea of progress in the after/next-life which justifies the current one (subordinating even self-interested survivalism with anticipated post mortem validation).

2 We might label this, in parallel to the term worldview, the player’s “gameview”—the sum of the player’s conception of the operation of, and his place within, the world as defined by the boundaries of a game (Huizinga’s “magic circle”).

3 This, of course, is a discussion of the base game before the expansion and the introduction of the Manual of Focus.

4 Consider this dialogue from Dragon Age, one that takes place after a romantic encounter between female Warden and Alistair:

Alistair: Hmm. You know, according to all the sisters at the monastery, I should have been struck by lightning by now.

* That so?
* It could still happen.
* Not for that performance.

If you exclude the first two choices, or even if you don’t, can you tell the last is necessarily meant as an admonishment?

5 This is what Armando Troisi meant when he explained at GDC that Mass Effect was “BioWare’s attempt to tell an ‘objective story.’” Rather than relying on the subjectivity of wording and overly verbose NPCs to deliver context, the content is eschewed in favor of delivering just the intent (that is, the ludic result) of a choice. This ends up reducing interpretation problems and (perhaps paradoxically) creates a much fuller or exact picture beforehand of the decision the player is making.

6 This is not to say that everything needs to be predictable, merely that a reasonably accurate projection of data should always be possible from among the set of projections which can be made given the available information. It’s still up to the player to connect the dots, so to speak.


Preceding Related Posts

What Can the Socratic Method Tell Us About Gameplay?
Aggressive Games and Aggressive Behavior
Considerations in Narrational Navigation
Why Metrics Matter for Team Play and Player Satisfaction
Dragon Age: Gazing into the Abyss

Read more about:

Featured Blogs

About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like