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Is Behaviourism Evil?
by E McNeill on 05/02/12 10:56:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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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Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I recall Arnold Schwarzenegger in that movie about clones as he talks to the antagonist, "I don't think science is evil, I think you are evil."

We might say Mario used these techniques too, but he's not after milking your wallet dry, and the luck of getting good items is not the only thing the player needs to be mindful of, the game is still by and large, a game of reflexes, hand-eye coordination, puzzle/tactics, etc.

E McNeill
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I appreciate your point, but I'm still left unsatisfied. Jon Blow criticizes both Mario and World of Warcraft as examples of games that, while created with mostly pure intent, string players along and waste their time. Could World of Warcraft do without the grind? Could Mario lose its coins? I think so.

I guess I'm just saying that I'd like to go beyond the overall judgment of a game and start to pick apart the design. Maybe these games are well-designed on balance, but what parts should I emulate and what parts should I avoid?

Hakim Boukellif
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I don't think you could remove coins from Mario games without it having negative repercussions. Because these games are constantly reinforcing the idea that coins are good and you should gather as much as possible to the player, they can be (and are) used to manipulate the player to an extent. While that may sound bad, it's a powerful tool for level designers that allows them to teach the player new mechanics/techniques, train his mastery of the controls, lead him to optional challenges etc., without the need for explicit tutorials or signs and such.

I believe the difference between good and bad for this sort of thing lies in its intent. Coins in a Mario game don't exist to make Nintendo more money, nor to make the game seem more fun than it is by appealing to the player's obsessive-compulsive side. They're there to genuinely make the game a better experience. The method may be manipulative, but if a manipulative method can provide a better experience than a non-manipulative alternative would, I can't really argue against it.

Luis Guimaraes
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Speaking to game developers that played Mario in their early days, that take development challenges with smart solutions, it's hard to say it was a waste of time.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Here's something you may not have realized. When you get the cape for the first time, you'll find out that nearby, the sky has so many coins arranged in curving lines in the sky.

The player will think, "oh I want to get those coins". And without him realizing it, he is training himself on the proper use of the cape, in his attempts to get all those coins.

The frustration of learning how to perform a new ability (gliding) is mitigated by a reward.

Michael Joseph
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I think Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez hit the nail on the head. It's more important that we focus on WHAT games we employ game design tools, mechanics and tactics on than which tools, mechanics and tactics we use.

If we employ the devices at our disposal on games that
1) have a purpose (teaches us about the world, society, families, ourselves, etc) beyond being purely entertaining.
2) are good for stimulating and developing the gray matter (puzzles, building/construction games, etc)
3) simulates real world experiences in a serious way thus allowing the user to get some sense of what it would be like to do such a thing in real life (flight simulators, serious war simulation that doesn't glorify war and violence or spread propaganda, racism, ethno/cultural-centric thinking, etc)
4) teaches us new languages, teaches us math, other cultures and religions, philosophies, history
5) etc. you get the idea

So it's more a question of do we implement things that will have the affect of rewarding players for playing purposeful games or are we rewarding and encouraging them to play harmful crap.

Encouraging and playing any pointless time waster game is the promotion and engagement of a vice I think.

Will Buck
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This is the best I've been able to make sense of things as well.

Games for me sometimes feel like a colossal waste of time when I'm done playing, and other times leave me wondering about morality, leave my brain feeling worked out, and leave me feeling closer to my friends or family.

For me, thinking about the game's design in terms of what I'd hope players leave feeling like first, and then starting to think about effective methodologies to arrive at that ultimate takeaway, is the best practice.

(Sidenote: In the specific cases of Diablo and Mario, I left Diablo feeling empty about having been strung along on loot-greed 'reward schedules', and left Mario feeling happy at exploring nooks and improving my timing/pattern-matching platforming skills. I think it ended up being a consequence of being what was encouraged by the design of the game & their communities: Diablo was a culture loot-obsessed, grind-optimization, exhaustion marathon. Mario was inherently single player, and coins had very little effect on core game mechanics, making them feel more like a fun option than an obsessive necessity. That's the best sense I can make of trying to draw that very fine line from a design/planning perspective.)

Bart Stewart
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I hesitate to apply the word "evil" to a game that people can freely choose not to play. That devalues the word compared to discussing totalitarianism and rape.

That said, I do think that psychological manipulation can be wrong, and that there is a line -- maybe not a bright one, but a line nonetheless -- and that line is honesty.

Deliberately obfuscating time-sink mechanics is on one side (the wrong side) of that line. On the other side is saying, "We've tried to make our game as absorbing as possible because we want you to keep playing -- that's how we make our money. If there's something more important you should be doing, then you should stop playing and go do it." At that point it is the individual human being's personal responsibility to choose whether to keep playing that game or not.

A general expectation of both producer honesty and consumer responsibility strikes me as a pretty effective antidote to manipulation of any kind.

James Smith
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I prefer to have an expectation of producer responsibility and consumer honesty, however a good mixture of both for both would be even better to me.

Ara Shirinian
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Consider that motivational speakers use psychological manipulation/exploitation, too.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I usually focus on the best possible future of many from this point in time forward, instead of getting lost trying to define words or trying to draw sharp lines for fuzzy concepts. With that said, I am more worried about what a company's design mantra signals to me -- their intent really does matter. Is this a signal that this company is trying to build up clout so they can release future games with bad DRM or leave the remaining chapters out as DLC? What am I giving my money to, and what repercussions will there be? I think that's why knowing that something trivial was put into a game to please the player doesn't frighten me as much as something put in with the intent of separating the player from the money. Regardless of whether or not both cases represent profiting off voluntary exchange in the free market, I think it is important to look at end results as well.

Of course, the ultimate nihilistic question would be: Is anything "evil"? :)

Bryce Walton
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While working on my own 2D platformer, I chose to include collectibles (flying pigs, the equivalent of coins) to offer guidance and challenges to the player. When the player reaches the end of a platform but can't see that it's safe to drop down to a platform off screen, I placed a line of flying pigs to guide them to the next platform. Other pigs are placed as challenges to the player - above a pit or on a hard to reach platform. This is an active dare to the player, "I dare you to try to get this pig." This is how I've always viewed coins in Mario, as tools to guide the player through the environment or as open challenges for a skilled player.

On the other hand, the end game of WoW can be summed up as an infinite loop of trying to get better gear. If you come to this realization, when you go to cancel your account, you receive the message, "You'll make the peon cry." WoW is very much so an addicting game - you feel good while playing it, but walk away feeling empty. If addicting is a qualifier for evil, then WoW is evil.

This concept of an addicting game is one we faced head on when developing Runeshift. At first, we listed that we wanted our game to be addicting - that we wanted players to become enthralled for hours before suddenly realizing it's four in the morning. We realized, however, that we didn't want players to play our game unwillingly. We wanted them to feel like that time was well spent, that the experience was well worth the hours that went by. Quite simply, we wanted the time to fly because they were having fun, not because they had to solve just one more puzzle.

So is behaviorism evil? No, it's just a tool. It all depends on the motives behind the use of that tool and the actions carried out using that tool. If we use behaviorism to guide the player through the game with the motive of helping the player, we are clearly using our tool for good. If we use behaviorism to keep the player from leaving our game with the motive of user retention (read greed), then we may have crossed into evil.

rhetoric monkey
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I do not believe that the inventor of the slot machine was a behaviorist. I also think that the machine was available before B. F. Skinner put a finger on the scheduling of reinforcers. Some game makers are absolutely exploiting gamers with the tools availed to us from the behavior sciences, but a lot are just reading the data.

MW3, not long ago, frightened me with the implications of such control. Dorritos, Mountain Dew, and MW3 are a bad combination as far as I'm concerned, but I purhcased all of the above for a chance to win a Jeep and gain double xp. Throw in the adrenaline on tap and a lot of people were hooked. I took MW3 back to gamestop a few days later and sold it, I'd never done that with a title I purchased on release before. I finished my Mountain Dew and caught myself looking for more the next day, I never went to sleep that night, and that is why I sold it.

One of the developers, or maybe it was a C.E.O. from Activision, was talking about the game when he mentioned the effects that COD/MW has on the average gamers vitals. He didn't put it that way and the best I can do is paraphrase at the moment, if forced I'm sure I could find where it was spoke. It went something like this, "We want your pupils dialated, your knuckles white, and every one of your muscles to be tense, the ultimate adrenaline rush".

If they want this they can get it with minimal analysis, they don't have to be behaviorists to do it. Unfortunately diabetes and heart disease will be blamed on other enviromental variables and the consumers themselves.

I'm still hooked, I'm playing Black Ops. I could use a sponsor like an A.A. or N.A. member has, but I'd settle for one like a "creative strategist" has.

James Smith
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B. F. Skinner, the guy who helped us understand variable reinforcement, was born after slot machines had been invented. The inventor of the slot machine was not a behaviorist. A lot of game developers use tools born from the behavior sciences as a very effective means to an end. There doesn't seem to be a conscious effort among developers to concern themselves with consequences suffered by consumers as long as profits are made. The consequences are typically obscure enough to blame on other factors and quiet frequently the blame is put on the consumer themselves. Like the science of nuclear fission, the science of behavior is not evil.

Choice is governed by all sorts of variables. Tobacco companies employed measures to make addictive ingredients in cigarettes highly effective. Game developers that take the time to employ measures to ensure addiction may end up in the same boat as big tobacco in the U.S. if they're not careful.

E McNeill
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I agree; I'm more precisely railing against "behaviorist game design" rather than behaviorism itself.