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Psychology is Fun

September 23, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this thought-provoking piece, psychology researcher and author Clark takes a look at how psychology and can must be applied to game development, to produce works that engage audiences -- offering up concrete examples of the right techniques.]

Gaming's core is fun, and psychology is fun's touchstone. This article restricts itself to psychology's most foundational, most immediately-applicable methods for crafting sticky, captivating experiences. From behaviorism's methods for structuring overpowering rewards, to motivational theories on generating wants and needs, to hybrid theories like flow, it is no longer fiscally responsible for games companies to shun psychology. Let's jump right in.

The Heart Asks Pleasure First

Pleasure first, and then, excuse from pain, shape every move that we will ever make -- so say the behaviorists. It may sound callous, or reductionist, until we realize that the overwhelming majority of life's rewards and punishments are too tiny or timeworn to remember.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, behavior is shaped by reward. Through behavioral tenets, psychologists have conditioned pigeons to play piano, play ping-pong, and to spot drowning men and women while mounted onto Coast Guard helicopters.

Operant conditioning, often associated with Edward Thorndike, then B.F. Skinner, is the study of how any behavior can be strengthened through reward.

There are two fundamental ways to strengthen behavior through reward: bring pleasure, or excuse pain. Positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement, respectively. There's also punishment, which introduces sharp consequences but does not necessarily remove what first reinforced a behavior.

Not all rewards are created equal. Primary reinforcers are so named because they are the most automatically powerful, and rely on the innate; some examples would be sleep, visual surprises, or sex.

Let's talk about sex. Whether or not a player realizes, a physically attractive character, when on screen, will serve as an innate positive reinforcer. On the flipside, allowing the player to remove visually aversive characters or imagery is an innately rewarding negative reinforcer. If we care about giving players pleasure, and fun, then we will first work to maximize primary reinforcers.


Before Condition


After Condition

Impact on Behavior

(+) Reinf.

No reinforcer



Behavior Increase

(Ex: Skinner Box and food)

(-) Reinf.



No Aversive

Behavior Increase

(Ex: Tylenol and relieving a headache)

(-) Punish.



No Reinforcer

Behavior Decrease

(ex: Remove a kids toy when they are bad)

(+) Punish.

No Aversive



Behavior Decrease

(ex: Hit a kid when they are bad)

Though it takes little work to reward ourselves with primary reinforcers, we often associate them with other stimuli. Classical conditioning, the precursor to Skinner's work, would call innate pleasures the unconditioned stimulus because they're automatic. No association necessary.

For me, a powerful association comes from that one scene from The Hangover (at the tail of this trailer), when, to the famous movement of Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight, Mike Tyson has his moment with Zach Galifianakis. If you're not expecting it (and for some of us doubly so once we do expect it), this is a novel visual stimulus which provokes an innate physical response.

In the Air Tonight is now for me a conditioned stimulus. I wait the whole song, building up to that movement, which due to the visual association acts as a conditioned response with a very particular reward. I grin. In classical conditioning the level of reward is typically dictated by the timing (the above scene is timed to match the song), intensity of the innate stimuli (Tyson is an intense guy – but some folks might not even notice this scene), and the frequency with which the two stimuli are paired (How many times have you seen The Hangover?)

After enough pairings, many rewards become secondary reinforcers. Money, barter objects, praise, achievements, though there are few limits to what can become attractive by association, we'll want to first take advantage of culturally popular reinforcers. Money is great for developing games in any Western market, because we can literally drown players with money.

Though not every monster is fun to kill, or working for the equipment upgrade delivery service, each may carry the universal symbol for reward. It's as Madonna once said: "the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right." Though some designs will be too abstract for some secondary reinforcers, working with the grain of cultural assumptions helps to make reinforcement obvious and powerful. It makes the game fun.

But a fun game won't just throw money, goods, or innate rewards at players; it will deliver those on a weighted and considered schedule. Foundationally, behaviorism offers us five foundational ingredients for a healthy and balanced reward schedule. Firstly, continuous reinforcement operates just as it sounds. We reinforce a player every single time they perform the behaviors that we'd like to see. We may even reinforce behaviors that get incrementally closer to what we'd like to see, what behaviorists call shaping.

A great example for both continuous reinforcement and shaping is level one in World of Warcraft, regardless of race or class selected. Learn to walk properly, kill efficiently, use skills, loot, sell, etc., and there's no dearth of praise, experience, and cash value. Yet, continuous reinforcement is the first to wear off, because players immediately notice once you've staunched the flow of reward.

So we also distribute rewards in ratios and intervals. Sometimes these are fixed ratios, or fixed intervals, rewarding only after a set number of correct responses, or rewarding after a set amount of time, respectively. We can also use variable ratios, or variable intervals, rewards that come after roundabouts a number of correct responses, or roundabouts a certain amount of time, respectively. Along with continuous reinforcement, these first five are the most common of the simple schedules.

Variable ratio is widely noted for its effectiveness and consistency. Note that such charts vary where FR and FI are concerned. Some paint FR as inciting more responses than portrayed, some paint FI as inciting fewer than portrayed. (CC: Public Domain)

Most of us have probably played through compound reward schedules (though perhaps not noticed). Say you need 100x ghoul extremities (it's for a quest, okay?) At first you'd find extremities on one of every three ghoul corpses. Before long, however, you'd only find extremities once every two minutes, and then only on one of about every five ghouls, and then (zounds!) on every damn ghoul you'd marauded, but that didn't last long.

Finally, once you had about ninety-five helpings of ghoul extremities, you could only seem to find one every, say, three minutes or so. Noticing this is not purely paranoia. Using simple schedules in tandem, as with the example above, is common.

If a quest-giver actually provides us some indication of the reward conditions, for instance, "just kill six ghouls," then, "gooooood, now kill one every minute for fifteen minutes, that shall work quite nicely," and so on, until there's an extremity-themed reward at the tail end, behaviorism also calls this a chain. If you're looking to go further with compound schedules, Wikipedia (as usual) is a great place to start, though (as usual) is not always scholarly.

As with game design, behaviorism encourages seeding concurrent reward schedules. They let our brain pick and choose the best way to reward itself. The key to generating fun in the brain of the player is to cater to them. They should always have options for how they want to stimulate themselves. Don't bother them with aversive situations. We already know about the world we're escaping from.

It's as the great Dr. Frank-N-Furter once said, "Give yourself over to absolute pleasure."

Though do so with savvy. It may, for instance, help pleasurability to take short breaks now and again, as pointed out by this short Gamasutra piece on hedonic adaptation. Well-structured rewards may make it hard for us to do this ourselves, as our chief neurochemical for motivation, dopamine, has been shown to have less to do with pleasure than with appetite, or "seeking."

Our brain changes itself structurally, over time, in a process called plasticity. Though we may feel the delightful spritz of dopamine the first few times we encounter a new stimulus, before long we rewire to feel the need of these once-novel stimuli. Rewards then begin to trigger the same motivational neurocircuitry as food, sex, stress, and so forth. Games, therefore, must further their understanding of this neurocircuitry, as well as behaviorism, should they desire to keep up the pace.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Tim Carter
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Psychological manipualtion talk always creeps me out.

A design-as-art approach is more authentic. The designer isn't standing behind a mask.

Christopher Totten
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Actually I've been teaching and using pretty much all of these methods in game design courses over the last few years.

I think of game design as a "second order" design problem, where you are indirectly influencing the experience that another human being has with your design. As such, I find psychological concepts exceedingly helpful in making a game fun. Putting it in the "authentic auteur" context, psychology can be another brush with which the game designer can craft the player experience of his game along with programmed mechanics and/or artistic assets.

As someone with an architectural background, I also find spatial psychology incredibly useful in game and level design. A lot of what makes certain levels in competitive games (especially games like FPS's) can be traced back to Maslow's Hierarchy. I would recommend watching Valve's developer commentaries in the Orange Box and the Left 4 Dead games, they use lots of these types of methods, especially reward schedules (both by giving the player tangible game rewards and showing them cool "vistas")

Psychology in game design doesn't lessen the authenticity of the designer as an artist, it simply means that they understand how to craft a fun and meaningful experience for their players.

Neils Clark
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@ Tim and Christopher - I think it's the same process described by master visual artists, writers, and musicians. Many do spend years learning theory, but it's rarely in their headspace during the act of creation.

These arts are all sort of a cheat; we're using subtle manipulations to create something that didn't exist before. Psychology can coax players into better believing experiences in games, but it can also engage them past the point of fun.

Some companies take players there, openly hammering on psychological tricks in order to make money rather than an experience. Is it responsible for us to condone that?

Tim Carter
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Actually, it's the psychological approach - which explains a human as a machine - that is a cheat.

The art approach is a direct meeting of the mind and heart between designer and audience.

Sebastion Williams
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A wealth of ideas, concepts and principles that could be well utilized for the future of game design. Now if we could figure out how to take advantage of Bill Gates' $500 million fund to train the next generation of teachers. Maybe to get them to think and work like game designers???

Adams Greenwood-Ericksen
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Yeah, but some designers-as-artists suck, and that argument is a short road to dadaist "plumbing-parts-as-art" style insanity (or is that inanity?). I'm not hugely impressed with the writing, and there are a few mistakes around the edges on the cognitive and social learning topics, but I think the author's underlying point is valid. Human psychology is evolutionarily adapted to drive us to master our environment - that's how we've survived and thrived while mastadons and sabretooth cats have gone the literal way of the dodo. Games allow humans access to an environment that can be mastered with relative ease - meaning that the psychological structures that reward us for survival-promoting behavior can also be triggered by success in a game environment. The question is whether this is a good thing for us in the long run - most of us don't get paid to play games, no matter how psychologically validating they are.

Harald Maassen
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I see what you did there

Bart Stewart
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We were doing well on pages one and two as a useful overview of functional psychology... but what the heck happened on Page 3?

I wouldn't have minded seeing some of those questions posed in a separate opinion piece. (The thesis that paying for art requires the artist to cater to the consumer's desires is a particularly pressing question for game design, for example.) But I suspect the opinionizing is just going to distract readers from the much more utilitarian information on the first couple of pages.

Maybe I misjudge, though. We'll see. In the meantime, I thought the high-level description of psychological models on the first couple of pages was worthwhile. I'd enjoy a follow-up article that explores the middle ground that shows how to use the high-level psychological theories mentioned here to make the practical game design decisions that induce particular desired states in potential players.

Christopher Totten
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Go check out my blog post called "Towards a Digital Architecture." Granted, I don't specifically call out the Maslow Hierarchy but I gloss over some aspects of how elements of level design can be catered to work with spatial aspects of the human survival instinct. It's not a full blown exploration on all of this work but it's got some of it in there.

Also, I would definitely argue that reward schedules and game pacing have a lot to do with one another. Biomusicologists have a term called "entrainment" for how an organism will synchronize with certain external rhythms. If a rhythm is established in a game, players often will expect rewards or rests at certain intervals. Not only can this contribute to the "flow" state, it can create interesting reactions when the rhythm is broken.

Ian Bogost
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I lament that I don't have time to write a lengthy response, but I will say the same thing I've said before on this very site about this point:

"If people didn't want (or need) fun, then why does Zynga have so many users? Riddle me that, Bogost-man!"

Why does Archer Daniels Midland? Or Coca-Cola? The size and financial value of a market is not equivalent to its virtue.

As for easychair critics and literary references, why don't you compare the responses to my critique with those to your attempt at a counter. Whose market is talking now, Clark-man?

Neils Clark
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Thing is, ADM and Coca Cola aren't cultural products. Coke may have grown cultural roots, over time, but mediums told its story. Our responsibilities as a medium aren't the same as those that harvest crops. We're not just building frameworks for thinking about the world, or creating stories to be read or watched. We're creating worlds, experiences that can be lived.

Ian Bogost
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Zynga isn't a cultural product either.

Neils Clark
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Slippery slope. What about movies starring Gerard Butler?

Altug Isigan
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Page 3 smells like the Columbia University Department of Sociology in the 1940s. The People's Choice, anyone?

I'm with Bart and Mr. Bogost here. Page 3 says nothing, no-thing. It rather looks like a personal attack on someone who wrote a thoughtful critique on how new game business models turn games into full time jobs for players, instead of providing them with some really entertaining stuff. More than that, I never really understood the 'social' in social games. Newspeak for Game Businesses 101.

There is no problem in utilizing some concepts of behavioral psychology to increase the fun in a game, and the first two pages are interesting (but not new on gamasutra either, check out John Hopson's article Behavioral Game Design written back in 2004). But when your vision of fun borders at Bentham's utilitarianist theories and says about social gaming nothing more than "this is how it is, so live with it, besides people love it anyway", it deserves the lengthy response that Mr. Bogost, unfortunately, couldn't find time writing. Now that could have been fun :P

To me, problem with most social games is that, ultimately, their reward systems are designed for the sake of the business model. That's different from keeping the player motivated for the sake of the plot. While I find pages 1 and 2 very useful for the latter purpose, page 3 feels too much in support of former, and that's the disturbing part for me.

Adam Bishop
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There are so many problems with this article that I'm not sure where to begin, and unlike others so far I find the first two pages to have numerous problems. There are factual problems, like the author's citation of Gladwell's absurd and entirely unproven "10 000 hour rule"; there's the horrible misuse of the term "cognitive dissonance", which doesn't mean anything like what the author uses it to mean; there's the constant assertions that one particular way of viewing the world, which just happens to reflect the "masculine" Western view is in fact the one true way that all people's minds work; and I could go on . . .

Then there are the things that I disagree with subjectively, like the statement that we "can provide gamers all the joy of a life worth living, without any of the struggle." This would present gamers with a boring, sterilized view of the world that would not in any way enrich their lives outside of the few moments when they play games. Many of my favourite works of art take on difficult subject matter and present the viewer/reader with troubling issues. Demons, by Dostoevksy, for example, is a book with a pessimistic viewpoint, about generally unlikeable characters, and it ends unpleasantly. But that's the whole *point*. It's a book about the dangers that Dostoevsky thought a particular group of people posed to society (and he turned out to be right, as the book essentially predicts Stalinism). Why would we want to avoid providing players with the kind of enriching experience that that sort of work provides? I would put forth the opposite of the argument I'm seeing here - I think that the best works tend to be those that *do* challenge us with difficult ideas and situations.

"By optionalism Bogost is primarily critiquing the skill-less GameVilles, where rote clicking can be avoided by spending money. This is just another height for game design. Here we've painted the appearance of challenge and skill where clearly there is none! Users who pay simply buy their own happiness, achieving more powerful neurochemical rewards, or fun. Everybody wins."

Similarly, I suppose, crack addicts and compulsive gamblers also win, right? I mean, the assertion here is clearly that any time:

a) someone receives pleasure; and

b) someone else receives payment for it

that we've developed a social good. It is, I really hope, obvious how absurd a claim that is.

"It is a truism that without money, no creative project would ever lift more than two inches from the muddy ground. "

No it's not, and this is yet another example of something the author says that is not only wrong, but *obviously and demonstrably* wrong. Much art (in fact most) is created for free, or often even at a loss; has the author of this article ever even heard about the countless independent music scenes across the globe? People have always been creative, and they will always be creative, and a surplus or lack of money will never change that. In all honesty the rest of the article from that point forward just sounds like troll-baiting. What a load of garbage.

EDIT: All right, I've looked further into the author of this article and based on the information I can find, it appears as though this is intended as a satire and is actually intended to *strengthen* Bogost's argument. I admit that I was taken in, and I'll leave my original post as it was written.

Laurie Cheers
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To be fair, the thoughts described are common _reactions_ to cognitive dissonance, rather than being cognitive dissonance themselves. So yes, the term was used incorrectly, but I think he more or less understands the theory.

Neils Clark
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I do plow through Cognitive Dissonance. For clarity's sake, it is the actual state of internal tension brought about by conflicting attitudes and behavior.

EDIT: I did send Gama a revised version of that paragraph.

Bart Stewart
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By the time I got to the next-to-last paragraph, where the author was laying on the irony with a trowel, I got the point that there was an opinion being pushed.

My contention is that I still don't think it made editorial sense to include Page 3's opinions with the overview of the *theories* (presented as such) in the first two pages. It doesn't help a reader understand the theories, and the theories don't provide a sufficient context for the acid on Page 3.

Like I said: I'd enjoy reading either of those two kinds of articles -- it's the decision to mash them together that perplexes me.

Ian Bogost
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Wait, this is intended as satire? Where does the article clue us in?

JB Vorderkunz
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"A good businessman would obviously weed out costs related to printing physical copies of a game; perhaps soon we could also synthesize the seed which produces experience. And how long the branches of such a tree! How tempting its fruit! Do not remind me the trifles of consoling the artist, tender and fickle! I have here his evolution!"

that paragraph's a troll watermark for sure...

Ted Aronson
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I was incredibly disappointed with the final page of this article. I think we're all well aware of the negative uses of functional psychology in games. The sarcastic, troll-ish tone you took toward the end was more befitting of a Kotaku comment than a Gamasutra Feature.

Functional psychology is a tool of a designer; nothing more, and nothing less. It can be a very powerful tool, and when used improperly, it can have powerfully negative effects. However, it is not inherently evil or bad, as the author seems to imply. When used properly, and for the right purposes, a designer's knowledge of psychology can have extremely positive effects on the player. When I was in college, I interned at an Autism research center as a programmer and game designer. My job there was to combine my knowledge of games with operant conditioning theory to create games that were used as an Autism therapy regimen. The result was an incredibly reward-driven set of games that were very successful at what they were designed to do: make an otherwise difficult task fun.

While I agree with what I can only assume were the author's sentiments, in that functional psychology has been abused as a design tool by a certain few, I was really disappointed that he failed to point out the potential positives of using it properly. A good knowledge of psychology can allow a designer to wrap nearly anything in an enticing layer of fun, including educational material, healthful exercises, and controversial and thought-provoking subjects.

James Portnow
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Well done, you just got me to say "Screw it. I'm writing about positive ways to engage human addictive qualities."

(Ted, I actually didn't read your comment before writing that but feel free to drop me a line if you want to pen something together)

Jonathan Lawn
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It's a Brave New World!

Aldous Huxley was a precognitive genius.

I feel dirty having read this.

But like biological warfare, I suppose we have to know about it, even if we're never going to allow ourselves to use it.

Nicolas L
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I won't comment the whole article, just the "we are making it for money and nothing else is right" part.

Valuating everything on the money axis is harmful. Period. Not because money is bad, only because a one dimensional analysis can hardly represent reality, and lead to ignore side effect. Hell : look at the page 2 pyramid! How many valuated things could you actually buy with money ? Anything in the bottom row, and that's all. That's why money seems so essential, but it's only the basis, not all the pyramid.

Using the money criteria, why Alla Moore could be wrong ? I bet this guy has already got all the money he really needs. So what? Now he does what he wants, that means what he values most. The "money is all your need" argument is self contradictory.

This kind of dumb rationality (too simple to be really usefull) is a common american bias. For instance, American tends to consider food to be only a means for survival. Like their cars need oil, they need food. And it's the country with the biggest ratio of overweight people, despite being slim is what society promote. Is there a correlation? In France, to feed oneself is undissociated from "having a meal together". It's a social activity ; which make sense because surviving is trivial nowadays - why care about it ? So French people consider food to be filling more than one need. That's a combo ! 2 pyramid's rows at a time ! And it is believed the constrain it adds (having to gather at the same time to have a meal) helps to keep a regular diet, and help to prevent obesity.

Which rational mind could have come up with such a design ? Especially when considering monetary aspect ?

By the way, this article links an article (this one :
onic_Adaptation_in_Game_Reviews.php) which links "The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home".

An other case against dumb rationality.

David Serrano
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In defense of Neils... some may think strayed away from clinical analysis on page 3 by expressing opinion rather than fact. This is not the case. They consider it opinion simply because they don't agree with it.

It's not opinion to state "they (players) aren't paying to spend a decade finding the flow of actually being the next Jimi Hendrix, or Peyton Manning, and it's not our job to inspire that level of dedication or drug use" because in reality, it's a spot on analysis of what continues to be the most common problem with non-casual game design. Given the topic of psychology and fun, it's a completely valid point to make. Also, Neils is not the first to address this problem. In 2004, Salen and Zimmerman wrote in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals: its surprising how many developers forget that its the victories and treasures not the obstacles that make people interested in playing in the first place. If you stop giving out the carrots that will keep players excited, or even worse, if you start punishing them for their curiosity, youre only going to drive away the very people who want to enjoy your game".

Maybe Neils could have done a better job editing page 3 but don't throw the baby out with the bath water. He made valid and legitimate points based on real world facts, not personal opinions.

Matt Zeilinger
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I hate to jump on the bandwagon here, but it really felt like that last part was an unfocused rant. I appreciated the first 2 pages of the article for what it was, and found it interesting, but I personally cannot abide or adhere to such nihilistic viewpoints as appear in the final sections of the article. While some of these things may be true, I think it is an absolute shame that anyone who loves this industry should accept these things "as is" and not try to change them for the better. Sure, it's about making money, but no developer gets into making games purely for the money. If that's the case, I think there are probably better, more lucrative career paths out there for them. Besides, I think to say that "myths of small groups making games in garages are lies. It is also a lie that anyone has ever worked on a game for passion rather than profit, or taken a personal risk in order to create something new" is just an outright fallacy. To make such sweeping statements is generally the hallmark of the sorely misinformed. That's not to say there weren't some good points in there, but they definitely got lost. Like I said; strong beginning, poor finish.

Nick Green
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As a psychologist, I felt this article was a bit unfocused. Way too many theories are mentioned, they're generally inadequately explained, and their relevance is often not made clear.

People like to be rewarded. Earning xp, levels, gold, equipment etc. are all forms of reward, which players enjoy. Telling people the 4 kinds of operant conditioning is not value adding here.

Schedules of reinforcement are incredibly important to game design but this article barely brushes the surface. Quest types, loot tables, raiding etc. etc. Why bother including the graph and telling people variable ratio schedules are the most effective (and more importantly the least prone to degredation) if you're not going to connect the dots?

For example, WoW-style raids are incredibly repetitive. Repeating the same piece of content over and over and over and over should not appeal to anyone. But the variable ratio reinforcement schedule with loot drops is incredibly effective at keeping players repeating these few pieces of content ad infinitum. This is psychology at its diabolical best.

I'd also strongly recommend you never attempt to explain classical conditioning in this fashion again.

You don't adequately explain what it is and from many years of teaching this to first-year undergrads I can assure you that it's inevitably confusing when you attempt to demonstrate examples where operant and classical conditioning (two separate phenomena, FYI, for those who don't know) occur together.

If I were editing this piece, I'd have suggested picking at most 4 phenomena/theories and advised laying each out with a brief explanation of what it is, an example of how it occurs in the real world and an example of how it is employed in gaming including its specific effect on players.

Adam Gashlin
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Just wanted to say thanks. The first two pages weren't terribly interesting, but it was all worth it for that last page.

Krystian Majewski
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Oh you had me there for quite a while. You really did. And that's quite terrifying.

Sande Chen
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I agree. Page 3 caught me by surprise.