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10 Years of Behavioral Game Design with Bungie's Research Boss

June 15, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Bungie's head of user research takes another look at his decade-plus old article, which has become both influential and infamous for its suggestion that games can be better when developers take the psychology of players into account.]

A lone scientist labors late into the night in his lab, assembling his creation piece by piece, and then releases it to rampage across an unsuspecting world! Muwhahahaha!

No, not Frankenstein. Behavioral Game Design!

When I wrote that article a decade ago, I was a psychology graduate student and amateur game designer who had never worked in the games industry. Since then, the article has run amok, living an almost completely independent existence in the wilds of the internet.

It's been translated into multiple languages and assigned as homework. It's been cited by academics, pilloried by the Huffington Post, and even lampooned by my childhood favorite, Cracked magazine.

[Footnote: This actually makes me the second of Bungie's employees to be called out by Cracked. Their treatment of our security chief was much more complimentary.]

And as anniversaries tend to do, the 10 year anniversary of this article has spurred a lot of reflection on my part. The industry has changed almost beyond recognition since 2001, and I'd like to take the opportunity to ruminate publicly about where this topic has gone in the past decade.

Reinforcement learning has been acknowledged as a powerful force in game design.

The biggest change is that it's hard to find a game today that doesn't take its reward structure seriously. At the time of the article, it was a radical idea to say that games contained rewards and that the way those rewards were allotted could affect how people played. Now it's simply a given.

The clearest example of the acceptance of reinforcements in game design is the widespread use of achievements. Achievements are a really interesting case for study because there often isn't any tangible reward past the achievement itself. Some games, such as World of Warcraft, have used achievements to direct players towards alternate modes of play they might find more fun, such as exploration or PvP. In my eyes, helping players find more fun in the games they're already playing is one of the best uses of reinforcements.

The rise of social games on Facebook and elsewhere is another great example of how reinforcements have become a central topic in the games industry. Indeed, the early pioneers of this genre were basically reinforcement schedules with graphics. Their simplicity made it impossible for anyone analyzing them to misunderstand what made them so popular.

They had only three ingredients: well-structured rewards, strong viral communication channels, and high accessibility. Their runaway success has meant that no one will ever discount the power of those factors again. As competition among social games has grown, they've become much more sophisticated, but their contingencies still lie closer to the surface than in most genres.

The successful use of contingencies in games has also led to a reexamination of how they can be applied outside of games, on topics from fitness to encouraging safer driving. "Gamification" really has nothing to do with games and everything to do with contingencies. It's a little baffling that it took a fluffy entertainment field like games to make people take reward structures seriously on more serious topics, but it's nice that they are finally doing so.

Beyond behavioral psychology, the whole topic of psychology in games has gone mainstream. There are entire blogs devoted to studying how psychology and games interact, and some studios even keep full-time psychologists on staff.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Jamie Madigan
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Great article, and thanks for the plug! I agree that behaviorism isn't the way forward for people wanting to apply psychology to games once those basic lessons are applied. Instead, I've been really interested in fields like behavioral economics and the study of decision-making. There's a gold mine of stuff on really fundamental decision-making that game designers (and marketers) can use to improve their game. Or, alternatively, turn it into some kind of money eating quasi-game. But hopefully the former.

Travis Ross
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Jamie, yes I totally agree there is a ton of stuff in behavioral economics/decision making that could be useful for game designers. Lately I've been writing my dissertation on pro-social and anti-social norms in games. In order to make predictions about how norms might apply to games I've been using the game theory/experimental economics lit to explore how norms might be successfully harnessed by game devs. I've read a few of your articles covering cooperative behavior and reciprocity via experimental economics good stuff.

Michael DeFazio
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Fantastic post (this is why I love Gamasutra)
JMHO: Games where the core gameplay mechanics are inline with the incentive/reward structure give me the most enjoyment. (Short version: Being skillfull at doing the things the game does the best (shooting, exploring, fighting, collecting, strategizing) rewards you the most)

Alternatively, games where the reward "economy" is "broken" (or susceptible to cheating, glitching or boosting) can really steal the long-term enjoyment and replay-ability away.

For example... I love bethesda rpgs, but I simply cannot play Skyrim without "boosting" using the ol' smithing and enchantment early game boosting. (I always feel a little bad about it, but knowing I can greatly increase the combat effectiveness of my character by doing some "mundane" tasks for an hour or so always outweighs my guilt).

Also, I really miss getting XP for finding new locations in Skyrim (like in F0:3, and Oblivion). To me, a big part of what Skyrim is about is exploration, and I believe they should reward players for doing what the game is very good at (verses rewarding players for getting hit while wearing light armor or heavy armor... shouldn't you NOT want to get hit?)

Ramin Shokrizade
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I lean more towards interpreting simplistic games with extremely robust data mining systems as modern day Skinner's Boxes. I think they are just as effective as my early research on rats to learn about the neurochemical underpinnings of addiction. Ie. not very effective. Since I switched to studying humans in games and added additional training in behaviorial economics, I am much happier with the results. Despite all of the interest in this subject at present, I am not really sure I want to have a public discussion over it yet. All of my related papers are proprietary, and the academic domain experts that have assisted me have all insisted on anonymity. There is a lot going on in this area that people are not talking about. I do personally see a lot of relevance in the discussion of Skinner's Boxes in this space, but you have to "think outside the box" to see where this is heading, pardon the pun.

Luis Guimaraes
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Intrinsic pleasure. Intrinsic.

Bart Stewart
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I'm on board with the general conclusion here: there are rewards to anything that people choose to do, so if you're designing something for people to do, you need to understand how rewards work in order to design effectively and ethically.

That said, I think a couple of the criticisms of reward-aware game design are too lightly dismissed here.

On the "Skinner box" criticism, even if players don't know the intention of that experiment, they see perfectly well how close "pull lever, get food" is to "poke NPC and spend time running around, get quest reward pellet." The purpose of this in a game may not be operant conditioning. But the effect, being applied to human beings, is similar enough to make the criticism worth taking seriously.

The larger "it's creepy" reaction to consciously applying psychological concepts in games is likewise not going to be dismissed by noting (correctly, I think) that good ethics requires understanding how you're already doing it. Game designers don't just have an ethical responsibility to use reinforcement effectively; they should be honest with players about what they're doing. Manipulation is one thing -- in a sense, that's what any good storyteller strives to achieve. But covert manipulation is something very different... and until that is addressed by game psychologists in a forthright way, designers will increasingly be charged with deliberately trying to addict gamers.

For one practical reason why that's worth doing, just imagine computer games being regulated by the equivalent of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration as an addictive substance. If warning about that kind of government interference in playing games seems overly dramatic, I refer you to today's news story that virtual item trading is potentially about to be restricted in South Korea. (See
_be_banned_in_South_Korea.php .)

Again, I agree with the overall views here. Designers should understand psychological effects, not pretend they don't exist in any designed system. But they need to use this knowledge to directly address concerns.

John Hopson
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Unfortunately, I'm not sure we can put lists of contingency ingredients on the back of the game boxes. The good news is that games generally have lots of contingencies going on at any one time and subtle "covert" contingencies will generally be washed out by more obvious contingencies.

Ramin Shokrizade
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To make a commercially successful FTP game you need a customer, a carrot, and a gate between them. My problem with AAA companies is that they do not understand the gates. My problem with newcomers like Zynga is that they do not understand the carrot. I realize that merging the two ends of game design is complex, but I think the reason it is not happening faster is more due to clashes in philosophy and ego rather than any particular technical hurdles.

Michael Joseph
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Isn't it a cop out to say every game has rewards in the context of a discussion about games that are consciously designed with behavioral psychological insights or realities in mind? Because you're not really saying anything accurate imo if your position is all games already do this stuff and this will simply allow you to do it better. To me that is 1 + 1 = 3. Because in my view, this is not about formalizing terminology for existing things. They are seperate things. The very nature of design changes once you start consciously following behavioral psychological prescripts in a game's design. 1 + 1 = 3.

Fine. Then let's hear examples of the types of reward mechanisms or "contingencies" that are ok. Everyone always seem to stop short there in these types of articles. As did you... And let's talk about the process of designing a game with behavioral psychology on the brain. I think that could be quite telling. Let's name some games that have fully embraced and incorporated this design methodology? SWTOR? What will that tell us? Articles on this topic always seem to avoid meat and potatoes discussion and stay in hypothetical & theory land.

RE: "In my personal view, contingencies in games are ethical if the designer believes the player will have more fun by fulfilling the contingency than they would otherwise. You have to believe in the fundamental entertainment value of the experience before you can ethically reward players for engaging in that experience."


"Both the actions and rewards must be genuinely fun things for a game contingency to be ethical."

I have no idea what any of that means.

p.s. Would a rational person truely want to play a game that was consciously designed this way? If you think about the implications of such a game, it should be quite horrifying. I don't think these games care much for rational behaving folks.

JB Vorderkunz
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This is a great article, but i'm struggling with one point: the illustrious OP (and that isn't sarcasm BTW), says on the first page that at the time he wrote the original germinal article, reward structure in games was not well known or understood. WTF?!? Given his background, it's shocking that he's either dismissive or ignorant of several early works on the subject, particularly "Mind at Play: the Psychology of Video Games" (1983) by Loftus and Loftus, two PSYCHOLOGISTS! They explicitly discuss reward structures and schedules in detail, making analogies to Casino gaming etc. Plus they discuss the intentional inclusion of reward scheduling into games by designers, IN 1983!

Was that knowledge somehow lost? Intentionally discarded? Whaa happen'?

John Hopson
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I'd be the first to admit that the original Behavioral Game Design article covered very well understood psychology principles. It was primarily a popularization, bring these ideas to a wider audience. I certainly don't claim to be the first to notice the connection between behaviorism and game design.

Perhaps "controversial" would have been a better word choice than "radical". It's still pretty controversial, but more in a "should we do this" than "can we do this" sense.

JB Vorderkunz
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Hey John thanks for the response!!!

I'm sorry if I came across as aggressive in tone - reading your response and then re-reading the first few paragraphs it hit me like a ton of bricks that of course things get simplified/condensed for the 'layman' (even if in this case the 'laymen' are highly trained and intelligent folk). I wasn't trying to accuse you of intellectual dishonesty or research impropriety!

So if I get it now: lots of game designers were either utilizing or choosing to ignore these principles for aesthetic/philosophical reasons, and you were pointing out that the behavioral phenomena are operating in every game regardless of designer intent, in effect stumping for designer awareness of their own activities? Right On!

Michael Joseph
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RE: "and you were pointing out that the behavioral phenomena are operating in every game regardless of designer intent"

By "the behavioral phenomena" I assume you mean the reward structures Mr Hopson refers to as "contingencies."

I think it's incorrect to promote a model as if it were the real thing. People invariably begin to think the model is reality regardless of how incomplete, flawed, and narrow the range of applicability the model has. If you don't recognize it as a model, then you'll be unaware of it's limitations. Likewise, if you're not aware of the model, then you logically cannot be a prisoner to it unintentionally.

Wouldn't be the first time that love for a limited model of human behavior has resulted in unfortunate events.

[User Banned]
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Bruce Mills
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These behavioral contingences that many games rely on today are their own worst enemy. The reliance on them is counterproductive to the longevity of any game product that uses them. The reason why critics question them is because their overall impact is seen as artificially lengthening the game.

Part of the main problem of this is due to games focusing on the player and not the arena the gameplay occurs in. This constant reward structure that's centered around the player has to inevitably cause the player to burn out eventually. Developers seem to fall into the trap of thinking there can be an eternal return on their initial development and nothing can be further from the truth. This becomes apparent when behavioral contingencies are used to artificially lengthen the life of the game.

Developers can only add so many rewards, so many areas, and increase the power of the player so far before the player begins to question the futility of it all. The player will not keep recycling the content of the game for a +1 to level, 100 gold, or a randomly generated purple item drop. At some point they say: "Enough!" and may experience anger at the game leading them to nothing.

There needs to be a shift from using these contingencies, charging for them, because they're making gameplay that burns out players instead of games that are truly memorable. This burnout not only affects the game, but sometimes the whole genre. A few developers may tap the cash cow, but they leave a barren wasteland in their wake for other developers to work in.

This will require a design that concerns itself on making the world/arena something the player has no problem going through from the beginning. An arena that is dynamic enough that the player feels as though it is familiar but definitely not at all like the last run through they did. Many games with sandbox elements are slowly realizing this, but the focus in making the player do a virtual skinner box of constant reward and achievement is taking the forefront and stifling further development.

Many of the games we play as children, games that have been played for hundreds of years have longevity for one main reason: they end. They move towards a real conclusion. These games do not further compound matters by recycling content incessantly, because in the end they would be writing a check their gameplay can't cash.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jeremie Sinic
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" At some point they say: "Enough!" and may experience anger at the game leading them to nothing. "

I would say much like Wylie Garvin further below, that Diablo 2 has never led me to anything (and I don't expect Diablo 3 will actually make me enough bucks for the time spent, for the matter), and yet I've always had great fun playing it.
In spite of leveling up several characters past lvl 50, I always had a good feeling when leveling up. Then the hunt for the ultimate items adds even more thrill to the whole experience.

Nobody should expect a game to lead themselves to "something" imo. As long as a game truly entertains its audience it should be fine. Then adding rewards just makes to whole more fun.

In fact, if the game let me explore any area of the game from the beginning, and gave me the possibility to start at level 100, I would probably not bother with the Diablo series at all, since the whole fun is in the journey, not the destination.

Wylie Garvin
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"In my personal view, contingencies in games are ethical if the designer believes the player will have more fun by fulfilling the contingency than they would otherwise. You have to believe in the fundamental entertainment value of the experience before you can ethically reward players for engaging in that experience."

This is a great point. I would offer the example of Diablo 2. It has random loot drops with variable reward ratios, and it would be easy to accuse Blizzard of "Skinner box" design, if not for the fact that the game is great fun to actually play. I have played well over 1000 hours of single-player Diablo 2 over the past 10 years (its one of my top five most-played games), and yet I still enjoy starting a new character and playing it through from beginning to end, and the reward of rare random loot drops does add some extra spice to the experience.

Klaude Thomas
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I felt that this was an interesting point and much in the right direction, but unfortunately one that potentially produces a facile conclusion. Omit the word 'entertainment' and consider more nuanced alternatives for 'fun'.

For example
"contingencies in games are ethical if the designer believes the player will have more satisfaction by fulfilling the contingency than they would otherwise. You have to believe in the fundamental value of the experience before you can ethically reward players for engaging in that experience."

To my mind produces something that actually speaks to ethicality, but starts to read as tautological: making me question the fundamental argument. For contrast, substitute 'profitability' for 'fundamental value of the experience'. Patently false?

Travis Ross
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John, have you done much with cognitive heuristics? Not the HCI kind, but the simple rules of thumb that us humans use to make fast/frugal decisions? That line of research mixes well with the experimental economics literature - it moves a rational model of decision making over to a model where individuals deliberate on the information they have available, but where they also make decisions based on an "adaptive toolbox" of Heuristics. There is some interesting stuff coming out of marketing/decision science research that examines online shopping/dating websites, etc. I think it is interesting because there is a lot of potential application to games - the thesis being that we should be thinking about cognitive heuristics when designing information spaces depending on if we want to force the player to deliberate or allow them to quickly move to parts of the game they might find more fun. Thanks for the article!

Luciano Lombardi
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Great revisit on the previous (and not aged at all) article.

I would highlight the concept of these tools (behaviorism, cognitive psychology, heuristics, decision theory, cognitive bias, behavioral economics) being useful additions to make a better game instead of being the core of the game experience.
A game should not be designed using these tools as a center and working your way out; they should be used as other elements in the designer toolbox to increase the overall enjoyment of his game.

It seems like the 'glory times' of games who solely based on these techniques (without further consideration of an actual gameplay system) is coming to a slow end, or at least their expansion and sucess is not being as daunting as before. As the OP states, there is a strong competition with games who also have these tools applied, but they are also fun to play.

However, I believe there is a diffuse line between seizing psychological knowledge to add value to a game and using it to exploit your users for monetization or re-engagemnet purposes.
Having said that, I hope that the deceleration of instant success in games with applied psychology will end up forcing developers to rethink their strategies: hopefully reaching to the conclusion that to succed they need to make a good game first, and then using psychology to augment your game, to add value to it, to make it more enjoyable which would ultimately benefit both players and developers at the same time.

(Deviating a little from the main point) Maybe I am a little naif about it, but I strongly believe that these tools are not inherently 'evil': they can be used for deeply enrichening experiences in the right hands. Its the same old debate about 'gamification': seeing it applied in spaces like Khan Academy help to see the potential good in all of this.

Klaude Thomas
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'A game should not be designed using these tools as a center and working your way out; they should be used as other elements in the designer toolbox to increase the overall enjoyment of his game.'

An issue with that line of argument is that, if true, all gamificators (gamifiers, gamificationers?) are charlatans. I'm fairly sure the OP doesn't intend to say that, but the arguments presented contain contradictions. If 'fun' is required to justify the contingencies, then isn't it fallacious to even think about using the contingencies for rl purposes that are not fun? Resolving the paradox probably relies on having a more nuanced understanding of what games are for than simply 'entertainment' or 'fun'.

Tonio Barmadosa
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Problem is how do you define "fun"? Fun may be equivalent to a chemical in the brain, like serotonin or dopamine. What if addiction is nothing more than just an overdose of fun? Having so much fun that everything else is totally boring and craving stimulation in the absence of fun. These video game design techniques essentially stimulate the reward centers of the brain deliberately. They affect the motivational circuits by dopamine release. It's like controlled natural selection in animals. Nature has a mechanism for life to evolve, but humans have decided to take control of things as fundamental as genetics. It is possible to influence such things. In nature, people may have gained some moderate amount dopamine release from every day successes and having fun with each other. This made them feel good. In video games, the environment is fully controlled and stimulation is precisely targeted and scheduled, thus the reward effects in the brain may be multiplied by 1000 times that of previous normal levels of increases.

If too much fun overdose creates addiction then maybe the ethical design choice is to make games LESS fun, less rewarding. Maybe games shouldn't be that good because then they create addiction in some humans. Maybe moderation shouldn't only be applied by the player, but also by the designer!

Game companies only care about the profits so I have no illusions about designers regulating themselves. The only solution to this problem is more research and government intervention, which is already happening in the Far East by the way. The gaming industry lobby is strong but it is the duty of governments to protect the health of their citizens. The unregulated honeymoon period of the industry may be soon over as public awareness increases.