Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 31, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Modifying player behavior in League of Legends using positive reinforcement Exclusive
Modifying player behavior in  League of Legends  using positive reinforcement
January 23, 2013 | By Jamie Madigan

January 23, 2013 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

What does a game developer do when its players have a bit of a reputation for being insufferable jerks? It hires a team of psychologists to tackle complex behavior modification problems with one of the oldest tricks in the book.

One of the blind spots in my gaming experience is the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, which consists of competitive multiplayer games like DOTA, Heroes of Newerth, and League of Legends. Part of the reason I've never jumped in to any of these massively popular games is the one-two combination of a daunting learning curve and their reputation as homes to hyper competitive and none-too-pleasant player communities. I don't like the idea of doing the wrong thing and getting yelled at until I cry. It's why I don't go to elementary school anymore.

This hasn't escaped the attention of developers, of course, and I recently learned about efforts by Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, aimed at improving player behavior. Riot actually has a "Player Behavior Team" consisting of psychologists, human factors specialists, statisticians, and similarly educated folks who stand around in lab coats and experiment with ways to make League of Legends players act with greater sportsmanship.

It's a hugely complex problem, but Riot seems to be using a simple behavior modification trick straight out of Psych 101 to tackle it: operant conditioning through positive reinforcement of desirable behavior.

To wit, the company recently launched a new Honor system to reward good behavior. After each match, players can give teammates and opponents accolades across categories like "Helpful," "Friendly," or "Honorable Opponent." Points from these accumulate and are made visible in each player's profile. Players are limited in how many Honor awards they can dole out, so getting one means something and Riot is experimenting with in-game rewards like special badges and player character skins for players who amass lots of Honor.

league of legends 1.jpg"The Honor feature was inspired by research on feedback loops and the psychology of learning," Jeffrey Lin, Lead Designer of Social Systems at Riot, told me when I asked him about the psychological roots of the system. "One pillar of this research suggests that speed and clarity of feedback are catalysts that can really shape behaviors."

Indeed, learning (which in psychology is often synonymous with "lasting behavior change") via reinforcement or punishment dates back to research in the early 20th century by pioneers like Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner. In brief, they found that animals could be trained most effectively by pairing rewards or punishments with desired or undesired behaviors. Give a rat a pile of cocaine each time he presses a lever and it will jam on that thing like a maniac. But give the rat a pile of cats and it will stop pressing the lever. Or something like that.

Research on this kind of learning developed and expanded, including its use in modifying human behavior and understanding the best ways to schedule and present the rewards and punishments. It turns out that positive reinforcement (adding something the subject likes, like Honor points) is super effective, but even more effective when presented unambiguously, meaningfully, and quickly after the desired behavior.

These lessons about specificity and timeliness of feedback for League of Legends players were taken to heart by the folks at Riot. "Knowing that speed and clarity are key," notes Lin, "we opted to give players an extremely visible pop-up that clearly outlined the specific types of positive behaviors the player had engaged in immediately after each game. Instead of just showing that a player earned 4 Honor points we show the player the exact types of behaviors that they were Honored for."

So timeliness and specificity are important to creating associations between behaviors and rewards, but there's one other facet of the Honor system that I think makes it work: its feedback schedule --that is, how often you pair the reward with the desired behavior. For example, if you make the pairing every tenth time and that's called a fixed ratio schedule. Do the pairing every ten minutes and that's basically a fixed interval schedule.

But Honor in League of Legends isn't given out according to either of those schedules. Rather, like a slot machine it's essentially random since even if you behave yourself in a match you never know for sure if another player will give you Honor or not. But you learn that over time, if you exhibit good sportsmanship consistently, you'll get Honor a lot more often. Turns out that random or variable ratio reinforcement schedules are among the most effective way to change behavior in the long term. (For more on why this is, see my article on neurotransmitters and random loot drops in World of Warcraft.)

This all begs the question, though: are rewards like Honor more effective than punishments like shame or even banning? At first blush it seems that the consensus is that rewards are far more effective than punishments. That's the attitude shared by many child rearing guides, dog trainers, and management gurus, anyway. But in the literature review I did while writing this article, it became clear that there is actually still considerable debate about the topic, and a lot of it depends on the type of people you're trying to change. A 2011 meta analysis (a kind of superstudy that combines data from many individual studies) by Daniel Balliet, Laetitia Mulder, and Paul Van Lange, for example, found that positive reinforcement and punishment are about equally effective for getting people to cooperate with others in social dilemma type games. Humans and human interactions are complex, it turns out, so there's little room to be definitive on the topic.

lol 2.jpgWhat is clear, though, is that a combination of rewards and punishments can be pretty darn effective, so it's nice to see companies like Riot using the stick, the carrot, and whatever else it can get ahold of. Plus, it changes the scorecard to make clear that winning a match isn't everything that matters. Having a good experience is why we play games. As Jeffrey Lin at Riot explained it:

Consider a player that just had a poor game--everyone (including him!) knew that he was the worst player on the team. He's feeling a bit down and is considering whether to play another match at all after such a terrible performance. Suddenly, he gets a pop-up after he leaves the game that says, "Hey, 2 of your teammates thought you were really friendly and 1 of your teammates thought you were a great teammate."

That moment changes everything. Yes, you were the worst and your team lost, but it's OK. Without the system, this player might have just logged off with a bitter taste in his mouth. Now, we've nudged the negative experience into more positive territory.

Multiplayer games are social interactions. Shouldn't our behavior in them should carry the same costs and rewards as it would anywhere else?

[Jamie Madigan examines the overlap of psychology and video games at and writes the column Mind Games for Follow him on Twitter. ]


Balliet, D., Mulder, L., & Van Lange, P. (2011). Reward, Punishment, and Cooperation: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 594-615.

Related Jobs

The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer
Grover Gaming
Grover Gaming — Greenville, North Carolina, United States

3D Generalist / Artist


David OConnor
profile image
Good article and very interesting topic, with gaming and real-world applications... thank you for sharing!

Freek Hoekstra
profile image
as I replied to this similar article few months ago:

agreed, I was waiting for this article ever I first saw the Honor Initiative.

as we have been doing in gameplay for ages now, reward and penalty must both be used to control and shape our customer base, and as usual rewarding good behaviour often works better then penalizing alone, and both in conjucntion work extremely well.

I have noticed a steep drop in the amount of flaming in League of Legends and hope this drop will persist. props to Riot for taking a very sour community and taking off a lot of the edge with such elegant measures.

Sara Casen
profile image
Great article, good job!

I would love to see a post by Riot explaining the results of their Honor-system. When I started playing LoL things were more hostile and unforgiving than today. Now it's almost rare to be tautened and yelled at, even if you try out a new hero and play a bad match.

Axel Cholewa
profile image
Very interesting article!

The whole punishment-reward discussion depends on what you want to achieve. Learning in school, for example, is actually affected by neither. Neutral feedback is much more important than positive or negative feedback (google John Hattie, he's done a big huge study on this topic).

The random or variable feedback also has the advantage that kids don't get used to rewards for good behaviour. If kids are rewarded for each good thing they do, e. g. picking up a eky an old lady let fall to the ground, they grow up to pretty selfish adults who do things only for a reward.

Robert Swift
profile image
I am missing the aspect of other positive consequences the system should have for the honorable player. If you just get a popup and a honor badge and nothing else changes, then it will probably become meaningless pretty quick. And people will stop caring. But if for example it will be easier for you to find good team partners or if you are treated better in game you will actually care. Otherwise it's too easy for the player to think "yeah yeah, I know, u want me to behave nicely, but I don't give a sh**".

Bruce Wilkie
profile image
IMO this has already happened. I got an honor badge fairly quickly, based on my in-game behavior. But after awhile, it went away (natural decay) because most ppl now view honor as just another button to click, and don't do it. If you regularly play with friends, you can keep your honor badge due to honor trading, but that kind of cheapens the badge to me. I wish Riot had done more to entice players to give honor when honor was earned.

Kevin Alexander
profile image
Yes but getting trolled hard is pretty meaningless as well, but for whatever reason the negativity associated with this experience has proven to be problematic for the reputation of the game as whole.

Humans can be so funny.

Amanda Beverley
profile image
If you've ever been to reddit, then it's pretty clear that most users will go to great lengths for the positive reinforcement of points which are absolutely useless and give the participant nothing of value aside from a warm fuzzy feeling and sensation of acceptance/peer approval. Karma points can't be used to purchase anything. Your historical total doesn't appear next to your name as a ranking system. They're completely useless yet still greatly desired, because every point means another human being saw what you did and approved of it.

Maria Jayne
profile image
Probably a good thing for LoL, although it irks me players need rewarding for not being Jerks. I understand there are people that benefit from such incentive but it seems more like an excuse to be a Jerk somewhere else than a lesson in why you should never be a Jerk.

I guess I prefer incentives that punish poor behavior than rewards for avoiding such behavior. This is because I'm thinking more about alternative or future games and the incessant need for developers to copy each other at throwing rewards out such as achievements for everything purely to pat people on the back.

Maybe being rewarded for being decent human beings is the answer, maybe it becomes a crutch and excuse when people don't need to.

Michael Mullins
profile image
I don't think that Honor is culturally considered its own reward any longer. Compared to "getting what's rightfully mine", "making sure I get respected (feared)", not too high on the priority list. So, sadly, it needs to be explicitly taught.

David Paris
profile image
Interestingly, the prior system ( report / Tribunal ) actually led to a very negative environment. Because you could be reported ( and potentially punished ) by anyone, the end of most games became a big spam-filled hatefest as people busily lobbied to make sure there was always a chosen 'report target' to receive the reports on any loss. The net result, in my opinion, was an environment significantly more negative than the one before it.
rnHonor was a nice concept, but quickly proved to be worth very little. It is still a step in the right direction ( encouraging positive behavior by default, incentivizing people a bit to not just be hatemongers every game ), but the fact that it was quickly shown to lead to nothing, and awarded for the wrong reasons, made it quickly irrelevent.
rnHere's an easy example. Let's say I play the game in the 'jungle' role where I will interact with every lane early on. I could chose to play the same game extremely selflessly, making sure my teammates get the kills, sacrifice myself to save them when appropriate, and work to make sure they are strong and winning. My endgame stats will be mediocre ( few kills, some deaths, many assists).
rnAlternately, I can play the same game as 'jungle' in an extremely selfish role, taking every kill for myself, and only going places where I can easily crush already beaten enemies. I won't necessarily be quite as likely to win, but when I do win my endgame stats will look great ( many kills, few deaths, few assists ).
rnThe second game is vastly more likely to net me Honor points than the first.

Wylie Garvin
profile image
Sacrificing to help your team is the kind of behaviour that wins games, but teammates won't always recognize it or reward you for it.

Kevin Bender
profile image
I haven't been around this game long, but there are still plenty of toxic players to be found... I generally only enjoy this game if i can play with a friend... otherwise it can quickly turn it to 2 or 3 ppl all blaming and raging at one person the entire game after they make a single mistake. At least with a friend you have someone to defend you/ laugh with you at how immature your teammates are. Some people have no idea how to loose gracefully.

Wylie Garvin
profile image
Apparently, in StarCraft 2, a losing player routinely types "gg" (good game) as a way to acknowledge defeat (and show respect for their opponent's skill) at the end of the game. In many other multiplayer games it is good etiquette is to say "gg" after a game, but StarCraft is the only one I've noticed with the convention where it actually means "I surrender, you win". I would like to know how that started: was it a deliberate social engineering effort by Blizzard, or just a tradition that evolved on its own among the players?

In pro StarCraft tournaments this behaviour is reinforced because they automatically recognize the string "gg" as conceding defeat, so the pro players always type this when they lose a game. Those tournaments are watched by many StarCraft players, sometimes tens of thousands of them, so maybe that's how it became the established etiquette.

Kevin Bender
profile image
Well in LoL "gg" has taken on a whole new meaning of sarcasm... People on your own team says "gg" if you happened to die first... This means essentially "We might as well give up because you just lost the game for us."

"way to go you, F***in noob... gg"

In pro LoL tournaments they flick the other team off after they loose (a little bit of exaggeration but this did actually happen)... And LoL just had to ban a bunch of its Pro players because they were some of the most toxic players in the game.

Yeah LoL still has a long way to go before its community becomes something plesant

Wylie Garvin
profile image
I just read somewhere that when you play StarCraft 2 against computer opponent(s), when you've convincingly won the game the computer AI will surrender to you and it says "gg" when it does so.

Jeff Alexander
profile image
So things have flip-flopped back? I'm still used to it from Unreal Tournament days (and a bit of early Bang! Howdy), where "gg" was almost exclusively said by the high scorers of the round, and I could never tell if it was honest or patronizing and elitist.

Maria Jayne
profile image
"GG" or Good Game carries with it various connotations based on who is using it and why.

Typically it signifies "games over" now this can be seen as a sign of respect that they were beaten by a better player or a sign of contempt that the better player was destined to win due to their choices/style of play.

I typically use it to signify I felt the competition was fun but fair and that It could have gone either way. I reserve it for particular matches rather than say it all the time, because I feel saying it when you mean it is more respectful than saying it because it's polite.

Hannes Wallstedt
profile image
I always figured that the use of 'gg' arose to avoid the long clean up process the winner usually had to perform in order to complete the win conditions of the game (Destroy all units and buildings). Since RTS games quite often are "slippery slopes" it can become obvious quite early on in a match who will be the eventual winner while it may still take some time before he or she actually triggers the win state.

These situations are usually not much fun for either player and it then makes sense for this kind of routine or tradition to arise as it saves both players time.

Brandon Davis
profile image
Excellent article. Reinforcement schedules can add a lot to game design!

Kasan Wright
profile image
Call of Duty multiplayer could sure benefit from something like this.

Mario N
profile image
Sadly, the best strategy in COD is to simply mute everybody you don't know. I hate to think what an alien race would think if their first contact with the human race was a COD match.

Leonard Herndon
profile image
Although I really like where LoL is going with their positive reinforcement, I think they are looking for solutions in the wrong place. It's never fun being bashed for not playing being the best in every match. But I think most of the negative vibes come from player frustration. With a highly competitive community and volatile gameplay model it's easy to think people are being jerks just for the heck of it. If their infrastructure was designed a better to support healthy gameplay, I think it could alleviate some of the negativity.

From the moment a player presses the play button they are committed to 20-30 minutes of gaming.

Here is a light summary of a potential LoL game:


You have the champion select screen. This is where you first meet your teammates. Knowing that it's an online game, you could be paired with anyone from the 12 y/o sociopath (as it seems most gamer kids present themselves nowadays) or the first time newbie. In either case, you now know that it is likely that the next 20-30 minutes of your time will yield an unpleasant result. If you leave the game during the champion select, you are penalized by being banned from joining another game for 30 minutes.

Say you make it through the champion select stage and get to the actual game with no personality or communication issues. At this stage their is a chance (i'd say anywhere from 5-10%) that someone of the 10 players will have a computer problem and have to drop out of the game. If that member is on your team, good luck trying to win. No replacement player can be found. No AI bot to take their place. You are just left to play 4v5. Imagine trying to play a basketball or football game when the other team has more players than you. Your team can surrender... but only after 20 minutes has passed.

I'm not going to even mention the experience if you encounter a troll on your team.

But you now have a choice. Walk away from the game...further dooming the rest of your team, or suffer as you watch the other team wittle your defenses and finally defeating you.

If you leave the game... you can't join another one (rightfully so) and most likely will be reported by your teammates.

If you decide to stay, are you going to be happy about it? Maybe the first game is not so bad, but by the 4th or 5th game your frustration really starts to build.


I think if Riot gave the players the ability to reduce frustration it could also have a positive impact on player behavior. I'll give 2 proposed solutions as I don't want to seem like complainer.

1. A Disband team vote in the champion select screen. You can add a 5 minute rejoin penalty to the whole team as it should only be used seriously.

2. If the teams are not even (somebody disconnected or quit) then you should be able to surrender early. But make the surrender vote approved by the other team as well. If the other team are not composed of trolls they will allow the early surrender and you can be on your way.

Craig Jensen
profile image
Good suggestions. Something like this is more necessary.

Basically, it is the core game mechanics that encourage people to be pricks. You need to change the core game mechanics if you seriously expect people to stop being pricks. Anything else is just window-dressing.

James Yee
profile image
You know it's nice that they're doing this but it's still a genre I can't/won't play.

Unlike FPS/MMOs I can't just walk away from a MOBA when my son or daughter is crying. It's 30mins-1hr of CONSTANT gameplay with no breaks. I'm not that kind of gamer anymore.

Because of that I can see why folks get very aggressive and pissy since one newb can ruin 30+ Mins of work. Which is yet another reason for me not to go there. Not the most newb friendly of game styles but hey to each their own. *Shrugs*

Now lets see if any other games and game types (like MMOs maybe?) will offer an honor system?

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

Bart Stewart
profile image
The concepts being implemented sound pretty close to the recommendations from Robert Axelrod's "iterated Prisoner's Dilemma" research.

Axelrod observed that islands of cooperation can emerge in a stormy sea of advantage-taking as long as enough players independently follow some basic rules:

1. Be nice. Begin interactions by cooperating.
2. Be provocable. If someone takes advantage of you, respond in kind to them next time.
3. Be forgiving. Once you've responded to a provocation, be prepared to go back to cooperating if they do the same.
4. Be measured. The punishment should fit the crime, and not be a massive retaliation.
5. Be clear. Positive and negative reactions should be immediate and unambiguous.

To those, I would add a couple:

6. Be recognizable. Anonymity promotes advantage-taking.
7. Be concrete. Rewards and punishments must have tangible effects within the gameworld.

Not only do these rules elicit cooperative behavior when players follow them with each other, cooperation is also encouraged when developers follow these rules with players.

It seems like the social interaction designers for LoL are following some but not all of these principles. It would be interesting to see what would come from emphasizing more of them.

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

Christian Henderson
profile image
Excellent read. I just started getting into LoL recently but I can see where a lot of seasoned veterans of the game would get very frustrated with other players, especially on their own team. In short, I think that the 5v5 (or fewer) model is inherently prone to negative player behavior because every single player and their actions matter significantly when the teams are so small. If even one player is missing or not playing as well as the others, the entire team will feel and notice it. Looking at something like TF2, which is known pretty well for having a positive player community, the teams are usually anywhere between 8 and 12 players each (or even 16 on some servers) which makes each player's failures carry less of an impact.

When there are only a few players to choose from to blame for a defeat, players with the lowest stats will instantly stand out.

Craig Page
profile image
I only started playing a month ago, but honor points seem unnecessary and meaningless. Especially if you compare the League of Legends players to Starcraft and Xbox Live players.

Christian Henderson
profile image
Could you elaborate?

Philipp Rogmann
profile image
It's too bad that this system does not work like it was planned. The example with the worst player on the game was never implemented, it's simply a little "Congratz, you got honored" box, not a pop-up that would really improve player behavior. LoL players remain the most toxic and bad-mouthed players in the gaming world, the team has pretty much failed until now. IF - and only IF - they implemented it like it was suggested in the article, it would've been a great thing.