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A psychologist's thoughts on how and why we play games

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Not Just Solid Food, But Real Food

Things have been quiet around here because I've been striving to get published elsewhere!  Today I have an article on Medium Difficulty: Not Just Solid Food, But Real Food. Please read it!

Last week, John Walker over at RPS wrote an editorial asking that games grow up and try taking on more serious themes.

For goodness sake, even Jennifer Aniston movies have more to say about love than all of gaming put together, and what Jennifer Aniston movies have to say about love is, “Durrrrrrrr.” Where is our commentary? Where is our criticism? Where is our subversion? Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!

 I found Walker's argument to be fundamentally flawed, suggesting that games are serious or worthwhile if and only if they have serious themes.  This is wrong for several reasons:  First, we already have lots of games that pretend to be about serious things but are utterly boneheaded.  Next, there are plenty of games, some of them thousands of years old, which are taken seriously and respected by all despite their lack of theme - consider Chess or Football.  Finally, since games are meant to be won, serious concepts like love or death will be reduced to things to be won or lost.

Theme doesn't make a smart game.  Smart gameplay makes smart games.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why do we play games? Pt 2: Self-Determination Theory

This is the second of the multi-part series reviewing psychological theories of why we enjoy playing games.  By understanding why we play games, we can make better games that fit those motives.  In the first part, we looked at flow theory and, because I'd had an extra cup of coffee that day, a case study of Tetris as an exemplar.


Everyone who's ever written a book about video game design is at least passingly familiar with Flow Theory.  However, there is another predominant theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1978, give or take a few years), which is gaining some popularity in game studies. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) proposes that all people have three basic psychological needs. The first is autonomy, the feeling of being in control of one's own actions, as opposed to being controlled or commanded by someone else. Next is competence, the feeling of having ability, growing in skill, and being able to meet challenges. The last is relatedness, the feeling of caring for and being cared for by others. Self-Determination Theory posits that people will find an activity intrinsically motivating (that is, they will do it of their own volition) insofar as it meets these three psychological needs.

Dr. Andrew Przybylski, motivation psychology researcher
A psychologist named Andrew Przybylski has done some promising early research looking to whether games satisfy these psychological needs.  In one study, Przybylski had participants either play a critically well-reviewed game (Ocarina of Time) or a critical flop (A Bug's Life 64).  Players who played the better videogame not only reported enjoying it more, but they also reported greater feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  In another study, participants played three different videogames, all equally well-reviewed.  Participants turned out to like these games more or less depending on the extent to which they felt that these games met their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

We can conclude that, to at least some degree, people are playing games to satisfy their psychological needs.  This research raises three questions.  The first is a psychology question:  do people play games for reasons other than to satisfy needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness?  The second is a design question:  How can we make games which best satisfy people's psychological needs?  The third is a personality psychology question:  what is it about a particular person that determines whether a certain game meets or fails to meet their needs?

Autonomy
Personally, I find one of these to be much more autonomy-supportive than the other.

The combination of the last two questions reflect my greatest curiosity and greatest criticisms about today's videogames.  To me, games today seem increasingly linear and simple.  As best I can understand, linear or heavily proscriptive games should stifle player's experience of autonomy.  Consider the notorious criticism of Modern Warfare 3's single-player as an "un-game."  I think that the core of this criticism is that the player feels that MW3 fails to be autonomy-supportive.  When the player wants to do something, s/he isn't allowed to: instead, the player gets pushed out of the way so that s/he doesn't end up interfering with the next scripted event. The player is not free to explore or make decisions for himself - instead, you spend a fair portion of the game behind a "follow" prompt so that you move through the cinematic setpieces in the way the developer wants you to.  Remembering the infamous "No Russian" mission from MW2, the player is forced to participate in a massacre, and the game ends abruptly if the player attempts to do anything but follow orders.  At times, one isn't so much a "player" of Modern Warfare's single-player campaign as one is a member of its audience.

Similarly, while I enjoyed Mass Effect 2 for its competent (although simple) cover-shooter combat, vivid alien species, and pleasant fashions by UnderArmour, I never really felt drawn into the general hoopla about the story.  I enjoyed the game well enough, but I never felt like I was really making my own story.  None of the choices I made really amounted to anything.  No matter what happened, I was destined to always go to the same places, shoot the same guys, and at the end, I'd have an opportunity to say something nice or say something mean.  The non-player characters would react more or less appropriately to what I said, but nothing carried forward into the future, except for which of my co-workers I was plotting to doink.  Sometimes I would make an important-sounding decision - do I brainwash an entire species or let them have their liberty? But the consequences were put off until the sequel, where I doubt they were ever addressed meaningfully.  Either way, I didn't feel like I was particularly autonomous or effective within the story - however, it was exactly this illusion of control that seemed to appeal to millions.  
It felt like the only really important decision I made was whom to romance (Miranda, duh).

On the whole, however, people seem to be pretty fond of Modern Warfare's single-player and other heavily-scripted games like it.  Mass Effect, for its part, is one of the most popular new series around.  What is different between me and the die-hard fans?  Maybe I'm just a cranky old coot who has played too many games and knows too well when I'm being railroaded.  If this is the case, we might expect that the more different games a person plays, or the more time they spend thinking about games like some crusty old nerd, the more "game-literate" they are. Highly "game-literate" players might be less convinced by the illusion of autonomy (or in MW single-player's case, the outright denial of autonomy) and receive poorer need satisfaction.  Alternatively, maybe having played certain exemplars which provided exceptional autonomy (maybe something like Fallout or X-COM or Dungeon Crawl) raises one's expectations & turns somebody into a bit of a snob.  This idea isn't too far out either - I remember seeing a similar idea advanced in a recent psychology symposium on nostalgia and experience, in which the lecturer presented data which suggested that people tend to pooh-pooh experiences in comparison to their best previous experience (ie, after having dined on authentic fresh sushi in Tokyo, the stuff at the local supermarket doesn't cut it anymore).  Finally, it's also possible that we enjoy on-rails "experiences" like Modern Warfare for reasons not covered by Self-Determination Theory.  Maybe it's simply exciting or spectacular, literally being a spectacle, and we find that to be fun or motivating.


Competence
I also feel like most big-budget single-player games are not very good about providing opportunities for the player to exercise competence.  When gameplay mechanics are simple, or challenges too easy, there's no thrill in victory.  The player cannot feel triumphant or skilled for winning, because victory was given to him/her on a plate.  Many games also do not seem to have much meat to their mechanics and dynamics.  Rather than being "easy to learn, difficult to master," these games are "easy to learn, easy to master."  By the end of the first stage or two, the player already knows everything necessary to skate to the end of the game.  It's just a matter of time to slog towards the end, usually more to see the conclusion of the story than to test yourself as a player.


This is why I often feel frustrated at the recent emphasis on stories in videogames.  Developers seem to give much more thought and publicity to the paper-thin layer of theme on top of their game, rather than the mechanics and challenge of the game itself.  It seems that every week there's a new video or interview with Ken Levine talking about Bioshock Infinite's characters or political themes or graphical design.  By comparison, we know very little about the mechanics of the gameplay, other than that there will be roller-coaster "Skylines" (a dubious-looking mechanism, given that the player seems to be a sitting duck on these rails).  Blockbuster after blockbuster, it's the same old run-and-gun, just with a new story sprinkled on top.

However, I'm probably in the minority here.  It's possible that stories might be able to provide feelings of competence for some, as players could be experiencing competence vicariously as they role-play a strong character like Bioshock Infinite's Booker DeWitt or Mass Effect's Shepard.  Challenge might not be necessary either.  Many players seem to get feelings of competence just from shooting something or watching those RPG numbers go up, regardless of challenge. Competence is theoretically driven by "setting goals and meeting them," but it's possible that those goals don't have to be particularly challenging to be rewarding.  Maybe it's that challenge makes for bigger variations in feelings of competence, experiencing higher highs and lower lows as we struggle between triumph and frustration.  If this is the case, maybe easy games are blandly comfortable, like a sitcom in its twelfth season, something marginally interesting and relaxing but unlikely to provide a peak experience.  This will appeal to many, but the experienced and daring will want something more challenging.

Yeah, yeah, you're a big man behind that turret, aren't you?

I've done a lot of thinking about what might cause some people to experience feelings of competence while others might not.  The most obvious predictor should be player skill.  When skill is matched perfectly to difficulty, competence is experienced.  When skill is too low for the difficulty, frustration ensues, or when skill is too high relative to the difficulty, the player becomes bored.  It's also possible that feelings of immersion or of actually being the game's hero might cause players to feel more competent - sort of an effect of power fantasy, as we make-believe that we are the powerful hero.  I also think that some people are more or less afraid of losing.  One day, I'd like to do a study to see if there are reliable personality differences in whether people feel like losing is fun or not.  As a fan of competitive games, sports, and roguelikes, I'm very comfortable with losing as often, if not moreso, than I win.  Every defeat teaches us a little something about how we can improve as players.  However, I've seen enough tantrums from players and read enough developer postmortems about frustrated playtesters to know that not everyone is like me.

Relatedness
If there's one thing that games are doing well, it's the capacity for relatedness.  Online games are more robust and popular than ever.  Never has it been easier to play in pairs and in larger groups, both with and against each other.  Developers should keep in mind that it should be easy for players to find and play with their particular friends, however - it's frustrating when you can only play with strangers, or when a game with online multiplayer also fails to allow for local multiplayer. The proliferation of internet discussion forums also seems important - games are more fun when you and your friends can talk about them together!  Relatedness motives might be part of why we seem to have no self-control about buying games.  We need to buy the game a week before it comes out so that we can play it the second it's released for fear that we miss out on discussion or find that the multiplayer community has moved on.
Are people still afraid that Farmville is the new game to beat?  Maybe it's easier to provide feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness than we thought.

In summary, Self-Determination theory suggests that people play games to satisfy their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that players will enjoy a particular game to the extent that it provides for those needs.  However, people are probably very different from each other in whether a game will ultimately suit their needs.


There are still many things about games which we enjoy that may not necessarily relate to the satisfaction of Self-Determination Theory needs.  For example, many players seem to enjoy games for their stories, but I'm not so sure how that might provide feelings of need satisfaction.  There also are plenty of wildly popular "no-challenge" games like Farmville, which wouldn't seem to provide feelings of competence or relatedness (spamming your friends with requests for energy isn't exactly quality time together).  I have at least one more theory to write about in a future article which may address some of those things. In the meantime, I have to keep thinking about Przybylski's study and wonder:  why does the same game meet some players' needs and fail to meet other players' needs?

Next time, we'll talk about what developers can do to make games which provide for Self-Determination Theory needs.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Flow Theory case study: Tetris

In the previous article I was wondering about whether losing periodically is necessary for the experience of flow, or if ever losing means immediately losing your flow.  A friend mentioned Tetris to me, which will make for a great case study.

A lot of the classic video games are very good at providing flow because of their linearly increasing difficulty and the inevitability of losing.  Consider Tetris. Tetris has all the basics: good controls, simple and concise rules, and constant feedback in the form of your score.  You can tell when you're doing well, because the lines disappear and your score increases.  You can tell when you're doing very well because the screen also flashes when you line up a Tetris.

 "[The] only video game I can think of that left cultural marks for 
decades & will last 100 [years] is Tetris" - Raph Koster

The key to Tetris (and many classics like it, such as Missile Command and Breakout) is that the difficulty steadily increases over time.  The player may start the difficulty at any level.  Then, after every regular interval (10 lines) the game becomes more difficult as the pieces begin to fall faster.  The difficulty, then, will inevitably reach optimal challenge.  Sooner or later, the player will be optimally challenged, just barely slotting the pieces where they're needed, or making small mistakes and having to be clever and quick to correct them.  After a while longer, the pieces will fall too quickly, the player will become too challenged, and soon after, the game will end.

Tetris is very good at spending the player's time optimally challenged. The player doesn't have to spend any time bored, because he/she can set the starting difficulty at any level.  The particularly brilliant part is that the player spends very little time frustrated, because the game ends shortly after the game becomes too difficult.  When the difficulty has gone too high, the player loses and starts a fresh game, beginning again at a lower difficulty.  The player never has to play through extended periods which are too easy or try to drag him/herself through an exceedingly difficult part of the game.

Graph of difficulty (the speed at which blocks fall) over time within a single game of Tetris.  Sometime between the start and end of the game, Tetris will inevitably reach optimum challenge.  The player can reduce the time spent in "Ho-hum" territory by starting at a higher difficulty.


You can almost think of Tetris as searching for the player's skill level. The player punches in the best guess, since starting at a higher level means earning more points before losing.  Tetris then ratchets up the difficulty until the player can no longer play, assuming that someplace in between it has to run into the perfect challenge.  I have to wonder - if we could stop Tetris from growing more difficult when it hit that perfect balance, would we be happy to continue playing for half an hour at a time?  I suspect that the game around the experience of flow is still important - chasing after that high score means you can also track your skill as a player.

Games which are intended to be beaten or finished don't have the luxury of this particular search strategy.  If a game like Halo or Mass Effect 2 steadily ratcheted up the difficulty until the player died, the player would probably become pretty annoyed at the inevitability of having to die and lose progress before the game made it easier again.  Developers of these games have to try to make the whole game optimally challenging, meeting the player's skill and then growing in difficulty as the player grows in skill.  It's almost an impossible task, which is why probably a better design decision for these games is finely-grained difficulty settings.

 The best difficulty system in a long, long time.

I'm not talking about "easy, normal, hard", where the difference between settings is enemies having +/- 50% health and the player taking +/- 50% damage - that's not nearly granular enough.  Instead, I'm thinking of something like Bastion's "idols" system, where the player can change particular parameters about enemies, making them a little tougher for a little extra reward (ie enemies move faster; enemies recover health over time; enemies drop a grenade when they die; enemies drop fewer power-ups).

Helping your players to optimal challenge is easy when they're destined to lose - just keep cranking it up and they're bound to hit it eventually!  Keeping them there for hours of a game that takes away their progress when they die, though, that's the really tricky part.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why do we play games? A psych review, part 1

This is going to be the first of a multiple-part series in which I write about some of the research questions I have about video games and psychology, talking about video games from the perspective of major psychological theories.

What motivates people to play video games? Clearly, people enjoy playing videogames - some people play for forty hours or more a week, making video games almost a second job. Unlike a job, however, people are not paid to play videogames, so we generally understand video game play to be intrinsically motivated - that is, motivated by the enjoyment of doing the activity, rather than extrinsically motivated, engaged in for the sake of earning rewards like money or social prestige.

It seems only natural that the more we're motivated to play a game, the more we enjoy it.  Motivation to play a game isn't the same for everyone, either.  For any one game, some people might love it and some people might not, suggesting that motivation comes from an interaction of the game's features and the player's personality.  So, given that people tend to have different opinions of the same game, we should expect that people are looking for different things when they play games.  To understand what and why we enjoy in video games, we could look to psychology.  Additionally, there might be things about video games that we find motivating that existing theories do not yet account for.


One of the predominant and most frequently-cited theories of enjoyment is Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory (1991). Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high-ee) identifies the "flow state" as being an enjoyable psychological state experienced when a highly skilled person engages in a highly challenging activity, being completely absorbed by that activity.  Flow is described as coming from a number of factors:


1) balance between the ability of the person and the challenge of the task (often called "optimal challenge")
2) concentration and focus on the activity
3) clear and direct feedback of success or failure
4) clear goals for the activity
5) control over the activity
6) the activity is intrinsically motivated
7) loss of self-conciousness or self-awareness
8) distorted sense of time (ie an action seems to take place in slow motion, or hours pass in a moment)

When I think Csikszentmihalyi, I think "challenge", 
mostly because it's so hard to spell his name right.

It should be noted that even when we don't necessarily attain complete flow, the result is still pleasant, and certainly better than being bored.  Flow isn't necessarily an all or nothing proposition.

From this we can see some very basic design principles: the player should have effective and precise controls, the player should be able to tell what the heck is going on, the player should be neither bored by too little challenge nor frustrated by excessive challenge.  A good game should be attention-grabbing and have a clear goal - although a player could also take a non-game software like Minecraft or SimCity and make his/her own goals.

There still seems to be a lot that people like about video games that can't be explained by Flow Theory alone.  For example, there wouldn't seem to be anything about a story that provides flow, but people still enjoy those, in movies, books, and in video games.  What, then, motivates people to read or participate in stories?  Flow Theory can't seem to account for a good book.

Also, there seem to be some gamers that have no patience at all for a challenge.  I wonder about these people - they set their video games to the easiest difficulty & just plow through them to their inevitable victory.  My guess is that everybody really does want a challenge, but maybe some people just need very tiny challenges.  Some people might be more or less resilient in the face of failure, too - for some players, failing twice might be enough to break the controller in half.  It's also possible that these players might have more fun if they allowed themselves to lose once in a while, but they're too high-strung or impatient to savor a challenge or enjoy losing.

 Can you have fun without a challenge? Maybe you'd just have more fun with one?  
I also don't know how well we understand the other sections, like "relaxation" or "apathy".

Going back to the example of Minecraft, no project seems more "challenging" than any other (with the exception of intricate redstone programming).  Projects are all performed in the same way, digging and placing blocks, so it's mostly a question of the time commitment of working on a big project.  However, people seem to have a good time and the hours still rip by, suggesting that maybe they're sort of in flow, even though there's no optimal challenge involved.

Also, I'd expect that being optimally challenged would mean that the player periodically loses or suffers setbacks.  For example, if I have an opponent whom I beat every single time, we can probably assume that I'm not stretching myself or really having a challenge.  Why, then, are developers so afraid of challenging the player?  Why are players afraid of losing?  Maybe it's the linearity of progress - losing the game means a loss of progress, meaning that you have to repeat the last five or ten minutes (or more), which might preclude the player's getting back into the flow.  Flow theory hypothesizes that people get frustrated when they're too challenged and bored when they're not frustrated enough.  How long does it take for somebody to get frustrated and post on an internet message board that they've had it with the "bullshit" difficulty?  Can losing be as fun as winning?

Next week we'll talk about another psychological theory.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear from any readers:  does a good challenge mean that you have to lose sometimes?  Why are some people happy to lose and others have no patience for it?  And what about popular but non-challenging activities like Minecraft - maybe these involve some pleasant psychological state other than flow, like relaxation?