Behaviorist Game Design

Dan Lawrence recently posted a thoughtful essay about ethics, psychology, and game design:

Skinner Box (operant conditioning)

It seems to me that the very interactivity of games that makes them so compelling also makes considering their ethical dimension more vital. Every game is a system that you interact with; listening to and responding to your actions in a certain way. While the game is responding to you, you are responding back to it even if you don’t realise it. Every game is teaching your brain something, every game is a dialogue with its player.

It worries me that this power of games to teach and train their players is either not understood or being wilfully misused for commercial gain. It doesn’t strike me as ethical to train a player to want to do something that they wouldn’t want to do in the absence of an external reward.

MiceOne particular example that always sticks with me is how closely the reward system of item drops in most modern roguelike games closely mirrors psychological research on the most effective methods to encourage repeated human (and animal) behaviour. By which I mean they could train mice to hit buttons over and over again by rewarding them in a certain way for this behaviour, even though the mouse would never normally perform that action.

Behaviourist psychologists spent a long time analyzing which type of reinforcement strategy was most effective in conditioning animals to respond how they wanted … the ‘best’ schedule is variable reinforcement where a reward is given not every time an action is performed but at a random time conforming to an average.

Whether designers are doing this deliberately or subconciously I believe its damaging to the people who play these games and obscures what is otherwise often excellent craftsmanship and polish in their production. There can be excellent intrinsically rewarding game design built up around this core unethical mechanic but that conditioning mechanic is still there lurking at the centre.

Dan Lawrence @ Robotic Shed

See also Behaviorism @ Wikipedia.

Gameshastra opens 1000-seat game design studio

Gaming is big business — bigger than movies, worldwide. Item, this recent business news:

Gameshastra opens 1000-seat facility in Hyderabad

Game outsourcing services provider Gameshastra on Tuesday opened a 1,000-seater game design studio in Hyderabad to cater to the growing demand for its services worldwide including from Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.

The 50,000-sft facility will focus on a full range of game development, game art, animation and quality assurance services for console, PC and online gaming platforms.

“We are currently 220-people strong and expect to reach 1,000 headcount by the end of this year to support new projects,” Prakash Ahuja, chief executive officer of Gameshastra, told mediapersons here.

Stating that Gameshastra had invested $7 million (approximately Rs 33 crore) in its operations over the last three years, Ahuja said the company was developing an Indian mythological game, Ekalavya, for Sony Computer Entertainment’s PlayStation3 (PS3) platform.

Business Standard: February 24, 2010

Shastra is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Science’, which also indicates specialized knowledge. And true to our name, we are specialists in the domain of game services.”

Maryland Budget Game

I have a longstanding interest in games with practical real-world applications. For example, this budget balancer game, where you try to put the State of Maryland’s financial house in order:

Maryland Budget GameTravel to different locations on the main map. Each location represents a policy area (like higher education, revenues, or general government) where you can choose different budget options. Click on an option to select it. Click on it again if you change your mind.

… You need to pay attention to this year’s budget balance. Making the “current year balance” a positive number is what you are required to do under the constitution.

… Each choice you make will not only affect the budget totals, it will also affect your popularity with ten different interest groups. If you make too many of these groups too unhappy, it might affect your and your party’s political future badly.

~ Maryland Budget Map Game @ University of Baltimore

Via The Washington Examiner.

I’m reminded of Budget Hero from American Public Radio, where you try to balance the Federal budget.

Colourblind Gaming

Dan Griliopoulos, a lifelong gamer who suffers from deuteranopia, a form of red-green colourblindness, has written a very interesting essay about colour and game design. In this excerpt he’s playing Bioshock 2:

Bioshock 2 deuteranopia

I have a clever hacking dart gun, which requires my simply pressing a button when a needle on its meter passes through a certain colour. I shoot, I score … and get a mild electric shock. I repeat. Again and again. There’s an endless supply of darts so I keep shooting until I die of Electron Overdose and respawn, humiliated, at a Vitachamber. Yet again, someone on the art team has thoughtlessly swallowed the Manichean standard that red is bad and green is good, and decided he should use a primary palette to distinguish between these opposites — which means poor old colour-blind me gets killed.

In my case, both red and green appear as a murky yellow. Or so I’m told -– it’s not as though I’ve ever seen what green, red or yellow looks like to everyone else. Eventually, through trial and error, I worked out there are just-detectable contrast and location differences in the puzzle, and that if I focus really hard and fast, I can just work out which is which before the timer runs out. Bioshock 2 just got challenging.

… Here’s some tips for developers.

… How can a firm the size of Activision or EA consistently ignore what could be 8-12% of their paying customers? That could be a million of the people who bought Modern Warfare 2, for example.

~ Dan Griliopoulos @ Rock Paper Shotgun

The Photoshopped image below demonstrates roughly what the Bioshock 2 hacking dial looks like to someone with deuteranopia — you don’t see red, and you don’t see green, both look like dull gold:

Bioshock 2 Deuteranopia

Image borrowed from What BioShock 2’s Hacking Looks Like if You’re Colour Blind at Negative Gamer, which has more images simulating other types of color blindness.

The subject of color blindness and information systems is of interest to me professionally: I’ve recently done some research into web site accessibility, such as Section 508 requirements and the lawsuit.

If you are doing business with the federal government, this is a big legal deal.

And in any case, we should be designing information systems (and everything else) to work as well as possible for as many different people as possible.

How to Become an Indie Developer in Eight Steps

The Guardian recently posted a list of principles for aspiring game designers. Here’s an excerpt:

Choose the right project

Be realistic, and think indie. You’re not making Modern Warfare 3. “The best advice I can give is really simple: don’t make your dream game,” says [Terry] Cavanagh. “Work on small games. It’s so easy to fall in love with an idea and get carried away with it until it becomes a magnum opus that you sink all your time into, and there’s nothing more demotivating. It’s far more rewarding to work on games that you can actually finish! Every time you finish a game, you’ll learn something. If you want to be a better game designer, the best way to do it is to make games. Lots of them.”

Most indie developers start by working in a well-established genre. Platformers and shooters are popular – as shoot-’em-up expert Charlie Knight explains, “Mostly it’s because I like shooting things, but also because it’s easier to put my vision for the game across when I’m not having to work around some sort of physically accurate setting. They’re also a good showcase for more abstract graphic styles.”

If inspiration is lacking, remaking a classic title is a good way to flex those creative muscles.

Keith Stuart @ The Guardian

Terry Cavanaugh is the author of Don’t Look Back and WWW.