All game designers should take a few courses in psychology. This will help a lot more than you think, especially if you’re aiming to be a systems designer (as opposed to a level or content designer). Game design is an application of psychology: the goal of a game is typically to entertain and/or engage the human being playing the game, and studying psychology helps explain how we entertain and engage people.
Don’t believe me? Let’s just peek into our Psych 101 course book for some examples. Let’s talk about positive and negative reinforcement! Then we’ll follow up with the role of tedium in behavior management.
Positive Reinforcement versus Negative Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is when you reward good behavior with a cookie. Negative reinforcement is when you reward good behavior by making the pain stop.
These can be mathematically equivalent, but they have psychological ramifications you need to consider.
Suppose you’re designing the food system for a new MMO, and you decide that characters become physically weaker if they don’t eat a piece of food every few hours. (Eating food is thus a negative reinforcement because it removes the weakness that comes from being hungry.) Another way to design the same system is to give players a buff when they eat food. This is a positive reinforcement.
Mathematically they look like the same system, because you’re going to balance the game based on the “fed state” — in other words, when you figure out how tough monsters should be, you’ll assume the player is properly fed. It matters not to the spreadsheet whether food is a buff or just the absence of a debuff.
But it matters to the player! Modern gamers expect all punishment to cease when they are playing your game the right way. You can take advantage of this to train players to play your game the right way.
In this example game, since players NEED to eat in order to play correctly, you should use negative reinforcement. You’d put an “I’m Hungry!” icon on the screen whenever they needed to eat, and you’d remind them that they are weaker due to lack of food. When they eat, these indicators go away and the character pats her stomach like she’s happy to have finally eaten. This helps teach players when they aren’t playing optimally. Even if players don’t get the hint right away, it will sink in eventyally. If they’re dying a lot, they’re likely to think “I should really eat something. That will help!”
On the other hand, if eating provides only tiny effects (and you didn’t balance encounters assuming that players were fully satiated all the time), then you would present eating as a “buff” instead. This teaches players that eating is a good thing, but not something mandatory.
Now, if you secretly decided that players should always be eating food or else they are sub-par statistically (and unable to complete quests for their level), you’d really confuse them by making food a buff instead of debuff. Players intuit that a buff is an optional power benefit. They do not expect you to have factored this optional benefit into every combat encounter… if you did that, it wouldn’t be optional! Be wary of sending mixed signals like that. It’s pretty common, but then again it’s also pretty common for MMO’s to be unintuitive.
Both positive and negative reinforcement are very useful in every MMO — you just have to decide which to use in each situation. “But I don’t want negative reinforcement in my game!” you say. It’s got that word negative in there. That can’t be positive! Actually, when used in moderation, negative reinforcement is fine. For instance, World of Warcraft treats armor repair as a negative reinforcement, and it works great. You only get into trouble when you overdo it. When a game has too many negative reinforcements, the player can feel like they’re having to do too much “work” to play the game.
The Role of Tedium
Punishment and negative reinforcement often go hand in hand, because usually you can’t negatively reinforce unless you do something unpleasant first, which the player will perceive as punishment. In WoW, you’re punished for letting your armor break: you take a lot more damage in combat. Repairing your armor is negatively reinforced by removing that punishment.
So normally they are directly related. But there’s one major case where this isn’t true: players don’t generally perceive being bored as a punishment per se. This means that developers can inject tedium into their game, and then negatively reinforce behaviors in order to remove the tedium. Brilliant! Well, sort of.
Walking from city to city in World of Warcraft is torturously boring. Using a gryphon is moderately less tedious, and having your own flying mount is less tedious still. WoW uses tedium — and the slow removal of it — as a balance and reward mechanism.
Balancing through tedium works! But it won’t keep working forever: its acceptance among gamers is quickly disappearing. Tedium is the last bastion of the old punishing mechanisms from the early days of computer games. Remember those games? Man, they were punishing.
Back in the day, if you died, you were severely punished. In Ultima Online, you lost every item you had, and you could even lose the deed to your house and all your belongings. Holy shit that was punishing. This worked great, though, because the fun of the game outweighed the punishment. No, that’s not it… let’s see… what was it? Oh yeah: players didn’t know of any other game they could go to.
Since then, punishments have mostly disappeared from games. Why? Because all other things being equal, players tend to go to the less-punitive game. From a designer standpoint this is actually a little frustrating. One of our most potent psychological tools — punishment — is slowly dwindling away! This actually makes it harder to train players to find the fun in our games. But we are never going back to the time when mainstream MMO’s punish you heavily for making mistakes. That time is over. As a designer, this is a tiny bit saddening. But as a player, this is a much happier time to be playing MMOs.
However, there’s one major kind of punishment still in the toolbox. Tedium is the last type of punishment in MMO games. It’s survived because it’s so insidious that players don’t really think of it as a punishment. Nevertheless, tedium was actually on its way out when WoW came along. WoW revived tedium for its travel system (and, to a lesser extent, for its food/drink system), and it got away with it because the rest of the game was so damned good. (In comparison to the other games available.)
The designers didn’t arbitrarily add tedium to travel. They had clear goals in mind. They believed that slow travel was the key to making the world seem “large” and immersive. With instantaneous travel, they reasoned, every place in the world would just be a hop, skip, and a jump away, and this would reduce the immersiveness of the world, which they believed was key to making the game fun over the long term. As an added bonus, having this tedium in the game meant they could remove the tedium over time as a reward mechanism.
They pulled it off, but don’t count on being able to follow their lead. Unless your game is so good in other ways that you can get away with an annoyance like tedious travel, you’re better off having instant travel mechanisms. Your world might be less immersive, and you will definitely have fewer rewards to give out because you can’t remove the tedium that isn’t there. But your game doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so you really have no choice. Heck, even WoW is busy removing tedium over time. The game gets less tedious practically every month. (Today’s Penny-Arcade is coincidentally about this very thing.)
I’m not saying all tedium must go. Like other types of punishment, it’s a great way to get players to think the way you want them to. Unforced tedium is not in any danger of going away. Suppose a player wants to keep stabbing low-level orcs in the newbie zone for as long as possible. It’s okay if this is a tedious way to play… assuming the player knows full well that they have made the choice to do something tedious. But tedium that can’t be avoided (such as a quest that makes players run for 15 minutes from the newbie city to a capital city) is not something players respect anymore.
Tedium is on its way out in games. Use tedium if you think you can get away with it, but … well, you probably can’t. Heck, I personally prefer a jolt of explicit punishment over a jolt of tedium. That’s the ADHD crowd for you — tedium is worse than pain.
Punishment and tedium will never completely go away, but they have clearly waned in their influence. Keep that in mind when you design your game. If you go heavy on negative reinforcement, your game is likely to be perceived as “old-school”, and that may be exactly what you’re going for, if you want a niche title. If you want a broad-spectrum game, use sparingly.
Negative Reinforcement = Potent Spice
I want to reiterate that you shouldn’t plan to remove all negative reinforcement! Just treat it like you would a potent spice when cooking: a little goes a long way. Decide the handful of places where negative reinforcement will give your game a big benefit, and use it there. Remove it from all the places where it’s less important.
I really think psychology is a useful field for designers to study. I wanted to go into reinforcement schedules a bit, but that’ll be another time, I guess. Anyway, if you’re wondering “what should I study in college to learn to be a systems designer?”, a dozen credits in well-chosen psych courses are a good investment.