255: The Player and the Pusher-Man

The Player and the Pusher-Man

The success of a game now seems to hinge on how "addictive" it is, not just whether a game is fun. Rob Zacny ponders whether the trend of such manipulative gameplay is ethical.

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I think it's pretty reasonable to say I was addicted to CoD's multiplayer, at least a little bit. I had played for 12 days when I eventually stopped, and about 60% of that was just anger. The game wasn't fun, it was just extremely rewarding. Everything about the game was designed to get people addicted: the presence of a KDR, the level-up bonuses, the prestige symbols. Even the meaty sound your bullets make when you hit somebody feels like a pat on the back. I didn't really realise I'd stopped enjoying it until the neighbour's dad came around at 3am (this is completely true) to complain about the obscene shit I was shouting. The worst part of it is, now that I've stopped playing it I'm struggling to find a game to replace it with, nothing really feels satisfying anymore. This all sounds pretty melodramatic, but it's the truth.
Maybe RDR...

Good read. Lots of meat to chew.

To the Escapist - the link to the Farmville article is broken ("ttp", not "http")

Most "addictive" games are just a grind.

CoD, grind for levels. Puzzle Quest, grind for levels. WoW/Torchlight/Diablo, grind for levels AND loot. Pokemon, grind for levels/Effort Values.

I'm immune to grinding based addiction. Even Disgaea never sunk it's teeth in for long...

I haven't been truly "addicted" to a game since Saint's Row 2. 300 hours and counting, woo!

The game i've been addicted to the most was Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I spent AGES getting to the very last level, and then all of a sudden, Dr Robotnik kills me and I got to start the whole game again from the very beginning. Soon after hitting my head against the desk repeatedly, i'd calm down, and start again. This happened alot but I didn't want to stop until I defeated Robotnik once and for all.

Johnson pointed out that the rise of F2P models owed a great deal to widespread piracy. If DRM was the stick that publishers were using to wring money out of software pirates, the F2P game was an elaborate system of low-cost carrots.

Aaand cue pirates rushing to blame anything but themselves, like they do with DRM.

And if you'll excuse me, I have to play Okami for two hours when I really should be doing things like eating.

Game makers going to the extent to not make games "fun" but addictive, not "fun", but "rewarding"...

As a gamer I can't say I like the sound of that at all.

ethical... to question if this is ethical is the same to question about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is it ethical?

"Knowledge it's self is power, and power is nether good nor evil, it is only how it is use and what is done with it that makes it so."

Wow, this is a really interesting article! It's surprising to see just how many games have a "reward system" to keep you playing. For example, I am currently playing Just Cause 2, Team Fortress 2, and Pokemon Heartgold, and all of them have some "reward" that they entice players with. Team Fortress 2 is the most obvious, what with their unlockable weapons and achievements ; as is Pokemon, the reward being high level pokemon and collecting legendaries. Just Cause 2 rewards players with better vehicles and equipment.

Sometimes I get frustrated by the apparent lack of progress I feel when I play. More times than not I feel like everyone else playing Team Fortress 2 unlocks stuff more than me, or else feel frustrated by the insane amounts of exp grinding in pokemon. But I feel that my current interest in these games lies in something other than the "reward system." In Pokemon, I decided play through the game using only an Eevee-evolution team, which proved to be extremely entertaining and challenging, as well as providing comedic relief when I play with friends (common response: Dude! That's pretty awesome!). The better weapons and vehicles are less enticing to me than the exploration offered by the ENORMOUS sandbox environment. The random violence is a bonus. As for Team Fortress 2, I mostly play it with friends for the social aspect.

I won't claim that I am immune to the reward system. For a while, I was obsessed with Modern Warfare 2 because I wanted the obtain equipment and perks that come with leveling up. But I often stop and ask myself whether I am really having fun with a game. Nowadays when I play Modern Warfare 2, I have fun creating strange and wacky classes and playing with friends than trying to unlock weapons.

Surprised achievements and trophies weren't mentioned. They represent the 'meta-prizes' intended to get players vested in a particular console, and since the rewards are cumulative across different games there's quite a lot going on here in terms of overt behaviour manipulation.

For me, the issue is that there was actually too much going on there for me to tackle in this piece. Because getting into achievements touches on a lot of other topics, like motivation, and different types of achievements, and why players place so much value on meta-game elements. It's an important discussion, but it wasn't one I was prepared to get into here. I do, however, think that a lot of the things that came up here are also applicable to achievements.

The question "would I still be playing this game if there were no built-in reward system?" is a pertinent one, and one that comes in handy as more and more games are built around addictive features rather than their intrinsic worth. I say intrinsic worth rather than "fun" because, as the author points out, we may actually like being manipulated in this way.

By intrinsic worth I mean playing the game for the sake of its story and/or experience regardless of its reward mechanisms. Playing games solely for unending rewards means you are playing them as a way to pass the time. They are an addiction because they let you escape from your life. If a player is trying to maximize their dollar/time ratio then of course F2P models are the perfect solution, but they aren't admitting that for them games are merely a way to kill time. Quantity, not quality, becomes the only marker of success.

Addictive games threaten the possibility of games being more than diversion and rising to the level of "art" or something meaningful. Sure when something is good - a book, movie, or game - we don't want it to end, but to seek after an experience that doesn't end eliminates the possibility of evaluating that experience as a whole. If games don't do that then they can never match books and films as modes of cultural/artistic expression.

I definitely went through this recently with Lord of Ultima, which I think I checked out after an Escapist article on it a few weeks ago. I went on vacation and got really "behind" since I wasn't able to upgrade my towns during that time. As I built more towns, I realized that the game was getting way too tedious, and wasn't really any fun, and quit cold turkey a few days ago. I was just playing it because I had some much time already "invested".

You know, I both love and hate games with reward systems...I've never thought that Mario could be considered one of those games, but, especially when you're into the harder stages, it is hard to justify why you keep playing. Is repeating the same stage over and over really all that fun? Playing NSMBW with four people, I would say, fixes that problem - it is fun, and when you die (as long as there's someone else still on screen) you get a brief respite from some of the frustration inherent in those patience-testing games. But playing that same game by yourself is MUCH more infuriating, and I do find myself playing just to get more coins, unlock more pathways through the game, etc. - it doesn't take long for me to shut it off and turn away, if I'm on my own.

I like to think I play games purely for the fun factor, but Pokemon is one game that I play purely for the grind; I didn't use to, but ever since finding out about the deep mechanics built into the game, I find it hard to play just to play, focusing instead on maxing stats and building unbeatable teams. I only reached the fourth gym in Heartgold before I regressed into grinding for stats, breeding pokemon for certain natures and moves, and making very little progress for my time spent. I've beat the 5th gym, have almost 90 pokemon in the pokedex, but have spent close to 70hours playing the game...a lot of that was spent breeding pokemon, or catching the same pokemon...not nearly as fun as just assembling a team and playing through the game. I'm considering breeding my level 33 Gengar for the same pokemon with a better nature and stats - WHY?! For the metagame - Pokemon's not the worst game for sapping time (I still avoid WOW and games like it), but it can be an extremely unsatisfying game to play, if all you're doing is making your pkmn level 100, or abusing the game mechanics.

It's an interesting topic, and I'd like to read more about it - I can honestly say that I won't be buying another pokemon game, as I don't like losing my time to so much repetition...I'll gladly play the Megaman games over and over, but because I ENJOY it, not to reach a certain arbitrary level. NO MORE!!! I'm just glad I don't care about trophies as some other people out there...this type of game development needs to go by the wayside, as it really does threaten the industry as a whole. It makes me understand why people still regard videogames with raised eyebrows, due to seeing the effects they can have on people's behaviour.

Further reading on the topic of reward systems and human/rat behaviour (and because i like to link to design blogs):
http://mylarx.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/behaviourist-game-design/#

Look! There is even a shiny graph!

Clemenstation:
Surprised achievements and trophies weren't mentioned. They represent the 'meta-prizes' intended to get players vested in a particular console, and since the rewards are cumulative across different games there's quite a lot going on here in terms of overt behaviour manipulation.

Totally agree, achievements are the pinnacle of addicting manipulation. Most can be obtained with one play through. Most players don't feel the need to play any further signaling the need of a new game. It favors the whole console.

My1stLuvJak:
You know, I both love and hate games with reward systems...I've never thought that Mario could be considered one of those games, but, especially when you're into the harder stages, it is hard to justify why you keep playing. Is repeating the same stage over and over really all that fun? Playing NSMBW with four people, I would say, fixes that problem - it is fun, and when you die (as long as there's someone else still on screen) you get a brief respite from some of the frustration inherent in those patience-testing games. But playing that same game by yourself is MUCH more infuriating, and I do find myself playing just to get more coins, unlock more pathways through the game, etc. - it doesn't take long for me to shut it off and turn away, if I'm on my own.

That's kinda funny, because NSMBW is the only Mario game I haven't finished since Sunshine. Honestly, I think Mario was a bad example to use, because those games are usually well designed enough that they would still be plenty of fun without coins and 1ups. Plus getting some of the coins and 1ups and such in really tricky places can be fun for reasons other than pushing the reward button. After all, one of the main sources of fun in video games is getting good at a new skill, so when you can pull off an interesting challenge the developers set out for you it means you're getting better, which is actually fun!

I think I sort of realized all this stuff years ago though. I haven't kept playing a game I wasn't enjoying for more than a couple hours to give it another chance in probably ten years or so. I just stop playing games when they stop being fun. If more people did that, we'd probably have more fun games.

I'm perplexed by the premise of this article. It seems to suggest that many games are not inherently fun, but are just reward systems designed to lock people in.

By this token, many games are quite simply thinly-veiled reward systems.

Firstly, the definition of 'fun' is at best nebulous. One man's psychologically manipulative game is another's Game of the Year.

Secondly, no one is compelling you to play games, reward system or not. What about personal accountability, self-restraint and good ol' common sense?

The article seems to blame game designers for creating addictive products, much like the arguments that healthy-living proponents level against fast food joints, for producing 'addictive' junk food. Or how Jack Thompson blames the ills of the world on violent video games.

Rather than blaming game designers, traumatic childhoods, abusive/absent parents, TV and video games, how about taking responsibility for our own dysfunctional behaviour?

Or do we really need to be told that the coffee is hot?

Rob Zacny:
For me, the issue is that there was actually too much going on there for me to tackle in this piece. Because getting into achievements touches on a lot of other topics, like motivation, and different types of achievements, and why players place so much value on meta-game elements. It's an important discussion, but it wasn't one I was prepared to get into here. I do, however, think that a lot of the things that came up here are also applicable to achievements.

Figured as much. The scope would be a bit large. Also figured that not everyone is quite as hell-bent on writing about achievements as I am. :)

Spendrik:
I'm perplexed by the premise of this article. It seems to suggest that many games are not inherently fun, but are just reward systems designed to lock people in.

By this token, many games are quite simply thinly-veiled reward systems.

Firstly, the definition of 'fun' is at best nebulous. One man's psychologically manipulative game is another's Game of the Year.

Secondly, no one is compelling you to play games, reward system or not. What about personal accountability, self-restraint and good ol' common sense?

The article seems to blame game designers for creating addictive products, much like the arguments that healthy-living proponents level against fast food joints, for producing 'addictive' junk food. Or how Jack Thompson blames the ills of the world on violent video games.

Rather than blaming game designers, traumatic childhoods, abusive/absent parents, TV and video games, how about taking responsibility for our own dysfunctional behaviour?

Or do we really need to be told that the coffee is hot?

You certainly have a point there: People do need to take (more) responsibility for their own actions. Mature people should have enough self-reflection and self-knowledge to quit playing when they find out that they themselves are being 'played'.
But what about kids, teenagers and young adults who, more often then not, lack this self-knowledge?
I remember times i was raiding in WoW even when i had no fun while doing so, but when i got that shiney new Epic i felt better and justified that it was worth it. Ofcourse when i started to connect the dots between this behavior and the reward system i soon quit playing. It's a classic modern day example of what this article is about.

As an Adult i am responsible for my choices, but when gamecompanies use said tactics to suck in kids, teenagers and young adults who havent developed this understanding of themselves yet? Are they the only ones responsible?
When players mature most will find this out themselves and at some point will adjust their behavior to it and some will fall through the cracks and become the hardcore rage kids we all laugh at when we see a video of them on youtube. I dont think you can deny that it is a problem and that it is growing because more and more people take up gaming everyday. And Games indeed have become more about the rewards they give you (achievements/leveling/gear/etc)
I understand this now and while i still think it is fun, it does get old after a time and then i quit. Youngsters lack this understanding more often then not and once a game has become a timesink it becomes an automated response to click on that desktop shotcut.
Just look at old FPS games: Quake and Unreal never had any of that stuff, they were all about the fun and i never even heard/read of players that where even ragequiting in those games, yet with Modern Warfare the Forums are flooded with people who rage about this stuff.
I think there is a connection there and i would like to see gamecompanies to at least consider that before they make design choices. But since games are big business now i dont think they will, because bigger Businesses will look at the bottomline a lot more then they used to do when they where smaller. They will try to suck you in (gradually) to keep you playing before the hype dies down and make as much money of you as they can before you realize you are being played instead of playing.

Sjakie:

But what about kids, teenagers and young adults who, more often then not, lack this self-knowledge?

That's why parents and schools were invented.

The next logical solution to this 'protect the children' argument would be greater oversight, control and dare I say it -- censorship -- over the games industry, so that evil corporate giants do not turn our children into raging nerds who never emerge from their mums' basements.

Seriously.

And we haven't even sorted out the role that violent video games played, if there is indeed one, in the school shootings. Remember Columbine?

Spendrik:

Sjakie:

But what about kids, teenagers and young adults who, more often then not, lack this self-knowledge?

That's why parents and schools were invented.

The next logical solution to this 'protect the children' argument would be greater oversight, control and dare I say it -- censorship -- over the games industry, so that evil corporate giants do not turn our children into raging nerds who never emerge from their mums' basements.

Seriously.

And we haven't even sorted out the role that violent video games played, if there is indeed one, in the school shootings. Remember Columbine?

Since you only picked this out i guess you agree with everything else.
To tell you the truth i dont really care about the kids that is, as you say, the parents job (but really, most parents with gaming children :rolleyes: ) I am all for some education in school about gaming habbits or better parenting about this subject, it would solve most, if not all, problems. And it certainly beats giving more power to the ESRB or some other censhorship organisation. The ESRB does a fairly good job as it is. But handing out age restrictions is all it should do.
Ofcourse considering the industry and government are 10 years behind the facts as you also see, it will be up to us to make sure it wont happen to our kids, by the time there is some kind of restriction system set up by the government we will be laughing at our grandchildren who are ragequiting anyway. Because of this i am also for the idea that gaming companies should take a better look at these design choices!

But to get back at the core question: do all these reward/achievement systems detract from the basic fun and could you consider them addictive? I think that is the case, especially the former. I dont consider it that much fun to hunt down achievements in games. It does not add anything for me personally, but it does for some who still care about their E-penis i guess.

It does not become a real problem until this stuff finds it's way into subsciption based games (allready happend ofcourse) where gaming companies keep adding stuff like this to keep people playing and paying. Some would say it's adding to the fun, but really, if you play MMO's and do groupstuff and then someone wanders off to get some achievement while your in some dungeon or FPS map...some think of it as fun, i think of it as a hassle that spoils my fun.
I also think this kind of behavior feeds the basement dwelling rage kids and it should get toned down because i dont want to deal with those kind of fuckers anymore then you do while im having fun killing a dungeon boss or camping the little turds that do hunt achievents (just to easy targets to pass up) and then start whinening and yelling in the chat.

I think the mountain climbing comparison at the end doesn't apply to the reward systems of never-ending games. Sure, a climber might feel a rush as they reach each plateau along the way, but the reward they're getting out of it is from the sense of accomplishment upon completion.

I had a discussion with a friend while I was crunching my way through N (later released as N+). He couldn't get why I would keep playing a game that needs so many deaths and retries to eventually make headway. For him, enjoyment of the game was just in proceeding through. For me, it was also about rising with the challenge and surpassing it. Moment to frustrating moment, was I having "fun;" restarting the same levels so many times? Maybe not. But I don't regret it, and I have another addition to my gaming accomplishments.

This kind of manipulation requires the game to be fun for me to want to see it through. Sometimes I feel the lure of level-grinding, loot-amassing, progression based manipulation. But if (like Torchlight, for example) it doesn't seem fun, I quickly lose interest in grinding.

Best article of this week. Every gamer and person prone to addiction should really read about this.

And it is a scary image you put to illustrate the article. So it is perfect for it.

copycatalyst:

I had a discussion with a friend while I was crunching my way through N (later released as N+). He couldn't get why I would keep playing a game that needs so many deaths and retries to eventually make headway. For him, enjoyment of the game was just in proceeding through. For me, it was also about rising with the challenge and surpassing it. Moment to frustrating moment, was I having "fun;" restarting the same levels so many times? Maybe not. But I don't regret it, and I have another addition to my gaming accomplishments.

This kind of manipulation requires the game to be fun for me to want to see it through. Sometimes I feel the lure of level-grinding, loot-amassing, progression based manipulation. But if (like Torchlight, for example) it doesn't seem fun, I quickly lose interest in grinding.

This reinforces my point about the definition of 'fun': it's not the same for everyone.

For some, it's about conquering challenges or seeing the story unfold, for others it's accumulating badges and achievements.

When you don't like a game, or don't find it fun, it isn't necessarily a reward system designed to Jedi-mindtrick your friends into playing and actually enjoying it.

Conversely, your favourite game that you've just spent weeks playing could very well be the 'psychologically manipulative aka unfun' reward system, according to the author of this article.

Who decides what's fun and what's not? You!

Instead of equating 'unfun' games to reward systems and blaming game designers for creating them, how about recognising that some games *are* designed to be addictive, and make your game-buying or playing decisions accordingly?

As a discerning gamer and consumer, vote with your wallet and your time! Don't let any game designer or magazine columnist tell you what is fun and what is not.

And certainly don't let any government panel decide what games you shouldn't play, because of your personal lack of discipline.

I think this explains why I'm a big fan of solo-games rather than multiplayer ones.

Grahav:
Best article of this week. Every gamer and person prone to addiction should really read about this.

And it is a scary image you put to illustrate the article. So it is perfect for it.

And it is just reinforcing the stereotype of gamers: unshaven, unwashed, overweight, addicted.

To me, the article seems to be saying:

"Hey game designers, make games that *I* like, stop making games that other people play because they [insert Psychology 101 babble]"

Lots of good points have been made here - especially with Call of Duty. I'm playing MW2 right now, and it is just carrot after addictive little carrot, right down to the way you get shiny +100s, the weapon prints (fall, tiger, etc) that give you so many things to work for. It is really satisfying and fun... but let's just say thank God I can consider myself done after level 70 (I prestieged once to see the "veteran" challenges, but no more for me after that).

Anyway, I just want to narrow in on a tiny part:

"[Nintendo has] gone to great lengths to make the game playable by a variety of difficulty levels but also to make it so that, really, lives do not matter. And you can just keep playing the game until you win it," he explains. "But there's still this huge Byzantine structure around lives ... to maintain this kind of fiction that lives matter, even though, when you play them, it's clear that they don't. They totally don't matter. And why is there all that structure in there still? It's because it's providing the reward system. And it's a reward system that's actually lying to the player in a way, because none of this is really important. But it's pushing that little 'reward button' in the player's mind every time they pick up a little gold coin and get a one-up."

So, I really do think Mario would be fun without lives, coins, etc, and actually I think it would be an interesting experiment. But the rewards that are key, at least to me, are the stars. Man, I love getting those bright, shiny stars. And yet, I feel like I'm not doing it just for the stars but for the experience too. In that way mario seems perfect, on some level, to me.

Spendrik:

This reinforces my point about the definition of 'fun': it's not the same for everyone.

For some, it's about conquering challenges or seeing the story unfold, for others it's accumulating badges and achievements.

When you don't like a game, or don't find it fun, it isn't necessarily a reward system designed to Jedi-mindtrick your friends into playing and actually enjoying it.

Conversely, your favourite game that you've just spent weeks playing could very well be the 'psychologically manipulative aka unfun' reward system, according to the author of this article.

Who decides what's fun and what's not? You!

Instead of equating 'unfun' games to reward systems and blaming game designers for creating them, how about recognising that some games *are* designed to be addictive, and make your game-buying or playing decisions accordingly?

As a discerning gamer and consumer, vote with your wallet and your time! Don't let any game designer or magazine columnist tell you what is fun and what is not.

And certainly don't let any government panel decide what games you shouldn't play, because of your personal lack of discipline.

Good points, all. There is one problem though, which is that people may not actually be the best judge of when they are having fun. Our perception of how much fun we are having as we experience it differs from our perception of how much fun we had when recalling it. (Same thing goes for perceptions of happiness and pain, by the way). So although each person is free to decide for themselves what they think is fun, all people can be manipulated by psychological tricks.

OMFG, This article is very brave. It criticized Mario on the Escapist!

I tried that once, I said that I personally did not find Super Mario Galaxy to be fun, and I was bombarded with people saying that my opinions are wrong, and that the game is actually amazing, it's just that I am at fault for not liking it.

I pass over the flame shield, and bid the author good luck.

 

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