Games Can Make You Trust


An independent game designer believes that games should use the concept of player’s trust as a mechanic.

Dr. Chris Hazard is a smart guy. He recently earned a PhD in computer science at North Carolina State University, but he’s also keenly interested in economics and game design. As a founder of Hazardous Software, Dr. Hazard worked on the time-travel game called Achron, but the dissertation that Dr. Hazard wrote to earn his PhD was all about “trust.” At his panel at the East Coast Games Conference this morning, Dr. Hazard showed a series of graphs that displayed players’ “intertemporal discount factor” or how much players are willing to delay success. Not only was Dr. Hazard interested in why players trust certain characters, but he wants to quantify how much players trust in games so that designers can really start to incorporate it into game design because it is a compelling part of the human experience that has yet to be fully explored in the medium.

“Can you guys think of any games that a really good examples of trust?” he asked his friends before the talk. “There’s some things in Heavy Rain, there’s some games that play with that, but I still struggle with finding a game that is both popular and people know that really hammers on the points I’m making about trust.”

What Dr. Hazard wants to see is a game that uses the mathematical computation that he discovered for his dissertation to quantify how players build trust. All of his work is based on research, such as the concept that trust is built through the three concepts of homophily, embedding and corroboration. Homophily means that you’re more likely to trust someone who comes from your hometown, or has the same background as you. Embedding is the idea that you trust people who you’ve been in the shit with and survived, like an adventuring party. And corroboration means that you trust something someone says if it can be backed up by other people. All of these are fertile areas to explore in games.

“When you look at games and you look at the characters that you’re supposed to trust, you might say that good guy is really a bad guy,” Dr. Hazard said. “Games aren’t very secretive about that, usually. Yeah, you might find games that really tricked you – oh this bad guy just came out of the woodwork – but a lot of times it’s quite obvious.”

To be honest, most of Dr. Hazard’s presentation involved complicated formulas and graphs that went over my head but that doesn’t mean his work isn’t valid. It just might not be for me. I mean, it’s important for game designers to think about reputation and trust empirically so that it can be programmed into an AI, but for players it’s more about a gut feeling. Dr. Hazard concentrated on the former, but I wonder if the focus should be on the latter.

In other words, I don’t trust a formula that attempts to model a basic human emotion like “trust.” If we could do that, then I’d like to know what the formula is for love. Or greed. Or both.

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