Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Psychology (15)

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The Value of Fake Achievement

A long time ago, I wrote about how games can present fake achievement which can be abused by players in unhealthy ways. Someday I’d like to revisit this topic and discuss how fake achievement can be used in healthy ways.

For example, here’s an article about experiments showing that “meaningless rituals” can improve feelings of self-discipline and thereby improve actual self-control. Sometimes, going through defined steps and completing goals - even empty ones that accomplish nothing - make us feel like we can do things and we can then bring that motivation to our actual real-life goals.

I’ve had motivational rough patches where, say, completing quests in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a vital part of my writing process. And plenty of people have suggested that, say, Stardew Valley could be helpful for players with depression, or Minecraft for players with ADHD, due to the way their goals are structured.

Fake achievement in games can be a stepping stone and not just a crutch. I think that’s worth a closer look.

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How Engagement Rewards Backfire: The Overjustification Effect and the Peak-End Rule

Imagine you’re a kid at a new school deciding where to sit for lunch. Another kid sees you and offers you some candy, saying they have some extra they don’t want. You eagerly accept the candy and sit with the kid. The next day, you run into the same kid and they offer you candy again, explaining that their parents keep packing their lunch with this candy they don’t like. This keeps happening every day - when you sit with this kid at lunch, they give you candy.

Then one day you go to the candy store and see that same kid buying lots of the candy they supposedly don’t like. You realize they are deliberately getting this candy to give to other kids to try to make friends.

What might you say to this kid if you confronted them? Would you explain that their actions are not only clearly manipulative but also counterproductive in the long run - that they may have an easier time making new friends right now, but these people are likely to be put off when they realize what’s going on, even if they had actually enjoyed spending time together? Might you suggest that the kid should focus instead on being genuinely enjoyable to spend time with and seek out people with compatible personalities and shared interests who actually like spending time with them?

This is basically how I feel about games with log-in bonuses.

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Curating Steam: Moral Complexity versus Automatic Norms

Steam, owned by Valve, is the world’s biggest digital distributor of computer games. For years, it’s had frustratingly inconsistent and unpredictable rules on what games could be sold on its platform. After the most recent kerfuffle, Valve’s Erik Johnson published a post to the Steam blog titled “Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?

It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s my summary: Deciding which games can be sold on Steam is a hard problem that Steam has struggled with for years. There’s a long list of controversial topics and kinds of content - and for each one, many people in Valve’s huge multinational audience feel strongly that it should be allowed on the store and many people feel strongly that it shouldn’t. Many of these topics are also controversial among Valve’s own employees. So rather than continue to struggle with the increasingly impossible goal of consistent curation, Valve is scaling back to block only games that are illegal or “straight up trolling” (later clarified somewhat to mean “designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict”). Valve’s efforts will instead go toward creating tools to allow people to control what content they see - customers will be able to block specific kinds of games from their own slice of Steam and creators will be able to avoid harassment if they release something controversial.

We’ll have to wait and see the filtering and anti-harassment tools to know whether this plan will succeed, but the reasoning and intent seem solid and likely to lead to a vast improvement over the current unpredictable mess. So I was shocked to see that the reaction from the game journalism community featured widespread rage and contempt.

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That Which Is Not Forbidden: The Spectrum of Allowance

When Grand Theft Auto III came out, it introduced a new interaction to the series: players could now solicit prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back.

“To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. . . . Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she’d exited.”
—Samantha Leichtamer, The 5 Most Shocking Grand Theft Auto Moments

This capability persisted in later games in the series and gave rise to a lot of discussion. Much of the commentary was careful to point out that murdering prostitutes is not required at any point. But of course Grand Theft Auto games are exactly that: games. You don’t have to play them at all. And they’re known as games where a lot of the fun comes from messing around in the sandbox, going on murder sprees that are also thoroughly unrequired. So is there a meaningful distinction to be made here?

I think there is. Merely pointing out that you can do something in a game is incomplete. It treats it as a binary, with the action either allowed or disallowed. But game design is much more subtle than that. There’s a wide range of how allowed an action can be.