Healthier by Design

(note, this blog was transcribed from a talk given by Ken Hall and Ramin Shokrizade at Nordic Game 2019 in Sweden)

Whether we like it or not, video games are a force in today’s world and they’re influencing generations.  

Games can be vehicles of positive social change – just look at some of the stories on Scott Jones’ podcast: Heavily Pixelated, about how games have positively influenced (and in some cases saved) people’s lives.  Scott also wrote an incredibly moving article on his own interactions with games entitled How Video Games Saved my Life.

Scott Jones’ Heavily Pixelated podcast explores the positive impacts of video games

But many of today’s games do not create positive experiences and behaviours.  In fact, they often favor narcissism and anti-social behaviours, and many exploit players, forcing them into vulnerable and uncomfortable positions; creating resentful, aggressive and toxic online communities.

In contrast, the most positively influential games promote interdependence, reward interaction and encourage the sharing of user generated content – ultimately leading to a strong sense of community and positive peer reinforcement.  

So why aren’t all games positive?

Well, let’s take a look at the evolution of the social gaming landscape.

Games originally served as a means to bring people together, acting as a vehicle for social and physical interaction. In the best cases, such as the Olympics, they provided a venue for people with different perspectives to come together and share experiences. In doing so, these games formed lasting social bonds that improved social cohesion.

The advent of computers allowed games to become both more complex, and to be performed without another person. While this presented individuals with personal entertainment options, it also acted as a less fulfilling substitute for social interaction.  

In the 80’s and 90s the rising popularity of multi-user dungeons (MUDs) finally began to rekindle the social interaction in computer gaming.

Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) were among the first MMOs

Then, with the rise of low-cost, high speed internet in the early 2000s, large online virtual worlds began to develop where thousands of players could interact socially with minimal risk.  They could enjoy group activities with a scale and convenience that would not have been possible previously (or in the real world, for that matter).

Finally games had not only returned to their original social capacity, but had decisively exceeded it.

Real world relationships were forged in many of these online worlds, culminating in marriages in Everquest; and group dance videos in games like Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft.

social interaction in Star Wars Galaxies

Sadly, this golden age of social gaming was not to last. Anonymity and weak economic design elements left these worlds open to abuse and exploitation.

The culprits were highly organized elements referred to as gold farmers.  They often existed solely to exploit these design flaws.

Without a good response to these gold farmers, much of the consumer budgets of these early games was sent to these 3rd parties instead of to the developers, resulting in commercial pressure from investors and publishers and often the closing of these new virtual playgrounds.

This triggered two key industry responses: first was a significantly reduced investor enthusiasm for these very expensive, and now risky, projects; and the second was a move away from open player trading to more tightly controlled economies.

We didn’t want players to interact with gold farmers, so we removed all player interaction, only allowing players to interact with the game.  

For some players the social element of these player to player interactions had provided a major sense of value and achievement, a feeling of being needed in the game to craft or supply certain items, or to win against bosses. Now this was lost.

This was like throwing the baby out with the bath water.  We had just gotten rid of the key ingredient of online gaming success.

The reduction in social interaction led to less player fulfillment and lower retention rates, as players jumped between products trying to find one that would adequately fill their needs.

Without understanding the true nature of the problem, many developers and investors tried to mitigate the risk of these large projects by seeking solutions that allowed them to monetize in ever shorter windows.

Economically speaking, this was very short-sighted.  The average whale, or big spender, in an online game takes 21 days to make their first purchase. These whales see their spending as an investment, and they want to be comfortable that the product they are investing in is worthwhile.  

Trying to aggressively force whales into quick conversion only ends up convincing them that the game is not worthwhile and drives them away, leading to lost revenue.

Many of the short-term fixes that have been implemented to offset this lost revenue have created even greater problems, and many have caused physiological issues for players as well.

Threat Generation.

One solution that companies have turned to is threat generation.  This has many guises. For instance, ‘fun pain’ is the practice of encouraging consumers to give you money by making them increasingly uncomfortable if they don’t.  

Often when a player demonstrates a willingness to pay to avoid discomfort they are confronted with an even bigger discomfort in a never ending cycle.

Whether developers know it or not, threat generation targets the sympathetic nervous system and causes a release of adrenaline and ultimately also the very powerful and long lasting hormone cortisol. These chemicals are immunosuppressive and can multiply our rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.

Current rates in the USA are 8 times higher than they were during the Great Depression (the UK is seeing similar patterns), and these increases are concentrated in young people.

When the fight or flight system is activated, the consumer’s perception is skewed and this may make them more vulnerable and suggestible to purchases that provide a feeling of safety.

Research also suggests that this pervasive exposure to cortisol could cause long term damage to children – potentially abnormal stress response, shortened lifespan and even multi-generational damage due to epigenetic activation.  The resulting alteration of the child’s DNA means it is possible these negative conditions could affect their future unborn children.

Another form of threat generation that can be severely damaging to gaming communities is when the threat source is projected onto other players.  

This not only has all the negative effects that we’ve previously mentioned, but it further increases toxicity and resentment in the community as the players blame each other for their unhappiness, eroding what little social cohesion still exists.

Mechanics which continue to generate threat even when the player is not in the game are especially troubling as this can potentially lead to sustained “all day” cortisol release and the associated severe health problems.

Examples of this persistent threat might be games that require you to log in or your crops will die, or games that allow your assets to be stolen by other players while you’re offline.

This type of game is often easy to spot because they almost always sell a “shield” that allows a player to sleep normally in return for real money.

Pay to Win.

Another method used to encourage quick spending is pay to win. Pay to win occurs when one player is able to pay to gain a competitive advantage over other players.

Pay to win empowers only one person, while disempowering all the other players. The bigger the game, the more people are disempowered every time one person buys an advantage.

The net effect is that players are far more often disempowered, rather than empowered. In fact, the game only really functions properly when most of the players purchase the advantage, thus there is no real advantage.

This is effectively a mandatory subscription if a player wants to remain competitive.

Because spending in a pay to win game harms everyone else, it also generates great resentment and toxicity.  

From a commercial point of view, the resulting negative peer reinforcement actually discourages spending.

The disempowerment players feel can also drive them out of the game, requiring developers to spend increasingly more on user acquisition.

Meanwhile, user acquisition costs have skyrocketed as consumers become mistrustful of these models, making pay to win increasingly unsustainable.

Gambling Mechanics.

In 1930, Dr. BF Skinner showed that you could create dependency in lab animals by exposing them to intermittent, unpredictable rewards.

This is the mechanic that powers gambling in all its forms, regardless of what the reward is. It doesn’t even have to be real world currency.

Examples of gambling mechanics in games include: loot boxes, eggs, orbs, portal summons, and card packs.

The reward can look like anything – it’s not the appearance that matters here. The primary mechanism is a stimulation of dopamine release, the same effect triggered by cigarettes, vapes, and cocaine.

The ability to abstract the reward also makes our current laws and regulations obsolete and has triggered an explosion of gambling mechanics in games, even though we know full well that gambling can have negative mental and physical health effects.

Information from the UK, where they measure these trends, shows that problematic gambling behavior is now more prevalent in children than it is in adults, and is trending rapidly upward.

The idea of rewarding players with a random merit-based reward after completing some challenging and risky task is a cornerstone of some of our most popular games, but when that task is replaced with spending money (or the equivalent) then it becomes straight up gambling with all the potential pitfalls.

The consumer backlash to these mechanics is accelerating as consumers become increasingly informed. Large, time-consuming projects have to be especially mindful that the commercial climate on launch may be even less favorable than it is now.

Games can be better, right?

For the majority of human history, we acted cooperatively to improve our chance of success and then shared the fruits of our labors with our community. This improved social bonding, happiness, and mental health.

By rewarding individuals, typically at the expense of others, we promote anti-social and narcissistic behaviours.

We need to go back to promoting group activities, and rewarding successful teams for their cohesion.

And it turns out, this may be best practice both ethically AND commercially.

Creating healthier online gaming communities will result in better social cohesion, increased player retention and higher levels of organic user acquisition as happy customers tell everyone about their positive experiences.  

Community is also the #1 determinant of whether your whales will convert or leave by day 21. The stronger the sense of community, the larger their investment in your product will be, assuming you have a business model that allows for that.

So how do we create community?

Promote interdependence.  

People want to feel needed and valued.  It gives them purpose.

The best way to foster interdependence is to make sure there is a wide range of different skills, and that no one person can have them all.  

Encourage players to specialize, making them reliant on other players with complementary skill sets to succeed.

In games that successfully exhibit interdependence, players form teams that become increasingly proficient together over a period of months or years.

Each player’s strengths and weaknesses are well known in the game space. This renown often extends beyond their immediate team.

Furthermore, when winning is no longer all or nothing, there is an enduring respect generated even in a loss. Making sure there are positive rewards for losses, such as experience and achievements will allow players to learn from competition with the best players, benefiting everyone.

Reward interaction.  

In games that do a good job of rewarding interaction, the best rewards in the game can only be attained through careful and organized teamwork.

Good examples of this type of mechanic are ones where players have to work together to solve puzzles – one standing on a pressure pad while the other goes through the trap door to get the key. (Keep talking and nobody explodes)

Whenever possible, give your players opportunities to play and achieve together. Extra effort should to be made to provide group rewards and progression.

Minimize anonymity.

Reputation and accountability are important requirements for a moral compass, positive peer reinforcement and renown.

The more a player invests in reputation, and the easier it is for their anti-social actions to negatively affect it, the more peer reinforcement will serve to mitigate toxic behavior.

Encourage user generated content.  

User generated content goes well beyond virtual items. A profile on a dating site, a teammate telling you about their day, their dog, their partner, or their school – this is all user generated content.

Navigating this content keeps the play experience fresh even when the developer hasn’t added anything in a while. Players can’t predict exactly what they will hear, see, or learn next when they log in.  

Allowing players to share with other players through direct communication encourages the formation of social connections. The more you allow your players to share, the more they will.

Promote positive peer support.

This may sound obvious, but you want to find ways to socially reward the actions you want your players to take. For instance, make purchases help other players as well, not just the purchaser.  Reward mentorship and cooperation.

Your goal is to build community, and shared experience is the glue that holds that community together.

Ultimately, community is what will make players and games healthier (and more profitable).

At 2Dogs, we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

Destiny’s Sword is an inclusive, uniquely social online game.  It’s a genre-bending, epic sci-fi, strategy/combat MMORPG, featuring unprecedented player interaction where every choice matters.

managing mental health is a key to success in Destiny’s Sword

We wanted Destiny’s Sword to be about more than just maximizing values on a spreadsheet.  We wanted to forge an emotional connection between players and their characters, so that the characters’ wellbeing would become important to players – what happened to them would really matter, especially if the player was part of the cause. 

Instead of just focusing on developing the stats and abilities of the characters, players in Destiny’s Sword manage their characters’ psychology and mental health throughout their combat careers.

But we didn’t just want the connection to be between players and their characters, we wanted to make sure the players were bonding with other players as well.  Most of our systems encourage and reward player to player interaction and coordination.  

In combat, players must work together to leverage their strengths and exploit opponents’ weaknesses.  In our more quest like special missions players are encouraged to work together to solve puzzles and complete their objectives.  

combat in Destiny’s Sword is often collaborative

Between battles, our healing gameplay requires players to pool their skills to complete medical procedures that help their characters recover from their physical injuries.  This social gameplay is mirrored in our repair and crafting mechanics for equipment as well.

What really set’s Destiny’s Sword gameplay apart is the level of engagement players have with their characters.  Players get to know their characters on a more intimate level than we’ve seen in other games.  They not only manage them in combat, but also help guide them through their daily lives.

Ultimately, even these player-character interactions can require input from other players, as the game weaves webs of relationships between players and characters and then spins stories that bridge these connections, creating a uniquely social experience.

Built on Trust

In order to accomplish these things effectively, we really needed to change the way players interact in online games.  We needed to earn players’ trust, and that started with us – making sure we designed game mechanics that encouraged and allowed healthy game/life balance, and employing an ethical business model that did not seek to trick or force players into paying, in order to enjoy the game.

We’re proud to state that Destiny’s Sword features:

Some would say this is a risky proposition, but we feel it will pay off in a healthier, happier and more loyal community.

If you like what we’re doing, please back us on Kickstarter!

Further reading:

The Physiology of Gaming, R. Shokrizade

I’m Dying to Play, R. Shokrizade

Secrets of F2P: Threat Generation, R. Shokrizade

Whales do not Swim in the Desert, R. Shokrizade

I’m not Addicted, I’m Connected, R. Shokrizade

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