Video games guide the ways players think.
To keep you moving forward, designers will place a conspicuous lamp to draw you toward the exit, hang a button prompt above important items, and paint weak spots in bright colors. As gaming has turned toward social and Internet-connected ways of playing, many developers are going a step further, relying on basic principles of neuroscience to moderate player behavior and pace the intensity of their play sessions.
League of Legends developer Riot Games has been one of the first to embrace the idea by employing a cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral psychologist to consult on the game and help regulate the tone and manners of the community.
“In many ways, players are like neurons in the brain,” proclaims Jeffrey Lin, lead designer of Social Systems at Riot. “Each player has a unique tolerance level for inappropriate behavior and a unique behavioral rhythm — in other words, how easily, frequently and severely their behaviors can fluctuate or swing. Every player has the potential to be toxic, but the frequency and severity of the toxicity depends on the triggers or situational contexts they experience that day.”
Riot had already built a traditional structure for monitoring player abuse. Players can report one another in three categories: Offensive Language, Negative Attitude and Verbal Abuse. Players who have received enough negative reports will be referred to a Tribunal, which creates a case file and asks neutral or positive players to log in and vote on what punitive measures should be taken. “In many ways, this game data is like self-report survey data in the social sciences, and using it we can calculate a variety of metrics for every single player in League of Legends,” Lin says. “For example, for a given player, what percentage of the players they play with end up reporting them? Or, how does a player influence the play patterns of the players he plays with?”
Paradoxically, identifying problem players and eliminating them from a game built around combat and competition does not appear to solve the behavior problem. “We recently challenged ourselves with a question: ‘If we removed all the toxic players in League of Legends, do we fix the player behavior problem?’” Lin asks. “It turns out the answer is actually no.”
Riot has coupled its player complaint system with a praise system where helpful or cooperative players can “honor” one another. Players who’ve accumulated enough honors from their peers were given a special ceremony that left them with a rare honorable ribbon connected to their profile.
“There’s lots of evidence that learning from your peers is more effective than learning from a system,” explains Silvia Bunge, Associate Professor at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Psychology and co-editor of the collection “Neuroscience of Rule-Guided Behavior.” “We all know that stress makes it hard to learn. It’s not as effective as reinforcement learning.”
One of the possible reasons that more experienced players sometimes become hostile has to do with how the brain handles learning. For most people, learning new rules and patterns stimulates the prefrontal cortex, which is also the region of the brain associated with the expression of personality and managing social interactions.
“People who’ve had that part of their brain damaged tend to behave very inappropriately or will brag about silly things,” explains Bunge. “They don’t have problems doing simple math but in the social realm they tend to behave immaturely.” For long-term players a similar, but less intense, phenomena may be occurring, wherein they are no longer learning new things, which decreases the amount of activity in the part of the brain that promotes sociability.
In a way, you could take an experienced player’s anti-social behavior, either in the form of beratement or griefing, as a subconscious attempt to create unexpected outcomes in settings that for them are mostly predictable. The challenge for developers is not just to reward nice behavior, but to create systems that make the process of accessing those rewards puzzling enough for experienced players to want to pursue them.
“If you’re playing a game and you get a consistent reward every single time for a certain action, the dopamine signal is going to go down because there’s no more uncertainty; it’s completely predicted,” Bunge says. “If you get a reward that’s unexpected during that action, then the dopamine will really be active, trying to figure out what happened to lead to that different outcome. Game design is all about keeping the uncertainty high, but with intermittent reinforcement.”
Riot has used these principles in its honor system, building a sense of unpredictability into the rewards. “This holiday we surprised positive players with a unique and limited Santa Baron Summoner Icon,” Lin says. “We outlined that players could earn this icon during the holiday season by being positive in their matches — critically, we didn’t specifically outline the details or rules necessary to unlock the icon.”
There is a distant danger in game structures built around these principles, mostly detached from any artistic meaning and instead focused on retaining and growing audiences for money. “People hate being manipulated,” explains Nir Eyal, a Stanford MBA and product advisor with a special interest in neuroscience. “We like it when variability is limited within a box we can control. Everyone knows a slot machine is there to take your money, it just feels so good that we’re willing to give up a little control in the game because we feel like the game is in a bigger box that we can leave at any time. We can leave the casino whenever we want. There’s at least the illusion of control. If the user thinks they’re not in control on that level, then you’re screwed.”
Developers will not only have to worry about creating reliable and unpredictable compulsion loops, but designing ways for players to stop playing before falling into a purely compulsive loop that will ultimately leave them burnt out and embittered.
The Brain: The Ultimate Super Computer?
If the inner workings of the awesome gray matter in your head we call “the brain” interest you, one of the most fascinating books on its mysteries, “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” belongs in your collection. Balancing snappy writing with his wellspring of clinical understanding behind what charges our inner circuitry, author David Eagleman stands at the forefront of neuroscience. It’s a little creepy at times, distilling just how A.I.-like we really are, but leaving the truth behind the sense of wonder that still drives us.