Game Development Reference
For centuries, gambling games have ensnared people by exploiting
our prehistoric dopamine triggers. Now nongambling games can, too.
While we don't take money from players the same way a casino does, we
do take time. And there's a real argument to be made that if we take some-
one's time, we should be giving something back.
Player's remorse can go beyond a few wasted hours. People have lost
jobs and their spouses because they just couldn't stop playing. Is it ethical-
ly acceptable to create a game that encourages this? If it isn't, where do we
draw the line? Should we just put all the responsibility of self-regulation
on the player, or does some lie with the designer as well? And what if some
of the players are children?
There's a spectrum of severity here. I think there's little argument to
make against a well-aligned reward structure attached to a meaningful
core experience. That's just good game design. The player wants to play,
and he enjoys playing.
In the middle, we find games that alternate between compulsive and
fulfilling play. People lose friends because they're spending hours on a
game, but they also make friends through the same game. They suffer
hours of boring grind, then win an exciting boss battle. Such mixed expe-
riences are often caused by straightforward design craft mistakes. Had the
game's rewards only been better-aligned, the core experience might have
shone through better.
At the far end of the spectrum, we find games that don't even seri-
ously attempt to fulfill players. These games focus every design decision
around maximizing motivation. Such games are not engines of experi-
ence; they're compulsion machines. The player plays and pays, and at the
end, feels nothing by remorse for wasted time and money.
Games like this are best exemplified by their parodies. For example,
Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker is a Facebook game that displays a cow. You can
click the cow, but only every six hours, unless you pay in-game “mooney”
to be allowed to click sooner, or spam your friends to join you with their
own cows. The game is nothing but a naked fixed interval reinforcement
schedule. Bogost created it that way to highlight what he saw as abusive
use of these design patterns in real games.
But people still played Cow Clicker —thousands of them. Bogost even-
tually became so disgusted with his game that he made all the cows disap-
pear, leaving only an empty patch of ground. Even that didn't stop people.
They just kept clicking the ground instead. Dopamine is a hell of a brain
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