Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Creating happiness in MMOs has been around for some years, but in 2006 they started making public the many interesting talks they have hosted. Today I watched a fascinating talk by Nancy Etcoff, a psychology researcher based at Harvard: On Happiness And Why We Want It.

Etcoff discussed her studies on the psychological basis of happiness, and pointed out a number of interesting points. Most interesting to me was the evidence that evolution has led us to bias the negative far more heavily than the positive: in other words, the impact of a bad thing happening to us is far greater than the impact of a good thing. Etcoff used the examples of how we are many orders of magnitude better at detecting the taste of something bitter than we are at detecting the taste of something sweet; and the "five to one" ratio identified by marriage counsellor John Gottman as the ratio of positive to negative interactions that indicates a healthy relationship that is likely to last. "People are more averse to losing than they are happy to gain," she says.

How does this reflect in game design? Specifically in MMO game design, since that's what I do? It seems to me that MMOs have already learned to cater to this behaviour to some extent. Players are given a constant flow of positive feedback in most modern MMOs, and the negative impact of death is increasingly minimized. A player levelling up in a modern MMO may do so by completing a series of small, simple quests, each of which provides positive feedback and probably a reward upon completion. Alternately, they may level up by killing a series of monsters, each of which drops a treasure chest or awards some kind of tangible reward in addition to experience, again reinforcing the "you win!" message. But is this conscious design, or just that the games have adapted to what seems to make the players happiest? I think for the most part it's been the latter - mainly trial and error, through observing how the players react to different things and changing the game (or planning the next game) accordingly.

(In a PvE -- player vs environment -- game, it's far more possible to control the variable to provide a player with positive reinforcements far outweighing the negative ones. In a PvP -- player vs player -- game, however, this is far less possible. In PvP environments, if one player wins it means another loses, so it's much harder to ensure all players have more positive experiences than negative ones. It would probably be a revealing study to compare player happiness levels within a game that has both PvP and PvE environments, and see to what degree those levels are influenced by game design decisions.)

Another interesting TED talk on the topic of happiness is Dan Gilbert's question, Are We Happy?

Gilbert's talk is well worth watching in full, but in it he discusses a series of experiments in which college students were divided into two groups. One group was offered a choice of two photos and told that they could change their mind and come back to swap their choice for the other one at any time if they wished; the second group was also told to choose but that their choice was final and irrevocable. After a week, the first group was distinctly UNhappy with the photo they chose compared to how they rated it on the day of choice, while the second group was significantly MORE happy with the photo they chose. However, when a third group was asked if they would rather have the flexible choice or would rather have an irrevocable decision to make, the majority said they wanted the flexibility -- even though this would clearly result in them being far less happy with the photo they finally ended up with.

Gilbert's data demonstrates that while people think they want flexibility and choice, in actual fact, they are measurably happier with what they're given when they have no choice at all. This too raises some questions about game design. While players are constantly clamoring for more choices and more options, are we in fact actually making them happier? Or do they just think they will be happier with more choices, as the third group of college students were? Would players be happier with quest rewards that offer no choice, rather than allowing them to select which reward they want? Would they be happier with a smaller variety of classes, class abilities, or races? I don't believe that less is better in all situations, but I do think in some cases it might be best not to offer options. In many class-based MMOs, for example, players often request that they should be allowed to change classes without having to reroll or create an alt. Based on Gilbert's talk, I wonder whether this would really make them happy. Would they then pick one class, and constantly agonize over whether they picked the right one and whether they should change again? Being forced to stick with the one class might actually increase their happiness with the class that they have chosen; it could prove to be a poor design decision to acquiesce to these requests and allow free class changes.

Fascinating thoughts, the way these behaviours are already being taken advantage of in MMOs, and the way they could potentially be in the future. However, that's enough rambling for a first blog post, so I will just heartily suggest following both the links above and drawing your own conclusions.

1 comment:

  1. I think an unspoken attribute of the choices described by Gilbert is that they are immutable. There is an ultimatum at some point where the decision is mutually exclusive and unchangeable.

    So even though players might have a plethora of classes to choose from, they can at any point reverse their decision and select a different class. Most MMORPGs do not bar players from this act. On the other hand, if players were stuck with their class choice permanently, the question "what if" will linger and destroy the potential for "synthesized" happiness.

    I wrote a similar post on my blog (coinsidentally about the same time as you wrote yours), arriving at the same conclusion that perhaps less is more. Choice is a buzz kill.