Imagine you are about to play a game of Monopoly. According to the rules, each player starts with $1500. One of the other players, however, insists that they are going to start with $2000. What is their justification for this extreme head start? Well of course, it’s a bonus they deserve because they won the last game of Monopoly they played.
I imagine that most people, even those who only slightly care about fair play, will not tolerate this. The absurdity of it is laughable. Why should a previous game of you played against other people have anything to do with the game we are about to play today? Should we give the previous Olympic gold medal sprinter a ten second head start? It’s obvious that this is wrong.
Now, having a handicap in a game is frequently acceptable. If you were going to bowl or golf against a professional, they would give you a head start. This is because these are competitions of almost pure skill. You are not on the same competitive level, and your loss is a foregone conclusion. Giving you a handicap is just a way of making the competition interesting for all participants when the skill differential is so great.
These kinds of handicaps are not the same as head start in Monopoly. For one thing, Monopoly is a game that is largely based on chance, not skill. Also, the head start is given to a player who just won, not the one who just lost. It’s bad enough that you give one person a head start, but you give a head start to the person who doesn’t need it. That’s just wrong.
To compound the issue, this sort of head start creates a momentum issue. Whoever wins is likely to keep winning because they will continue to receive bonuses. In a game with a strong momentum mechanic only the early game matters. The player that strikes first will get boosts that allow them to keep winning and winning and winning. You might as well not even play beyond the beginning of a game with momentum.
I would hope that all of these things are pretty obvious, even to novice gamers. What surprises me is that these persistent momentum mechanics are being added to an increasing number of new video games. Why? Because it is those same mechanics that increase sales and popularity.
Think about that. A game that gives players bigger and bigger head starts based upon previous games they have played will be more popular than a game which provides fair and balanced competition.
Just yesterday I played a game called Altitude. My initial experience was very good. It’s a multiplayer team versus game. Each player pilots an airplane in a two dimensional playing field and shoots at the opponents. The controls are tight. The gameplay is complex enough to be interesting, but simple enough to pick up easily.
The one problem with this game is that it has a strong leveling mechanic. The more you play, the more levels you get. As you gain levels, you gain access to better planes, weapons, and abilities. The players who have been playing longer are given a humongous advantage.
Yet the game had a lot of players, and none of them had a problem with this at all. It didn’t even cross their minds that this mechanic was a problem. In fact, they would cite it as a part of the game they like the most!
How can this be? It’s quite simple. People like head starts when they are the recipients of them. Also, it’s basic Skinner box psychology that an organism will superstitiously repeat a behavior that it associates with reward. Give a mouse a treat every time it jumps, and eventually it will think that jumping gives treats. It will be a very jumpy mouse.
Games like Altitude put the player in a Skinner box. As long as you keep playing the game, you will continue to get levels. Your actions might result in getting the levels faster or slower, but you’ll get them. Those rewards will encourage you to keep playing. They’ll also make you very happy as they increase the head start you receive in the next game, and the next game, and so on.
The same mechanic can be seen in all sorts of games these days. Achievements, levels, upgradeable items, and unlockable abilities are the hot mechanics in video games these days. Who needs to make a game that actually has good mechanics and quality fair competition? That’s hard! It’s much easier to make a Skinner box that takes advantage of basic psychology to control player behavior, and get them playing your game for hours on end.
What’s even worse is you have culprits like MMORPGs, Farmville, and others who are effectively extorting money out of the player with the sunk cost fallacy. Want to keep all the bonuses you earned in that MMORPG? Better keep up with the monthly fee. Want to get more money in Farmville? Just cough up some real cash for an instant hit you won’t have to work for.
If you are playing one of these games, I strongly encourage you to think seriously about what you are doing. Are these games actually good games? Are they good for you? Are they worth your time and money?
For game designers, can we please put some ethics ahead of our wallets? When we hear about certain advertising techniques, we deem them to be unethical. They take unfair advantage of human psychology to deceive and/or coerce people into spending money. These game mechanics are no different, except that they are present in the product itself and not the advertisement.
It is possible, and in fact trivial, to make games that effectively control people’s minds. We need to recognize this fact, and work together to create a code of ethics for game designers. Games which are designed specifically to addict players can be, and are, harmful. People are being deceived into playing golf against Tiger Woods, giving him a head start, and preferring it to a fair competition. You know something is wrong.