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Conditioning (psychology): A process of changing behavior by rewarding or punishing a subject each time an action is performed until the subject associates the action with pleasure or distress.

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Good boy, do it again

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that there's a psychological dimension to videogame design, but many gamers underestimate the extent to which it plays a role. Look at this short video explaining the unique rendering effects in Valve Software's Team Fortress 2 to see how carefully planned and psychological even the subtlest aspects of a game's art direction can be. Rather than simply being impressed by the level of thought involved with it, try to imagine the amount of high-minded discussion that must have taken place about the players' conscious and subconscious tendencies. What may appear to be a simple cartoonish art style, chosen for no other reason than because it "looks cool", is actually a sophisticated hypothesis regarding the way a player's mind operate in stressful situations.

Every game is a hypothesis. Unlike movies or other passive forms of entertainment, videogame players need to be motivated simply in order to progress. Think about that. With a constant danger of confusion and frustration if challenges aren't properly calibrated, the designer immediately faces the question of what motivates people, which falls into the realm of psychology, if not philosophy. Keep in mind that the videogame industry has become a billion-dollar behemoth when trying to answer the question of what motivates people. We know what motivates business. Keep in mind also that videogames offer us nothing in the physical realm. Normally when we think of what motivates people, we jump to materialistic answers such as money, comfort, safety, health, physical satisfaction, etc.; but videogames are limited exclusively to the domain of the mind. The art of motivating people to buy stuff (ie. advertisement) has been around for ages, but motivating people to complete a series of challenges using only digital software is a unique and evolving problem.

Studies of the psychology of videogames (example) are cropping up frequently thanks to growing awareness of what education, business, and consumers alike have to gain by figuring out what makes people motivated. Here's an article on the educational potential of World of WarCraft. There are many attempts to dig deeper into the link between videogames and the mental processes it taps into.


The Skinner Box

One motivation seems be recognition. Consider the phenomena of Xbox Live Achievements and GamerScores, which do nothing but quantify and display your in-game accomplishements, and you have a perfect working model of what's called operant conditioning. "Positive reinforcement". If the dog does what you want, give him a treat; if he doesn't, give him a shock. It's the basis of renowned child psychologist B.F. Skinner's method of controlling school classrooms, and it has dominated the scientific study of behavior to this day. Here is an ongoing study which declares that EverQuest is little more than a "virtual Skinner box", mentally training people to become addicted to various forms of in-game recognition. A Skinner box is nothing more than a test chamber designed specifically to experiment with positive and negative reinforcement, usually in conjunction with a timed schedule.

Interestingly, Skinner's theory suggests that no amount of intelligent discussion with a subject will be effective, since the mind itself is nothing more than an input-driven machine. There's no point in talking to a machine, you simply have to adjust it using the proper psychological levers. Pavlov was an early pioneer in this field of study as well. The machine that we call the human mind can supposedly be controlled by an operator, and hence it's called operant conditioning. Videogames have been blamed for warping the minds of children ever since they were invented, but what's happening today is more than that. Videogames present a lucrative opportunity to anyone that is able to correctly apply our psychological discoveries on willing test subjects known as the paying customer.

To what extent such a psychological theory is actually true is irrelevant here; the point is that it exists and is currently being used with us in mind. The vanity and popularity of the "GamerCard" on forums and social networking sites confirms that measurable recognition and self-promotion is what people want, and that's why other game services have been compelled to follow suit. It's the old arcade game high scrore taken to a new level of sophistication. What motivates people is clear. Is there anything wrong with giving people what they want? After all, isn't giving people what they want the whole idea behind capitalism? Of course, and so is the tradition of generating, manipulating and exploiting those desires for the sake of increasing revenue.


Loving hands guide the lab rat

The picture I'm painting is not as dire as it may seem. Nobody is suggesting that Microsoft and fellow game developers are actually bent on cynically manipulating children using psychological tactics. Their only concern is the bottom line of their fiscal quarter. The free market determines what succeeds or not, and no amount of propaganda can support a terrible experience for long. People have always played games competitively, compared themselves to others, and looked for recognition without companies telling them to. Before videogames, and in places where none are available, people find other outlets for the same instincts. At worst, game companies can become a marketer and an enabler of a problem, not an actual inventor. Unless you think that companies have a responsibility to curb people's instincts (you pinko commie tyrant!) there's no reason to complain.

Perhaps the single greatest example of a videogame commenting on the prospect of psychological manipulation within a videogame is Portal, another creation of Valve Software. Players are instructed through a series of labelled test chambers by a polite voice while following clearly labelled directions and being incentivized by little more than the promise of freedom, and cake. Like all advanced humour, the jokes in the game betray a much deeper self-awareness. As the frankly legendary quote from the Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview with game designer Erik Wolpaw reveals, "At the beginning of the Portal development process, we sat down as a group to decide what philosopher or school of philosophy our game would be based on. That was followed by about 15 minutes of silence and then someone mentioned that a lot of people like cake." [link]

This was the moment Portal became destined for greatness. Putting aside the brilliant gameplay mechanics, I think what makes Portal so endlessly endearing to cynical old gamers is its constant self-deprecation; it's transparency. The key part of that quote is not that somebody mentioned cake, it's the fact that the team of creators were seriously going to discuss what school of philosophy the game would follow as a beginning point. The joke came after 15 minutes of silence! The story of a test subject who is guided by a passive-aggressive, manipulative, HAL-9000 type of A.I. through a series of interchangably-constructed and sterile chambers was likely arrived at through a process of reducing the game to its essentials. Big checkmarks and dotted lines are a developers way of saying "Go here and do this if you want to proceed," without having to come up with some story about a princess trapped in a castle. All videogames demand compliance to some degree, but most of them would rather hide it using story, subtlty, choice, etc. This game strips away everything except the fourth wall.


Euthanize the Cube

Let's take the time to consider the lovable and iconic "Weighted Companion Cube", whose emotional value is referenced with dripping satire during the game. After obtaining the simple block, which is identical in every way to the normal cubes in the game with the exception of having a heart painted on it, the A.I. GLaDOS informs us that the most common symptoms of Aperture Science testing are "superstition, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, and hallucinations." This is practically a suggestion. Right off the bat, the player is supposed to start thinking about the possibility that it's common for people to perceive these silly inaminate objects as alive and become paranoid, despite the fact that we know it's a game.

Later we see a hidden area of a test chamber, in which paranoid scrawlings of (what seem to be) previous test subjects cover the walls, declaring their undying affection and loyalty to the Weighted Companion Cube, with fears that it won't accompany them forever. GLaDOS reminds us that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab us in the face, and in fact cannot speak. Since we already distrust GLaDOS at this point thanks to her threats and manipulation, we are psychologically drawn closer to the only thing we can trust: the Cube. Or at least that seems to be the hilarious unspoken suggestion.

If you haven't formed even an ironic emotional connection with the Weighted Companion Cube by the time you reach the furnace, you will be hard pressed not to have a reaction when you are asked to "euthanize" it:

You did it! The Weighted Companion Cube certainly brought you good luck. However, it cannot accompany you for the rest of the test and, unfortunately, must be euthanized.  Please escort your Weighted Companion Cube to the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.

And if the player hestitates, we are told this:

Rest assured that an independent panel of ethicists has absolved the Enrichment Center, Aperture Science employees, and all test subjects of any moral responsibility for the Companion Cube euthanization process.

Companion Cube
Can we euthanize these two instead?

Eventually this is followed by an even more absurd assurance that, if the Companion Cube could talk, it would say that it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you. The reverse psychology at play here is deliberately building up the emotional dilemma of destroying something we would never have cared about if they didn't purposely dramatize the whole process to begin with! If the cube simply got destroyed while passing through a static disintigration field (as other cubes do whenever the player tries to take one onto an elevator), we would quickly cope with it and move on; but thanks to the manipulative psychological tactics we suddenly feel as though we're being asked to kill our only friend in the world. The passive aggressive guilt trip continues afterward, with congratulations that we euthanized our Companion Cube faster than any test subject on record. Should we actually care? Of course not. But we intentionally allow ourselves to care by suspending our disbelief, so that we can enjoy the game more fully. The genius of this is that the game cleverly forces us to question why we care at all, if indeed we do. Once we are faced with the question, we must either choose to stop caring and play the game without emotion (as we would during a "speed run" or a challenge mode,) or delve deeper into the troubled mindset of this supposed test subject, and care even more.

In a sense, you, the player, really are the test subject, although it's not an evil experiment by any stretch; the whole game is a test of a new franchise and a new puzzle game mechanic. Valve constructs the tests and wants you to play through them. They guide and manipulate you into completing the challenges they've made, using their GLaDOS character. The Companion Cube is nothing more than a basic puzzle device. But because they pretend it's not, and do an intentionally horrible job at it, we like to play along. It's satire, and the underlying message of that satire is clear: games are manipulative illusions.

Many games, such as Resident Evil, have played with the notion that everything the player does is "part of the plan". This is a natural twist for a videogame, which creates the illusion of freedom while constantly guiding us towards a specific goal. This kind of reverse-psychology is present in Portal from the moment we reach the "end of the test", slowly descending into a fire. Defying the Enrichment Center and beating GLaDOS feels like a true accomplishment, not simply the final test of the whole project, even though the player is obviously supposed to. It's the illusion of rebellion. Meanwhile, the song playing during the credits declares that the test was a "huge success" and that GLaDOS is "Still Alive". So the question becomes whether you really did anything that you weren't told to, even while you thought you were free. This is a question every videogame could ask, but not many do.




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