Psychology and Sociology in Game Design and Maintenance


  • Pitcrew

    This is actually inspired by the Water Finds a Crack thread, and I was going to put it there before deciding that I wanted to broaden the conversation without taking away from that specific line of thought. My background is in psychology and professional counseling, and I've long noticed just how applicable some of the things I've learned in practice and education ARE to the design of MU*s. I'm mostly too much of a flake to apply them myself, but I thought that it might be worthwhile for people to discuss some aspects of game design that are more about the people who play games than about the game itself.

    (Warning: This is SUPER LONG)

    When people create games, a lot of time the big questions are, "What's the setting going to be?", "What's the system going to be?", and "Oh god, who will code/how much can I get done without a coder?" As design of the game goes on, people may or may not ask, "What is the actual theme of our game?" and "What kind of characters are we going to actually support?". But I think we can ask other questions as well, that might have more profound influence on our design, regardless of system and setting:

    • What kind of community do I want this game to be?
    • What are people looking for in a play experience?
    • What kind of play do I want to see players have in this game?

    There are more, obviously, but these are just meant to illustrate thinking of the game design based on the effects that design will have on the behavior of your players, and which kinds of players a given design will attract beyond content-based decisions of "I like giant robots" or "I want to play a princess". As an opener, consider the role of two things in game design: community roles, and operant conditioning. There were three here, originally, but this got too fucking long.

    Community Roles

    Every person adapts to fit a 'role' in a given community. And every community has only a certain number of roles to fill, as well - in a theatre troupe, for example, you only need so many directors, so many actors, so many light techs or set designers. When you have more roles than you have people to fill them, communities tend to be open - even aggressive - about recruiting new people to the fold. Likewise, people are encouraged to try things they might not have experience with, and take on multiple roles (the fledgling troupe might not have a regular director, so everyone who's interested takes on directing something in addition to their other duties). However, as roles become filled with permanent or semi-permanent members, the community becomes more insular, and more, competition is introduced. Roles start becoming curated - who can be the BEST director in the eyes of the community? Additionally, new people tend to find that they are expected to 'prove' themselves, to show that they have value sufficient to balance the competition that they bring. Potential members who don't meet the 'standards' are quietly shuffled off, either actively ("Sorry, you didn't pass the audition,") or passively, through being ignored. Of course, in doing this, the community loses the benefits that new people bring - change, new ideas, and a 'stir of the pot' that keeps a community fresh and vital.

    In games, you can see this most clearly in the cycle of opening -> growing -> peak -> overpopulation -> stagnation -> decay. Most games, functionally, only have so many roles to fill, even if their claim is "You can play anything you want", and new games - especially in popular systems/settings - attract a great many people who weren't able to fill a desired role to satisfaction in previous games, all at once. More, some of those limited roles are very popular and 'fill up' to become competitive while others remain unfilled. As an additional complication, many roles in MU*s may be filled by placeholders - players who have that role, and defend that role, but do not use that role to advance the community or the game. Which, much like a director who refuses to cede the position, but also refuses to call any rehearsals, creates stagnation in the community, as everyone whose role depends on that role is forced to wait. Another complication is alternate characters; this enables one player to fill multiple roles within the game. This is neither good, nor bad, in and of itself, but it can mean that the roles available in the game fill up and become competitive faster, which means the community itself becomes insular more quickly.

    Implications for game design: Mostly, be cognizant of what roles your game has available (meaningful roles - what are the character roles who are central to the story, who have the ability to drive things, who have significant agency beyond just existing or being 'support') and how you can design the game to keep that role/person ratio beneficial. It may involve opening up new areas of the game world in stages (provided you have the staff to do that), or restricting alts either from holding certain multiple roles, or just in general. Activity within roles is also something to think of - how will your game handle someone 'squatting' on a very influential or competitive role? What effect will if have on your game if X position is filled by someone who doesn't play out the role? How can you build in workarounds for roles who depend on another role, but that role remains unfilled or is filled by someone who isn't interested in the interdependence?

    Operant Conditioning

    The very basic definition: People tend to repeat behaviors they are rewarded for. If you want your players to do certain things, build rewards for doing those things. If you DON'T want your players to do certain things, for heaven's sake, don't reward them for doing them. The concept of punishment is a bit more complex (punishment, in general, suppresses but does not extinguish a behavior - if you punish someone for doing something, the general take away is not "I won't do that anymore," but rather, "I'll be more careful to not get caught next time,"

    Where this gets complex in a game environment is that certain consequences can function as unintentional rewards. For example, if someone finds an exploit in the system, and the exploit is closed, but the person gets to keep the result of their exploit, this rewards finding an using exploits in the system - as long as you are the first person (or first people) to find and use the exploits before they are closed. Likewise, the rewards that people are motivated by will differ, but two that you are MOST LIKELY to run into are: mechanical improvement, and character agency. Players, by and large, are strongly attracted to rewards that allow them to a) improve some aspect of their character's mechanical values or assets, or b) serve as a concrete marker of in-game agency, influence, status, or power. And keep in mind that as these are rewards, they serve as ends in themselves, not (just) means to other ends - in other words, people will chase those two things even if they have no concrete plans on how to use them after they get them.

    Additionally, many players may have some level of compulsive or addictive personalities. This is where it ties in directly to the Water Finds a Crack thread, as well: some portion of players will ruin a game for themselves because they cannot STOP themselves from optimizing or pursuing rewards, even if those rewards are not fun. More, if you introduce a 'grind', some players will pursue that grind to the exclusion of all other activities, even if it's actively unfun. Increasing the level of the grind to make it 'less rewarding' or 'less useful' will only increase the compulsive behavior because you've just created what's called a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, and that goes directly to our monkey brains and says "do this forever".

    Implications for game design: Think about what you're rewarding your players for doing, because they are largely going to follow whatever the rewards are - even if you didn't intend something to BE a reward. XP is the most basic reward for most games, and most people have already seen how certain schedules of XP dispersal can actively create different behaviors (good and bad). Since XP will PROBABLY be your main reinforcer in most games, consider using it to facilitate the behavior you want to see...or at least stop using it to reward behavior that's actively hurting a game. Anything that allows a 'grind' should be capped at some low upper number in a given time period, unless you want a certain portion of your playerbase to focus on that grind to the exclusion of many other activities. IC titles/powers/abilities are often viewed as rewards, not necessarily as tools - you will have people compete viciously for them who have no intent of using them; the GAINING of the reward is the point.

    There. Word vomit done. But I'm interested in how other designers have thought about or used psychology/sociology to build their MU*s? Even if not formally, just thinking about how your observations of how people act on games and in groups, and using that to help design your game?



  • As part of my current job, I took an online course in what boils down to communicating with people who are in "crisis mode." Not life or death crisis mode, it wasn't a course in counseling people who are having psychological crises or suicidal ideations or anything like that. But "crisis mode" in the sense of: they're fed up, they're at their limit, and even if they want to take in new information their emotional state might get in the way of actually processing or digesting it.

    Since taking that course, I've on-the-sly passed some of the handouts and course notes to friends on MUSHes because while the course was in no way related to managing online roleplaying relationships, the basic principles of "dealing with people in crisis mode" have been surprisingly helpful to them in figuring out how to handle... well, not to put too fine a point on it, but MUSH drama.

    One of the things in the course handouts I've shared with people is a thing on how to communicate with people to make sure that while you'll do the best you can, there are specific things that you can and can't do. It's less about red tape and more about "I'm not your magic bullet, I can't guarantee your problem will go away at a flick of my wrist, but I can support you as we work together to solve it."

    Sometimes it's been successful for the friends who have needed it. Sometimes not so much (there was one person who reacted to that attempt to gently set a boundary by logging off in a huff of hurt feelings). But I think for anyone who struggles with this kind of stuff -- whether it's a staffer who feels like the players see them as a vending machine, or a player who feels obliged to take on the problems of another player even if they don't have the spoons for it -- that reading is, at the very least, an affirmation of "you don't need to kill yourself for this online roleplaying game stuff, and it's not your fault or obligation if people keep taking and taking and giving back nothing."

    I don't really want to link the actual documents themselves because it gives away a bit too much about my RL work than I'm comfortable having out in the open on MSB, but I'm sure there are other resources regarding the same topic that are out there online. Maybe this weekend I'll have a look.


  • Pitcrew

    So I don't know much psychology to use it in my build but I often think that people should sandbox the games/themes they want to play before they put it out there for public consumption. People always laughed and thought I was joking when I said @krmbm and I started Gray Harbor as a cowboy game - but it's true. She and I really wanted a cowboy game, we spent a lot of time developing a website, a grid, theme, etc. And while we were building, we sandboxed it, and we had fun but it wasn't anything we felt was sustainable or long-lasting.

    Every so often we go back to that cowboy theme and we sandbox a story and it's great. And we go, why didn't we make a cowboy game? And then we think about long-term playability, the difficulty of incorporating inclusivity into a wild west theme and balancing "history" with what people actually want to play, and it's not great and nothing that can ever be sustained in the long run.

    I think people build games and think "is this fun?" but they don't consider the "will this STAY fun?" One of the difficulties I encountered is evolving a game or a theme and keeping it interesting. How do youmake changes without upsetting the playerbase? How do you incorporate growth? What happens when you really get to the end of the story? Etc. etc.

    One of the the things @krmbm and I talk about now is the cycle you indicated (opening > growing > peak > overpopulation) and how to control that. Is it possible to limit population without killing your game? How do you responsibily say "I only have capacity for 25 people" but continuously have 25 people playing because eventually 5 people will go inactive? I don't have any good answers for these questions, but it's definitely something we consider a lot.



  • @Pyrephox - thank you for posting this! I've thought a lot about this sort of thing as I work on my game design and community, but without the formal training or structure to the thoughts that you've brought to the table.

    One point in particular that jumps out at me:

    IC titles/powers/abilities are often viewed as rewards, not necessarily as tools - you will have people compete viciously for them who have no intent of using them; the GAINING of the reward is the point.

    This is SO true. Seen it time and again. So, question for the whole group... how, as a game designer, does one set those sorts of things up to be tools, encouraging their use by the people who have them? Has anyone seen a game that does this well?


  • Pitcrew

    @reversed Yeah, exactly. I mean, people are people whether they're screaming for a manager down at the local big box store, or throwing a tantrum on Public over a house rule. While the content of disagreements and crises may differ, the way people react to stress tends to stay roughly the same.

    Setting boundaries is hugely important, I think. My deleted third topic was actually going to be on social and interpersonal norms, and the way people develop norms. If you don't establish norms for a group explicitly, then people will default back to the norms they internalized from similar situations in their history AND people who don't have relevant histories will learn from the examples they see around them. Experience also tends to be more highly valued than statements when establishing internal schema, so even if your players are hearing 'this community treats other players with respect' if they're SEEING staff mock players, or players mock players, without repercussions, then their adaptation will prioritize that over the statement.

    It's almost always better to be explicit about the boundaries of an interaction in the long run.


  • Pitcrew

    @Pyrephox very much agree with setting boundaries in particular. I have seen it (rarely) done well, and it was amazing the difference it made in the behavior of /everyone/ on the game and how they treated each other--even if they'd played together for years on other games. And how quickly things really devolved into the usual when boundaries started to slip as far as their reinforcement.

    It's very hard and taxing work though, especially over the long haul. People often mistake being a hardass for being good at boundary enforcement. ("I'll kick people who do that off my game if they show signs of tantruming/being weird or mean on channel!" while they ignore the people they know or excuse them having a "Bad day" on a consistent basis.) Holding respectful boundaries in any org, online or otherwise is a lot more work than a lot of people give credit for!


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