Not all zones are created equal: player pleasure and player anaesthesia

I’ve been chasing the idea that, as ‘pure play’ chance experiences,  machine slots might embody interesting design patterns about the use of chance, ones that are generalisable to other genres of game designs and other types of player experiences.  To this end,  I’ve been mining  Natasha Schüll’s prize winning ethnological study, Addiction by Design for what it says about the player experience of chance.

What’s the attraction for players?  According to Schüll, people play machine slots in order to change how they feel.

“gamblers… act upon themselves through gambling devices with a goal of regulating their own affective states”,  p.20

But what is the state people are playing in order to achieve?  Players sometimes refer to it as ‘the zone’:

“The speed is relaxing,” said Lola… “It’s not exactly excitement; it’s calm, like a tranquilizer.  It gets me into the zone.” p. 54

What is ‘the zone’?  The term is often used in a way that is closely related to Csikszentmihaly’s concept of ‘flow’ – an optimal state in which people feel a sense of total absorbtion in their activity.

But clearly there’s zone and there’s zone.    The zone reached by machine slot players seems to be a zone of being zoned out, rather than the zone of peak human experience.   The experience seems to produce a kind of anaesthesia.

“The solitary, uninterrupted process of machine play…tends to produce a steady, trancelike state that ‘distracts from internal and external issues’ such as anxiety, depression, and boredom.” p. 17, Fn 89

“it is not the chance of winning to which they become addicted; rather what addicts them is the world-dissolving state of subjective suspension and affective calm they derive from machine play.” p. 18

“…the “zone” – the elusive point of absorption, beyond contingency, that machine gamblers perpetually seek…  …[is] at once ‘safe’ and ‘precarious’ – a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect, both of which might at any instance lose momentum and come to a standstill.  The zone state is attainable only at the threshold where rhythm holds sway over risk, comfort over perturbation, habituation over surprise.”  p 135 Fn 93

This is quite different from the idea that gambling is in some way exciting.


Source: Wikimedia

Schüll’s discussions with industry insiders suggest that the most successful slot machines, successful in the sense of producing maximum revenue, are those with low volatility – a stream of small payouts and small wins – but which result in players who spend a long time on device.  Players do differ in risk preferences – but the most profitable ones are those who spend time in large amounts, spend money in small increments, and win steadily but not dramatically.     Large payouts can distract players and disrupt them so much that they fall out of their dreamlike state  – and perhaps even cash out, walking away with their winnings.

“As the journalist Marc Cooper remarked in 2005, “the new generation of gambling machines has, predictably, produced a new generation of gambling addicts: not players who thive on the adrenaline rush of a high-wager roll of the dice or turn of  a card but, rather, zone-out ‘escape’ players who yearn for the smooth numbness produced by the endlessly spinning reels.”  p. 128 Fn 79

The question of why playing on low-volatility machines seems to induce a trancelike state is not much analysed, although Schüll provides eloquent descriptions of “rhythm over risk”, and”a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect” (p.135).   This question is something I’ll turn to in a post or two, after I look at what Schüll has to say about the designs which produce the player experiences she catalogues.




The moral mysteries of chance and combat as game design elements

One fine coffee,  a games designer told me gambling  was utterly immoral.  And shooter games were not.  In the face of his complete certainty there was nowhere to go.  So nowhere was went.   But the exchange left me with a lingering sense of amusement about how differently people see the world, and a curiosity about the fundamental issues.

Clearly, if you look at preferences for skill vs chance as continuum on a single dimension, my coffee guy scored high on skill and vanishingly low on chance.  He valued a game environment that enabled and challenged the exercise of his team combat skills.  If there were bloodstains on the wrappers these skills were packaged up in, they were not meant to be taken literally, as a feeder path to actual aggression, or as an ersatz substitute for it.  Instead, the game was a thing in itself, an enjoyable recreational activity, like a sport.

But physical sports are different in important ways.  In physical sport, the action is real.   So an important function of rules in physical sport is to reduce the prospect of real bodily harm to the player.  Rules restrict and abstract behavioural possibilities away from pure violence.   Also, another function of rules in physical sport rules is to provide unnatural constraints which provide extra challenge, and serve to channel the player’s energy and creativity.   Unless you are goalie, you are only able to use your feet to move the ball, in football.   Who thought that up?  Were they trying to make it difficult?   (Yes, probably.)

Shooters do have much in common with sport, but by representing actual battle, even if ritually sanitised and exaggerated, they venture closer to human’s propensity to violence and conflict.   This is not an accidental quality of such games, but a fundamental part of their attraction.   A hugely important part of the abstraction from actual violence is that the action is not physically real, but is calculated and represented to the player.  All kinds of things are ‘possible’ – virtually – without actual physical harm. Another facet of the abstraction is that allowable actions and  consequences are highly constrained and rule-based.  In this it is similar to physical sports.

Consuming – and producing – representations of an activity is clearly related to   performing the activity itself.   But the nature of that relationship is unclear. Just as kittens chase string, and cats chase rodents,  both sports and shooters can be seen as a preparation for more deadly pursuits.   Alternatively – or additionally – they can be seen as a sublimation or an evolution of the instincts which result in physical aggression.   As far as I can see, which function they actually serve, and how this function originated,  is impossible to determine.   Though that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about it.

I’m not a shooter person.   Or at least not that I’ve yet disovered.  But it isn’t morally wrong to me, that people get satisfaction out of engaging in ritualised, rule-based conflict – either in sports or in video games.   But neither is it unflinchingly innocent.   What it is, is interesting.   And ambiguous.

Neither do I see the excitement of chance in a game as necessarily morally wrong.    Unlike coffee guy.     But neither it is inflinchingly innocent.

Many respected theorist-practitioners view chance as an important design ingredient, rather than as something nasty in the woodshed.  For example, Greg Costikyan’s 2012 GDC talk  tests the flavour of a very broad variety of types of uncertainty in games, treating the uncertainty of chance outcomes as part of a much broader palette of possibilities.  Jesse Schell – with Lens 34, in his Game Design: A Book of Lenses talks not only about chance, but also about the need to adjust the balance of skill and luck to the needs of particular audiences.

As it turns out, coffee guy isn’t alone.  Both Costikyan and Schell observe that people who adore games of skill and combat tend to dislike the use chance, if it plays anything like a leading role.  Mind you, as a bit of spice added to a loot drop it seems to be tolerated pretty well.

Although skill and luck can be construed as opposing ends of a design/experience continuum, they are not mutually exclusive.  Something which has neither skill nor chance components in it is very unlikely to be a game at all.   However it is possible for a game to have high (or at least medium high) elements of both skill and chance.  A classic example is poker.   It is more informative to say that such a game has strong elements of both qualities, than to say it  is neutral.

I think that the right carburettor mix of skill and luck in the delivery of game rewards can power a desire for repeat engagement, by combining delight, hope, and frustration.  I’m not sure exactly what the formula is, but I’m thinking about it.   Ivan Encinas from gave an interesting presentation on describing game levels using these dimensions at the data science track I curated last month. I’ll sling up a link when there’s one available.

But about the experience of pure chance, as entertainment, I’m less certain.  To be blunt, I don’t get it.

Thinking about it in the abstract, there’s potentially a case to be made that games of pure chance provide the hedonic equivalent of empty calories – a kind of basic hotwired limbic thrill, without veneer of cognition and volition (aside from the basic act of electing to engage in the game, and re-engage).

It’s not my thing.  But I know that people like all kinds of things that I don’t particularly care for.  Like pink.   Or tripe.  If it doesn’t frighten the horses or interfere with other people’s liberty I am not usually inspired to call it out on moral grounds.

But, if you look,  you will find huge vehemence against games of chance in gambling addition researchers – I recently attended a talk by very famous one said she who made all her research associates take a solemn oath never to work in the gaming industry.   If they didn’t, she wouldn’t take them on.  This struck me as melodramatic – but her sincerity and passion was unquestionable.    Like coffee guy, she believes pure chance is pure evil.

When I look at games of pure chance,  from an experiential point of view I don’t see much to enjoy,  let alone create crippling addiction.  That’s why I stuck my nose into Addiction by Design, Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, by Natasha Dow Schull (to be reviewed in my next post).   I was curious to see if she’d found and tamed the ghost in the machine.