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.




Morris minors and machine slots

Natasha Schüll’s study of machine gambling, Addiction by Design, won a lot of prizes when it came out in 2013.  But it’s had nil splashback on digital games – which is curious.  Most games rely on the operation of chance – or at least unpredictability – in order to unfold.  So an understanding of how and why ‘pure’ chance entrances people would seem to be a truly handy thing to have in your back pocket.  “Know your ingredients” as Joy of Cooking would say.    (18 million copies and counting!)

There is certainly a strong parallel between the revenue structure of free to play games and the revenue structure of machine games: for both, the overwhelming bulk of their revenue comes from a small number of players.  Revenue concentration in f2p is even higher than it is in slots machines – as physical machine slots carry an entry price.

But no.  There’s no quicker way to annoy your common or garden variety digital games person (designer or player) than to suggest that gambling and ‘real’ games share important design patterns.  If you are feeling brave and want to try it, I advise you to stand well back first.   (Unless, of course,  they’re into social casino – which is definitely a story for another day.)

There are other problems with using Schüll’s ethnography as a cookbook for supplying top recipes for ‘chance entrancement.   For one thing, her study  documents the detrimental effect that machine games have on some players.

For Schüll, this arises from a fundamental structural asymmetry between gamblers and the industry that supplies them:

“The gambler not only can’t win, but isn’t playing to win, while the gambling industry is playing to win all along.”

“The relationship that exists between players and the industry is not so much a clash between two systems of value as it is an asymmetric interdependency between a system of value extraction that plays by the economic rules of the market, and a fleeting zone of non-value in which those rules are, for the player, suspended.” p. 72

Not only is the problem that the relationship is asymmetric, but, according to some researchers, the design of the games is such that

“impaired control and subsequent problem development are an understandable and ‘natural’ consequences of regular high intensity [machine] play” p 16

As Schüll explains it, the industry,  by contrast, treats addiction risk as inhering in characteristics of the player, rather than the design characteristics of the gambles they partake in.  Schüll preserves a more or less discreet silence on this issue – except, perhaps, for the hint in her book’s title.

Many of the people who are the subjects of Schüll’s case studies have life histories of abuse, anxiety and rejection, and other very serious challenges.    The close focus provided by her enthographic lens leaves us none the wiser about whether her addicted subjects are typical.  Perhaps they experience a high baseline level of suffering which is relieved by the experience of gambling,  and this makes the experience more risky for them?  Less data about more people would help untangle this, of course – but that’s not the game she plays.

It is obvious that some players of machine slots become addicted.  Whether this has to do more with an individual’s predisposition to addiction, or more to do with an experience design which is intended, from the ground up, to create addiction in any player, is not entirely clear.  Common sense would suggest that both factors are important.

Whatever the answer, there’s the issue of whether it’s good to design things that some – but not all – people may have serious problems with.    You could apply a similar ethical question to the creation of cakes, or cocktails.  Or digital games – whether f2p or not.

But even putting moral qualms aside to prove,  in a low oven with a wet cloth over them, there is very different but equally difficult problem with using Schull as a cookbook: an utter lack specificity over mechanism.

She goes into a goodly amount of detail, and also has interesting insights about:

  • the phenomenology of the machine gambler’s experience (which I summarise in another post)
  • design tricks which are used to induce that experience

What you don’t get, is any deep insight into how the designers’ tricks – some of which are very tricky indeed – work to create the powerful and nihilistic phenomenal experiences she documents.   It’s like showing separate pictures of two gears, without showing how they engage, except via a hand wave at ‘math farms’ and ‘random reinforcement schedules’.

So, like any interesting piece of work, her book creates more questions.

One thing that’s clear to me that machine slots are like Morris Minors.   The Morris Minor displays the high forehead and concentrated stereotypical ‘cute’ features of a baby.  This leads to a heightened response to take care of it.   No matter that they stopped production decades ago, and fall apart the moment you turn your back or slam the door.   They are still cute.   You still want to put money into them.

They act as a kind of super stimulus, abstracted and distilled from what you would expect to find in nature, producing a response which seems inappropriate, but may simply be the result of heuristics gone wrong, in contexts which supply powerful but misleading cues.

The plot line of machine slot inputs and outcomes probably performs a similar similitude function to real world features – although what the feature detection hierarchy is that is responsible for their power has yet to be fully explained.

Morris Minor 1000 Source: /0/06/Morris_Minor_1000_1958.jpg


The triumph of experience over reality, and games analytics

For a while after I moved the chest of drawers in my hall, I sometimes saw it  in its old location.   This happened only when I wanted to get something out of it.

Flickr: Binary Ape

Flickr- Binary Ape


It didn’t pop out at me and say BOO! as I walked by en route to doing something else.  Its appearance was linked to my intent to do something with it.

Eventually I caught up with reality  – at least as far as my chest of drawers was concerned – and the chest of drawers no longer met me halfway when I went to get something out of it.  I can’t recall if it faded away slowly like a Cheshire cat,  or just plain old wasn’t there one day.  My guess is that it followed the adaptation in my intention.

Memory, like perception, experience, intentionality and self-report, is a constructive and active process.  This is widely acknowledged – and not well understood.   The relationship between top-down, theory-based processing and bottom-up, data-based processing is the subject of a fair amount of tug of war.

Now, if you are (not unreasonably) wondering what this has to do with games analytics, I am heading over that way just as soon as I tell you a bit about some sessions @developconf I went to recently.  Or you can cut to the chase.

My own session @developconf was about using analytics in support of discovery-driven design, but I attended as many other sessions as I could, and the mix has been fermenting nicely.  For me, there were two themes that stood out:

  • social TV, 2nd screen TV, and games  (all very shiny and uncertain and potentially massive and interesting)
  • the theme that I’m chewing on at the moment, which is the relationship between expectation and experience.

There were four sessions that stirred my thinking on the theme of expectation and experience:

Overall, I was delighted by what I heard.   In the audio sessions they’d busted a gut to rig up a proper Dolby(tm)  sound system for the room, which could partly explain why.  But the sessions were also deeply thought-provoking.   And somewhere in the back of my mind I am still thinking about them.

Steven Root’s Keynote covered a lot of ground over a long period of time and en route touched on how iOS was like going back to basics in terms of resource limitation.  This in turn triggered a nostalgic story about how way back in the old days (on I  forget which platform), they couldn’t loop audio, so on one of his projects they were forced to have a gap in the music until such time as the platform could marshall its tiny resources to perform a rinse and repeat.   The point is this.  People said to him “when you made the music stop, that was brilliant”.

Alistair Lindsay had a similar point to make, amidst his explanation of his game-state-responsive but non-literal UI soundscape for “Prison Architect”.  In the midst of talking about an emotional equaliser, where you can boost the the essence of an effect by finding a contrasting objecting and cutting that, he demonstrated some cymatic frequencies, and wondered whether the whole effect they seemed to have actually concentrated on when the music stopped.  In a flight of creativity, he wondered whether it was possible to do Pavolvian conditioning based on the absence of a sound.  The bell that didn’t ring, the dog that didn’t bark,  as it were.  The violated expectation.

Perceptually and cognitively, we are all expert at detecting change.  Which is a good thing, as it’s important. (In a way, it’s all there is)   We are also, it seems, hard-wired to notice  change vis a vis our expectations.   Which is where the Anatomy of Fun panel came in.    And, at a suitable comic lag, my chest of drawers.

Every panellist had something interesting to say, but for me the highlight was Robb Rutledge talking about his work in neuroeconomics, using MRI scanning to look at how dopamine levels  encode reward prediction error.   A reward prediction error is what happens when- for better or worse –  things don’t work out as you’d hoped.  As I understand it, it’s usually applied to a discrete event with a quantifiable probability of occurrence, not an ongoing unease like a mid-life crisis.

One of his recent findings  – skipping gently over a few ph.d.’s lying in the hallway –  is that it is the relationship between reward and expectation that predicts happiness.  Via dopamine.   I do find it amusing when findings that are intelligible on a social and behavioural level seem to take on an heightened degree of reality when they are found in the brain.     But that’s what brain scientists do, is look for stuff in the brain.  So it’s not like I’m surprised or anything.   And what he said was certainly interesting.

One of the other panellists observed, riffing onwards from Robb’s work,  that at the moment it seemed that people wanted to make games composed of mostly of ice cream, but it was necessary to have broccoli, too.    Mastering uncertainty is rewarding – but such learning usually involves failure en route.   This is extremely important, which is why we are good (in our good-enough way) at detecting it.  The view of the practitioners was that it’s OK to be frustrated or lost, because of the mismatch of expectation and experience,  if the tension was used in some way.

Dear Esther, a moody and atmospheric oeuvre in which there is very little agency possible on the part of the player, is yet another interesting example of the relationship between expectation, emptiness and experience.   The work’s focus is on creating emotional resonance, and leaving space for emotional reactions to the flow of experience without the need for the busyness, the entrained physicality, of a ‘typical’ sensory-physical entrainment loop.    But even without the engagement of a well-mastered physical control feedback loop, even in comparative emptiness, there is still experience.  Symbols appear, and resonate with a long half life.  Here the expectation is generalised – not, specifically, of a chest of drawers, but of the nature of the experience both locally and over the course of the game.   There is a yearning caused by the absence of action, and agency, that builds to a powerful effect.   Not everyone’s cuppa, but a consumable with a strong flavour.

So, what does this have to do with games analytics?   Just this.  There’s no point doing analytics if you aren’t prepared to change your design as a result of doing it.   And, aside from the fire-fighting troubleshooting type of reactive change (which I’m not dissing as it can save your bacon -it’s a question of not only but also),  you get the best mileage out of analytics-powered design change if you use it to systematically explore design options and resultant outcomes  in a way that gets you to closer to where you want the game to be.  The paradox is that easily and obviously quantifiable things, like Google’s infamous 41 shades of blue, are not always the most interesting or useful to vary.   This is where it’s vital to attend closely and thoughtfully to what dimensions of a design are likely to be most relevant.   Always remembering that the unexpected can be a source of delight, and insight.