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.




Fab Gamecamp input – ideas about location-based games

In my  last post I summarised where I’d got to so far with my search for the active weather fronts of location-based games – and yesterday’s pickings at Gamecamp were so rich that I had to put them into their own post.

By the way – if you are within day trip range of London and interested in a mellow, friendly, interesting games unconference, check out Gamecamp.  From what I can figure, participants are mix of indie inventors, academics, and enthusiasts.   The content is whatever people want to say on the day.  There are about 10 parallel sessions of about a half hour each – so always lots going on! The lunch, from Princi, is in itself is worth the (beguilingly modest) price of admission.  But I think the best thing about it is the positive vibe in the sessions.  People offer their expertise and opinion in a constructive and supportive way.  They are genuinely nice to each other.  They work to make the session work.

And you will find yourself playing games as well as talking about them.   Last year – my first year attending – I went to a session on playground games expecting a lecture and I ended up leaping around a classroom like a 6 year old.  Well, not exactly.  Best effort though.   This year I went for something that required less agility and tried out a card game prototype called Drunken Prophets.  (Reader, I won.  No comment.)

I had been thinking about whether to do a session and almost didn’t as I’d had a pretty busy week and I felt a temptation to chill in low revs.  But one of the organisers nudged me and I’m glad she did, because so many fab people came to my session, and added a lot to my growing as yet unorganised warehouse of Useful Stuff.   Thanks everyone!

Here’s a rundown of ideas and suggestions (n.b. if I got something wrong please sing out, either via the comments form or the contact form on the About tab, on twitter or wherever):

  • we had at least 4 Ingress players in the session – one super-expert (level 8!!), the others dabblers – people  agreed there was an easy enough onramp for starting play, but to really get the most out of it you had to be committed, and battery life was a huge issue with a full charge only giving about an hour of play.  pro tip: our expert player said that people who wanted to play for more than an hour took chargers and chargepacks with them.
  • it was noted with interest that Ingress populates Google’s Field Trip app with geolocated content – a nice (and probably enitrely intentional) side effect for Google
  • we had a geocacher who updated me that geocaching has moved on to mobile – he said it was a great way to make transient, fun social connections via a shared goal
  • we had several Zombie’s Run! users, there was debate about whether it was really a location-based game (answer = probably not), many commented on its simplicity and lack of features but despite that, it had got several people back into running and was very atmospheric (in a scary way) – running alone on the moors or in a forest to the sound track of zombie pursuit was frightening
  • one player played a game at the British Museum, then realised he was ignoring the richness around him, which
  • the use of maps as a platform for games was seen by some as reductive and limiting – because of the cultural preconceptions about what abstractions the maps should support – and because of it inability to capture some important features (think “Edinburgh”) – though clearly also a huge enabler

People also recommended I check out:

  • Arcade Fire’s use of Google Maps and HTML 5 for their customised video soundtrack
  • MotiRoti
  • Haunted Planet
  • Blast Theory’s Fixing point
  • Amblr’s work on delivering “geo-located audio-visual experiences through mobile devices” (which is a quote from their graphic designer)

More than a handful of people were making their own location-based games, of various styles and flavours, one based on Google StreetView, nobody mentioned insurmountable technological hassles, but someone mentioned it would be nice to have a WordPress for location-based games.   Tool-wise, people mentioned ConductRR’s transmedia story telling app as a facilitator for cross-media content.

So, enough to be getting on with for the moment.    Thanks everyone!!