Taking Fun Seriously, Part 2

At a recent GDC Canada event, Dr. Clive Chandler discussed several aspects of psychology in MMO’s.

One topic was belief, which relies on trust, which can depend on some very odd things. For example, an NPC’s accent:

In 2003, research found that interviewers had different biases against interviewees with different accents, even with identical qualifications and experience. BT also found that customers were most likely to trust representatives with a Scottish accent.

“If an NPC looks like a ruffian and has an accent of a ruffian, they are perceived as less trustworthy,” says Chandler. He explained that the feeling of belief is achieved when the emotions of acceptance and trust are developed. Partly: “Designers need to design for trust,” he advised.

Hmm, is it a coincidence that the most trustworthy member of OOTS (my favorite webcomic) speaks in a Scottish accent?

We all like our games to give us “an edge”, don’t we. I know I’ve pined for the “good old days” where a long corpse run was just one bad pull away. We’re talking about fear, and prolonged fear. But it’s just a game, right?

Wrong? According to Dr. Chandler, fear

which can cause physiological responses due to the “fight or flight” impulse. Many people love that sensation: “Look at the prevalence of the horror movie; it’s everywhere. Look at horror games.”

“Surely there’s no harm in that? Well, actually, there is,” said Chandler: Scientists have recently determined that after sustained fear, bodies stop producing adrenaline and being producing cortisol, which begins to break down non-essential organs and tissues to feed vital organs, increasing pain, promoting heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

While adrenalin suspends digestion and dissipates after resolution and exercise, cortisol does not.

But as of this year, scientists have apparently determined that there is another anti-stress hormone that potentially counteracts the effects of cortisol. It induces emotional bonding like hugging and kissing, as well as “basic feelings of comfort, security, and love.”

Which, of course, will mean it subject to mocking and ridicule. Really, who wants to be healthy when it means being labelled a “care bear”? Really, I don’t think a game needs to be all unicorns and rainbows, but there needs to be a rhythm to it, an alternation between comfort and stress, between safety and danger. Oddly, the slower pace of old Everquest gave you just that.

In Everquest 2, the fast pace of combat makes this design much harder, since an instance that is very challenging for one group can be a cakewalk for another. One possibility is to engineer built-in waits. LOTRO instances are usually guided by an NPC who at times will go inactive and stay there until you tell him or her to go again. This provides a good opportunity for biobreaks, and dealing with other afk stuff, and allows a mental rest period. This sort of thing doesn’t have to be built in, the smart group leader can build them in, but she will have to judge the challenge level the group is experiencing. If it’s easy, then probably everyone will want to just keep going.

In any case, it’s one more example of how gaming, gaming situations, and characters are real enough as far as our brains and bodies are concerned to give us real world issues.

Taking Fun Seriously

Serendipity abounds. I’ve been slow posting, and in the meantime, several items on the topic of “It’s just a game, isn’t it?” have come to my attention. First up, bunny ears.

It seems that to celebrate Easter, WoW introduced a new achievement which required players to find a female character from one of each of the races and catalog put bunny ears on her, presumably using some sort of gizmo. No permission of said female toon was required.

Some of the women objected. To them, a line was crossed and their avatars were sexualized without their permission. Many in the gaming community reacted just as is expected when challenged: It’s just a game. It’s just an avatar, it doesn’t mean anything.

Credit where credit is due, Raph got here first:

But boy, avatars is a pretty special case. We have a lot of “specialized hardware” around this in our brains, and avatars tend to trigger a lot of it. For example, the fusiform face area or FFA is a part of the brain that seems to be involved in facial recognition, and also seems to fire off when identifying specific objects with fine distinctions (for example, it fires in birdwatchers when identifying birds, and in car aficionados when recognizing specific makes and models). The interesting thing is that the FFA activates even with iconified faces — with stuff that we just think of as a face.

It may be a game, but it isn’t just a game. Your body and your mind reacts to it pretty much as if it’s life. Some people manage to be pretty detached about the experience, but then that’s true of life AFK, too.

Here’s how I feel about it. People take their appearance seriously. WoW has lots of “zap someone’s appearance” toys, but most of them only work on group members. So there’s some form of implied permission there. The height of a players’s avatar will affect their behavior, and so will the amount of “eye contact” another avatar is giving you.

So, I think WoW blew it here. It’s not the moral equivalent of murder, but the moral equivalent of slapping a “hottie” sticker on the back of women at the park. I have little patience for those who argue that “people wear bunny costumes all the time, it’s celebrating the Easter bunny.” There are two problems with this, first, the people who wear the costumes choose to do so. Second, that’s not the only meaning of bunny ears, which have been associated with sexual availability for at least 50 years.

Geez, just ask anyone who is a fan of manga and anime. The acheivement didn’t require you put ears on male avatars, did it? I think there’s be a lot less issue if it had. No, the female characters had to blow kisses at males. Doesn’t that strike you as being a bit, umm, one-sided.

Anyway, not a mortal sin, but a mistake on Bizzard’s part.

Where’s the Pipeweed?

The New York Times reported today on new data concerning the fossils of hobbits found in Indonesia.

These bones were first found in 2004, but controversy remains over whether the bones represent a different species altogether, or just pygmy versions of homo sapiens.

A new study being released in Nature recounts many anatomical differences between the bones and homo sapiens, most notably the extremely large feet. Hair, of course, would not survive the 17,000 years. Still, some questions remain…

Dr. Jungers and his colleagues raised the possibility that the ancestor of the species was not Homo erectus, as had been the original assumption. H. erectus is known as the earliest hominid to leave Africa and make its way across Asia. At a symposium two weeks ago, several scientists edged toward the view that the hobbits emerged from another, more primitive hominid ancestor.

Well, nobody has ever claimed to know where hobbits come from, not even John Ronald Ruel himself. And any red hair would be long gone by now

Sunday Reading

Raph has a very interesting essay on game mechanics and the sort of things that make MMO’s so highly addictive, by way of an Easter Egg game he did recently.

Now, there’s no reward in this game, there’s no winner or loser, and there’s no endgame. Yet even during testing, I had to tear myself away, and when put into Metaplace Central, average session length for the day went up 50%. But… in some sense, it’s a crummy game. Why this effect? Because the Easter Egg hunt is a confluence of a lot of highly manipulative tricks.

What are the tricks? And how do they operate in MMO’s? Well, read the whole thing to find out why folks will raid four days a week or more, and why I go around with the title Exalted in front of my name.