Category Archives: Psychology

Defining Good Value and Price Limits for your Games

The other night when listening to the latest GameOn episode #30 with Chris (he’s back!), Adam aka Ferrel and Liore (who has permanently joined the podcast!), the hosts made an interesting comment that got me thinking about the long way we have come in terms of general affordability of games and our willingness to pay for them. As for what piqued my interest, this is how the conversation went down [00:16:40 onward]:

Chris: …’cuz there is no game out there that is going to live up to a ten thousand dollar investment, or even one thousand. I would seriously doubt that.
Adam: I don’t even wanna spend sixty dollars on a game.
Chris: Yeah right? Right. With these days, I go to this website [name] because sixty dollars is too much. Pretty much any brand new game I get, if it’s over forty-eight dollars, I’ll wait a little while.

I remember the times when I paid an average 120 bucks for my console RPGs. While PC games were always cheaper, as kids we would usually pay around at least 100$ for console modules, in the late 80ies and early 90ies. Naturally, it took months to save up for new games and both our anticipation and appreciation was accordingly high. Those were different times altogether as far as single game value went. There’s no such thing as scarcity to make you aware of what things are worth – or could be.


Today, I would of course concur with Chris and Adam. 60 dollars for a game is something to think over. I don’t actually recall when I paid that much for a new title ever since moving on to PC gaming and videogames becoming generally more mainstream and thus cheaper, and it’s not even that I avoided them on purpose. The most expensive games I’ve bought (digitally) were possibly Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite right after launch although “expensive” is a very relative term; I don’t consider 40-65$ for a full-package title with 20+ (in Skyrim’s case more like 80+) hours worth of game time expensive. Also, my budget for games is a different matter than it was twenty years ago.

This is of course where our notion of good value (or biggest bang for the buck) comes in and generally, it’s fair to say that with a growing supply our expectations of videogames have drastically increased. As Liore also mentions later on the podcast, the expectation of things like Steam sales further influences player purchases. Now, when are we still willing to pay more than the usual 5-20$ on Steam for single games and how do we determine that value? And how do we determine the absolute limit of an acceptable price? Is there any?

Personally, I detect a variety of factors influencing my investment decisions for games: reputation / trust in an existing brand, genre expectations, overall preview impressions, word of mouth, total game time, extras – they all play a part. As far as hard limits go, I wouldn’t pay several thousand dollars for any game (alpha/beta access for that matter) upfront; even if I had that type of small change, there is no one game with enough value that could justify such a price to me, certainly no non-MMO. After playing WoW for 6 years, I must have paid around 1000$ in installments and subscriptions. All that said, the prospect of playing a game like Skyrim with Omni and Occulus Rift hardware is highly appealing. If this is the future of gaming, wouldn’t I be willing to pay for that? I know I would.


How do we determine that sketchy variable that is value when purchasing new games and how much weight is given to qualitative (for ex. gameplay innovation) vs. quantitative factors (for ex. overall play time) respecitvely? Can a rewarding and fun one-hour indie platformer offer the same or more value than the average Mario game on console? If not, how do we break down value proportionally to arrive at a “justified price”?

Is there any time when you still want to buy a video game right after launch, no matter the higher price? [random question]

Judging from many heated pricing debates on forums and message boards that I’ve seen, there is clearly no consensus among gamers about these matters. It is very interesting to hear anyone talking about 60$ being “too much for any game” though, considering I just had a dinner last night that cost more. In the end, games are experiences to me and even in 2014, I will still be very willing to pay good money for well, the good ones.

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

Holding on to your Escapism

Hello, my name is Syl and I am a screenshot junkie. I admit, I have a weakness for shiny fairytale worlds. Sometimes, I wish I lived there.


There have been times in my life when I have. Half of my childhood (literally) was spent lying on my bed, listening to audio cassettes (fifty-two, for which I will always thank my late grandfather) full of international folklore, mythology and fairytales, while reading the colorfully illustrated booklets. All day long I watched Jack climb the beanstalk, Sindbad fly giant birds and Odysseus fool the cyclops with sheep skins. When George killed the dragon, I was there with him. The secret backdoor in my wardrobe has been wide open all my life. Escaping to fantasy land always came easily to me. It’s what has kept me sane. I don’t want to imagine my life without stories growing up.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism. The key points of consideration, though, are what you’re escaping from, and where you’re escaping to. [source]

When less informed people talk about game-related escapism (for that still seems to be less established than the literary form), they only ever focus on the escape; the negative distancing, the social estrangement. Hardly ever do they understand that when we do, when we need to, we escape to a better place – maybe to the only, currently right place in our life. That it’s only there where we find shelter, safety and peace of mind. For a little while. And that it may save us from something. That it gives us hope.

The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed. [source]


I will never apologize for my escapism. I don’t know where I’d be without it. I will never be ashamed of what’s kept me alive. Things could have gone badly – instead, I found universal meaning, truth and understanding that reaches beyond the struggles of our everyday lives.

We read to know we are not alone. [C.S. Lewis]

Moving on to the interactive stories of video games was the natural progression of my childhood thirst for fairy tales. Discovering JRPGs around age 10 was a revelation. Later, MMOs finally allowed us to enter the worlds we’ve been day-dreaming about in Lord of the Rings or the Forgotten Realms in full capacity, as ourselves.

The rest is history. I love this genre – I love it for its immersive otherworldly-ness, its places of order and beauty where, for a little while, I can rest in peace and recharge my batteries. In a way, this is self-medicating. Bhagpuss commented elsewhere that ‘the reason games are “fun” is because they allow us to forget for a small time that we are all going to die one day and probably sooner than we would like to think’ and that may be a part of it too, the older we get. I do not fall down the rabbit hole as deeply as I used to nowadays, yet there are still moments in my daily life when I feel completely drained and in almost physical need to switch off and just play games for a while. There have been times when I neglected this part of myself for real life demands and that didn’t go well. I need to keep in touch with my wardrobe; it restores my sanity like nothing else does.


I wish that more people understood this because so many of us deal with the world in similar fashion. In the words of my old philosophy teacher: “the greatest gift we can give our children is to give them stories”. So keep yours close (and check out my new screenshots gallery!) and a happy Monday to all you MMO escapists out there. Hold on to that escapism for as long as you need it.

Green is the new Green! Why none of this really matters (but it’s fun all the same)

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king. [source]

There is something strangely unsettling, or comforting depending on your viewpoint, about the nature of human culture(s), tastes and trends. It so happens that throughout the entire course of more civilized history, the same topics have been discussed fervently in certain circles, the way they are today in certain circles. The same things have gone in and out of fashion in regular intervals and even the greatest cultural or societal accomplishments would suffer serious setbacks. Revolutions, invasions, fires, plagues all had that kind of power but on a much subtler intellectual level do our social, moral and everyday values fluctuate – rather than following one perfect, smooth line of progression. We are never quite “there” because we cannot make final calls about where that is. In the end, what do we know about tomorrow anyway?

When it comes to fashion or art in general, we’re used to talking about “waves”; plateau shoes and those horrible flared jeans keep coming back ever so often. History repeats itself. Impressionism, surrealism, photorealism – who can say where we’re going? Mainstream furniture design rejected by our parents becomes classy and hip again.


Games releasing this Sept 2013

Of course videogame design and related criticism (professional or amateur doesn’t matter one bit) follow pretty much the same pattern, be it formally or otherwise. Remember how one popular reaction to the big “representation of women in videogames”-debate has been to get more women into the industry, having more women develop, design and write female characters in recent years? All the smart people, the vocal people, the opinion making sites agreed. It’s the answer. It’s the truth.

That argument? So last season! We’re moving past that, as the comment section on one of Gamasutra’s most popular articles of late suggests; why shouldn’t men be able to write interesting female characters? The most acclaimed authors of all time have done? Women write about men all the time? What do you mean, men can’t write good female characters?? You’re not an alien I can’t possibly relate to, are you?

We’ll see more of that soon, I’m sure. Back and forth.

And then there was the MMO community

For a long time now mainstream MMO players, myself included, have driven the genre forward by asking for polish, more accessibility and convenience in game design. When we’re thinking of Ultima Online or Everquest, most of us don’t want to go back. Sometimes we feel like we do, but really….we don’t. At the same time, whenever we’ve gotten used to novelty to the point of saturation, we get nostalgic for some of the old days – yes, even the good old, bad days. Stuff we called broken or annoying suddenly looks appealing. And it’s not just that we want what we don’t have; it’s the realization of a person that has come full circle, that can only fully appreciate in retrospective.  Most noticeably this has happened to me the first time I ever played Minecraft (see second paragraph).

When struck by a particularly powerful wave of homesickness or sudden retro longing, our memory often fails to distinguish, too (wait…was it the “good” or the “bad” type of grind I am missing? Umm..). All MMO players have a hopeless romantic inside of them. Okay, maybe not EVE Online players.

Right now, and Guild Wars 2 has a lot to do with it, I keep hearing how the oldschool questing system of FFXIV A Realm Reborn is “refreshing” or doing it for people. No judgement here, I don’t have to follow suit. It is however a noteworthy and remarkable statement insofar as there is absolutely nothing novel or refreshing about kill ten rats; I can play LOTRO or WoW today and get the same. Yet, that’s not what players are comparing ARR to when they’re calling it refreshing (in its conservatism). They’re comparing to the youngest, the most recent, the closest neighbour in the cultural line of progression: Guild Wars 2 (which made a lot of noise about events).

The wave is on the decline. For a little while. All novelty wears off and becomes boredom – yes, even freedom can get boring in MMOs.


What can we learn from this? That before all so-called progress, what we really want is variation. We yearn to learn things, master things, then move on to different things. Not just new; it needs to be new and different.

Just imagine the implications and impact for game design and development here, how crucial timing is for developers when launching a brand new franchise.

The King is dead! Long live the King!

Given there are only so many ways in which you can design a quest mechanic (insert any other topic of interest in MMOs) green is the new green after we’ve had a fair taste of purple. While the episode is in progress, the correct question is therefore not “who is right / what’s better, green or purple?” but much rather “what stage of the process are we at?”. It’s when we don’t share the answer to that last question on an individual level, when discussions usually start.

Long live easy access! – Long live hoops and attunements!
Long live FFA grouping! – Long live the holy trinity!
Long live public events! – Long live fetch & delivery!
Long live free to play! – Long live subscriptions!
Long live the casual! – Long live the hardcore!

Who is right? What’s truth in the long run, to the one that lives in the moment? Between yesterday’s heyday and today’s progress, the only truth is constant change. But of course we’ll keep arguing, disagreeing and searching on our blogs and elsewhere, as we should – because it’s interesting, social, engaging and occasionally useful. Most of all, it’s fun and I hope you’ll keep doing it with me as we chase that fickle child of time forever. – Yours truly, Syl (currently still riding that purple).

Truth is a child of time, not authority.
[Life of Galileo; B. Brecht]

Does everything have to be a Game now?

I’ve been in the middle of an interesting twitter discussion lately, following up a comment I made after hearing about Choice:Texas (“a serious game about abortion”) via this article on Indiestatik


The replies I received to my comment were intriguing on account of their diversity – from complete agreement to yet another discussion of what constitutes “game” in this day and age. That wasn’t really what I was going for though (even if it has a part in this discussion).

I’ll be honest and say I am completely weirded out by projects such as Choice:Texas and it has nothing to do with subject matter. I am all for making a wider audience aware of serious and seriously difficult but important societal, political or cultural issues, yes even testing new media and avenues of transportation. When it comes in combination with the game label however, I hesitate. This is not the first time either – I’ve had the exact same feelings on the recently published Depression Quest. Now, I’ve read several great reviews on this title and I’ve no reason to doubt any of them. For many personal reasons, one of which being my current employment in a mental care facility, I am a big supporter of getting the word out on illnesses such as depression, on educating a wider audience against common and harmful stigma. Heck, you cannot educate too much on such matters. Yet despite all of this, the title Depression Quest still fills me with cringe.

How do you make a “quest” out of something as crippling and insidious as clinical depression? How does the association with all of this being like a quest – that traditionally heroic undertaking with epic loot at the end – add anything to an otherwise important message? I get it: Depression Quest is an earnest attempt to take away some of the gloom off a heavy subject, in order to make it more accessible and encourage people to put themselves in the position of a person affected by depression. I just genuinely wonder why we need gameplay mechanics, tropes and quests to learn about or show interest in such topics? I wonder too, if the average person truly takes this seriously as usual gamer habits, such as looking for the correct answer or choosing the most efficient path, kick in (I assume that the main target audience of this title would be especially those who do not usually engage with it?). And if such isn’t possible here, is it still a game? Why does it need to be? Can we not learn about the world anymore in non-gamey fashion?

Choice:Texas takes my intuitive misgivings a step further. It is majorly bizarre to me how one can make a game out of “the severe restrictions placed on women’s health care access in Texas”. – Are you serious? That is a game now? You have just lost me completely.

Just to make it plain once more, I get all the intention behind this and the need for education. I just honestly don’t see how applying the game label to such a matter can help. There is an almost insurmountable bias or thematic association I have with the term game and I am happy to bet so have most people. Even if videogames can serve multiple purposes or be designed therefor, historically speaking games have been pastimes, activities done for distraction or entertainment. They are short-lived, limited in severity and therefore trivial to a certain point. And that lies at the heart of the problem for me personally: game is trivializing. I don’t feel it serves anybody to trivialize the issue of abortion laws in Texas to a point where it can be packaged into neat units of gameplay (*).

I don’t see how evoking associations with gaming (and questing, gathering points or beating the game from there) aren’t counter-productive in this case. One could even suspect the creators of Choice:Texas have already had similar doubts or why keep emphasizing how this is “a very serious game”? To clarify: I absolutely think you can create things like comics or even interactive clips / stories etc. on political subjects but why call them games?

Maybe I am completely off here and I’m sure those who think so, will kindly let me know. As I said, I appreciate all underlying intention but to me there is a bad aftertaste of desperate marketing thrown in the whole mix, all other misgivings aside. I think games are a wonderful medium, vast and creative, diverse and powerful, but all considered I still believe some things should be worth saying and hearing without having to make a game out of them. Guess I’m just old fashioned that way.

(*)This is where I take the opportunity to recommend the Black Mirror trilogy, especially season one, episode two: “15 Million Merits”.

Free-to-Play vs. Gambling

The Kleps kicked the never quite dead F2p-debate back to life this last Monday, and another interesting series of posts (Rohan, Tobold, Rowan, Telwyn) emerged as a result. With Rift now also F2P and upcoming titles like Wildstar or TESO having not yet disclosed payment options, many gamers are wondering who will ever be bold enough again to dare the subscription. Personally, I seem to care more for debating principles than the answers to these questions. If Zenimax Online want me to pay a sub for TESO, I will. If not – well, either way I’ll raid the shop.


Blogging buddy Liore and I go way back when it comes to discussing F2P back and forth on our blogs, so it was only a matter of time until we’d put on our boxing gloves and get into the ring together. No really, it was my great pleasure to finally have a personal chat this past week as guest on the delightful Cat Context Podcast (our exchange starting around 31 mins), with both Liore and co-host Ellyndrial speaking for the F2P skeptics. We tackled many of the core issues and realized that we disagree mostly on details rather than what matters most to us in MMOs. No surprises there.

That’s not where the discussion ended though – no, this is a persistent one. Belghast went forth and shared this interesting follow-up on his F2P “conversion”, sharing his past experiences with EQ2 going free to play (which then also spawned another reply from Liore here). I am always looking for personal recaps like this; what’s changing for you when an MMO switches to F2P? What tangible consequences does it have that possibly impact on you negatively?

Random drops vs. gambling

In an exchange with Ellyndrial on the podcast, I mentioned that I do not believe random lockboxes (for which keys can be bought via ingame shops like in GW2) or lottery tickets can be compared to real world gambling, the way it happens in casinos for example. The basic assumption being that cash shops may cause players to lose control of their spending, getting addicted to a luck-based system looking to relieve them of their money. To be clear, I absolutely feel casino gambling needs to be regulated – I do however not believe that lockboxes dropping in MMOs follow the same psychological pattern or harbor the same potential for addiction. Not claiming professional expertise on the subject (and those who do may come forth please), I see some distinct differences between the two activities.

Interestingly enough I happened to watch a documentary recently on David Choe, graffiti artist and facebook millionaire, also pathological gambler, which added to my inner monologue. Choe made his first million gambling in Las Vegas before turning 30 years old. That first milestone was preceded by years of a vagabond lifestyle, being notoriously broke and loosing vast amounts of money at the gambling table. Self-proclaimed gambling addict, Choe had this to say about his “fever” (paraphrased): I always felt I was winning, even when I lost everything. I won most of my games, only to go and lose everything on the last one.

There’s a devious quality to gambling in the sense that it continuously conveys feelings of both success and control to its victims. Gambling is a game of many stages, there is a progression to the gambler’s journey in which he feels that he is learning, improving and even winning. Winning is a big part in that quest for more, raising the stakes and then “gambling it all away” in one fatal loss (endorphins and adrenaline = powerful drugs). All of these elements are essential to developing addiction (biological dispositions aside) – the sense of control/strategizing (poker pros will tell you that the game is 90% nerves), reassuring mini-successes, progression of risk and potential winnings.

Virtual lockboxes do not share any of these psychological hooks. They’re completely random, there is usually no influencing outcome, improving one’s own performance or “getting closer” involved. It is therefore not nearly as motivating to spend endless cash on keys because there is no “game” aspect. Which doesn’t mean somebody might not spend ludicrous amounts of cash on the off chance of epic pixel – but to speak of addiction or danger to a wider audience feels off in this scenario. That person is likely after a very specific drop and generally there’s nothing wrong with spending money (or time) on something luck-based in games. We do this all the time?

There’s more to this though, even if we assumed a way simpler analogy such as a slot machine with very random outcome (I do not know how many people get ruined by this rather than card games). A big difference between gambling and pixel-hunting is that gambler’s play for money. The Faculty of Economics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland (ya, I live here so that’s my resource), recently revealed intriguing study results on the development of “altruism” in children. Test results were based on children’s social sharing behavior between ages 3-6. The perplexing part: while children, especially older ones and therefore already more socialized, were happy to share candy equally with peers, results changed dramatically once money was substituted. Children would either change the ratio in which money was shared or share none of it. This lead the leading researcher to assume that children learn the social and economical significance of money early on. He then elaborated on why humans react differently to money than to any other type of resource: money is a tricky currency because money is abstract. Money isn’t so much goods as it is potential; to give money away is to give away opportunities and power that we cannot control or estimate. We can imagine few things anyone could do with candy – but money, money holds as many plans as there are people.

Gamblers gamble for money and when they gamble for money, they gamble for plans and dreams. For one person it might just be a dream of winning or wealth, for another the resolution to very imminent and dire life circumstances. Not only that – gamblers gamble with money for money. When I spend coin on the slot machine, there’s a very clear, calculated ratio/equation between input and output. I’ll make a mental note à la “if I put in 10$ and win 100$, that is ten times more” or “if I lose, that’s still only 10% of my potential winnings”. That makes it seem alright and in some cases probably adds fuel to a perilous journey.


Again, lock boxes / lottery tickets hold neither abstract appeal nor absolute value in MMOs. Usually players hope to get a very specific drop, most likely an epic item or rare pet or similar. How much that reward is truly “worth” is impossible to measure (unless sellable – but this is not the chosen avenue of gold farmers) and therefore also cannot be equated to how much money was spent in order to get it. Sparkle ponies may be worth 10 keys to one player and 50 to another. Add to this considerations of “what other mounts are there in the game I could go for instead?” and meta-currency systems that also allow ingame currency to be converted in some cases, and you’ll see how much that differs from casino gambling or even real life lottery.

Wrapping up

To return to the topic of F2P, I believe it is very important to continuously question and observe the practices developers and publishers engage in to make systems more profitable. I’m very critical of pay-to-win in MMOs and shy away from games mentioning their cash shop at every occasion. I also agree with Liore that F2P only works because of micro-transactions and therefore needs to try draw players in. To me, that is a legitimate cause – without anyone spending money in a F2P game, there is no game. I have faith in players managing their own money and knowing what they want though. What matters to me is how cash shops are implemented, what kind of wares they offer and how their presence impacts on gameplay and overall immersion. We’ve recently experienced just how much of a difference the audience can make in this business and it remains our job to keep both an open mind but also open eyes to changes in this industry and how they may affect us.

At the present stage where F2P is still being adopted and shaped into a better model for western MMOs, I’m personally not seeing signs of a pay-to-win culture developing the way we know it from East-Asia (Gamasutra has an interesting clarification on this, check it out!), nor do I find items for sale that would significantly impact on player economy or endgame (just to name two examples of what’s popularly deemed unacceptable) in the F2Ps I am personally playing. Cash shop items remain optional and practices transparent – if not without inherent advantages, triggers and temptation, especially where cosmetics are concerned. If that’s where we’ll stay with upcoming MMO titles, hopefully offering more hybrid models à la LOTRO, I am completely okay with F2P.

Happy weekend everybody, with or without virtual shinies.

Videogames, Repetition and the Subconscious Mind

Anita Sarkeesian published her second part of the Damsel in Distress trope on youtube last night and after initial hiccups (as in a bunch of her haters getting the video auto-banned thanks to spamming report buttons), I was able to watch what turns out to be the grimmest of her documentaries so far. I recommend watching it not just for the general insight however but to experience the intended repetition in this video, the repeated descriptions of tropes such as “…the X is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter” (starting at 07:40) which incidentally aren’t only a powerful tool in conveying the inherent absurdity, but touch on a greater subject so central to this discussion: repetition.

Repetition and the subconscious mind

Sarkeesian, by now used to the violent opposition and ruthless nitpicking her videos provoke on a regular basis, is including more and more clarifying (and in places toning down) final words in her recent documentaries, forestalling no doubt many of the incoming exclamations of “..but not all games/men/women are like that!” or “…just because lots of X doesn’t mean I am Y!” and erm, yeah.  I doubt it helps much but I appreciate her attempt at balancing where there is not much balance to find. Of course she grants that just because gamers keep seeing certain power constellations or violent problem solving in games over and over, that doesn’t mean we go out on a killing spree the next weekend.

What all those who think they remain unaffected by common videogame tropes and imagery should know however, is that it’s not up to them but their brain to make that call – and the brain happens to be an utterly impressionable organ when it comes to the power of repetition. There is a reason why when googling the search terms “mind control and repetition”, you will not only be presented with educational sites about effective studying methods, but surveys about psychological brain washing, scientifically researched mind conditioning and manipulation techniques employed in interrogation and warfare scenarios. For hundreds of years, repetition has been one of the simplest and yet most effective ways to influence and control human minds ever so slowly and subtly. Methods such as the well-known “drill” employed in the military but also intense sessions of repeated prayer in institutionalized religion, aka “litany”, are based on the same principles.

Our mind is highly susceptible and vulnerable to repetition on a subconscious level. This is most commonly seen in children/people who are bullied over longer periods of time, to a point where they adopt the negative image of themselves, communicated over and over by their peers. They are brainwashed. It is then the daily challenge of educators, social workers and psychologists to try and untie the harmful knots. More often than not, they do not succeed. We simply cannot unhear what we have heard a hundred times – just like we cannot unsee what has been seen too often. It leaves a powerful mental print and shapes our notion of what we are, how we look and what we should be and look like. Rationalization proves to be surprisingly ineffective here even for grownups, although one common therapy of the damaged self-image is also based on repeated, positive affirmation (“over-writing”).


Accepting knowledge about how the human mind works has a sobering effect on the (videogame) tropes debate. No media that are consumed on a very regular basis and which require dedicated levels of attention, can distance themselves from shaping thoughts and behavior of their audiences. This in itself is still trivial unless we are talking about recurring and repeated scenarios, representations of reality and normality. Movies, commercials and print media have a lion’s share here but so do videogames increasingly.

Contextual chunks and you

Physical violence is an integral part of many video game genres, even more “peaceful” ones at first glance and probably always will be. While there are those who would ban shooters from the market yesterday, the overwhelming number of “peaceful gamers” out there (and observations towards the relaxing effect of shooters) speak a pretty clear language in that debate. I don’t think it should ever be silenced but I don’t believe that depictions of “just violence” in media cause the likeliest harm; violence in and out of itself isn’t a motivation and it doesn’t create content in videogames. Much rather, it is fully fleshed out, repeated stories, the finely woven and complex relationships, stereotypes and tropes that we are continuously presented with. That’s why “but we’re also not shooting everybody” doesn’t really apply as counter-argument to Sarkeesian’s points. It’s the repeated subtle messages and subtext in our daily lives that deserve the most attention and that are mirrored in the games we play.

One of the most interesting lessons I’ve taken away from a speed reading seminar few years back, is that there’s a common misconception among readers and also educators that slow reading improves contextual understanding. In truth the contrary is the case: there’s such a thing as reading too slowly (the way your teacher might have asked for back in school). The reason for this is that our brain processes and stores information best in chunks or groups of words and alternatively through images. Only in context do we understand and memorize the most, so it’s easy to see why reading text word by word rather than word chains isn’t exactly helpful. Speed reading isn’t primarily just about being faster but understanding the most in regards to time spent. It’s a skill that can be obtained.

Complex social, contextual relationships, role models, power mechanics and tropes repeatedly shown in media, especially those that combine messages with graphical elements, are the likeliest to get memorized and hence to influence us subconsciously. Personally, I believe that a big part of what our society regards as masculine and feminine traits and behavior for instance is based on the returning “stories shown and told all around us” from an early age. The same goes for our notion of beauty which has drastically changed over time. It isn’t just fashion posters but much rather fairy tales, picture books, movies and daily chatter that teach us what’s desirable or unattractive.

The tropes Sarkeesian is analyzing in her video are complex, crude as their examples might look like. The “girlfriend in the fridge” in all its portrayed variations is built on deep psychological and emotional triggers that are as socially meaningful as they appear to be accepted without question. Yet, it’s the things we are just so used to that require our critical attention. Why is there not more variety in videogame victims and heroes? And why does “flipping the script” (as mentioned towards the end of the video) seem so silly?

tropfI don’t think that videogames need to be highlighted more than any other, in the case of film or literature even more widespread media when it comes to violent, sexist tropes and questioning all their implications for a society. But videogames are a powerful tool for storytelling and therefore they too deserve scrutiny. Whether we like it or not, we are subject to harmful thematic repetitions in games (not just in regards to gender roles) that we are not naturally equipped to ignore. This isn’t some psycho-babble; valuing iteration is just what our brain is really good at. And it happens in spite of us.

That’s why this debate can’t be trivialized and it can’t be shrugged off. It isn’t just about what gamers think they can rationalize or distance themselves from because “umm fiction”; the critical analyzis of repeated violent tropes or gender roles in games and other media is one we need to take seriously because our mind cannot escape repetition. And that, to me, bears repeating.

[LOTRO] Putting a Finger on the Magic

Have you ever felt like a complete fraud while playing an MMO? As if you were the world’s biggest newb, way behind and knew nothing about this longtime interest of yours? That’s a bit how I’ve felt ever since playing Lord of the Rings Online. What on earth was I thinking not playing this sooner? What’s wrong with me?? Sigh.

I can’t turn the clock back and maybe it isn’t always the worst thing to let an MMO mature before jumping in. Still, I find myself baffled at how great a game LOTRO has become while so many of us were busy playing WoW, Rift and other titles, probably thinking this Tolkien-inspired soon-free-to-play game couldn’t quite cut it. How wrong I was.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the magic that makes LOTRO. By now I can say it’s possibly the most atmospheric and immersive MMO world I’ve ever traveled. This isn’t hyperbole; I wish I could say WoW had been as good at selling the experience – or Final Fantasy, Age of Conan, Rift or Guild Wars 2. But even that last one cannot quite compete and it’s not about the graphics. Tyria is the most visually stunning world there is. But Turbine’s Middle-Earth does something to the senses none of the others do – so well, you are willing to ignore other undeniable shortcomings. What’s going on here?

The Sound of Magic

Simply put, it’s the sound. It’s the fabulous sound effects in LOTRO that make it that much more immersive compared to other MMOs. It actually took me playing this game to realize something fundamental about us as human beings: just how much of our processing and understanding of the world around us relies on sounds. You will raise an eyebrow now, thinking “well of course, duh” – but think about it! We’re one of the few species that value their eyesight before all else. We’ve shaped our entire world, our society and culture around the function of our “first sense”. We live in a very visual world where we constantly judge how pretty things and people are. We are untrained and crippled when it comes to our hearing capacity. The experiences and sensitivity of blind people fascinate us.

And yet our brain registers, records and categorizes sounds nonstop without us realizing. Hearing requires no conscious effort; it happens in spite of us, there’s no closing our ears. Because of that, sounds are closely linked to everything we experience in our lives, even if we don’t know it. They are a constant undercurrent, the way smells and odours can be. And like those they can trigger emotional responses and memories.

“Half of the world building in MMOs relies on us completing the picture with our own mental imagery. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

We know how a river sounds or wind howling around a corner. We know the tune of morning birds compared to evening birds. Most importantly, we know how places sound; it is not enough to add a soundclip or two to create a virtual environment. It takes an entire orchestra to create that real sense and association with “world”.

We know how a forest sounds. A beach. A farm. There’s cracklings and rustlings, whistling and jingling, huffing and puffing, japping and blabbering all simultaneously coming from different directions and sources. Plus, that sound canvas changes constantly as we move around. Our world does not consist of static, isolated sound bites. LOTRO captures that.

The Sound of Bree

The first time I rode my horse through the town of Bree, I was delighted at the “sound” of it; the low muttering, combined with jingling harness and the merry clap-clap of hooves on cobblestone. Around us, the town added its very own tune to the melody: carts being pushed around, NPC chatter, hammering, bells, fountains, birds in the blue sky above. Different sounds and noises around every corner. It was overwhelming authenticity. And oddly soothing.

That’s when it struck me: this immense, untapped potential that is sound in most MMOs. Not ambient and background music, as much as I love those too – but intentional, planned out and distinctive sound effects and “maps”. Whenever I approach a swamp or forest in LOTRO, I am already looking forward to the multi-dimensional (or -sensual) experience. Amazingly it carries even further: thanks to the quality of sounds, I can actually smell the forest in LOTRO. That third sense, forever out of a videogame’s reach, becomes tangible. The audio and visuals create such an impact together that my mental memory of forests triggers an idea, a hint of typical forest smells. This is truly powerful stuff.

The scent of sweet bark mixed with turf. Just a hint of rotten leaves and murky water.

Landscaping Sounds

Middle-Earth is the most authentic and plausible MMO world imaginable. You could attribute that to Tolkien’s legacy, the detailed lore, yet bringing that to life in an MMO is no given. It’s just as hard as world building is for all games. And yet the answer seems simple: making use of your player base’s mental triggers and associations. Taking lessons from how we process real world and translating that into game design.

No matter if an MMO simulates real world environments or more fictional, fantastic places, developers should take LOTRO’s example to heart; game worlds are as much about distinctive sound/noise compositions as they are about landscaping, zone design or sophisticated weather effects. Make your trip as multi-dimensional as you possibly can for biggest impact.

I would never want to miss this focus again in any MMO. Already I dread future comparisons. And yeah, LOTRO could do with better character models, a UI revamp and a complete questing and combat overhaul. But oh the sceneries, the travel and the sound effects of LOTRO are a one-of-a-kind package most other MMOs can only dream of! For those who have eyes to see. And especially ears to hear.