Games as Learning
The (Gaming) Gods Must Be Crazy

Punishment & Fear

Following on from the discussion of Time & Punishment, what is the effect of punishment on players?

When we are punished by a game, we experience sadness or frustration – if we experience frustration (i.e. anger), we might become riled up and continue to pursue the challenge that drove us to anger. If we experience sadness, we are more likely to stop playing. (It looks as if a lot of players in the wider market have been kept out of playing games by the focus on punishment, hence the success of casual games, i.e. forgiving games).

But more than this, the knowledge that we might be punished acts as a source of anxiety (i.e. fear), and fear is an enhancing emotion for play. The same chemical (adrenalin or epinephrine) is released into our bodies when we feel excited or when we feel scared or anxious – it is our state of mind at the time that resolves it into excitement (when we are having a positive experience) or anxiety (when we are not). So punishment can make games more exciting – provided the player will put up with being punished – and that increased excitement also results in increased reward (i.e. a bigger hit of dopamine) which means punishing games can also be more addictive.

So punishing games can be more rewarding games, you just have to overcome the dislike of punishment. This, perhaps, is why the games industry has taken so long to get away from games of punishment – as an industry primarily made up of videogame addicts, it seems crazy to most developers to make a “sugar” game when you could make a “crack” game.

It just so happens there are a great many more people looking for a sweet game than are looking to become videogame crack whores...


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I love the sugar & crack analogy. But what if one is addicted to chocolate? OM NOM NOM (I go through sugar games like I go through chocolate too)

Katherine: clearly chocolate is more sophisticated than sugar. I imagine a game player with highly developed tastes, such as yourself, might demand chocolate games over mere sugar games. :)

I think the key issue is that near-failures are the most exciting moments (because the possibility of death/punishment is real).

As someone wrote/said, dying isn't scary [in a survival horror] - almost dying is.

This might be a slight tangent but I'd have enjoyed Dead Rising more if it were more punishing. Like, say, if the events were pseudo-randomly generated and you were thus never allowed to play the same map again.

This would almost be a greater fear than 'perma-death' - not only do you lose your progress in the story/quest, you CAN'T start again.

To me, Dead Rising went some way towards escalating the 'fear of dying' in the game without making it a complete punishment - since you keep xp.

Bezman: I haven't played or even really seen Dead Rising properly, so I can't really comment.

I'm not sure that dying isn't scary - the scary moment happens whether or not you die, it's just the way you take away the experience changes if it ends in death (anger or sadness) or escape (relief).

But I take your point. :)

"the scary moment happens whether or not you die, it's just the way you take away the experience changes if it ends in death (anger or sadness) or escape (relief)"

Good point.

I suppose that as long as the threat is percieved as real, however, escape results in an overall more pleasuable experience. So - assuming the aim is to entertain - we should maximise the percieved threat whilst minimising the chances of actually dying.

To that end, maybe a game that takes only 2-3 hours to complete but can never be replayed (due to pseudorandom map, event and enemy generation/positioning) might be ideal.

Even if I rarely died, I know I would be gripped by fear and play more cautiously than usual in such a game, knowing there would be no second chances. Conversely, I'm not sure I would mind dying so much - it might almost seem like a 'legitimate' ending and I would be glad to never have to replay areas I had already traversed and redo quests I previously completed.

In that sense, it wouldn't be a 'time punishment' at least...

Bezman: "So - assuming the aim is to entertain - we should maximise the percieved threat whilst minimising the chances of actually dying."

I agree with this... except that those who enjoy Conqueror-type play often 'need' to fail in order that victory be sufficiently hard fought. There's a split in the market between those who are willing to get angry and then win, and those who would rather stop playing than be angry.

Interesting thought about the shorter game with no replay... this strikes me as something with "hardcore" appeal only, though.


Reminds me of the golf course design adage: "Looks hard, plays easy". I guess having that adage in SimGolf was an entertaining navel gazing experience as ultimately you are gauged by how 'fun' your course (game) was.

VRBones: how do they gauge the "fun" of the course? Or is it a 'hidden' mechanic? :-/

Chris: It's a fairly exposed. They will tell you when they 'like' something (pointing to the pond and stating that they like the ducks) and when they dislike something ("Arrgh, landed it in the water again!"). There were 4 different types of players with varying degrees of 'professionalism'. Pros enjoyed seeing a vast expanse of water to hit over or a treelined dogleg, but still found it disagreeable if they landed in the water. There also were landmarks (like statues, windmills, lighthouses,etc) that specifically gave happy thoughts in a small area surrounding them to help manage happiness in problem areas. Ultimately these became essential as the main goal was to build a course that only the pros could get around in par or less, whereas all the other types suffered a stroke per hole disadvantage (this would make the hole a 'classic'). These disadvantages often required mitigation through scenery rather than them getting frustrated all the time.

A challenge I usually return to the game to play is to see how far you can go on the hardest level without having anyone ragequit. Doing this without scenery items is far more challenging as you need to make sure there are no areas where multiple penalties are possible from the same shot, or that a certain type of player is disadvantaged for a couple of shots in a row.

Upon reflection, these 2 areas would seem similar to game design. You shouldn't make a challenge that players can fail multiple times in a row, like a brick wall with no way over. Possibly offer multiple avenues, or hints, or suggestions (recent example, Tiger Woods Golf offers an immediate drop to a simpler putting mechanic if you've missed a put multiple times). The same with having challenges targeting the same weakness over and over. Sequences of challenges should spread out over multiple aspects of the game to allow the player to hit easy patches according to their playstyle / preference that hopefully gives the confidence to tackle harder patches. Sounds a little like pacing (L4D anyone?), but focusing on the types of player rather than just a 'standard' player.

VRBones: thanks for returning to tell me about this game. And yes, it does sound as if the process of designing the golf courses parallels the game design process. :) I like the term 'ragequit' - that neatly describes one way that players give up on a game. :D

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