Monday, June 1, 2015

Heuristics and Gaming

“A full belly makes a dull brain.”

“He that lies down with dogs gets up with fleas.”

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

Just a few of the aphorisms that Benjamin Franklin published in Poor Richard’s Almanac during the years that he published it. These are also what behavioral psychologists call “heuristics”, simple efficient rules that people learn to use to make decisions, come to judgement and solve problems. People especially use these when faced by a complex decision, breaking it down to components in order to solve each section in order to come up with a decision that satisfies, or satisfices, the maker. What does this have to do with games, you ask? Well, everything really. We use them all the time when deciding what games to buy and play.

Take Fantasy Flight Games. They have a well-deserved reputation for putting out high quality, highly enjoyable, comparatively high priced games (They also have a reputation for short discounts and lengthy out of stocks on popular products, but that’s another topic). When customers hear that FFG will release another game, they expect the components will be high quality and the game will play very well, but the price will run higher than a similar game from another publisher. That is what is called representativeness heuristic, a judgement made based on how similar the situation is to previous ones we have experienced and hold in our mind.  You have bought FFG games which have met these criteria in the past, so you generally expect the games you buy from the company in the future to meet the same criteria. One could also view representativeness as exemplifying a company’s brand. 

Escalation of commitment is another heuristic that trading card games especially use. Escalation of commitment is the belief that, despite evidence to the contrary, that continuing to spend money on something will make it pay off.  We keep spending money on expansions for a game because we think that the next one will be better, that the game will “break through” and everyone will appreciate how great it is, or that the next pack of cards I open will have the card I want in it. We hate abandoning anything and stick with a game system  long past the time we should move on to something else because we hate to admit we were wrong  (Hence the continued sales of 4th edition D&D).

The anchoring heuristic increases the importance to which we assign first impressions. We rely heavily on the first piece of information we receive in making subsequent decisions. When you play a game, your first experience influences heavily your willingness to play that game again. Game demo people know that anchoring, though they may not think of it as such, plays a very important part in the success or failure of a game demo. If the person they demo the game for has fun playing, even if they lose, that person is much more likely to want to play again or even purchase a copy of the game. If the same player gets stomped during the demo, they very likely will form a negative anchor on the game and not want to buy it. Ergo, most demo teams I know have instructions to either lose demo games or keep the final results close. Under no circumstances should they play to completely dominate the player for whom they are running the demo.

See, not only does stuff like heuristics have applicability to games and gaming but Benjamin Franklin was talking about them two centuries before we had a term for them.