I Wanna Be Your Dog: Positive Reinforcement in Game Design

J Updated
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ameritrash board games carcassonne catan monopoly pavlov pokemon lego batman
ameritrash board games carcassonne catan monopoly pavlov pokemon lego batman


Money is fun, if you've got enough.  You can flaunt it.  You can taunt people with it.  You can hold fists full of it and laugh until your stomach hurts.  If you're in a rap video, you can throw it, one banknote at a time.

iggy2.jpgMattDP's excellent article about Monopoly reminded me about all of these things, and I'm a little surprised that, in the BGN comments section below the article, nobody mentioned them.  Instead, there's a bunch of analysis.  Is Monopoly a worthy game?  How hard is it to determine the real value of a property?  Is it true that it really only shines in a tournament situation, where competitors are gaming the tournament format more than they're gaming Monopoly itself?  And why do the sheeples always play by the terrible "Free Parking" house rules?  Can't they play by the rules as written?

Watch a kid play Monopoly, and you'll come closer to real understanding of the game's enduring popularity.  They'll clutch the money.  They'll run away into another room with it.  They'll lay it out into neat stacks, sorted by denomination.  They'll count it obsessively.

Money is fun.

The internet has a distorting effect on conversation.  Since the internet is global, internet conversations aspire to universal, objective statements.  The subjective or parochial is often diminished or neglected entirely.  As a result, we see BGN users trying to evaluate Monopoly's merits on the basis of phony objective criteria like "decision density," and  they remain utterly confounded at Monopoly's persistence at the top of the board gaming heap.  The truth, though, is completely subjective.  Money is fun.  The yellow-orange $500 bills, especially.

People like to get stuff.  Video game designers understand this fact and exploit it like crazy.  Remember the Pokemon slogan: "Gotta Catch 'em All?"  LEGO BATMAN has exactly 10 gazillion unlockables and minimodels.  They're things to get.  People like that, because they like to get things.  A large  component of video game design consists in the creation of a reward system, so that players receive positive reinforcement for playing the game all night instead of sleeping, bathing, or changing their undergarments.  It's classical Pavlovian conditioning.  It's great.


The genius of Monopoly is that, of all the things in the world, people especially like to get money.  And in Monopoly, you can get big money when it's not even your turn.  Game design is as easy as ringing a bell and watching a Russian dog salivate.

The Settlers of Catan is pretty much the same thing.  On your turn, you roll the dice and get stuff.  In fact, you get stuff on your opponents' turns, too.  You use that stuff to build other stuff, so that you get even more stuff on subsequent turns.  It's a positive feedback loop.  This is pretty simple Psychology 101 stuff, here, yet board game players and board game designers are positively mystified by it, so we're buried under an avalanche of games in which you tot-up Victory Points at the end to see who won.  Victory Points are not stuff.  What visceral thrill is there in advancing your little dobber one position on the Kramerleiste?  You know what's viscerally thrilling?  Landing on Free Parking and pocketing some crisp cash dollars.

In retrospect, it's not surprising to me that Agricola was received with hosannas when it appeared on the horizon.  After years of enduring games in which there is no system of positive reinforcement, just an abstract accounting of VPs at the end of play, Eurogamers were suddenly treated to a box full of stuff, and the opportunity to get that stuff in small doses each turn.  That explains the infatuation with the animeeples, vegimeeples, and pornimeeples.  A game about getting stuff is vastly improved if said stuff is something other than cubes.

I don't mean to say that game designers should abandon all the lessons they've learned from Knizia, Kramer, and Teuber.   What I'm saying is that, in their zeal to absorb the lessons of those three, designers have forgotten or neglected altogether the bleedingly obvious:  that some activities are inherently enjoyable.  Consider jigsaw puzzles, Tetris, Blokus, Ubongo, and even Carcassonne.  It's fun to fit things together, to find exactly the right place to put a shape.  The reward is immediate and tangible.

Discovery is rewarding, too.  I'm convinced that some of the current excitement over Dominion is due to the tantalizing possibility of inventing some previously undiscovered killer card combination.  I don't know whether the cards are sufficiently diverse to make this promise a reality, but time will tell.  If only the game were about something other than hoarding VPs.

Somewhere between putting things together, a la Ubongo, and discovery, a la Dominion or any CCG, is construction.  It's fun to watch something emerge before your eyes.  This is another element of the vast appeal of Settlers of Catan, but you can also see it in games like Java, Big City, and (again) Carcassonne.  Some titles that are usually classified as "dexterity games," like Villa Paletti, belong in this category, as well.  Now, if this were any other boardgaming site, I'd expect someone to argue that "engine efficiency games" are, effectively, construction games, and that Puerto Rico deserves mention in this paragraph.   Aren't these games about constructing an economic engine?  I claim that these games don't provide the immediate visceral payoff that a system of positive reinforcement requires.  Unless you're a freak.  Really, who secretly thinks to himself "who-hoo, I got the Wharf?"


And then there's risk.  Risk isn't just fun, it's literally addictive.  Ask any compulsive gambler.  The addiction is precisely a function of the sort of conditioning that is the subject of this article.  The jeopardy of losing something that you've already got, or of getting something that you don't want can be thrilling.  Consider games in which the goal is to avoid getting stuff, like Wolfgang Kramer's immortal classic, "6 Nimmt!"  The recent spate of cooperative games seems to depend heavily on this principle; the "loyal" characters aren't exactly trying to win, they're just striving to not fail.  Dodging a bullet?  That's rewarding.

There are plenty of bizarre theories floating around the internet about what makes a game good.  These theories seek some set of objective criteria for deciding whether a game should be recommended, but games are essentially a subjective experience, so the theories never work.  Instead, we get crackpot proclamations about "mechanics," "agonizing decisions," and "manipulated ambiguities."  Ultimately, a game is good when it rewards.  I've tried to outline four of the easiest ways to add a system of reward to a board game design.  I'm sure there are many others, so please identify any that occur to you in the comments section below this article.
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