Kinecting With Your Emotions

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Apparently the Xbox Kinect is a retail success despite the fact that I haven't personally bought one. Enough people seem to enjoy flailing their extremities about and barking simple commands that Microsoft has sold 1.5 hoojillion of the devices and the holiday shopping season has only just begun. I've written before about how motion controls can create more immersion in players by engaging our sense of body location, but there might also be another vector in play. Over on his blog, author Jonah Lehrer has some interesting thoughts about how buttons free controllers like the Kinect affect our emotional reaction to games given that physiological and mental states present psychologists with a bit of a "chicken or the egg" problem:

Let's say we are playing a shooter on the Kinect. Unlike other game consoles, which leave us stranded on the couch, this console (like the Wii before it) actually makes us move. If we want to kill off the bad guys, we need to run around and break a sweat. We are no longer just twiddling our thumbs.

In order to prepare for all this combat, the brain automatically triggers a wave of changes in our "physical viscera," such as quickening the pulse, flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline, and contracting our intestines. While even stationary entertainment can lead to corporeal changes – that's why the heart rate quickens when watching a Hitchcock movie – the physical activity of the Kinect exaggerates these effects. Although we might look a little foolish flailing around the living room, the game has managed to excite our flesh, and that means our emotions aren't far behind. As a result, we are more scared by the possibility of virtual death (and more thrilled by the virtual victory) because our body is fully engaged with the game. If you are interested in dayz hacks you need to visit this site..

Lehrer argues that high definition graphics and surround sound offer diminishing returns, so kinetic movement is the next big win for game designers wishing to engage us in their game. This is hardly an unprecedented idea. In his book, The Science of Happiness Stefan Klein notes that "As [neuroscientist Antonio Damasio] reminds us, our mind is, in the true sense of the word, embodied, not 'embrained.' A disembodied being would feel neither happiness nor sadness."2

Xbox, dashboard! Xbox, smile! Xbox, love! LOVE, XBOX, LOVE!

In 1993, researchers Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson even studied this question scientifically by testing to see if simply smiling can make you happy.3 All of us can fake a smile of one sort or another even when we're pissed or bored, but it turns out that "true" smiles –those that erupt whenever we're genuinely happy– involve a specific muscle: the obicularis oculi. This is the muscle around the eyes that causes us to make that particular, gleeful face during moments of unmitigated merriment. Some people can fake using the obicularis oculi to make apparently genuine smiles4 and Ekman and Richardson screened potential subjects for their study based on this criteria and then trained them further on how to do it at will. After taking some baseline measures, the researchers found out that faking a "real" smile led not only to higher self-reports of good moods, but brain activity as measured by EEG5 during fake smiles was practically identical to activity measured during genuine amusement.

But it's important to note that the subjects had to smile the "right" way. Those who didn't manipulate the obicularis oculi and related muscles didn't become happier; they just looked a little bit like it. If the Kinect and other motion control game devices are going to trick our bodies into making us feel more engaged or emotional, they've got to do it convincingly and really mimic those genuine physiological reactions. They also need to either put out some games that will entice us to play, or offer us $5 and 10 extra credit points for our Psychology 101 class.


  1. Klein, S. (2002). The Science of Happiness. De Capo Press.
  2. Lehrer also references this idea from Demasio in the blog post I liked to, but grad school taught me nothing if not how to pad out my references.
  3. Ekman, P. & Davidson, R. (1993). Voluntary Smiling Changes Regional Brain Activity. Psychological Science, 4 342-345.
  4. Stefan Klein seems to think it's hereditary
  5. Or "electroencephalography" for those with more time on their hands to pronounce really long words

Written by Jamie Madigan

December 3rd, 2010 at 10:25 am

With no comments yet

Why We Get Nostalgic About Good Old Games

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Imagine for a moment that you're a Swiss mercenary away from your homeland and fighting for some European king during the 17th century. Now suppose that over cups of hot coco and hair braiding you and your fellow mercs begin to pine for the good old days when video games came with thick manuals and forced you to micromanage your system memory in order to get things to run. Most likely you would all be referred for treatment of a neurological disease, not only because video games didn't exist in the 17th century, but also because nostalgia in any form was considered a malady of the mind on par with any other physical disease. Proto-psychologists of the time thought that the condition was limited to the Swiss people, and attributed it to all kinds of weird stuff, including pressure from tiny demons squeezing the wrong parts of your brain, changes in air pressure forcing blood up into the skull, and brain damage resulting from the prolonged clamor of cowbells.1

Current research has progressed quite a bit, and generally defines nostalgia along the lines of an emotional state characterized by sentimental longing for things in one's past. It's a common concept, and it's not unusual to encounter some old fart of a gamer reminiscing about how much better and more fun things used to be back in the old days. If you ever find yourself in a room full of gamers and want to cull out these people, just say the following words in a loud, clear voice: "Man, how about that Nintendo Entertainment System?" Then just tag all the people who won't stop talking. Double tag the people who use words like "DOSBox" or "gog.com."

This begs the question, though, of why we feel nostalgic about games2 at all. And more curiously, why do we so often look at the past through rose-colored glasses and claim that old games were so great? This despite the honest fact that today we'd rather chew our own faces off than use pencil and graph paper to find our way around a dungeon or type IP addresses into a command line to find a multiplayer match –with vanilla deathmatch as the only option, no less. Yes, some games are classics and serve as important signposts on the medium's road to maturation, but seriously even today's mediocre games and hardware represent improvements on every front. So why do we get all nostalgic?

The N64 is the greatest gaming console ever! Because I was delighted to get it for Christmas one year!

(Photo credit: Hendricks Photos.)

To answer that question it might be useful to look at what psychologists think are the triggers and reasons for nostalgia in general. A few years back several researchers from the University of Southhampton published an article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that revealed a few things about the content, triggers, and functions of nostalgia.3

For example, the researchers found that our nostalgic narratives most often featured a "redemption sequence" where the subject started off down in the dumps, but found a way to parlay that experience into something positive. So maybe your love of games made you a bit of a social outcast in general, but you formed one really solid friendship with a kindred soul. Or maybe you learned something about lawn care and the gray market for kidneys4 in the course of saving up for a Sega Genesis.

The link between negative moods and nostalgia also came up when the researchers looked at what triggers bouts of the emotion. They found that feeling down in the dumps or displeasure over current circumstances is likely to prompt people to reminisce about some uplifting experience in the past. So maybe you're more likely to get nostalgic for the 8-bit era when some high def, high poly foes are sucking all the fun out of your current experience.

These findings all point to the idea that we engage in nostalgia because it has psychological benefits. It makes us happy and improves our state of mind, especially when we need that kind of mental pick-me-up. Specifically, nostalgic reverie about a time when we were enjoying ourselves or finding ourselves particularly competent or connected to other people raises feelings of self-regard, which is a feeling that well-adjusted people tend to like. Today's role-playing games are all about grinding that I don't have time for, remember when I got my entire party of characters in Final Fantasy IV to level 99? Man, I was hardcore then.

Name? Job? Lack of dialog tree?

But is what we're remembering accurate or really representative of what we felt at the time? The fact that we seem to engage in nostalgia specifically to make us feel better suggests that we may be unconsciously biased towards remembering things that make us happy and against remembering the things that don't. We have a remarkable propensity towards that kind of thing. It's cute, really. We require less information to confirm beliefs when they are consistent with our current state of mind5 and a substantial body of research6 has shown that we are predisposed to remember more of the good things in life. For example, one pair of researchers7 asked subjects floating in a sensory deprivation tank to recall and rate experiences from their past. Sixty-six percent of the recollections were considered positive (or "of positive affective valance", as it's said in the biz) while the remainder were neutral or unpleasant.8

An additional wrinkle in memory's landscape is that the emotional footprints of positive memories tend to fade more slowly than those of negative ones.9 This is something known as the "fading affect bias" though I prefer "fading affect effect" because it's punchier. Regardless of what you call it, this might be due to the fact that downplaying negative memories is an effective coping mechanism and leads to better mental health –a far cry from having tiny, nostalgia-inducing Swiss demons swimming around in your brain.

Or it could all be a case of bad mental aim. Another group of researchers claim that vividly remembered events seem so great relative to the hum-drum of the present because simply remembering something feels good. Jason Leboe and Tamara Ansons reported on studies10 showing that people tend to have an "Ah-ha!" moment when experiencing easy recall of information, and that kind of moment is innately pleasurable. It's just a cognitive quirk in the brain. What we tend to do, the researchers argued, is mistakenly attribute the pleasure not to the easy recall of the experience, but to the experience itself. While some stand-out experiences obviously were pleasurable, this kink in the human brain biases us towards erroneously remembering such events as more positive than they were.

So, next time you're feeling nostalgic about how great Quakeworld or the original Donkey Kong Country was, I recommend going with it. It'll make you feel better even if you overlook the problems at the time or the improvements that have been made since. Just don't over commit yourself to any opinions born of memory's fickle biases. Because graph paper, himem.sys, and two buttons on a controller were worse than you really remember.


  1. Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Baden, D. (2004). Nostalgia: Conceptual issues and Existential Functions in J. Greenburg (Ed.) , Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology. Guildford Publications.
  2. Or anything, for that matter, but I write about games here, so let's stick with that.
  3. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (5), 975-993.
  4. Not necessarily yours
  5. Something known as the "confirmation bias"
  6. e.g., for a summary see Walker, R., Skowronski, J., & Thompson, C. (2003). Life Is Pleasant—and Memory Helps to Keep It That Way! Review of General Psychology, 7 (2), 203-210.
  7. Suedfeld, P., & Eich, E. (1995). Autobiographical memory and affect under conditions of reduced environmental stimulation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 321–326.
  8. An especially powerful result once one considers that how many of the negative memories were probably along the lines of "This one time, two crazy psychology professors locked me in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour."
  9. Holmes, D. S. (1970). Differential change in affective intensity and the forgetting of unpleasant personal experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 234–239.
  10. Leboe, J. & Ansons, T. (2006). On Misattributing good remembering to a happy past: An investigation into the cognitive roots of nostalgia. Emotion, 6, 596-610.

Written by Jamie Madigan

November 25th, 2010 at 8:54 am

With 15 comments

Endowed Progress Effect and Game Quests

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Imagine that two people, Kim and Carlos, notice that their cars are filthy and both go to the same car wash to make things right. With their wash they each receive a special card that lets them earn a free car wash if they get the card stamped enough times during future visits. Kim's card says it requires 10 purchases for a free wash, but the perky girl at the counter gave her a head start with two free stamps. The card Carlos got doesn't have any free starter stamps, but it only requires 8 future purchases instead of 10. So both Kim and Carlos are looking at the same number of purchases to score their complimentary car cleaning.

Who do you think is more likely to come back enough times to fill up his or her card? Kim or Carlos?

It turns out that it's Kim, who got saddled with a card that required 10 total stamps, but who received enough free stamps to get her 20% of the way towards her goal. This is thanks to a phenomenon called "the endowed progress effect." Basically, the idea is that when you give people just a feeling of advancement towards a distant goal, they're more likely to try harder and try longer to reach that goal, even relative to people who have an equally easy goal but who got no sense of momentum off the bat.

Researchers Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze coined the term in a paper1 where they did the car wash experiment described above. They found that 34% of people who got a 10-stamp card with 2 freebies ended up coming back enough to redeem the cards, compared to 19% of customers who started with an unstamped card requiring only 8 stamps. This despite the fact that both sets of customers only needed 8 stamps for a free wash. Nunes and Xavier also found that those endowed with the two free stamps tried to reach their goal faster by waiting less time between washes.

Buy 6 heartbeat sensors and win a chance to punch Bobby Kotick in the arm AS HARD AS YOU CAN.

Why? The researchers argue that the reason for the results is that by giving out free stamps, the merchant was framing the task (i.e., buying enough car washes to get a freebie) as one that has already been undertaken. There's a substantial body of research that shows people are naturally motivated to complete tasks that they feel they've started and will want to remain consistent with previous intentions.2 Other research has shown that the closer someone gets to completing a goal the more likely they are to increase their efforts towards closing that last little gap.3 Apparently, giving people a couple of free holes on a punch card is enough to trigger both of these effects.4

This has a few interesting possibilities for game design. Imagine, for example, that I'm playing through Fallout: New Vegas5 and I get a quest to save 10 slaves from a nearby encampment. One way to deliver that quest to me would be to meet a NPC and have her say "Hey, there's 10 slaves. Go free all 10." And so I'd go off, and the quest would tick up "0 out of 10 slaves rescued, 1 out of 10 slaves rescued," et cetera. Alternatively, if the game designer wanted to invoke the endowed progress effect, I could first receive the request upon opening the cell door for a pair of slaves on the outskirts of the encampment. One of the slaves could say "There were 12 of us altogether! Free the others!" and my progress would start off as "2 out of 12 slaves rescued" as the first two sprint off over the horizon. According to everything discussed above, I'd be much more motivated to complete this quest if it were presented this way.

Other examples aren't hard to imagine. What if some NPC wanting 12 Goretusk livers in World of Warcraft gave me two to start with and raised the request to 14? What if, upon learning a new crafting skill that requires combining 5 widgets into one superwidget, the game gets me started with 1 widget and makes the recipe call for 6? What if, when I'm waiting impatiently in a multiplayer matchmaking lobby for Halo: Reach to find me 10 opponents, the game populates the first two slots with "Player Found!" after a couple of seconds even though it's still looking? Would I be more likely to wait for the rest even if the search takes a long time?6 Well, you get the idea. If you've got other examples, let's hear them in the comment section.


  1. Nunes, J. & Dreze, X. (2006). The Endowed Progress Effect: How Artificial Advancement Increases Effort. Journal of Consumer Research. 32, 442-52.
  2. e.g., Fox, S. & Hoffman, M. (2002). Escalation Behavior as a Specific Case of Goal-Directed Activity: A Persistence Paradigm. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (4), 273-285.
  3. Hull, C. (1932). The Goal Gradient Hypothesis and Maze Learning. Psychological Review, 39, 25-43.
  4. The more astute among you may guess that it has something to do with loss aversion –maybe those with the two free stamps valued them more than shoppers in the other condition and didn't want to lose them. That's a pretty good thought, but it occurred to Nunes and Dreze too. Without going into too much detail here, they did a follow-up study to test that hypothesis and found that the value of the endowment didn't really affect whether or not people persisted in earning the free prize.
  5. Which I actually am at the moment!
  6. Sorry, is that evil? Lying to your players may be a little evil. Your conscience may vary.

Written by Jamie Madigan

November 16th, 2010 at 8:53 am

With 11 comments

The Psychology of Horror

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If you can get your hands on the new issue of GamePro magazine (#267, December 2010 with Diablo 3 on the cover), check out my article on the psychology of horror. The timing with Halloween was better a week or so ago when the issue first came out.

This is another one of those topics that I was unsure of when the editor at GamePro asked me to tackle it. Not only did I not t really know much about the topic, I'm not even a fan of horror movies or games in particular. I've never seen a Saw movie or any other "gore pr0n" in my life, nor do I want to. Still, that's why they call it "research" so I hit the library and found some more informed experts in the fields of psychology, media studies, and communications to help fill in the blanks. I got some great material, and the article turned out to be a lot of fun to write.

This is the issue to look for if you want to read the article.

I turned Bobo the Quote Monkey loose on the article, and he returned with this:

Bobo want banana.

So I gave him a banana, reminded him about the performance standards in his contract, and sent him back. This time he came up with the following:

A second set of explanations for horror's delight posits that we hate the horror, but like the proverbial man who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, we love the relief that comes at the end.

Excitation transfer theory, credited earlier with enabling spooky soundtracks to do their job, has also been hypothesized to give us a kind of "thank god that's over" high. "People become physically aroused due to the fear they experience during the media event –and then when the media event ends, that arousal transfers to the experience of relief and intensifies it," Sparks says. "They don't so much enjoy the experience of being afraid –rather, they enjoy the intense positive emotion that may directly follow."

Other explanations for the appeal of horror are cited, plus I also ruminate on what the research tells us about scary video games in particular. I really don't have any feedback on how well these GamePro pieces are being received, so if you're reading them, post a comment and tell me what you think.

Written by Jamie Madigan

November 10th, 2010 at 9:16 pm

With 4 comments

Conceptual Consumption and Kicks to the Head

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When it comes to video games, I'm not much of an achievement guy. But when I pop in a new game I usually bring up the achievement list to see what's there and to look for anything interesting. When I recently did this with Halo: Reach I had to give a snort upon seeing the "A Monument To All Your Sins" achievement, which can only be gotten by playing through the entire single-player campaign on Legendary difficulty. ALONE. As in without a co-op buddy. I liked Reach well enough, but on higher difficulty levels the game is brutal and forces you to replay sections over and over and over again using a tiresome trial and error approach. Unless you're a thirteen year old who's mixing cocaine in his coffee1 it's anything but fun, especially without a co-op buddy or three.

Wait, you want me to what?

And it's not hard to find other examples of punishingly difficult achievements that net you more controller-biting frustration than gaming pleasure. Beat this cheap boss without taking any damage. Complete the game using only the weakest weapon. Beat this tricky level in a stupidly short amount of time. So why would anyone do these things if they're unnecessary and no fun?

A paper entitled "Conceptual Consumption" and published in the Annual Review of Psychology last year suggests some clues.2 The authors explore a theory of "conceptual consumption," which holds that people are as interested in consuming ideas, information, and concepts as they are physically consuming things –sometimes more so. People want to "possess" an experience simply because it's novel and rare, and will sometimes forego other more rational choices in order to do it. For some people, there's a drive to add that concept or experience to their list of "stuff I've done" just so they can have the satisfaction of a longer list. Researchers Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz liken this to ticking items off an experiential checklist or "experiential resume" so that they can die feeling like they've accomplished more in life. These are the same kind of people who elect to stay in hotel rooms carved out of ice instead of a Florida Marriott or to eat bacon-flavored ice cream instead of chocolate.34 And get this: there may even be a correlation between this kind of nonsense and how productive people are in other aspects of their lives!

This is why I think achievement systems that show what percentage of players have seized a given achievement are more motivating. Knowing that the Monument to All Your Sins achievement is worth 150G is okay, since it gives you some reference against which to compare it to that achievement that gave you 5G for watching the intro sequence to Soul Calibur 4 5. But the way that Steam does achievements is a lot more likely to capitalize on conceptual consumption drives because it lets you know just how rare your little triumph was relative to other players.

Because it's not just about a longer list –it's about a more varied and interesting list that tells people that you're a varied and interesting kind of person. Getting that A Monument To All Your Sins achievement in Halo: Reach is a way of signalling to friends and strangers that you're the kind of hardcore person who has really mastered the game and best of all, you can tell them all about it6 After all, that experiential resume is no good if you can't show it to anyone. Just remember to pad out your professional resume, too.


  1. Don't do this, by the way. Being a 13 year old is a terrible idea.
  2. Ariely, D., & Norton, M. (2009). Conceptual Consumption. Annual Review of Psychology (60), 475-499.
  3. Keinan, A., & Kivetz, R. (2008). Remedying hyperopia: The effects of self-control regret on consumer behavior. Journal of Marketing Research (45), 676-689.
  4. And don't tell me that bacon ice cream would taste great. No number of Internet memes is going to make that anything but gross.
  5. No, seriously.
  6. Whether they'd really rather you shut up about it or not.

Written by Jamie Madigan

November 9th, 2010 at 7:46 am

With 7 comments

The Psychology of Anonymity

with 3 comments

A few months ago I wrote an article for GamePro magazine about what effects deindividuation and anonymity had on gamers. For those of you who aren't subscribers or who didn't pick up the magazine, GamePro recently published the article on their website for your clicking pleasure.


Nifty artwork by Andrew Yang

I turned Bobo the Quote Monkey loose on the article and he came back with this:

A recent comprehensive review of the whole body of deindividuation research appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin. The review confirms that studies where there's a strong, external message about how to behave were the most likely to elicit the deindividuation effect-but it didn't always result in antisocial behavior. For example, in one study researchers repeated the electric shock experiment described previously, but had some anonymous subjects dress up like Ku Klux Klan members and others dress up as nurses. The people in the white Klan robes shocked more, while those dressed as nurses-a profession associated with helping and healing-shocked less. Why? While the people under those uniforms knew they were anonymous, part of a group and likely experienced an "I am not who I normally am" feeling, they still took some of their cues on how to behave from the environment. By understanding the results of this study, it's not hard to see how expectations were placed on the subjects to behave the way they did when under the influence of deindividuation.

The same logic applies to the gaming world.

At any rate, enjoy.

Written by Jamie Madigan

October 29th, 2010 at 8:45 pm

With 3 comments

The Charitable Status Halo Quo

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I wrote a while back about the Status Quo Effect and how puny humans are likely to stick with a default or pre-selected option when presented with multiple choices. It's why e-mail subscription opt-outs are more "successful" than opt-ins, and it's how services gently steer new customers towards the more profitable options like annual subscription instead of monthly ones.

While installing Civilization V today one of the many messages demanding my attention was this:

Personally I think they should have had one type of charity associated with different types of Civ victory: science, culture, military annihilation.

2K Games is giving away a wad of cash to the charity that gets the most votes from Civ 5 players. Pretty awesome, but it occurs to me that the first charity, Scholarship America, kind of has an unfair advantage over the others because it's not only listed first, but selected by default. Because of the status quo bias, a lot of people probably just left it selected and hit "Launch Game" without thinking much about it. 1 If Firaxis wanted a more pure measure of user preferences, they'd make none of the charities selected by default and make players select one before they could proceed.

This got me thinking of somewhere I had also seen player voting in another context: Halo Reach's matchmaking lobbies. When you and a lobby full of other players in Halo: Reach get ready to start a new game, you're presented with three choices with different maps and game modes, plus a "None of the above" option. Players get to cast a vote on which they prefer. Also, you get to call other people terrible names for not voting the way you want. But besides the homophobia, one important difference between Civilization V's charity voting and Reach's game selection is that Reach doesn't have a default option selected or flagged for selection. So the status quo bias isn't at work there. It's possible, though, that the first person to cast a vote gets to influence the voting of others by creating a de facto default vote.


  1. Unless, of course, my sample of 1 data point is insufficient to see that Firaxis is doing something clever, like randomizing which charity is listed first and thus selected by default

Written by Jamie Madigan

October 11th, 2010 at 2:38 pm

With 5 comments

Motion Controls and Presence

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Does motion control help us feel like we're "in" a game's world?

A few weeks ago I published an article on presence and video games, discussing a model of what puts us in the curious psychological state of feeling like we're in a game world. When we experience presence we ignore the technology between us and that world, and we're more likely to enjoy the game and more quickly able to learn its rules. I hypothesized at the time that motion controls that more closely mimic real movements are more likely to create presence, but that the research still had some ground to cover. I continued to read about the topic and given the recent release of Playstation Move and the imminent release of Kinect for the Xbox 360 I thought it would be a good time to revisit the relationship between motion control and presence. Topical!

Playstation Moves

Move! Move! Move! Move!

Besides the fact that absent or extremely simplified controls give us a lot less technology to forget about on our way to presence in the first place, the other reason to think that motion controlled games can create more presence has to do with mental models. In the context of video games, mental models are the representations we build of a game world –how the space is arranged, what its characteristics are, what the hell that thing is, what's the deal with all the screaming when I press this lever, and so forth. One could hypothesize that more natural game controls help players more easily build and access those mental models by allowing us to take information from the real world ("I'm swinging a bat!") and immediately understand what that action means for things in the game ("My little dude is swinging a bat in the same way!"). This creates consistency between things1 in game and what we know about their real life counterparts –and that's just the kind of thing that has been shown to create presence.

Paul Skalski at Cleveland State University and several collaborators decided to put idea this to a test and published their results earlier this year in the journal New Media & Society.2 They were interested in how "naturally" a controller was used to play a game and what effect that had on presence and enjoyment. To kick things off, they proposed an interesting typology of natural control mapping.3

Directional natural mappings are the least natural, represenging simple up/down/left/right mappings and maybe some buttons. Think Street Fighter 4: up to jump, left/right to move, down to crouch, and buttons to punch or kick.

Kinesic natural mappings are those that involve gross body movements4 to control the game without holding a controller. This is pretty much every Kinect game, plus some of Sony's EyeToy games.

Incomplete tangible natural mapping gives players something that feels like an in-game object. Wii Sports, for example, uses this kind of mapping when it asks you to use the wiimote like a tennis racket or golf club. A lot of Playstation Move controls are going to fit in here, too, like the ping pong game or the archery game in Sports Champions.

Realistic tangible natural mapping, though, is the most realistic kind of controller. This gives you a thing that is a thing and behaves like the thing in the game …thing.5 Steering wheels for racing games fall into this category, as do drum sets for Rock Band or Guitar Hero –not to mention that nutso stringed guitar controller that Mad Catz wants you to buy for Rock Band 3.

(As a side note, I actually think this typology is deficient because it lacks a place for motion-tracked controllers that are used in ways that are not asking you to mimic holding something specific. Wiggling the wiimote to make Mario spin in Super Mario Galaxy or aiming it at the TV to make Samus fire rockets in Metroid: Other M doesn't fit in anywhere here, but those kind of controls certainly exist.)

Flailing around like a nincompoop really makes me feel like I'm flailing around like a nincompoop IN THE GAME!

Skalski et al. were interested in whether more natural mapping of controls would lead to greater self-reports of presence while playing games, so they ran two experiments. In the first, they had one group play Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 on the Nintendo Wii using the wiimote like, appropriately enough, a golf club. Another group played the Playstation 2 version of that same game using the dual shock controller. The results were that the wiimote did indeed feel more natural, as measured by questions like "The actions used to interact with the game environment were similar to the actions that would be used to do the same thing in the real world." No surprise there, but they also found that use of such controls did correlate with spatial presence ("To what extent did you experience a sense of 'being there' inside the environment?") and people who played the game on the Wii were more likely to report experiencing presence than those who played with the PS2 controller.

The researchers then decided to kick it up a notch and compare several different types of controllers on the same game. They had participants play the racing game Need for Speed Underground 2 using a keyboard, a joystick, a gamepad, or a steering wheel. Same results: the steering wheel, which represented a "realistic tangible natural mapping" according tot he taxonomy above, was perceived as the most natural and players in that group were the most likely to report feeling like they were "in the game."

This all suggests that if the goal of your game is to make players feel like they're part of a game world, motion controllers are better than traditional game pads or keyboards.6 Of course, not all games have presence as a design goal, not all games can be controlled with motion, (imagine trying to play Starcraft II with just motion control) and there are probably other characteristics of motion control (like exhausting or uncomfortable movements) that could detract from the overall enjoyment of a game. Again, this is an area rife with possibilities for research …things.

Anyway, has anyone played around with the Playstation Move yet? Does it make you more likely to forget that the game you're playing is mediated by technology?


  1. "Things" is a technical term you can never over use. Go on, just try to over use it. You can't!
  2. Skalski, P., Tamborini, R., Shelton, A., Buncher, M. & Lindmark, P. (2010). Mapping the road to fun: natural video game controllers, presence, and game enjoyment. New Media & Society.
  3. Big thanks, by the way, to Paul Skalski for talking to me about his research and forwarding me this paper.
  4. Pun intended? Yes, pun intended.
  5. I'm telling you, can't be over used!
  6. Though I should note that Skalski et al. never tested a "kinesic natural mapping" a la Microsoft's Kinect or a pure EyeToy game. Someone should do that.

Written by Jamie Madigan

September 24th, 2010 at 2:39 pm

With 10 comments

The Psychology of Apology (and Hugs)

with 4 comments

I'm looking forward to next year's Portal 2 by Valve, in no small part because of the co-op mode where you team up with another little robot buddy and make your way through test chambers. Mistakes are sure to be made, though, and you may end up flinging or dropping your comrade to his/her death. Or maybe crushing. Or burning. Burning is always a possibility. Burning is really unavoidable when you get right down to it.

Fortunately, Valve has included a variety of emotes for your little robots to share with each other, including one that says "I'm so sorry; let's hug it out."


Cold, mechanical apologies. They work.

This got me thinking about some research I've read on the power of the apology and how it really is missing in a lot of games. In his book, The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes a simple and interesting field experiment he and a colleague conducted to see what effect an apology would have on remedying a minor annoyance. They hired an actor to sit in a coffee shop and ask patrons to complete a short exercise in exchange for $5. I don't even know what the exercise was –something about circling letters– but that's not the point; the exercise was just there to take up 5 minutes of time. At the end of that time, the actor would come over and then pretend to overpay participants by "accidentally" mixing in a $5 bill with the singles he was supposed to give them. This was, of course, done so that the researchers could see how people reacted to being overpaid.

There were three experimental conditions. In the first, things happened just as I described above. In the second condition, the actor pretended to receive a cell phone call in the middle of explaining the task instructions, and yakked away like an annoying nitwit while the subject had to wait for him to finish the instructions. Not quite as bad as flinging the person into a thermal deterrence beam, but a little annoying. In the third condition, the actor also annoyed the participants by taking a phone call, but afterwords he immediately apologized.1

The results were that 45% of the people in the first, non-annoyed condition returned the extra money, thereby turning down a chance to hurt the experimenter.2 When the actor pretended to take a phone call in the middle of a conversation, only 14% of the people returned the extra money. Surprisingly, though, if he apologized after taking the call, the number of people who returned the extra cash was the same as those who had not been annoyed at all. As Ariely puts it, "1 Annoyance + 1 Apology = 0 Annoyance."

Why? In a 1997 study3 Michael McCullough, Everett Worthington, and Kenneth Rachal found that a good apology forged forgiveness through the act of empathy –that is, understanding of emotions between the offended and the offender. Ironically, this is one reason why I think the little robot hugs in Portal 2 work so well: those little guys look like they'll have a lot of personality and exhibit more emotion than avatars in most other games.

Of course, apologizing is possible wherever there's voice or text chat, but it's probably not used as often as it should be, and in a fast-paced multiplayer game with lots of things going on, it's kind of hard sometimes to apologize or even be heard if you do. But with a slowly paced game like Portal 2 or Little Big Planet, there's not only every chance to apologize for a goof up, but there's a lot more riding on it in terms of how well the other person cooperates, communicates potential puzzle solutions, or even if he/she drops out of the game altogether. Fortunately, even simple –or even insincere– apologies are particularly potent.

And this is why I believe that hugging robots should be in every children's Social Studies textbook. Make it happen, Congresspeople.


  1. But didn't, unfortunately, offer up any hugs.
  2. Though that obviously means 55% of people kept it, even when they were instructed to count it and sign a receipt saying they had only received $5 and not $9.
  3. McCullough, M., Worthington, E., & Rachal, K. (1997). Interpersonal Forgiving in Close Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2) 321-336.

Written by Jamie Madigan

September 16th, 2010 at 9:22 am

With 4 comments

Priming, Consistency, Cheating, and Being a Jerk

with 17 comments

How can developers of multiplayer games get their players to behave, cooperate, play their role, and not be such incredible jerks? I have an idea. Psychology is involved. You probably guessed this.

One of my favorite little experiments in psychology was done by John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows1 who were interested in how stereotypes were triggered. In one experiment, they had participants unscramble sentences that made heavy use of words like Florida, old, bingo, wrinkle, ancient and the like. A control group did the same thing, but with words not reminiscent of the elderly. That wasn't the real experiment, though.

The important part of the experiment actually happened after the participants left the lab. Another experimenter sat in the hallway outside and discretely used a stopwatch to time how long it took participants to walk from one end of the hall to the other. Those who had been working with words related to old people actually walked significantly slower2 than those who had worked with other words.

Bargh, Chen, and Burrows also did another experiment where some people unscrambled sentences with words related to rudeness (bold, bother, brazen) and some worked with words indicating politeness (patiently, courteous, unobtrusively). All subjects then walked in on a staged scene where they had to interrupt a conversation to get some needed information. Those in the "polite" condition waited 9.3 minutes on average. Those in the "rude" condition jumped in after just 5.5 minutes on average.3

These are examples of what psychologists called "priming," which is basically getting people in a particular state of mind or getting them to think about what you want them to. It's a staple of advertising and surprisingly easy to do. I've been thinking for a while that game developers should take better advantage of it.

What if, for example, certain words of phrases were thrown around on loading screens between levels or in the matchmaking lobby for a multiplayer shooter? Would simply showing words like "sportsmanship" or "communication" or "fairness" prime people to behave themselves during games? If you didn't want to be that transparent, you could include little stories, vignettes, or even comics or movies that included those words or illustrations of them. Or maybe you could use real data, like the number of heals provided by players in the previous game or awards for best defense. Or maybe you could include a graphic of naked, pre-pubescent angels like this:

I know you read this blog, Cliff Bleszinski. This needs to be in Gears 3. You can make it happen, man. There's still time.

In his book, Predictably Irrational,4 behavioral economist Dan Ariely suggests some even better ways of making this kind of thing work. He describes some experiments that he, Nina Mazar, and On Amir did where they asked students at MIT to solve as many math problems as they could in a fixed time. Everyone was entered into a lottery where the winner would receive $10 for each correctly solved problem, so there was incentive to answer lots of problems. Some subjects were given a chance to cheat at the task by self-reporting the number of problems solved, and some couldn't cheat because a research assistant graded their answers.

But let's back up a bit. Some subjects in the "cheating is possible" condition were also asked to write down the Ten Commandments before starting the math problems. The others weren't asked to write down anything.5 Relative to those who didn't have the opportunity to cheat, those who did but were not asked write down the Ten Commandments claimed to have answered 33% more questions –a clear indication of cheating since that's way more than could be expected by chance alone.

But what about those who had the chance to cheat but were asked to write things like "Thou shalt not lie" and "Thou shalt not steal?" Dude, they didn't cheat at all. They answered exactly as many questions on average as the people who didn't even have a chance to cheat. In a follow-up study, the same researchers replicated these results by omitting the Ten Commandments and having students acknowledge understanding that their actions were "subject to the MIT honor code." Which, ironically, was a lie; there was no such official code.

It seems that the Ten Commandments or a reference to an honor code was enough to prime people for behaving themselves, but I think the study also tapped what's called "the consistency bias." This is where we tend to behave in ways that are consistent with our stated intentions, especially if stated publicly.

Look, if this dude tells you to hang back and build some base defenses, you'd better listen to him.

So what does this mean for gamers? Again, I'm thinking of loading screens and between rounds of multiplayer and matchmaking lobbies. What if you presented subjects players with simple yes/no questions like these?

  • Will you change classes if your team has too many of the class you wanted to play?
  • Will you stick around to the end of the match even if it looks like you're going to lose?
  • Are you going to curse and be rude in this next match?
  • Will you hang back and play defense if your team needs it?
  • Will you fortify your team's defenses if needed?
  • Will you give other people a chance to drive the damn tank once in a while? Please? Pretty please? You always just drive it off a cliff, anyway. C'mon, what do you say?

If, while waiting for the match to start, each player could answer those questions, what do you think would happen? Would they be primed in good ways? Would they want to behave consistently? Would having their answers shown to other players have an effect?

Personally, I think this could work. It's at least worth experimenting with. C'mon, someone out there try it and let us know how it goes.


  1. Bargh, J., Chen, M. & Barrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2).
  2. You know, like an old dude
  3. …Jerks.
  4. Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  5. Actually, there was also a condition where subjects wrote down the last 10 books they read, just to rule out the unlikely possibility that it was the act of remembering and writing something down that affected rates of cheating or math performance.

Written by Jamie Madigan

September 9th, 2010 at 12:00 am

With 17 comments