Game design can be influenced by many different fields. Among them, psychology is one of the most interesting, because it suggests ways that players might act that don’t necessarily go hand in hand with the actual mechanics presented in a game. Thus this week I’m kicking off the start of what I hope will become a series on psychology, with a look at loss aversion and gaming.
I found one of the best discussions of loss aversion at Usabilia, which describes loss aversion thus:
Loss aversion is a human characteristic that describes how people are intrinsically afraid of losses. When compared against each other people dislike losing more than they like winning. Thus losses loom larger than gains even though the value in monetary terms may be identical.
There isn’t much question on the existence of loss aversion. Instead, the modern scientific articles on the topic tend to focus more on why it occurs and what its boundaries on. I think some of those issues could be intriguing for a follow-up article, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the core of loss aversion as it applies to game design.
As it happens, two different designers have made good and repeated use of loss aversion in their designs. Their games thus offer up good examples of how this psychological effect can be used to enhance gameplay. The two designers also happen to be two of my favorites: Reiner Knizia and Stefan Feld.
The Basics of Loss Aversion
Reiner Knizia’s Ra (1999) is always the game that makes me think of loss aversion most. The main goal of the game is to collect tiles, and those tiles tend to give you points as you build sets of monuments, crown pharaohs, flood land, and advance your civilization. The majority of the points earned are positive, but there are two negatives: if you have the least pharaohs, you lose 2 points, and if you have no civilization advances for an era, you lose 5 points.
Being a very well-designed auction game, the prices for tiles tend to police themselves. However, in most or all games of Ra that I’ve played, civilization tiles tend to be overvalued: people will pay more for them than for something worth +5 points, and that’s clearly because they’re loss averse. I suspect that the civilization die rolls in Ra: The Dice Game (2009) similarly overvalue civilization results, but it’s hard to calculate for sure because Ra values everything in a slightly different way. (That’s probably another project for another day.)
The pharaohs, which can generate -2 points, are even more interesting than the civilization advances. I’m pretty sure that the average player also overvalues staying out of last place in the pharaoh race. However, this aversion tends to fade as players gain experience in the game — a trend that continues through a lot of game designs.
Call that Shannon’s First Law of Loss Design:
I. The more experienced players are, the more willing they are to take losses.
The Age of Scarcity
The basic idea of a scarcity game is that it puts loss front and forward, so that it’s a constant factor in the gameplay. Because of loss aversion, the tension tends to skyrocket in scarcity games — and it certainly drives decisions in these games, for better or for worst.
Notre Dame (2007) was Feld’s entrant to the category. There’s a lot going on in the game, including card drafting and resource management, but the scarcity elements are always there too: every turn, each player adds a certain number of rats to his plague track, held back only by hospitals that they’ve built.
The interesting thing about Notre Dame is that beginning players often want to hold back their plague track all the time — even though it doesn’t have any effect until it tops out. Experienced players (once more) are a little more open to their plague track increasing, but even they don’t tend to play up the maximumly efficient strategy, which would to almost top out the plague track just as the game ends — because they’re afraid of the mere chance of a loss — which could happen if there’s a bad turn of cards at the end.
II. Players aren’t averse just to loss, but also to the increased chance of loss at some time in the future.
Stefan Feld’s In the Year of the Dragon (2007) may be the nastiest, lossiest game ever. Each year, something horrible happens: contagion kills people if there aren’t enough healers; Mongols kill a persont if there aren’t enough warriors; the Emperor takes people if taxes aren’t paid; and the drought kills people if palaces aren’t supplied. It’s a constant litany of misfortune that players struggle to keep up with — and surprisingly it doesn’t exhaust the players’ aversion to loss (though it might exhaust the players!).
Amidst all of that, there’s a Festival. It’s a good thing that can give notable points to the players who supply the ceremony with fireworks — and it’s always the least of players’ worries while the years count down.
III. Even in a game filled with loss, players tend worry about the loss more than the faint glimmers of gain that shine through.
Spending & Consequences
In Medici players are bidding money to purchase lots of goods — which in turn can give them money, though the amount of return isn’t always clear. The catch is that the money that you’re spending and earning is your Victory Points.
Play suggests that the spending of VPs causes some loss aversion, though probably not as much as losing VPs to some gaming system (like rats or the lack of civilization). However, newer players often seem more reluctant to spend their VPs than more experienced players.
IV. Spending can sometimes cause loss aversion, though not to the level of true loss.
Interestingly, Medici also offers a good reason to be averse to loss. You start off with 30-40 Florins and if you drop to 0 … then you don’t have any more money to bid. So, there’s a real repercussion if you lose too much.
V. Sometimes a game can offer a good reason to be averse to loss.
Clearly, the topic of loss aversion in gaming could use some actual studies to better assess how well it works and what precise type of behavior it generates to what extent for what type of players. I also think it’d be interesting to mathematically dissect how some designers value loss vs. gain. For the moment, however, I think it’s fair to say that designing with loss aversion can work well in a game — providing players with dilemmas that can go beyond the game itself, to core issues of human psychology.
Thanks to Arden S., Nathan E., Patrick L., Eric V. Jonathan D., and Christopher A. who gave me some pointers and thoughts about loss aversion on Facebook.