essay, video games

Player bias

If I ever wanted direct proof of the problems that asymmetrical knowledge can cause for players, John Dean, in his piece “It’s time to get rid of achievements“, makes a great case for the trouble it causes him.

“Once you’ve seen an achievement which seems vaguely attainable, it’s impossible to get it out of your head… The fact that these challenges weren’t mandatory didn’t matter – as soon as a tiny part of my brain thought these tasks were possible, my experience of playing the game changed: The bright and breezy take-it-easy nature of the game’s entire design was shattered, leaving me rushing through the game and punishing myself mentally for every mistake that I’d made.

So, if we know that asymmetrical knowledge can be a problem, how do we classify or even mitigate it? Can designers use this issue toward their advantage and, if so, how?

In considering that, I thought it most prudent to rewind the situation some. Instead of considering any one choice in media res, let’s start first from the initial state of game and, of course, player. Designers should have a good idea of their own mechanics. They may not have a full grasp of the dynamic situations — cannot really predict every outcome — but should have considered many and planned for most. That side of the issue is well covered. What do players bring to the discourse though?

What happens before and during the first moments a player interacts with a game? To look at this, I went back to the books I have on the subject and started to do some research.

I like the idea of using the metaphor of a “magic circle” (Homo Ludens) to classify games, but it lacks the necessary framework to describe the player. The magic circle paradigm is great at explaining how the game world is a separate reality into which the player can express herself within that entire domain, but it lacks the ability to discuss what people bring into games.

I agree too that games are different places, locations for creativity (Third Spaces), where subversive play (Critical Play) can take place. Most players who have spent time in games where they have had to invest in character development and make choices think of them as different, fictional, areas.

However, all players are different. Each person carries with them emotional, cultural and mental understandings of reality that influence how we think and act.  Our individuality means we each have the ability to approach and understand situations in unique ways. Our identity as separate entities means that, even in the game world, personalization and decision making is different from person to person. How do we account for that?

This is why I feel that the simulation gap (Unit Operations) is a necessary part of the process of the player-world interaction. The degree of approximation, the measure of how well a game or virtual world simulates reality, will always, since it is drawn from general visual and literary metaphors, need to be bridged in the creation of the narrative experience. There must be a “willing suspension of disbelief” (Biographia Literaria) or “secondary belief” (“On Fairy-Stories”) on the part of the player that covers the gap between the simulation and reality. It is from this vantage point that the reader or player engages with the experience. It is in crossing this simulation gap that the player brings with them a bias.

Player bias, those aspects that each player brings to every game experience, exists as the intersection of four different circles: Expectations, Impressions, Foreknowledge and Environment.

Intersection of the four aspects of a player
An illustration of the intersection of the player aspects that create bias.

Expectations

As with any potentially strange experience, players carry with them some degree of what to they expect to find within the game. Perhaps they have played other games of the same genre or have been told by friends what they will potentially see while playing the game. There is some prearranged list of items, even if generated subconsciously, that the player brings with them to the experience. This list will influence how they receive and process what they initial find.

It is also this list that will interact with the other aspects — impressions, foreknowledge and environment — to create the ongoing bias that a player has during the experience of play. If they do not find what they expect, the other aspects must compensate to produce an enjoyable experience. However, the converse is also true. If they do find what they expect, and if those expectation were things considered negative, then the other aspects can also save the experience.

Impressions

How does the game present itself initially? What are the first things the player finds upon starting the game? Is it a menu? Is the menu easy to navigate and easily understood? Is the first thing a video? Does that video make sense in context of what the player expected?

The first instance of interaction, even if it is only using a menu, sets a standard that can be either confirmed or rejected as players continue in the session. As they play the game, a player has a constantly updating impression that is made up of what they have seen so far and the constant discourse with what they expected, knew about and how the physical components are arranged.  However, that very first instance is the bar that that player will use, if only for seconds, to judge everything else they see. The rest of the game might be radically different than the first few seconds, but that is the initial standard.

Foreknowledge

What does the player know about the game vis-à-vis its mechanics, narrative and, if they exist, different endings? This is the start of the asymmetrical knowledge process. What does the player know before they gain control over the character?

As player bias manifests itself throughout the process of play, this single aspect can be both helpful and terrible in how much it is replied upon during the session. If the player is in a constant state of asymmetrical knowledge — knowing more — to their own character, irony develops between what the player knows and the character does. However, the reverse also holds sway. If the player has less information than the character then, as the audience, suspense becomes one of the primary motivations to continue playing. The player wants to know more and achieve symmetry of knowledge with the character(s).

Environment

This serves as the catchall for the other aspects. While most of the others are more likely to change from game to game, this aspect is the least mutable. It is the stand in primarily for the physicality of the setting.

What is the player using as a controller? Is it something they have knowledge of? Is it something new? How are the visual and auditory portions of the game being presented? Are they close to what the developer imagined they would be or high dissonant? In other words, this is what the player literally is interacting with in the process of playing the game.

As with any other aspect, this too, if it has too much influence, can cause highly negative or positive reactions. If the player’s perception of their will expressed in the game becomes dissonant, this can be problematic. If the controls have a malfunction and the player does not know, this can lead to frustration. As well, if the player, through the use of input into the experience, can overpower the mechanics then they can completely rewrite their initial impressions (“It’s too hard”) into something more palatable but not intended (“With infinite lives, I can get through this section”).

2 thoughts on “Player bias”

  1. This is an interesting roundup, but I feel like it leaves out the biggest driver of player bias: straight-up cognitive differences. I have good spatial ability; my mom does not. Our experiences of any 3D game will be vastly different based on that factor alone. Just as her superior verbal ability probably contributes to the differences in how we approach adventure-style puzzles. Maybe John Dean has a bit of a hyperactive reward system.

    I guess you could say this all falls under environment, but there’s something about the taxonomy that bugs me. Is bias really the most interesting thing here? If we’re going to talk about meaningful differences in how players experience games, I’d like to see more emphasis on how players differ.

    1. I struggled a great deal with even this taxonomy — it’s far from finished! I’m not sure “bias” is even the best word, let alone the right idea to be looking at right now. I needed something to call the ‘skillset+ information’ that players bring to each game. And a way to keep track of foreknowledge, a primary part of determining asymmetrical knowledge. I’m not completely happy with this.

      I wonder… what do you think of switching out Environment for Understanding? Or even adding an additional aspect? I was hesitant to add ‘cognitive bias’ under the label of Player bias, but I do think you are right to highlight the need to address cognitive differences especially awareness of space in a textual and locative sense.

      I’m not quick to dismiss John Dean’s points — and I’m not saying you are — as I have the same problem. As soon as I am aware that I *can* go after a certain goal — such as an alternative ending — it will bug at me until I do it. I mentioned before that achievements are a problem for me. If I am able to go after it, I probably will.

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