Let’s jump right in!
Here at Digital Devotion Games, we’ve found that a large number of people seek out multiplayer competitive games for their social aspect. They play games to socialize, more than they do to compete – and competitive games like Counter-Strike, League of Legends, etc. are currently very popular games to play with others. But when the games they play are unintentionally fostering ‘toxic’ behavior in other players, it’s not exactly the most welcoming place to mingle. Even if you’re only playing with friends that you feel safe and comfortable with, a game that isn’t designed for prosocial interactions can easily generate conflict, friction and frustration among otherwise kindred spirits.
And that’s just unfortunate.
So, since most popular games can result in pretty ‘hostile’ social situations, so to speak, how can we then design games to alleviate these negatives and better make both new and stronger friendships? Perhaps make even the most competitive game into one of genuine sportsmanship and welcoming community?
The answer is prosocial design.
A nice, idyllic moment to set the mood.
What is prosocial design?
Strap in – this blog post is a bit long. But if you’re seeking an introduction to what ‘prosocial design’ includes, this is a great place to start. Beware, however, as it gets a bit academic at times.
Let’s start with a basic definition from the Oxford dictionary:
Prosocial: “relating to or denoting behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.”
The term ‘prosocial’ was originally used in sociological academic work as the mirror-opposite of antisocial. And to set prosocial apart from altruism (the act of giving selflessly to others), you can be prosocial for purely self-serving reasons. Like, holding the door for your boss every morning to improve your shots at a promotion. As long as the behavior promotes further positive social interaction, it is prosocial!
And when coupled together with the ‘design’-part, the Prosocial Design Network provides the following definition:
Prosocial design: “evidence-based design practices that bring out the best in human nature online.”
In other words, we can use SCIENCE to build better virtual spaces for social interaction. Especially when the systems that have become the norm in games, often promote negative interactions by virtue of their inherent designs.
Negative interactions – how?
Glad you asked! For example, a match-making system can make competitive games much more streamlined and often fairer. But they also reduce or outright negate any repeated interactions with the same people. Every time you hop into a match making queue, you essentially match up with new and faceless strangers. The experience is often bereft of even a simple ‘hello’, making these strangers akin to bots in a way.
This is what Daniel Cook in his GDC talk describes as ‘dehumanizing systems’. These systems might be convenient for the users, easy to tune and increase KPI values (Key Performance Indicators). However, they also simultaneously strip users of their humanity, reducing them to tools, numbers or marketing ploys.
Adding a friend to your friends-list because you are prompted by a reward is automatically robbed of its inherent meaning and devalued as a genuine attempt at human connection. In other words, “you only added me as a friend to get the dangling carrot, so why should I believe that you did it to genuinely be my friend?”.
Isn’t this blog about prosocial game design?
I’m getting there, relax! Some games do prosocial game design well. An example would be the automated helping system of Journey, where being near another player increases the recharge rate of both your jumps. Helping others is in this case a low-cost, high-benefit action that also proves helpful to yourself. Travelling with another player is therefore a win/win situation and an easy decision to make.
Another would be Among Us, the sudden hit everyone’s talking about. Even if it’s a bit rough around the edges, the main core of its gameplay is to keep an eye on suspicious behavior and discussing it to stake out the killer(s). Any activity that makes people talk to solve a shared problem can be a bonding experience. While discussions can get heated as blame is thrown around haphazardly, the game usually ends positively with people sharing who killed them, where, etc.
It is also prosocial in the sense that during gameplay and while dead, you have to be silent – on your own accord! There is no in-game voice chat that facilitates this silence nor is there an in-game reward for doing so. It is purely done from a ‘let’s play fair’-mindset, like if it was a board game. This puts a certain level of trust on the line – break it and you break the game (and the willingness of other people to play with you again). But simultaneously, the game also plays with trust as a mechanic, so to speak. You have to be both trusting and wary of your fellow astronauts as you try to figure out who the killer(s) is.
Two strangers, a shared purpose… and one of them is an impostor.
Why prosocial design?
There are many reasons why prosocial design is valuable, but for this blog we’ll keep it to the two most important ones: toxicity & loneliness. The aforementioned Daniel Cook has written a glorious article about prosocial economics for game design, where he offers very detailed solutions. To borrow a phrase of his: “The broad solution is to […] design systems that build relationships between players: preventing fire, rather than creating fire which must then be fought.”
We’ll be mostly supplementing his already fine work. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty aspects of prosocial game design, then check out his article. It’s a must-read!
As the Prosocial Design Network describes on their website:
“Many believed the World Wide Web would lead to worldwide peace. Everyone would talk and understand each other, or so we thought. But it hasn’t turned out that way: even one of the inventors of the Internet says its design is creating outrage and polarization.”
Everyone has seen on Facebook, Twitter or any other social network that people can be nasty, rude, even outright ‘toxic’. The same is clear in video games. Anyone who has played League of Legends, Counter-Strike or similarly have at some point experienced getting ‘flamed’ – the act of rudely blaming or denigrating someone else.
And bless whoever innocently enters the matchmaking voice chat! Totally unaware of the vitriolic verbal volley that awaits them, should they innocently mess up during a match. Being socially active in an online setting can be a very uncomfortable experience and downright destructive for your mental well-being.
Jamie Madigan, a games psychologist, suggests that games often lead to a ‘deindividuation’ of the players, where your identity feels more part of a crowd, rather than yours alone. Anonymity, crowd-based contexts and screen-mediation are all part of deindividuating the playerbase. When all we interact with are digital avatars, we’re simply losing track of the human controlling them.
Ben Taels from Player Research explains in this GDC talk that it’s not just the anonymity of online games (or the internet) that produces toxic behavior. Rather, it’s the lack of consequences that’s the main culprit. Both when it comes to punishment and encouragement.
The team behind League of Legends has tried to ‘put out fires’ such as these. They tried implementing a tribunal platform for banned players, where other players could judge those who were reported too much. This system, however, proved too condemning and was later taken down again. An honor system to promote good behavior by rewarding those who get ‘honored’ by other players was also implemented, which is albeit a more prosocial design choice. Despite the measurable effectiveness of their efforts, League of Legends still faces a problematic amount of toxicity in-game.
Nothing like some wholesome encouragement and feedback from your team members.
The cause of the problem then is pretty simple; toxicity is a by-product stemming from the design of the game. As seen in the picture above, the relationship between team members is one of necessary, yet strained cooperation. One persons lack of skill can result in the whole team losing. And acceptance/forgiveness can be hard to find, when people are biologically wired to fixate on negatives, rather than positives (also called the ‘negativity bias’). A loss essentially feels like ‘wasting’ 30+ minutes of your time. What follows is a frustrating lack of control over one’s own placing in a ranked hierarchy.
Toxicity is a huge problem for both the game developers and the players. From Ben Taels’ GDC talk, he references this quote:
“The only significant predictor we found for why someone would quit DOTA early on was having a game where someone else was reported for abusive behavior – nothing else mattered” – Mike Ambinder, Valve.
So, there you have it. In one of the most difficult games to learn currently on the market, the reason most new players give up is because of toxicity. Without new players, games eventually die out. And, of course, that’s not what neither the veteran players nor the developers want to happen.
There has been a lot of talk about an ‘epidemic of loneliness’, which has been spurred on by the current COVID-19 pandemic. But the loneliness-epidemic might exist more in news-headlines than actual data. And recent research has actually found that the amount of reported loneliness has evened out and returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, since people have been connecting through digital media, such as online games.
Living in late modernity, we’re actually mostly facing a ‘transformation of intimacy’, as coined by Anthony Giddens. When it comes to digital media, such as games, researchers of late modernity and loneliness have found that “these sites are spaces of tension, both enabling the conditions of loneliness, but also offering new means of connection and agency for dealing with loneliness”.
In practice, we’re more alone and in solitude than ever before (e.g. binging movies in the comfort of our homes), but we’re also simultaneously more connected through online technology and activities (e.g. hanging out on Discord servers).
This is what socializing looks like now.
Yet, of course, loneliness still exists. And as Daniel Cook points out, there is some evidence that lonely people tend to play games more than the general population. Having games be more prosocial then, might help these individuals foster new relationships and friendships. Good news everyone, games CAN make a difference! And in these trying times, some games definitely do.
How about Project Tumble?
While Daniel Cook and others focus a lot on the interactions between strangers, we want to focus on a more specific area of prosocial design: the interactions between friends. For example, Daniel Cook frames prosocial design as a systems-based meeting between logistics, economics and behavior. This is understandable, given his work on MMO’s like Realm of the Mad God and similar titles.
Project Tumble, however, is not a game where you meet strangers per se. It’s a game you jump into with people you already know. We aim to strengthen relationships across player-types, rather than build up totally new ones. And learning from all the sources given earlier, we have to achieve a few things with our design: avoid dehumanizing our players and promote prosocial behavior. The game should be better with friends!
That’s why we’re embracing prosocial design for Project Tumble. We want people to be able to banter, tease each other, help each other, and much more without the mood turning sour. We’re giving players a longer leash, essentially, by focusing on individual expressivity, cooperative interactions, and more options for good-natured disruption.
As Daniel Cook points out, players’ actions have to be self-governed and not motivated by extraneous rewards in order for them to be received by others as genuinely prosocial – which in turn means we mustn’t control players too much (oh, the horror!).
It’s a delicate balance of risk/reward, since you need risky options and vulnerability in order for genuine trust to be made.
And genuine trust elevates friendships to new heights.
In some cultures, this is considered a breach of trust.
While we’d love to tell you all about the design choices we’re doing to make Project Tumble a prosocial experience, we’re afraid it will have to wait until the game is more developed. As the old adage goes: show, don’t tell!
In the meanwhile, we’ll be exploring prosocial design more in the future. Perhaps take a look at innovative games that successfully bring players together. Feel free to suggest any titles you’ve found especially prosocial 🙂
Thanks for reading!
A kind of prosocial behavior is showing gratitude and thanking others. Research even finds that both expressing and receiving gratitude makes people more likely to help others. Even if there’s no personal gain!
In other words, feeling good makes you do good. So, for the benefit of you, us and whoever you may cross paths with – thank you for reading this blog post. We hope you found it insightful and enlightening.
Perhaps prosocial design can prove useful for your own projects? Feel free to let us know your thoughts on the whole subject. We’re always seeking knowledge, experiences and sparring.
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See you ’round the block!
Sune, Game Designer
Jonas, Community Manager & Audio Designer
Mikkel, CEO, Creative Director & Producer