6 Game Design Lessons from L. Ron Hubbard

Greg Karber
12 min readAug 3, 2015

Scientology is not a religion. It’s not a business, either.

Scientology is a game. To win the game, you grind classes and rise up the Bridge, gaining respect and powers (at considerable expense) until you attain the state of Clear and — ultimately — Operating Thetan.

The basic rules of the game are explained in this parody video:

So, if Scientology is a game, then L. Ron Hubbard is one of the world’s most successful gamedevs. He understood the basic principles of game design. He knew how to entice people to play and how to keep them playing.

In a New York Times interview with Tarn Adams, the co-creator of Dwarf Fortress, he said, “Many popular games tap into something in a person that is compulsive, like hoarding. … You sit there saying yeah-yeah-yeah and then you wake up and say, What the hell was I doing?” He also adds, “I used to value the ability to turn the user into your slave. I don’t anymore.”

L. Ron Hubbard never stopped valuing the ability to turn the user into your slave, and he talked about it at great length.

World of Warcraft addicts may play the MMORPG for weeks, months, or even years, but Scientology is a game that people play for decades.

Why? Because it is an incredibly well-constructed game.

Here are six tips on how to apply the lessons of L. Ron Hubbard to your own games. Just don’t get carried away.

1. Have Freedoms, Barriers, and Purposes

L. Ron Hubbard spends a lot of time talking about games, because one of the central beliefs of Scientology is that people are god-like beings called “thetans” who created reality as a game to entertain themselves. We got so into the game that we forgot it was a game, and Scientology (Hubbard says) was the only way to free yourself from that game.

Hubbard defines a game as consisting of “freedoms, barriers, and purposes.”

A purpose is a goal that the player is striving toward. Barriers are the obstacles in the way of this goal. And freedoms represent “enough individuality to cope with a situation.”

If a game doesn’t have one of these things, it will not be enjoyable for players. Let’s take the example of Tetris to explain.

The purpose of Tetris is to create full lines of blocks across the screen. If you did not have this purpose, it would not be a game, and players would quickly lose interest.

The barriers of Tetris are — chiefly — that the blocks have different sizes and shapes, and that you cannot control which blocks you receive, and that they fall continuously, whether you’re ready for them or not. Additionally, the chief barrier of the game is that if your blocks ever reach the top of the screen, you lose and the game is over.

The freedoms of Tetris are the ability to rotate and move the blocks. This gives you — as L. Ron said — “enough individuality to cope with the situation.”

Games that do not give purposes are pointless. Games that do not give barriers are boring. And games that do not give freedoms are frustrating.

A good game allows all of these to work in synchronicity. They give a player multiple freedoms in how to overcome the barriers to achieve their purpose.

2. Reveal Levels and Mechanics Gradually

Hubbard spoke a lot about the importance of “proper gradient” in trapping people in his cult. From one of many Scientology websites:

A gradient is a gradual approach to something taken step by step, level by level, each step or level being, of itself, easily attainable — so that finally, complicated and difficult activities can be achieved with relative ease. The term gradient also applies to each of the steps taken in such an approach.

This is crucially important to good game development. A player who is inundated with mechanics and rules at the start of the game will quickly surrender for the game being too complex.

If the first thing a player must do upon starting your game is learn a whole host of mechanics and techniques, then they will be incapable of understanding and progressing through the game.

In this interview with Edmund McMillen, the co-designer of Super Meat Boy, he explains how the gradual introduction of mechanics keeps players engaged in the game:

“You start out, you want to teach the player how to play, and you want to make sure that they understand every mechanic of the game. So, every level in the first chapter needs to have some example forcing the player to do something in order to beat the level that they will need later in the game.”

If Super Meat Boy introduced all its mechanics in the first level, it would be unplayable.

By introducing these mechanics, and slowly building upon them, you prevent players from giving up on your game.

If you introduce mechanics or additional information too quickly, the player may become disoriented or frustrated, and might stop playing the game. What is the remedy for that? L. Ron Hubbard has the answer:

The remedy for too steep a gradient is to cut back the gradient. Find out when the person was not confused about what he was studying and then find out what new action he undertook. Find out what he felt he understood well just before he got all confused.

Additionally, the gradual introduction of plot can help you disguise twists until the moment at which the player will be most affected.

For example, in Scientology, a member will have paid around $200,000 before they learn that Earth was created as a Prison Planet for the enemies of the Evil Lord Xenu.

If this was introduced at the beginning of a person’s experience in Scientology, then no one would believe it. And it would cause them to reject the entire system. But once you’re invested in the game, not only do you believe it, but it kicks off an entirely new series of levels.

3. Don’t Let the Game End

In an essay about power, written as a review of a biography of Simón Bolívar and Manuela Sáenz, Hubbard talks about power and leadership as a game, and he states:

All limited games come to end. And when they do, their players fall over on the field and become rag dolls unless somebody at least tells them the game has ended and they have no more game nor any dressing room or homes but just that field.

Puzzles are notoriously prone to this. The moment a player has discovered the solution to the puzzle, it is no longer interesting. The game has ended, and the player loses interest.

Hubbard summarizes this in the conclusion of that essay:

When the game or the show is over, there must be a new game or a new show. And if there isn’t, somebody else is jolly well going to start one, and if you won’t let anyone do it, the game will become “getting you.”

As a gamedev, you probably don’t have to worry about being killed like Simón Bolívar and Manuela Sáenz. But you definitely have to worry about players getting bored with your game and moving onto another one.

Tetris always has more levels to complete, the only limitation being a player’s ability to move and rotate blocks. Similarly, in Minecraft, a player can always expand their base or adventure out into the world.

But nothing comes close to the endless leveling of Scientology, a game that can take years and years to beat:

Like World of Warcraft’s gamedevs, L. Ron Hubbard continued to introduce new levels to Scientology, ensuring that his most dedicated players always had more content to consume. Similarly, there should be parts of your game that only the most dedicated players will attempt, so that it will give them a challenge, while allowing less devoted players to conti

Since L. Ron Hubbard died, no new levels can be produced for Scientologists, so they are constantly forced to repeat earlier levels. This can get so frustrating for Scientologists that they quit.

You want to make sure that your game is challenging enough to keep the player motivated without being so difficult that it becomes frustrating. How is this done? That brings us to the next tip.

4. Keep Score

Scientology is a religion obsessed with statistics. Unfortunately (or, for the world, perhaps fortunately), L. Ron Hubbard was horrible at mathematics, as seen in this excerpt from the Philadelphia Doctorate Course, a series of lectures given near the beginning of Scientology:

Rate of change is this mathematics known as Calculus. … Now I hope you understand this, because I’ve never been able to make head nor tail of it. It must be some sort of a Black Magic operation, started out by the Luce cult — some immoral people who are operating up in New York City, Rockefeller Plaza — been thoroughly condemned by the whole society.

Hubbard, who was never very good at mathematics, does not understand how Calculus helps you understand rate-of-change, or the first derivative, of a function. However, rate-of-change is very important within Scientology, and forms the basis of his ethical system.

How do Scientologists measure rate-of-change without Calculus?

By graphing their statistics and then looking to see if the graph is going up or going down. I wish I was joking, but it’s literally that simple:

If your graph is going up, you are upstat. If your graph is going down, you are downstat. Upstat is good and gives you benefits and extra perks in Scientology. Downstat is bad and requires punishment or “Ethics Handling.”

A key principle is revealed in this measurement:
It is not the quantity of the score that matters, but its rate-of-change.

One of the developers of Peggle gave an interview where he discussed why PopCap games are so addictive. One of the things he revealed was that they “always have sound cues of rising pitch associated with combos.” This is rewarding gamers — not for success — but for increasing success. This gets them to try harder and to push themselves.

During optimum play, a player’s score should constantly be increasing. Players are rewarded by the feeling that their current behavior is doing well, and punished by the feeling that they aren’t making progress.

You do not have to keep score numerically — though games like Tetris or Flappy Bird do, and these scores are integral to the addictive quality of these games — but you do need to constantly inform the player whether they are doing well or poorly.

An article in the Wall Street Journal about casual games argues that positive reinforcement is key to their success: “After a player lays waste to all the pigs on a level of [Angry Birds], a raucous wave of cheers goes up,” and in Bejeweled 2, “[after] a string of successful moves, a baritone voice announces, ‘Excellent!’ or ‘Awesome!’”

With this information — provided constantly and consistently — a player can understand what behaviors they should engage in, and what behaviors they should avoid. This has the same function in Scientology as it does in casual games: to increase engagement.

In Scientology, that engagement is then used to get Scientologists to donate more money and time. In casual games, it’s used to keep people playing. But you can see — in sleazier games — how it’s used to the same ends as Scientology. For example, Zynga focuses its monetization efforts on “whales,” individual gamers who might pay as much as $75,000 a year to maintain their virtual farms. Scientology uses the same term.

Why do people give so much money to Scientology or, worse, Zynga? Because these games succeed in creating and protecting magic circles.

5. Protect the Magic Circle

A quote from psychologist Michael Apter appears in Rules of Play the definitive textbook of game design:

In the play state you experience a protective frame which stands between you and the “real” world and its problems, creating an enchanted zone in which, in the end, you are confident that no harm can come.

An illustration of how the Magic Circle allows events within the game to have special meaning. This is from Fundamentals of Game Design by Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings.

The authors of Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, refer to this the Magic Circle, and it coincides perfectly with what L. Ron Hubbard said about how to transform a player (who is conscious of the rules and that he is playing a game) into a piece (who is unconscious of the rules and has forgotten that he is playing a game):

“To make a piece continue to be piece, permit it to associate only with pieces and deny the existence of players … It can’t be a game. ‘Don’t play with me. I mustn’t be played with. Life is serious. This isn’t a game. We’re playing for keeps. I’ll never get out of this…’”

Hubbard, here, is referring to the process by which thetans become trapped in world as we know it, though it is no coincidence that this also describes the experience of Scientologists within Scientology.

As gamedevs, we don’t want our players to become slaves, but we do want them to forget — in a sense — that they are playing a game. The best game experience happens when the game becomes real to the player, when they view it as happening, and when they feel that the stakes are real.

In Scientology, this is accomplished by isolating Scientologists from outsiders, preventing access to criticism, and creating a complicated and internal jargon that prevents them from communicating outside of the circle.

With games, this must be accomplished by providing a fully realized game that continually interests the player, while preventing the outside world from intruding on the game.

This leads into the sixth and final tip.

6. Create a Sense of Flow

Hubbard had a love/hate relationship with hypnotism. When he was younger, he was an avid fan of hypnotism, but as he developed Dianetics, it became a liability to tell people he was hypnotizing them, and so he used a different word for the hypnotic state: “the Dianetic reverie.”

Still, Hubbard wrote of the importance of hypnotism in cults, “Hypnotism was a sort of constant thread through all the cults — or hypnotic practices.”

When a pre-clear (the term Scientologists use to refer to someone being audited) is in a Dianetic reverie, they are focused, alert, and feel totally in control of themselves. They lose track of time. They fall into and out of the memories that they are replaying.

Just two adults playing a live-action pay-to-win role-playing game called “Scientology auditing.”

This shares a strong resemblance to the concept of “cognitive flow,” which is detailed in this Gamasutra article. Here are six experiences that people have during “cognitive flow:”

  1. Extreme focus on a task.
  2. A sense of active control.
  3. Merging of action and awareness.
  4. Loss of self-awareness.
  5. Distortion of the experience of time.
  6. The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.

All of these (with the possible exception of the final one) perfectly fit the experience of Dianetic reverie. And, according to that article, these steps are how the state of flow is created in a player:

  1. Have concrete goals with manageable rules.
  2. Demand actions to achieve goals that fit within the person’s capabilities.
  3. Have clear and timely feedback on performance and goal accomplishment.
  4. Diminish extraneous distraction, thus facilitating concentration.

All of these can be seen in Scientology: the first restates the idea of Freedoms, Barriers, and Purposes, the second matches the idea of Proper Gradient, the third aligns with Keeping Score, and the fourth describes the Magic Circle.

If you do all six of these things — and you do them well — you will have created an experience that enraptures players, captivating them with your game, and keeping them coming back for more, just like all great game developers, from Shigeru Miyamoto to Gabe Newell to L. Ron Hubbard.

(Please tweet your questions, comments, or SP-declares to @gregkarber.)