Phone in hand, about to beat level 423 of Sugar Smash, Bill is curled into a tiny ball on the couch with his eyes stretched inhumanly open. The sun has gone down and the only light comes from the tiny screen. As the last two items switch places and the screen explodes in a colorful flashing orgasm Bill recalls the hundreds of hours spent agonizing over lining up the colorful wiggly items in just the right way so that he might eventually progress to level 424. Tears stream down his face with joy, rewarding the past two and a half hours of struggle, restarting the level over and over. He has done it. Only 76 more levels to go.
It’s not Bill’s fault. The Sugar Smash creators would say their game isn’t doing harm—it’s not tobacco or firearms after all—and people choose to opt in to it. Truthfully there are greater evils and few of us will have our lives ruined from mobile games, though some may be embarrassed. This post isn’t about games like Sugar Smash being evil, but it’s time to ask
How Can We Do Better?
Pro-social game design is something many indies are already doing intuitively but very few talk about it. In short, it’s about making games which are good for the people who play them. Here are some ways we might think about that and do it intentionally.
Fast food vs. Slow food
It seems like not a coincidence that a game which is designed to be as addictive as possible is going to be called “Sugar Smash”. It brings back memories of that manic sugar high feeling paired with the sensation of just crushing—er, smashing—everything in your path towards winning.
Fast food is easy, seems cheap, and turns out to be costly. Free-to-play means anyone can get it without risk, very simple mechanics allow brand new (casual) players to start playing and beating levels instantly, and bright graphics/blingy sounds help fuel the dopamine loop to draw the player in to the next level. And the next. A couple months later you wonder how many times you impulsively hit “buy another move” just to beat that level you were stuck on and begin to dread looking at your credit card Bill.
Slow food costs more up front, is a bit more difficult to get into, but makes you feel way better. I’ve seen dozens of indie (and not) games which know this implicitly. Slow games can use a complex mechanic which is demanding, exhibit minimalist art focusing on creativity, or even provide experiences which are a single-sitting walk-around intended to be unique all the way through. In my own work I have tried more than anything to adhere to these ideals, and people often call my games meditative.
If you want to be pro-social, it’s more likely than not you should be making something akin to slow-food. Here are a few ways to do that.
Let People Sit, Give them Space
Allowing a player the time and space within a game to ponder over developments allows them to act at their own pace and to own the game environment. It can be both easy and tempting to break this rule as a designer, where a common shortcut to cause a player to engage is by putting a wall of spikes with a timer coming at them.
By letting the player own the environment I mean something along the lines of the player being the principal agent. They aren’t driving a car on a road which swerves this way or that, or running away from ghosts, or being prompted to make certain moves. The game should consistently grant them the ability to choose how they wish to interact.
Finally, not demanding things of the player takes away the stakes and allows them to explore and be more creative than, say, a highly objective-oriented experience combined with time pressures. It creates a sensation of openness and collaboration between the player and the world.
An easy way to check if a game lets the player sit: are there consequences for sitting and doing nothing? Can the player take pause frequently without consequence?
When Bill beats level 423 of Sugar Smash, has he changed? A pro-social game doesn’t provide the exact same thing every time. Each level is different, re-engages the player, and encourages them to grow in ways which allow them to interact more skillfully with the game.
One of the easiest ways to ensure that players grow throughout the game is by using a novel mechanic. Novel mechanics require a player to adapt to a new context with new rules, and necessitate far more growth than a reskinning of the same old endless runner. Going back to the slow food metaphor, novel mechanics are probably difficult for players to engage with immediately. If a player struggles with it at first but shows progress as they begin to understand how the game works, that is success. It is the job of the designer to help players past the first hurdle, and the job of players to trust that the designers have made it possible for them.
Aside from novel mechanics, the way in which games represent and manipulate their state can give a player room to grow. Good game design will result in various parts of this problem being manipulated—e.g. how to understand the current state of things (Secant), how actions are going to affect that state (Angry Birds), or what actions are even available (Scrabble). By crafting the information so that the player must use different tactics to unravel and make sense out of it, the game designer necessitates growth.
Reward the Player
This one seems like it should be completely obvious to game design but without it the other two rules would allow me to say that an algebra textbook is a good example of pro-social game design. Well, it still might be, depending on who’s reading it and whether they’re feeling rewarded.
The bigger question though is not whether or not to reward the player, but how. Gamification in schools has taught us that badges and fictional points aren’t particularly good motivators for learning, and while flashy lights and sounds are useful for keeping players addicted they don’t make for slow food (though they can serve as spice on top of an already solid game). The more important rewards to a player are understanding and discovery. If you can consistently provide novel content or challenges throughout the game that give a player more information about how the world of the game works (or can work), it is intrinsically motivating for them. People love new things, especially when any fear of novelty is squelched by the fact that it’s all sandboxed within a game.
Why Should We Do It?
Sugar Smash isn’t going away, and only more like its kind are going to continue to pop up regardless how much people hate on them. What we can do, both indies and not, is create games that have a positive impact on those who play. If more people play pro-social games they’ll see the difference for themselves, and I think it’s only a matter of time before their standards raise the bar and games like Sugar Smash are no longer viable.
If you make or have examples of pro-social games please feel free to share them here!
A big thanks to the game designers who have made landmarks (such as those linked here) which helped show me the way to being a better game maker. I could not have written this without your examples.