I am reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. I need to read further to decide whether it will be worth recommending, but chapter 3 has some great insights for reward systems and game design. Chapter 3 is about errors, how our simian brains will vainly search for patterns in randomness and provide excessive neurochemicals to keep us focused on what is actually unpredictable.

We are a pattern-seeking species, with self-programming neurons that seek to predict risks and rewards. We are very good at developing intuitive understandings of situations in which we do not have enough time for a rational analysis, kind of like how your dog can catch a frisbee even if he cannot do the math of plotting three-dimensional vectors in real time. Unfortunately, we apply the same mental programming to completely random sequences, seeing patterns that do not exist and feeling bigger highs from wins strictly because they are unpredictable.

I say that again: unpredictable wins produce greater emotional reactions. Your brain is programmed to look for surprises, and if it really is a random system, success will always be surprising to some degree. This is a real emotional high; you really are getting that dose of neurochemicals; your neurons really do react more strongly to a 5% chance than to filling 5% of a bar. You may prefer a badge-based raid system that lets you reliably earn rewards, but your brain will compel you to pull the lever more often for the random chance. (Developers need not know neuroscience to exploit this; see again your dog and the frisbee.) Slot machines are negative-sum games, where you will always lose money over time and eventually face gambler’s ruin, but they are the clearest example of this randomness-rewarding neurochemistry.

Meanwhile, because the results are unpredictable, any patterns you try to perceive and follow will be useless at best. If something happens 60% of the time, the best you can do is to bet on its always happening. You will be right 60% of the time. If you bet against its happening 40% of the time, it is still random which 60% it is, so you are right (.6*.6+.4*.4=) 52% of the time. This was borne out experimentally, in which human test subjects really did win 52% of the time and did worse than the lab rat that won 60% of the time. Against randomness, you have two winning bets: if it is positive sum, bet as often as you can, as quickly as you can; if it is negative sum, stop betting. Kill as many goblins and raid bosses as you can; never play a slot machine. Thoughts beyond figuring out your expected payoff are entirely wasted.

Now that you know this, have I inured your brain to make the random rewards less unexpected, thus reducing your neurochemical addiction to loot piñatas?

: Zubon

17 thoughts on “Dopamine”

  1. Oddly enough loot piñatas are the reason I tend to stop playing gear focused games like WoW. Sure the high you get from a pseudo-random drop is nice but how many times do you run a dungeon and gear for a class that isn’t in your party drops, the neuro chemicals seem to work both ways… higher highs lower lows.

    Perhaps though that search for patterns in apparent randomness is part of what drives us as humans. Where would we be if calculus hadn’t begun to open our eyes to how the “magic” of electricity worked?

    Getting back to gaming this reminds me I like systems like Guild Wars where you craft most of the gear you need to play, but at the same time there is random drops from chests that can give you that rare skin. I think it adds to the excitement for me when a random drop is not so much something I need to play the game as it is something cool that enhances my character visually.

  2. I was thinking of picking that book up too. But I started reading Proust since apparently Proust is a neuroscientist! :) But I only got 1/4 of the way through.

    Yes it is interesting, I follow the average human (and dog) in experiments: the randomness makes me more likely to keep trying. Just before WOTLK and last year when they changed the badges to make it easier and predicable to grind out gear over time I got bored and stopped. Since with the randomness it could happen any moment, or i might get something else. But with the predictable badge grind I think “I KNOW i have to do this 10 more times and get this piece, 10 more times to get this other piece.” When it’s presented like that I realize how boring and work-like it is and stop. This is even though I am casual and the 1 raid per week was too much for me :)

    Of course some people are exceptions, and I hate gambling and am risk averse in other areas.

  3. I have a natural immunity to loot pinatas, at least as a driving motivation for play. That might be why Diabloish games and most MMOs just don’t do much for me.

  4. The reason why unpredictable wins appear to evoke greater emotions may be determined by a study (Matusmoto & Hirosaka, 2009) that found there were a greater number of dopamine neurons that responded to both rewarding and averting stimuli than there were that responded to rewarding stimuli alone.

    A subsequent study (R. Carter et al, 2009) found also that the parts of the brain that responded to reward stimulus activated regardless of the value (i.e whether it was a win or a loss) but that if the win/loss affected another party (e.g. if the money won went to a charity) then the dopamine levels were far lower.

    This second factor suggests that it may not be anything to do with trying to find patterns in randomness or unpredictability as suggested in Lehrer’s book but that it’s actually to do with the anticipation of a rewarding event.

    (Carter’s study also indicated that, as you can imagine, not all people are created equal – demonstrated by there being siginficant variation in signals across the range of test subjects.)

    I do admit that I haven’t read Lehrer’s work and I don’t know what studies he refers to, especially in regard to the effect of unpredictability on dopamine receptors, but both these studies were published after his book was.

  5. Does reading this make you more empathetic towards someone who cannot leave an abusive relationship? Game devs, slot machine designers and abusers all know about randomness and dopamine. No, I don’t think game devs are abusers of the playerbase, until they start tweaking it so that your loot drops on your last raid before you were going to quit.

    1. I’m sure you’re thinking of game devs as drug dealers.
      Player: “I can quit anytime I want.”
      Dev: “Sure you can.”
      Player: “I can too! Look, here I am, all ready to quit. I don’t need your junk anymore.”
      Dev: “Oh golly gosh, I seem to be wrong. Well, as I’m unlikely to ever see you again, let me give you a little something to remember our time by from my own supply. It’s top of the line loot – I won’t use anything else.”
      Player: “Gee thanks. Hey – these are some great stats!”
      Dev: “Aren’t they though.”
      Player: “Do… do you have any more like it?”
      Dev: “Well, why don’t you just come and find out…”

        1. Don’t forget the ten day trials and perpetual trials. Or purchasing content in something like W101. Get in, play for a while, enjoy it… get stuck.

          Test drive with that sweet ride? Flirting?

          “Ffree trials” to incite interest isn’t all that unusual.

          1. My Google-fu is failing me on this old joke, but there is the classic table comparing software/game developers with drug dealers. It matches up reasonably well, until the line about dealers getting Benjamins and babes. Luckily, if you know more about the economics of crime…

  6. Articles on how biochemistry affects us open a pandora’s box.

    That scientist wrote “How we decide.” How did he decide to write the book? There’s always a blind spot. If our simian brains affect decision making, they affect all kinds of it, MMO playing and book writing alike.

    Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos wrote this:

    “Now, having placed man as an object of study in the Cosmos in however an insignificant place, how do you, the scientist,the self which hit upon this theory, how do you propose to reenter this very Cosmos where you have so firmly placed the species to which you belong? Who are you who has explained the Cosmos and how do you fit into the Cosmos you have explained?”

    Reentry is a bitch. If Dopamine affects how we deal with drops in an MMO, maybe it also affects why you blog and why I comment. It’s not far from explaining to explaining away.

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