This is part four in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” The earlier posts aren’t prerequisites for this one, but I recommend checking them out anyway 🙂
This week, we’re going to tackle brain chemistry, neurotransmitter hormones, and some of the deeper psychological aspects of what’s going on during a board game, and how the Player Experience is molded by those things. Full disclaimer, I’m wholly unqualified to discuss this aspect of the PX topic; I’ve done my best to research each of the aspects I’m presenting below, but if your areas of expertise overlap what I’ve got down here, I’d love to connect and revise this a little bit. Please reach out!
A lot of popular press these days seems to be covering the hormones that influence our moods, feelings, and reactions — sometimes in fairly simplistic ways: I needed a dopamine hit, so I ate a cupcake. The science, however, appears to be painting an increasingly complex picture (he says, as he’s about to lay out a super-simplified worldview). The “heavy hitters” in your brain that we can cover at a high level here include, with very simplistic explanations:
- Dopamine — regulates the reward center of the brain. Something good happens, and you get a little hit of it. You feel good.
- Serotonin — has a major influence over mood regulation. The vibe at the gaming table likely is tightly connected to the players’ Serotonin levels. But that’s actually just a hypothesis; current science doesn’t actually know the exact purpose it serves, only that it’s definitely important.
- Oxytocin — sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’ (because it appears to be generated in high quantities during cuddling) contributes to the overall feeling of bonding among people. Ironically, it is also turning out to be related to high-stress situations as well, with research finding that extended stressful childhood experiences can lead to anxiety issues later in life.
- Adrenaline — causing the ‘fight or flight’ feeling — released by danger or during competition.
- Cortisol — Adrenaline’s arch enemy, released during stressful situations to lower Adrenaline levels, and has big impacts on digestion and other bodily systems.
Even from the definitions, it’s pretty easy to start mapping the ‘payouts’ of these hormones to different activities within a board game, and which situations might trigger which. You roll the dice roll to seal a gate in Arkham Horror, you make it, dopamine hit — afterward, you may feel the urge to ‘let it ride’ by taking more chancy risks to get more hits. That tense moment at the end of Mafia/Werewolf where it’s down to the last villager to break the tie of the final vote, or you’re like a point away from wining in Catan and you just need to nab that “Longest Road” card for the win, Adrenaline spikes, followed by Cortisol to manage the stress. If these pathways outweigh Oxytocin’s… friendships could be temporarily or permanently impacted.
Adrenaline has also been implicated in the formation of memories — you probably remember that time a car ran a stop sign and nearly ran you down in the crosswalk, but you can’t recall the hundreds of times you’ve successfully navigated a street crossing. So it is with the exciting moments in games; revealing that you’re betraying your erstwhile ally by mounting a huge offensive on his outlying holdings in Twilight Imperium is a moment you will likely remember, while every peaceful expansion to a neighboring territory in Small World is gone from your memory forever.
The (evolutionarily) older parts of our brains, sometimes called the “Lizard Brain”, runs the basic functions, and is basically a victim to all the raw neurotransmitters, and any sort of immediate payoff, while our newer “Monkey Brain” is able to take on higher reasoning and social relationships, and longer term planning, but only while it isn’t letting the Lizard brain run the show.
Neuroscience’s impacts on Board Gaming go well beyond simple neurotransmitters, as well — a concept championed by B. F. Skinner in the 50’s called “Operant conditioning” refers to influencing behavior by either adding (positive) or removing (negative) stimuli that is desirable or undesirable, to make a two-by-two grid of positive and negative reinforcements and punishments. An example, from Daniel Solis’ designer blog, the designer of Guillotine hates the “Callous Guards” card in his own, game — because it shuts down gameplay, it’s an example of negative punishment, and gives players a shitty experience, which is sort of the opposite of a game.
Putting all these things together, the impact of neuroscience on how a player experiences your game is huge (and arguably… or technically? the only way they are actually experiencing it). The effects even carry over from one game to the next — imagine a game that does nothing but continually presses the button to release dopamine until the lizard brain is drowning in it… say, Cards Against Humanity. It’s nearly impossible to play a more esoteric or “Monkey Brained” game immediately afterward, and that game tends to bring game nights to a halt. Perhaps this is one reason why serious “hobby” gamers tend to hate the game — after it comes out, no one wants to play anything else after, and they come to resent that.
As with all the articles in this series, nothing is value judgement, nor ‘prescriptivist’ stance on how you should design. But the next level of game design will include consideration of every one of these underlying drivers of the Player Experience. The video game industry is already using these things to great effect and monetary gain in their designs to make sure “Clash of Clans” is sticky enough to pay the bills — and regardless of what you think of that, your design will eventually compete with not only every other board game for time on the table, but also against all other things a player might be doing.