One of the most important aspects of game design is the creation of a psychological state called “flow”, a mental state characterized by a sense of immersion, energy and involvement. This can be excessively difficult to achieve in multiplayer gaming and oftentimes results in the frustration of involved players. To achieve “flow” in their 2007 online shooter Team Fortress 2, the renowned Valve Corporation used a unique class-system that assigned certain abilities and limitations to playable characters, resulting in a type of interdependency between players, thus creating a complex weave of positive reinforcement loops, echoing B.F. Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning.
Before we begin, a bit of background information. B.F. Skinner was a psychologist who developed the theory of operant conditioning. Which basically held that learning and behavior modification is achieved when reinforcement or punishment is given when desired or non-desired behavior is exhibited by a subject. Positive reinforcement is when desired behavior is rewarded, thereby shaping the individual to exhibit that behavior more often. In order to make players play by the rules of a game, games must reward desired behavior exhibited by their players with points or satisfaction.
Team Fortress 2 takes a non-traditional approach towards designing its character classes to maximize the reward that players experience for playing a respective class well. While traditional shooters reward players with points for making successful kills and completing objectives, Team Fortress 2 rewards its players for exhibiting behavior concurrent with the purposes of the class that he/she may be playing. This is perfectly exemplified by the design of the Medic class. A German man with a syringe-gun and a Medi-Cannon, the Medic forces his players to rely upon the combat power of other characters and is rewarded for avoiding combat and healing allies from the back lines. Medic players receive reinforcement by acquiring points by healing damage or by healing an ally as he makes a successful kill. The ultimate objective of Medic players is to fill an “ubercharge meter” by distributing a large amount of health to allies. A player who achieves this goal is rewarded with the ability to deploy a status effect that gives him and an ally ten seconds of invincibility, a status effect that can change the course of an entire game. As a result, this fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule makes a traditionally frustrating character fun to play and achieves the goal of creating psychological “flow” in players. This approach to reinforcement can be seen in other class-designs, most notably the Engineer, which rewards players for having their utilities used by allies. This approach to the psychological minutiae of player reinforcement and “flow” extends to even the more traditional combat-classes, like the Soldier, Pyro and Sniper, each of which are designed to specialize in certain situations, thereby creating interdependency between players and forcing cooperation, giving players reinforcement for successfully fulfilling the role of their class, a type of collective “flow” is achieved.
Valve’s decision to design Team Fortress 2’s playable characters to exploit human psychological patterns of reward and reinforcement to create flow achieves a gaming nirvana sought out by all game designers. My game-professor from my time at UC Santa Cruz acknowledged that the goal of game design is to provide interactive visual stimuli to create a certain psychological/emotional response in players. To this affect, Team Fortress 2 succeeds with aplomb by basing its fundamental design on “collective flow”, an experience comparable only to sports. Other game developers have experimented with patterns of reinforcement in multiplayer gaming, most notably with Treyarch/Infinity Ward and the Call of Duty series. Call of Duty operates by an “experience-point” system, which allows players to unlock progressively stronger weapons and abilities as they play for longer stretches of time and complete special objectives. While this is effective in creating an addictive positive feedback loop (addictive being used here in the colloquial sense of the term), it creates a fundamental imbalance in gameplay as more experienced players can easily dominate new players with superior equipment and perks. As a result, the game becomes a bizarre amalgam of the frustrating and the enthralling, and for new gamers, gaming becomes a masochistic struggle to endure the assaults of skilled players in hopes of unlocking better weapons. This apparent psychological contradiction shows that game-designers have much to learn when it comes to creating “flow” without creating imbalance or frustration.
For the last five months, Team Fortress 2 has enthralled me with its masterful manipulation of operant conditioning and reinforcement. Having had to fight off the urge to play a few rounds to write this paper, I wanted to understand exactly what was bringing me back to the game so often. I concluded that the game must have had some psychological impact upon me and that its psychological design was responsible for causing me to lose countless hours to it. Drawing from what I learned about Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning and reinforcement, as well as from perusing developer commentary, I determined that the game draws its primary appeal from the design of its interdependent classes and the methods of scoring unique to each of the classes. In order to achieve this, Valve does not display a death-count on the in-game scoreboard, preventing player-humiliation. This comes in addition to a random loot-drop system and persistent player-statistics. These methods of rewarding individual achievement, combined with the psychological impact of constant positive reinforcement and collective flow, work well to make Team Fortress 2 a masterclass in multiplayer gaming.
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