Games sometimes ask players to make moral choices, a mechanic that “has been seen as one way of engaging players more deeply in deeply complex gameworlds” (Sicart, 2009). However, can we really call these choices ethical?
According to Sicart, most systems cannot, as ethical choices in games cannot be “a variation of branching storytelling where the player takes choices based on alleged moral parameters evaluated by the game system” (2009). This is illustrated in the Mass Effect series (BioWare, 2007), where dialogue choices clearly inform players of the moral tone and repercussion of dialogue choices (figure 1): blue is for “Paragon” choices (towards good/altruism), and red is for “Renegade” choices (towards evil/selfishness). According to Sicard, this is therefore not an ethical choice as is tied into the game’s own evaluation of morality, and furthermore is obviously signposted to the player.
The Witcher 3 (CD Projekt Red, 2015) approaches this differently. In the quest “Family Matters”, players meet a baron who is looking for his wife; however, it quickly transpires that her departure is due his appalling treatment of her (figure 2), although he is strongly remorseful and seeking atonement. To solve this quest, the player must also involve parties also showing an equal measure of evilness and humanity, and make a difficult (and unwanted) judgement call on them – indeed, “what the player has to do can be in collision with either her values external to the game” (Sicart, 2009). Interestingly, all choices end in dramatic consequences for one or several of the parties, a deliberate choice according to the quest writer who states that “[the player] will think it through, analyze all the information he was given and then chose—but rarely will he be certain that it was a good decision” (Stachrya, 2015).
Indeed, in a successful ethical choice system, “choices based on moral reasoning will actually have an impact” (Sicart, 2009). They may just not be the easiest to make.
Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2001) offers players an interesting premise: a world with no violence, no harm, and a gameplay based on making your character and the town’s inhabitants happy through favours, giving gifts, and positive changes to the game landscape; this results in a peaceful gameplay, wholly based on pleasurable activities. Why is this world so compelling to so many players? Philosophy might offer an answer to that.
According to Bentham and his utilitarian theory, actions should be evaluated by their consequence, in particular through “the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action” (IEP, no date). Animal Crossing bases much of its gameplay on this very principle: one of the player’s tasks is to constantly change the town’s flora by planting flowers, weeding, and adding trees and objects; this eventually results in growing citizen satisfaction about living there (figure 1), thus making player actions valuable.
Other actions in the game are all geared towards pleasure and happiness: catching a fish yields positive messages and makes inhabitants near-by smile; shaking trees yields gifts (and the occasional bee); even the simple act of drinking coffee becomes an expression of joy (figure 2). Indeed, consistently with Bertham, a good society “is thus a matter of experiencing pleasure and lack of pain” (IEP, no date).
Friendship with inhabitants also takes centre stage in the game (figure 3), with a large part of the game centred around doing favours to neighbours, swapping objects, and attending birthday parties. This is another application of Mill’s prized forms of happiness, represented by “genuine engagement with the world” (MacLeod, 2018), in this case human connection with digital denizens.
Could Animal Crossing be a game representation of the ideal society spoken of by Mill and Bentham, the “kind of philosophic gameworld of a single truth”? And is this why it captures players hearts and attention so much? The answer might be in the next letter from your neighbour!
In Ace Attorney games, players must find clues and resolve a crime. The problem solving involved can be split into two categories: non-insightful, and insightful.
According to Bowden, “non-insight problems are designed to be solvable through a process of systematic application of knowledge and logical deduction” (1997, p. 548). In Ace Attorney, players start each case without any key knowledge, and their journey becomes gaining it and logically building on top of it: finding a clue in a scene (figure 1), then asking a character about it, then using their statement to observe another scene aforementioned, and so forth. This systematic and gradual problem solving allows for steady progress and minimal frustration in early investigation stages.
However, this method gets gradually and deliberately weaker, reaching an apex when players must finally present their final evidence and accusation in court. The non-insight approach to this problem, potentially trying every combination of objects and statements possible, is severely restricted in the game: players that gets more than five answers wrong (figure 2) will lose the case and have to restart. Furthermore, the game makes heavy use of red herrings, such as useless objects, clues that only reveal their purpose after being presented incorrectly, or statements that must be revisited to reveal true intent.
Indeed, Ace Attorney then shifts to insight problem solving, requiring players to “shift his or her perceptive and view the problem in a novel way in order to achieve the solution” (Bonk, 2003). Often the game will ask players to think outside the box by using the objects in an unusual way, applying a new way of thinking about the crime or suspects, or even do seemingly unintuitive gameplay actions (repeat dialogue, look at the wrong object, deliberately fail) in order to progress and solve the case. While not obviously signposted, this problem-solving is consistent with Webb et al.’s observation that even ill-defined problems can be solved with insight (2016).
By using both forms of problem-solving, Ace Attorney is able to keep the players guessing – and playing!
Bowden, E. M. (1997) ‘The Effect of Reportable and Unreportable Hints on Anagram Solution and the Aha! Experience’, Conscious Cogn., 6, pp.545–573. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9479484 (Accessed 14 February 2018)
In active stealth games, players can voluntarily choose to hide from enemies (Bycer, 2014). As noted by Bycer, “stealth design has to be made 100% clear to the player” (2017), and the use of UI indicators can be an efficient way to communicate stealth levels to players. This blog will look at two applications of this through the lens of Fagerholt and Lorentzon’s research on UI (2009).
When players enters stealth mode in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011), a golden eye is displayed in the middle of the screen (figure 1); it gradually opens as the enemy sees the player, or closes when the player is hidden. According to Fagerholt and Lorentzon (2009), this is a non-diegetic element of UI: the eye does not exist inside the fictional game world, and it is not visualised as part of the 3D game space either. While functional and clear, the non-diegetic choice makes the player a passive participant in stealth monitoring, as the indicator is always on-screen and in plain view.
However, Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016) places the stealth meter directly on the enemy in-game (figure 2). Fagerholt and Lorentzon call this a spacial or geometric representation, as it does not exist in the fictional game world but is still visualised within it. This in-game location forces the player to pay attention to the game world to monitor enemies’ awareness. Furthermore, the meter uses colour (red) and flashing animation to indicate stealth is about the fail, making this a signifier, an “element carrying information about entities external to the signifier itself” (Fagerholt and Lorentzon, 2009). This adds another level of engagement with the player as they are once again required to pay close attention to the stealth indicator to gage their stealth level.
While non-diegetic stealth UI indicators convey information efficiently, spacial representation can be an efficient way to also involve the player further in the stealth mechanics.
Fagerholt, E. and Lorentzon, M. (2009) User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games. Master of Science Thesis. Chalmers University of Technology. Available at: publications.lib.chalmers.se/records/fulltext/111921.pdf (Accessed 14 February 2018)
Over the last decades, increases in computing power and game development techniques have allowed virtual worlds to become increasingly complex, allowing for exponential immersion and engagement with the player (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). This evolution has also prompted the study of factors behind player engagement in video games, in particular with regards to intrinsic motivation. According to the self-determination theory (SDT), intrinsic motivation relies on triggering three key feelings (Ryan and Deci, 2000): autonomy, representing player choice; competence, the ability to fulfil goals and challenges; and, lastly, relatedness, the sense of belonging in the game world and relating to it as the playing character. These feelings, considered necessary for successful play in general (Frederick and Ryan, 1993), are derived from the player being ““in-character” within a particular gaming context” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006) and can explain why players find some games satisfying and, in turn, fun (Malone and Lepper, 1987). The essay will use the SDT theory to analyse how Yakuza 0 (Sega, 2015) uses these three intrinsic motivation factors to create engagement and a sense of fun with the player. Lastly, the essay will examine the limitations of Yakuza 0’s implementation of the theory.
Autonomy: Freedom and Empowerment
According to SDT, an initial intrinsic motivation factor is autonomy, in other words “the feeling that you are acting volitionally” (Recchia, 2013). It is important to player motivation as it creates a sense of agency, allowing players to feel a sense of empowerment in shaping the game’s narrative (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006).
Yakuza 0’s main narrative is centred around story chapters that have to be played in order, and are triggered willingly by the player through a map marker. Each chapter represents a self-contained story following the main narrative thread, and often involves a unique location that cannot be accessed again or beforehand; once completed, the player returns to the game world and recovers full freedom and map access. At first glance, this makes for a very rigid system, as player agency is not involved in the main narrative structure in terms of story choices, or events order. However, Yakuza 0 uses a simple mechanic to mitigate this set-up : the player can choose exactly when to advance the story and do these chapters and does not get punished (or rewarded) for choosing when they want to trigger the next story chapter.
Autonomy is however developed significantly outside these story chapters: barring very few story-related exceptions, the player then has full freedom over the map and over the many activities it contains, which the game encourages the player to remember (figure 1); the player can undertake any other task in the game world and in any order. This is of particular relevance when considering the high amount of side-quests (100), and the length and narrative importance of each character’s business activity quests (Kiryu Kazuma’s estate management, and Majima Goro’s club management). Indeed, both quest types provide a significant amount of narration, character progression and rewards, in addition to unlocking further locations and mini-games; accordingly, they represent a large amount of in-game time and activities (figure 2).
These side-quests may be completed in any order without any prompters or restrictions, and can also be ignored without any penalty, an important factor as autonomy is based on the “degree of choice one has over the tasks and goals undertaken” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). It is also interesting to note that, once again, the game does not punish or restrict the player by forcing them to complete the side quests within a set amount of time to before the end of the game, emphasising that the player can choose exactly when to handle them.
Equal freedom is applied to the plethora of mini-games available on the map (darts, bowling, pool, karaoke, dancing, arcade games, shoji, gambling, etc.), which can be accessed at any time and can also lead to further quests and narrative or gameplay rewards.
This variety of quests and activities outside of the main narration, and the freedom offered to the player regarding their completion rate and order, allows the game to carefully “balance [the player’s] boundless curiosity against a finite pool or resources” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2010), allowing the player to make their own game by choosing what to do and when. In other words, as highlighted by Schell (2015, p.150), this allows Yakuza 0 to be a “game that gives you freedom to play how you want to play”, a crucial factor for autonomy.
Competence: Immediate Feedback and Gradual Mastery
SDT also highlights the need for competence, an intrinsic motivator representing the ability for the player to be challenged, to gradually master game mechanics, and to feel a sense of overall mastery progress. The feeling of competence is among the most important factors of satisfaction and therefore key to successful motivation, as it is directly linked to the player feeling accomplishment and control (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006).
An initial application of competence is to make the player feel they are “effective and successful moment to moment” (Recchia, 2013), which Yakuza 0 achieves through combat. As a brawler-focused action game, Yakuza 0 allows the player to get into regular fights and to get immediate feedback through fighting rewards (figure 3): for every successful hit, money will fly out of the enemy and into the protagonist’s wallet and enemies’ health will go down, displaying the important immediate and visible feedback highlighted by Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski (2006).
Another important factor to enhance competence is through “opportunities to acquire new skills and abilities” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). To achieve this, Yakuza 0 makes use of a skill tree directly linked to combat: with money gained, players can unlock new skills and special moves, and can then apply them straight away to further their fighting ability and variety. This is further enhanced by the scaling of enemy difficulty in-game: as the game progresses, enemies’ health bars will grow longer, and they will equip gradually more lethal weapons such as swords and guns, which need to be dodged or will cause significant hinderance to the player and severely damage their health. This is an important feature which triggers more competence as “tasks within the game provide ongoing optimal challenge” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006): gradual evolution of in-game fights gives constant and gradual challenges that the player must adapt to and overcome, and trigger more competence motivation.
Interestingly, Yakuza 0 explores the concept of challenge through non-violent activities as well in mini-games like karaoke. Competence is approached differently but is nonetheless present: the player must press the right button at the right time, through an intuitive and simple interface. Feedback, in this case, is presented in an audio-visual form, with a music video unlocking to reward the player who has consistently pressed the right buttons at the right time (figure 4). While the competence in this mini-game does not progress with time as combat difficulty does, it is instead the player skill that is allowed to progress through repetition. Once again, players are never penalised for failing and may re-try the mini-games as often and whenever they choose. This provides an interesting alternative of triggering competence, this time occurring when “game controls are intuitive and readily mastered” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006).
Relatedness: Feeling and Belonging
Beyond autonomy and completion, Yakuza 0 uses another factor outlined in SDT to help the player feel an increased sense of intrinsic motivation: relatedness. Relatedness, also referred to as “presence”, can be described as a need based on interaction and as the “desire for connection with others – to feel that one matters” (Recchia, 2013). While it can be initially perceived to require a multi-player experience and interaction with other real people, it is important to note that this is also a feature that can be found in single-player games. Indeed, this is explicitly noted by Recchia who states that “we can feel a degree of relatedness even to game characters”. When Ryan and Deci (2000) discuss relatedness as “the need to feel belongingness”, taken to the context of a video game, it can therefore be assumed that in-game characters can be part of the equation.
Yakuza 0, as a narration-driven game, achieves this through several mechanics. While the player does not make in-game decisions that can change the main storyline, they are exposed to several recurrent characters and build a relationship with them throughout the game through various friendship activities (karaoke, darts, dancing), but also via the scenario and regular cut-scenes. These story pieces help create empathy though emotional cut- scenes, fully voiced and realistically modelled, where characters close to the protagonists can be seen addressing the player while in emotional distress or danger (figure 5). These help create a sense of empathy with the in-game characters, and to feel, as Reccha (2013) notes in his description of relatedness “that one matters and that one matters to others”.
In parallel, Yakuza 0 also achieves this through lighter-toned side quests where the protagonists must help various characters in the game world, usually to overcome hardships or to help fulfil their wishes. The humorous tone used in this narration can also help the player feel that they are connected to others, another important factor to achieve relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2000) (figure 6).
More pragmatically, it is worth noting that Yakuza 0 also uses its game world to create relatedness, triggering “the sense that one is within the game world” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). Indeed, in their study questions, they use the following question to assess the sense of presence with study participants: “when moving through the game world I feel as if I am actually there”.
Accordingly, Yakuza 0 uses high fidelity graphics to recreate a virtual version of two of Tokyo and Osaka’s districts, Kabukicho and Dotonburi respectively (Kamurocho and Sotenbori in-game), going as far as recreating the exact streets and shops from the real-life location, including notable tourist sights like Osaka’s Kani Doraku restaurant and its iconic billboard (figures 7 and 8).
Use of a night and day cycle and of various background noises (pedestrians talking, pachinko machine sounds, music playing when getting close to bars and clubs, thugs calling the protagonists from afar for fights) also help enhance the sense of presence and induce the player into feeling they are one with the time and space.
The Limits of Intrinsic Motivations in Yakuza 0
While Yakuza 0 makes use of the aforementioned SDT triggers, it is worth remembering, as noted above, that they do not apply to all the elements in-game; for instance, autonomy does not apply to all the narration. However, as explained by Reccha (2013) this is not necessarily an issue as the key is the player’s perception that they can achieve autonomy. For instance, he notes that for SDT elements to be achieved it is enough to “feel that one’s actions are volitional and self-directed even if the game is in fact nudging them in a certain direction”. It can therefore be argued that, although Yakuza 0’s main narrative thread itself breaks autonomy, it is enough for the player to be nudged towards it; as mentioned above, this is also mitigated by wide variety and meaningfulness of side quests in terms of narration.
More generally, with regards to competence and relatedness, it can also be remarked that SDT principles may not work for certain players who will not enjoy the game’s mechanics enough to feel competence, or engage with the characters and world enough to feel relatedness. Indeed, as recognised and noted by Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski (2006) in their studies outcome, “there is considerable variation between individuals in their overall experience of and motivation for computer games”. While this does not invalidate the positive experience with regards to intrinsic motivation that some players will experience playing Yakuza 0, as with most subjective theories, it will not apply to every single player.
Yakuza 0 makes extensive use of the three Self-Determination Theory triggers to motivate players. It uses its extensive side-quest system and numerous mini-game activities to instil a sense of autonomy, allowing the players the important feeling of choice and empowerment. Yakuza 0 also makes use of its combat system to to give players a sense of completion, through direct rewards such as money and health damage, but also though long-term difficulty curve and special abilities unlocks over the course of the game. Through its narration, characters and settings, the game also instils a sense of relatedness with the player, giving them the chance to feel part of a world and linked to its inhabitants. Finally, it is worth noting that, as noted in STD and motivation studies, not all participants will be affected by SDT triggers the same way, meaning that while Yakuza 0’s application of SDT principles will be very successful with some players, it will not be universal.
Frederick, C. and Ryan, R. (1993) ‘Differences in Motivation for Sport and Exercise and Their Relations with Participation and Mental Health’. Journal of Sport Behavior, 16, pp.124–146.
Malone, T. and Lepper, M. (1987) ‘Making learning fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations in Learning’. Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, 3, pp. 223–253.
Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000) ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being’, American Psychologist, 55(1), pp.68-78. Available at: citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.529.4370&rep=rep1…pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2017)
[yes, I’m talking about Dark Souls again – sorry!]
Expansive 3D world games often use maps, quest markers, or locked paths to direct players to their goal. However, can gameplay itself be used as an alternative navigation tool? Dark Souls tackles this challenge in three ways.
When arriving in the main landmass of the game, players are faced with two paths that, on surface, look equally viable. There are no signposts, no markers, and no map. It is only through gameplay itself, and in actually taking the incorrect path (the graveyard) that players understand which way will lead them to the goal.
Entering the graveyard, players are greeted by skeletons blocking their progression (figure 1), leading them to engage in a fight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that starting players are very under-levelled for these enemies, as they can kill the player in a couple of swipes while starting players will struggle to dent their health. The positioning of the enemies is also meaningful: arranged as a line on a very narrow path, they make escape impossible… and death unavoidable. Indeed, as highlighted by Hunter (2011), enemy placement is a useful way to help players navigate through a level.
Should players manage to progress further, they soon realise that any equipment looted in the area will be high level and require stats that are out of reach for starting characters. This reinforces the message that players may not be in the right place at this point of the game, in other words using the level and what it contains to communicate “important narrative elements to the player without disrupting gameplay with a cutscene or scripted piece of dialogue” (Solarski, 2013).
Finally, Dark Souls uses a visual clue to further warn players: other players’ bloodstains, replaying how other players died if interacted with (figure 2), are plentiful in the area. An observant player will notice their proliferation and get a sense of danger, further reinforcing, along with enemies and loot information, that they are not on the right path.
The theory of player types was first developed by Bartle (Bartle, R.A., 1996), who examined MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) game players and remarked that they could be broadly categorised as follows:
Achievers, who give themselves in-game goals and set out to complete them as a priority
Explorers, who are interested in understanding the game world through lore, maps, or other information
Socialisers, who enjoy communication with other players through interaction and/or role-playing
Killers, who adopt an aggressive and confrontational stance with other players and enjoy fighting and reaping associated rewards
This model was later expanded and discussed by various theorists, including Stewart who proposes a “unified model” (Stewart, B., 2011), introducing a mapped approach between game and psychology theories:
In his proposal, he also argues that “an effective model should be able to explain how particular games satisfy particular play style interests“, and links the model to Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) which exhibits an “Explorer-Killer focus“. He also remarks that Minecraft later added an adventure mode with achievements, directly appealing to the “Achievers” of the table above.
Building on this article, it is also interesting to note that Minecraft now also features multiplayer and servers, which directly references the socialiser aspect of the table; this is indeed in direct relation to “people fun” and Bartle’s assessment that socialisers seek communication with other players through interaction.
However, another sandbox game tackles this player type very differently: Dragon Quest Builders (Square Enix Business, 2016). Dragon Quest Builders is a sandbox game similar to Minecraft where the gameplay is centred on resource gathering and building, in a seemingly endless and open world. It does not however feature any multiplayer, and instead is based solely on a story mode, wherein the player is the only person capable of rebuilding and saving the world. Indeed, within the game, it is possible to meet many voiced character who ask for help and express gratitude at the player’s presence and intervention. The player has the chance to heal NPCs, rebuild towns, and frequent use of humour and emotionally-driven dialogue is made.
Looking at the table, the socialiser line also includes “narrativist”, “relating”, and “emotional relationships”. Arguably, Dragon Quest Builders therefore relies on these elements instead of multiplayer to bring in the socialiser types to the fold, showing that even within a unified table or player types, there is always more than one solution!