Activision Patent Shows Manipulation Is Now Core Design

Just when you thought you had a handle on how the industry works the waters get much murkier.

It would be a mistake to underestimate how important data is in the modern age. In gaming, buying a product means opting in to having every moment of your time with it potentially monitored, studied and then used against you. Recent years have seen companies make a concerted effort to include more microtransactions in games, reduce player freedom by exerting more control over things like privately owned servers, and push for more and more “always online” titles. Games as a product has been replaced by games as a service.

You no longer own many games, you license them.

Yesterday, Rolling Stone gave us a glimpse as to why. In an article published through Glixel, their gaming arm, they revealed a patent by Activision which would use matchmaking in games as a means to drive microtransactions. How? By ensuring that players who had made purchases received statistically advantageous match ups against other players in game.

The method of claim 1, the method further comprising: determining, by the host computer, that the first player has purchased the in-game item in relation to the gameplay session; determining, by the host computer, a subsequent gameplay session that caters to use of the in-game item; and matching, by the host computer, the first player to play in the subsequent gameplay session based upon said determination of the subsequent gameplay session that caters to use of the in-game item.

What the above means is that were I to purchase a particularly strong weapon at close quarters combat, the game would seek to matchmake me into a game that would benefit my choice. The system also seeks to manipulate player purchasing habits by exposing them to very specific traits within the player base.

For instance, the microtransaction engine may match a more expert/marquee player with a junior player to encourage the junior player to make game-related purchases of items possessed/used by the marquee player. A junior player may wish to emulate the marquee player by obtaining weapons or other items used by the marquee player.

Outside of the fact that the system seeks to grant players hidden advantages because they have spent more money, there is another worry here. It’s called Behavioural Game Design, and it is one of the foundations of the gambling industry. Its function? To knowingly generate addictive behavioural patterns in people who play games, but without them realising it.

Patent Problems

In 2001, an article appeared on Gamasutra that detailed Behavioural Game Design by John Hopson, then a researcher at Bungie. He now works with Blizzard as Senior User Research Manager. The article details the various ways that users react to different timings of rewards. One of the most striking passages from the article is the following.

“There are also “variable ratio” schedules, in which a specific number of actions are required, but that number changes every time. A player might be required to shoot down approximately 20 enemy fighters to gain an extra ship, but the precise number is randomly generated each time. It’s important to note that the player does not know how many actions are required this time, just the average number from previous experience.

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Under variable ratio schedules, participants typically respond with a steady flow of activity at a reasonably high rate. While not quite as high a rate as the burst under a fixed ratio schedule, it is more consistent and lacks the pausing that can cause trouble. Since it’s possible (though unlikely) that the player can gain a life for shooting down only one enemy, there’s always a reason to go hunting.”

Whilst Bungie have been clear over the last 24 hours that the patented matchmaking system that Rolling Stone talked about in their article is not used in Destiny, it is important to note that the above absolutely is. In a video from 2015 for Gamespot, Danny O’Dwyer ran through the methods that Destiny used to keep people playing. It is important to be aware of them now, in light of this patent by the same publisher.

Destiny provides systems whereby players are constantly on the verge of being rewarded for playing but are never aware as to what those rewards might be or when exactly they might come. Engrams hide the potential loot behind a sequence that must be performed. First you participate in the game and randomly earn an Engram. Then, you must go the Tower and a specific vendor. The Engram unlocks with a fancy animation and a rewarding noise. All of this is an inherent part of Behavioural Science, establishing an almost ritual like set of actions that result in a greater feeling of reward.

This pause between receiving the Engram and becoming aware of its contents is called Delayed Gratification, and is used constantly in games like Destiny. The impact on the player is to improve the value of any perceived reward. By enforcing the delay in the reveal of a rewards value, the disappointment of a less valuable item is mitigated whilst the value of a more valuable item is increased.

Driving Behavior

Cognitive Behaviour Game Design is something which has been of interest to psychologists for a while now. Research shows that designing games around specific parameters has been shown to influence real world player behaviour and these same design techniques are being used by developers and publishers to influence how players act. This could be anything from how long they stay engaged with a game to, as we see now, how often players are motivated to spend more money on the game via microtransactions. It is a telling factor when a field of research aimed at helping sick people get better is also used to part people from their cash.

The reason I am mentioning all these ways that gamers are manipulated is that the patented matchmaking system by Activision isn’t any thing new. Rather it is the culmination of years of monitoring gamers habits, and trial and error in manipulating their behaviour. The system is designed to create feelings of reward around purchases by consciously placing other players at a disadvantage.

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It all boils down to something known as Operant Conditioning, where behavior is controlled by consequences. Originally theorized by B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist and behaviorist, he showed that pigeons could be forced into patterns of behavior by using what he termed “schedules of reinforcement”. Certain actions, such as hitting a small disk, might result in some food being made available to the pigeon. Research showed that the best reward schedule to manipulate the pigeon and make them carry out the desired action was a variable ratio schedule, which is once again used in gambling machines and systems. By offering a reward at a variable rate the player never quite knows when they will end up feeling rewarded, so they end up constantly repeating actions that lead to reward because it may be the “next one” that is the reward they want.

As such, while the first impression of the Activision matchmaking system is that players can pay to manipulate matchmaking, it is important to remember that these players are also being manipulated. By associating the reward of a strong in game performance to the purchase of a weapon, that player is slowly being conditioned to buy more items to chase that feeling of reward. As it all happens in a hidden system that the player is blind to, none of this can be considered a consensual involvement in the system.

This is the absolute root of manipulation.

There is much more going on here than a simple sneaky way to generate more sales, this is the wholesale manipulation of a player base. Some people will dismiss it, but consider the fact that many children and teenagers will also be participating in this system unknowingly, and I think even the most fervent defender of the Triple A Machine will need to pause for thought.

It is also interesting to think about the fact that if a system like this can be filed for patent in 2015 that this did not happen in isolation. Things like this are not sudden, they are slow progressions of systems and insights garnered over years of research and the steady application of data. Microtransactions are relevant now because they tie in to this system, but we have no way of knowing that gaming companies have not been using similar systems to sell DLCs, drive engagement with in game activities, and foster greater brand loyalty among players.

None of this is new. The Gamasutra article I linked here goes back to 2001. The use of behaviour manipulating techniques is as old as Casinos. It really is time for gamers to take a good look at the industry they keep rewarding with more and more money and decide exactly how much they are willing to be manipulated.

Sources : Glixel, SimplyPsychology, US National Library of Medicine, Destiny: The Hardcore Gamers Slot Machine, Gamasutra

The recent patent by Activision for a system that manipulates matchmaking to drive microtransactions is worrying on many levels. It is the further progression of companies using Behavioral Science to manipulate gamers. It is, at best, an underhand tactic, especially when so many of these games are played by teenagers and children.