One of the most confounding byproducts of modern medicine has to be the placebo effect. Strictly speaking, it is a positive response to a treatment that contains no medicine or includes no surgery. A placebo is an inert control — unknown to the patient — used to test the benefit of medical procedures against the assumption that any improvements in a patient’s condition are not from the treatment specifically. Though a “sham” surgery or sugar pill, getting a placebo can sometimes result in a real or perceived benefit.
The same concept works in video games.
According to Paul Cairns, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of York, UK, a placebo can improve a player’s perception of a video game. No, taking a sugar pill won’t make you think a game is better, but by telling someone a game incorporates a certain upgrade, even if it doesn’t, players will believe they are having a better time. Professor Cairns and his colleague Alena Denisova tested this idea by asking 21 people to play Don’t Starve. The game is simple: you are dropped into a dark world where your only goal is to survive the unforgiving land.
In the first round of tests, the study participants played through two rounds of the game and filled out a survey after each attempt. They were told the world was randomly generated in the first round. For the second round, the testers were told an “adaptive AI” was included that would change the map based on their skill level. Neither round included the AI, but most reported a more immersive and entertaining gameplay experience with the made-up feature in play.
To further support the findings, a second experiment was conducted, this time with 40 people. Half were part of the control group who knew the world was randomly generated, while the other half believed the game was adapting to their skill levels. The previous results were duplicated.
The findings were presented at the CHI PLAY conference in London. The team behind this study are saying that developers need to keep this effect in mind when they are testing their games.
Despite the a small sample size, the results do make some sense. Most marketing for modern games includes calling said title the best in the series, or details upgrades to the visuals and gameplay. It’s a way of priming consumers to have a good time (whether marketers know this or not). Publishers must see results out of this theory, considering so much capital goes into the marketing push. I guess we now know more about why it works.
Walter Boot, a psychologist at Florida State University who has also studied video games, agrees with the findings. He believes the experiments are fairly convincing, and that expectations change our experiences with video games. “The expectation is that something new must be better than the thing before,” Boot told New Scientist. He continues, “Maybe that’s why people go with a new iPhone every few years.”
What do you think about these tests? Do they have construct validity? Let us know in the comments below.
IMAGES: Klei Entertainment