Since leaving Epic Games in late 2017, UX expert Celia Hodent has been cutting across the game industry, meeting with developers to discuss ethical and practical UX solutions, as the industry itself grapples with the rising ethical concerns that come with more and more successful games.
From the usability and engagement of Fortnite, to a post-Epic career teaching developers about the ins and outs of UX, Hodent (also author of The Gamer’s Brain) has had an eye on the user experience in a way few other developers can speak to. At GamesBeat this year, Hodent stopped to chat with Gamasutra about what she’s learned about ethical game design in the last year and a half.
At the top of Hodent’s mind: The two primary ways that the game industry can earn more trust from players and employees is to begin thinking about the act of self-regulating, and to begin to move away from designing engagement mechanics around the fear of missing out (or FOMO).
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and context.
The UX work on Fortnite is one of the reasons the game’s become a phenomenon. What does it feel like to talk about ethical UX, and see the conversation about something you worked on turn towards topics like addiction, loot boxes, other compulsive elements of Fortnite?
My latest GDC talk was about ethics in the video game industry, and I talked about addiction. These are the things we don’t think about when we make a game because—you’re so lucky when a game is working and it’s making money, and it’s not canceled, and your studio isn’t shutting down. So we don’t necessarily think about the other side of it.
And to be fair, most games don’t have that high-engagement problem. It’s only when it’s super successful that you can afford to consider “oh, maybe we need to think about this game a bit differently.” The main problem we have in our industry would not necessarily be addiction, because addiction is a very specific disorder that actually does not affect the very large majority of gamers–because being highly engaged with a game is not the same thing as being addicted. However, we talk about addiction too lightly. Developers, gamers, and journalists often describe games like “it’s super addictive! It’s awesome!” Addiction is not something good, it’s a serious condition and some people suffer from it.
And our understanding is that addiction isn’t something that can happen to anyone playing a game, it involves a relationship with…
Anxiety, depression…researchers are still trying to look into it, and they don’t agree on addiction. The World Health Organization has announced that gaming disorder will be identified as a new disorder… but there is still some dissension with that.
Most of the case, when you have an addiction, it’s not coming from the product, it’s coming because you need something to escape, so you fall into something because it feels good for you to escape into.
I’m not a specialist in addiction, but what I can tell you is that this is not good. Addiction is a disorder, some people suffer from it, some people are addicted to games, yes, definitely. But there’s a leap between this and saying “games are creating addiction.”
Research by Przybylski and colleagues in 2016 revealed that less than 1% of gamers might qualify for a potential diagnosis of internet gaming disorder. Less than 1%! In fact, there is a specific list of symptoms to characterize someone as being potentially addicted, such as inability to reduce playing, giving up other activities, the use of gaming to relieve negative moods, jeopardizing relationships or education or work, etc. Only gamers who experience at least five symptoms from the list within a year could potentially be diagnosed as addicted. If you look at the massive number of people playing games, this is not what we observe.
Game addiction is not something that’s super massively spreading. That being said, we do have a tendency to use that term too lightly to describe our games. Gamers will say “oh I’m super addicted, it’s awesome.” We should maybe try to move away from using that term because it’s not something good. It’s also stigmatizing [people] that actually have a problem, which is serious and they need help.
However, we developers focus on retention, and more specifically with free-to-play games because we need retention to make sure that people are gonna monetize. If the game is not fun, you don’t retain, and you don’t pay for the game. The downside of this business model is that it has a tendency to reward engagement, and it’s a model that is very spread out today.
At some point, if your game is super successful, and a lot of people are playing it, maybe you can think about how you can reward breaks. Or at least not punish people who are not playing, because you have a fear of missing out. Which is an unconscious bias.
You have to understand that when we design an environment, it will encourage people to do some things and discourage them from doing other things. You can’t always say “oh we didn’t know,” because now we are starting to understand how much these things matter. If we play around with the fear of missing out, we are going to encourage people to play more.
If you look at World of Warcraft for example, where they’re—they don’t punish you for stopping your play. If you stop playing, the rest bar kicks in. So you when you come back, your XP bar is going to fill up way faster. At least you’re not punished for taking a break. We need to think about these elements more in that way so people don’t feel trapped into playing your game, because if they don’t play they don’t get the special prize or they don’t get the loot they could have gotten.
You have the luxury to start thinking about that when your game is successful because most of us don’t have that luxury, most of us are trying to survive. I totally get it, and I think we need to have a more rational discussion around this. Because you have parents who are afraid, and it’s understandable. They don’t necessarily understand how to put parental controls in!
I discuss this a lot with parents, they don’t even know that these exist. We could help them understand these things because the problem with kids is they’re not good at self-control. Adults aren’t super good at it either, but kids are really terrible at it. They’re terrible at it with video games, with candy, with sugar in general, chocolate, you name it. Kids are bad at stopping when they’re doing something they like. Parents need to get some help to be able to enforce some rules so that kids don’t play all the time.
But that’s not addiction! That’s just managing time so kids can do a lot of [other] things. The problem with Fortnite and many games is this is where they have their social life. And they meet with friends and they play with friends. They hang out and are creative. It’s not like they’re mindlessly shooting, they do a lot of other things.
Parents need to understand what the kids are doing in the game, and who they are playing with. If parents say “stop, you can’t play anymore,” the kid is going to go “why can’t I play with my friends?”
It’s not just cutting off the game, it’s cutting off the social component.
Of course sometimes the kid can react…a bit badly. We need to have a rational discussion about this, and understand what’s the problem, and not be like “booooo, video games are terrible,” because then the video game industry is going to react “oh, no! Things are not terrible, look at all the great stuff games are encouraging!” And then you don’t have an interesting conversation because you don’t talk about the problems where we reward a little bit too much engagement, but we could think about how we could do that differently.
What has been the reception from studios on destigmatizing addiction and not chasing down that FOMO sensation?
Most of the time, people don’t want to do something bad to their audience. They’re just passionate about making games and they want people to have fun. Now the problem is, we have free-to-play games, and the model is in such a way that if you don’t apply these principles, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
It’s the same problem that Tristan Harris is talking about, with the attention economy. He’s saying all of a sudden, YouTube has autoplay, it’s meant to keep people on the platform. Now if Netflix isn’t doing this, they’re going to miss out compared to YouTube because if they don’t keep people there, they might go off to YouTube.
And now Facebook is doing it. And everybody is doing it. The problem is, if we’re not as an industry, tackling these things and self-regulating, and saying “we have an ethical goal, let’s decide all together to not do these things.” Because if one studio is doing it, everybody has to do it, because being the only good person is likely going to make you lose money.
Being ethical is not that simple because you’re saying “money is not that important, what’s important is our ethics,” which is a decision that not everybody can make.
The conversation has been like “yes! We could think about not doing this, but if the others are doing it, being the good person is not rewarding, we’re going to lose some market share.” And it’s fair to think that way, because it’s a harsh industry, and it’s hard to actually make money. It would take, maybe the biggest out there to set this level, and think about the rules we want to have for ourselves, and maybe this is where we can have a better discussion about it and decide where’s the line.
Once the first person goes “oh, we’re going to go free to play,” everybody has to do it, because the audience is expecting games to be awesome and free. Now if it’s not, if it’s free but not awesome because it’s not triple-A quality, players go “I don’t want to play that, because I have another game I can play that looks better.”
Humans have a tendency to compare things to one another when we make decisions. We always compare stuff to other stuff. This is how we get tricked into buying something because we’re going to compare it to something else that looks less of a good deal. As soon as someone is doing something, everyone else is going to compare to it. It’s a problem because humans are like that.
Do you think there are practical solutions that the industry could pick up right away? Like Nintendo’s cap on spending in its free-to-play Pokemon 3DS game, or the Battle Pass model?
Yeah, if your game is targeting kids, you have to think about it even more deeply. They aren’t as good as adults at manipulating content. For them, it’s very hard to refrain from doing something, such as if you only have 20 hours to get a reward, it’s much harder for kids to rationalize that it’s not such a big deal if they don’t get it. For adults, it can be frustrating because of the fear of missing out, but as a kid you really want to have it, and it’s going to be the end of their world if they don’t have it.
Battle Passes are more transparent. Anytime players know they’re not going deep down in the rabbit hole where there’s no end, it’s a more transparent solution. Capping spending can be tricky, because as a player you might say “what if I want to spend $10,000, I’m rich, and I don’t care!” But we can’t tell if you’re rich or not. So what would be a fair threshold?
We first need to know if the player we’re targeting is a kid or not, but it’s also tricky to know that. We’re not casinos, we can’t ID people so we’re not always sure who’s playing. Either we look into something like that, or we can ask the player to define their threshold, or we can work with psychiatrists and data scientists to look at patterns that we can maybe recognize people who are getting too addicted to the game and spending too much money?
If your game is targeted at kids—what Nintendo is doing is very good practice, but what if your game also ran out of tasks? Look at Animal Crossing, at some point there’s nothing else to do in the game, and you have to wait a little and come back. It’s a way to not reward engagement all the time. It’s at least not punishing breaks.
You mentioned self-regulation. All of the tech companies you’ve mentioned have shown how self-regulation is turning more into self-defense. What is your perspective on self-regulation versus government regulation?
Well loot boxes are forbidden in a few countries now…it’s coming from regulations, and regulations are an enforcing function at some point we need. If there’s no regulation, it just takes one studio to do it, and then the downward spiral starts. As soon as you have regulation, then everyone has to do it, and you have to make sure there’s no bypass for people with a lot of money.
If we self-regulate, at least we can control the discussion around it, and we can make it more rational before waiting to have regulation made by people that don’t understand game development or how it works. It’s getting more intense, it might be unfair for some people, so if we do it ourselves we can at least have a better conversation about it. A less rushed, less emotional conversation than one imposed from outside.
But if we don’t do anything, it’s going to happen at some point.