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Carrots over sticks: Promoting positive player behavior


Jun 28, 2023
Carrots over sticks: Promoting positive player behavior


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This article is part of GamesBeat’s special issue, Gaming communities: Making connections and fighting toxicity.

One of the key words that you’ll frequently hear when discussing video games and community is “toxicity.” Bad behavior in games has been around since the beginning of the industry, and developers are constantly working on ways to quash it and punish the players who behave this way. However, we hear less about the inverse: Encouraging and rewarding positive player behavior in games. In the never-ending battle against toxic players, should developers be using carrots instead of sticks?

Positive behavior, or “prosocial behavior” consists of garden-variety wholesome interactions in games — complimenting other players, socializing with them and sharing in-game rewards and activities. Sometimes it can be simply showing up and playing the game well without being unkind or disruptive to your teammates. If that sounds like a low bar to clear, it’s because bad behavior — insults, harassment and cheating — often gets more of the attention, for good or for ill.

Does it benefit gamers at all for developers to reward positive behavior, in addition to and sometimes more often than they punish negative behavior? Negative actions have negative consequences, but sometimes games don’t often have obvious positive consequences for the reverse.

Games encouraging good behavior

One of the challenges of marking the differences between rewards and punitive measures is that there are far more of the latter than the former. Almost every game with a community has measures in place to punish bad behavior — how effective those measures are may vary, but their existence is almost always a given. However, there are fewer games that have proactive measures rewarding good behavior.

There are a few developers who are working on such measures. Riot announced last year that it was looking for ways to promote prosocial behavior, saying, “In games, [prosocial behavior] means a focus on rewarding players who improve the gaming experience for others, not just punishing the ones who disrupt the experience. We are in the midst of developing a new framework, in collaboration with other major game developers, on ways to focus our efforts on rewarding positive behavior in addition to mitigating disruptive behavior.”

This is the second time Riot has attempted to shift some of its resources to rewarding player behavior rather than simply punishing problem players. In 2018, it introduced the Honor system to offer rewards to players who played the game well and fairly. Teammates in-game can honor each other, and those who both give and receive honor level up and receive rewards. In 2022, Riot introduced a new skin exclusive to those who reached a high rank in the honor system.

Another example exists via commendations in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV. This system allows players to give each other commendations based on how they’ve contributed to shared activities, such as dungeons and raids. When players have amassed enough commendations, they also receive exclusive in-game rewards. Some players have, of course, found ways to abuse this system.

Balancing rewards with user safety

It’s difficult to quantify what effect this has on player behavior, given the aforementioned preference for punishment rather than reward. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that it can have a knock-on effect on the overall attitude of the community. Often, reward and punishment must both exist in order to create a healthy space for players — when you remove the most vocally unpleasant element, what is left is a group that can reward itself for positive behavior.

In 2021, several World of Warcraft players migrated to Final Fantasy XIV following players complaints about culture in the former game. Rob Fahey of GamesIndustry.biz noted that these players reported surprise at how pleasant and welcoming the community in FFXIV was. Fahey attributed this to the simple policies from Square Enix that removes any sense of reward (or lack of punishment) for negative behavior.

What’s left is a positive space where players find (figurative) reward in helping and bolstering each other: “Without cause to believe that acting like a dick will be rewarded and cheered on by other users, it turns out that most people simply choose not to act like a dick — and eventually, the disapproval of other players for unpleasant behavior in the game creates a positive reinforcement loop in the community, as new players quickly see that this is a game community in which they’re going to catch a lot more flies (or make a lot more friends) with honey than with vinegar.”

The importance of positive space

One part of the discussion is not only about positive behavior, but the importance of positive spaces — meaning, places where players can make friends and have wholesome interactions free of judgement. It’s not enough to simply not have toxic behavior. Even within games with PvP, this is possible. Rare’s Sea of Thieves, for example, offers players the chance to work together as a pirate crew.

Sea of Thieves’ executive producer Joe Neate told BBC Newsbeat in 2018 that one of the game’s goals is to encourage players to cooperate with each other. “We have a responsibility as games creators to make a positive online social space for players. Initially, it’s about designing a game that encourages co-operation and positive behavior. As a crew, you can’t harm each other, and all of the rewards are shared. There’s literally no reason or motivation to do anything other than cooperate.”

Players also wish to exist within a game without being the subjects of negative attention for no good reason. Toxicity in games often takes the form of targeted abuse at specific types of players, with gender- and raced-based harassment being one of the most common forms of such abuse. Punishing those behaviors is key, but bolstering the players who face that by rewarding their good behavior should also be part of creating a positive space.

Chin Pua, senior manager of creator partnerships at Respawn — the developer of Apex Legends — said of creating a healthy multiplayer environment: “Encouraging, inspiring and developing spaces for people to engage with Apex in a variety of authentic ways is key. For a creator community to be positive and welcoming, we have a game that already codes that right into the game and the lore. But a lot of what we work on is with internal teams, vendors and partners, to convert or amplify their own positive community initiatives in order for opportunities to come to fruition.”

Building player systems into the game

Players don’t always need a reason to be good to each other and behave themselves in a game. However, it can help when game designers build in reasons for them to be positive in the first place. Commendations and honor are a good place to start, but there are other games that don’t have such systems in place for proactively good players.

In his book The Secret Science of Games, user researcher John Hopson says that a misconception is that game developers know how to influence player behavior. “There’s this conspiratorial notion that designers and psychologists are manipulative masterminds perfectly channeling the players into desired patterns of behavior. But nothing could be further from the truth. Players can — and do — break the design of every single game they play.”

While Hopson speaks about game design more generally, his words ring true for systems surrounding behavior as well. “Shaping the company to better serve our players is the goal researchers can and should strive for. We can’t control our players. We can only control what’s in the game. My job is to show what happens when the things we can control — game design — mixes with the thing we can’t control — human nature — and then change the design. The game must adapt to them, not the other way around.”

From what we can see in existing games, punishment has a place — community safety is (and should always be) a top priority. And one could argue that simply being allowed to keep playing the game is reward enough for good behavior. However, giving players an in-game reason to be good to each other can help reinforce their natural tendency to do so in the first place.

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