Rethinking 'Punishment Culture'

Content archived from the Original Vainglory forums - originally posted by @Noviwan on 25th of September, 2016 archived by @DragonBuster

Most of the attempts to control bad behavior (trolling, afk, dodging, etc) in Vainglory are via punishment systems. If you dodge or AFK too often you will be put in LPQ or even banned. In this post I’ll argue why this is not a particularly effective strategy and present what is, in my opinion, a better alternative.

The first question is very general: does punishment even work? Most psychologists agree that punishment doesn’t work. If you don’t believe me, that link is just one of dozens of articles saying the same thing. Now, I get it, why VG does it. I have worked on a team-based multiplayer game, and I know: one player afking ruins the match. It does. So the tendency towards punishing them is understandable. We did the same thing on our game. And found that it didn’t work, it didn’t reduce the frequency of AFK compared to no punishment at all.

So if punishment doesn’t work, why do we do it? I’ll quote the first article above:
Why, then, do we punish children? We do so for two main reasons. The first is that punishment looks like it works even though it doesn’t. Because the child is inhibited in your presence, it’s easy to think they would be inhibited in your absence. Punishment produces politeness, not morality. Thus, the inhibited, obedient child inadvertently reinforces the parent’s punitive behavior by acting obedient (for the sorts of parents who find obedient children reinforcing).

The second main reason we punish children is because we are angry at them…
It’s the same reason in games. When punishment is increased (they added LPQ, for example) there were people cheering it. Why? For those same two reasons. One, they believe it works. Two, they are angry about the bad behavior. (Fascinatingly, a bit of an aside: dogs react the same way young children do to punishment: with an increase in aggression, and a reversion to the bad behavior the moment they think they are not being watched.)

Soooo, if you’re with me so far … that is, if you are considering that maybe a hundred years of behavioral psychology research can inform how we can best modify behavior, is there a more effective toolkit at our disposal? There are two: rewards and loss aversion.

The first is simple: don’t punish bad behavior, but rather reward the behavior you want. A benefit for not afking, for example. Ah but wait you say, they already do! Glory for finishing a match amiright? Well yes and no. You do get glory for finishing a match. But the feedback is so minimal I don’t even notice it most of the time. It’s just tiny, static text on the endgame screen, no animation, no pizazz, so after a while you just forget about it. It doesn’t affect behavior as much. Now think of how rewards are shown in a console game, like Mario or Lego Star Wars. There are countdowns, animations, sounds, f/x! it may seem trite or even ironic (given the history of Pavlovian research) but those bells and whistles make the rewards seem more real. So that would help remind us of the rewards we get for good behavior.

Just as importantly, they could reinforce the second even more powerful psychological tool at our disposal, loss aversion. This is where something close to punishment - but not quite - is actually very effective. In short, people fear losses more than they are motivated by gains of the same amount. Someone who loses $100 will lose more satisfaction than someone gets from gaining $100. So if we have all those bells and whistles on the glory rewards at the end of the match, we can do the reverse - see and hear them evaporating in front of our eyes - if we afk (for example). People fear losses, so by making the losses more apparent we can in theory have a real effect on behavior.

If you’re with me so far (thanks, a long read I know!) and we have better visualization of both rewards and losses, then there is a design change I would recommend for shaping player behavior:
Scrap the bonus rewards for daily and weekend wins. It’s a multiplayer game, people are already very motivated to win!
Instead, add achievement style rewards for behavior that you want
True Grit bonus: played three games without an AFK
Gentleman bonus: played three games without timing-out the conversation-pings
Weekly versions of these or other such achievements
Importantly: more visualization for these rewards too, on the game complete screen!
In the rewards screen, show a cumulative streak reward buildup - like a vain crystal I am building piece by piece with each game of good behavior, building towards the achievement reward
Don’t forget the loss aversion: If I AFK after two matches, show me breaking the crystal I’ve been working at building up - oh noes!
This will increase good player behavior, according to the last century of research in behavioral psychology. But wait there’s more (it slices, it dices…)! When this works - and it will, as it did on the multiplayer game I worked on - there’s a hidden benefit. You can remove the punishments. This has two other benefits. First, remember, despite our “common sense” the punishment systems don’t work. The second benefit is that “bad matches” can be ended! That misery of fifteen minutes with an actual troll in the match, that’s not improving anyone’s experience. If there’s a match so bad people are willing to let it end - and give up all their yummy rewards - then let it! Imagine the twin benefits for you personally: not only rewards for being good, but when you do get in a bad match there is a way out - what a relief, yes?

tl;dr version:
punishment bad, does not work
rewards work
loss aversion works
bad matches “let it go” ftw
If you stuck with me this far thanks for reading!

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