Game Design Behind The Fun Of Trick-Or-Treating

Halloween is just around the creepy corner, and I’ve been decorating the front lawn with cobwebs and tombstones, stockpiling candy to give out, and making sure my schedule is clear so that I can man the front door when the trick-or-treaters arrive. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. Why is this, when Christmas has a much wider variety of traditions and much deeper meaning behind it? Since I enjoy games so much, I figure there must be a gaming explanation behind my love of Halloween.

Of course, the activity of trick-or-treating can be thought of a game with the goal of collecting the most (or better yet, your favorite, candy within a given amount of time (when your parents are tired and want to go home, or if you’re older, when homeowners are tired an stop giving out candy).  In this game, there are a couple. rules to follow: the activity does not start until dusk, and players are expected to were a costume.

It’s a simple game, so let’s dig a bit deeper into what makes it so appealing. In Jason Vandenbergh’s “Domains of Play” presentation at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, he described five distinct motivations for people to play games, and trick-or-treating delivers the goods on all five.

Novelty describes how much a game provides the player with imaginative, new, or unexpected experiences.  Trick-or-treating is an experience that is a bag full of novelty surprises: what other trick-or-treaters are wearing,what candy you will receive, and how the neighbors houses are decorated.  Players who have a strong affinity for the costumed element of the game may also engage in a bit of role-playing or even storytelling before, during, and after trick-or-treating.  Other players who like to make their own costumes also engage in constructive play during the costume’s design and fabrication.

Challenge is meaningful work that the player is happy to do in order to progress through the game.  The work that is involved in trick-or-treating involves several easy-to-achieve goals:

  • Traverse the neighborhood by walking down streets or other paths to reach neighbor’s doors.
  • Gain information about which neighbors are participating in the game by whether their front lights are on and have decorated their house with Halloween decorations.
  • Gain ownership of candy from the participating neighbors by knocking on their door and saying, “Trick or treat.”
  • Collect as much candy as you can in the time available before you have to return home or the neighbors stop giving out candy.
  • Make strategic decisions about investment of time and effort with respect to diminishing returns on candy as neighbors run out or decide to stop participating in the game.

Stimulation deals with the emotional element of play.  Halloween has traditionally been based on scary imagery, such as the Jack-o’-lanterns that were originally carried on All Hallows’ Eve to frighten evil spirits.  Houses that are particularly well-decorated with this scary imagery may provide some players with a strong feeling of emotional immersion as they brush aside cobwebs and steer their way clear of animated ghosts and monsters on the front porch. However, many costumes and masks worn by trick-or-treaters are intended to elicit laughter rather than fear.  And as nighttime approaches, many trick-or-treaters will feel excitement about the nighttime festivities.

Harmony reflects the rules of player-to-player interaction.  These rules govern not only the behavior between trick-or-treaters and participating neighbors but also influence the social behavior between individual players. Trick-or-treaters may choose to collaborate with each other as they rove in groups around the neighborhood, or they may later compete over how much candy each player has received.  Often trick-or-treaters may then engage in trading for their favorite candy with each other or their parents.

Threat is the real or perceived danger of loss.  It is not necessarily restricted to loss of the game, but possibly loss of dignity or even loss of health or life.  Unlike Christmas, Halloween is full of symbols of danger and death: skeletons and graveyards, monsters and serial killers.  The dark environment in which the game is played limits the player’s information about what lies around the corner, who is behind the door, or more seriously, when a car is driving down the street, and so there is both a perceived and real physical threat to the game (public service announcement: wear light or reflective costumes and carry a flashlight with you when you trick-or-treat).

It’s been said that Halloween has increased in popularity so much that it falls second to only Christmas in terms of total consumer retail spending, and I think the rise in popularity of Halloween has to do in part with the holiday’s satisfaction for our need to experience threat.  After all, Christmas satisfies our desire for novelty, challenge (decorating, shopping, and wrapping!), stimulation, and harmony.  However, Christmas is ideally a time of good cheer, whereas Halloween focuses on the spooky.

We tend to play it very safe today, especially with regard to our kids — we are mindful about what they eat, we regulate their activities, we try to know where they are — and as we have grown very protective and more risk-adverse as a society, Halloween is our opportunity to play a game that at least feels risky, donning a costume and role-play as someone more daring, venturing out into the darkness and cavorting among evil spirits, which allows us to exorcise the evil spirits within us, through play.

 

 

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Are Video Games Really Addictive?

As much as people enjoy playing video games, there is a negative stigma attached to them.  According to some critics, they are a waste of time, they can lead to obesity, they cause violent behavior. Perhaps the most frequent attack made against video games is that they are addictive. Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health.

So, are video games addictive? It depends on how you interpret the word “addiction”. Physical addiction is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a substance so that the substance no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as a tolerance. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs (or to cues associated with the drugs). Video games are not physically addictive.

However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People can compulsively do an activity in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction. For some people, playing video games is one such activity they may engage in compulsively when they are stressed.

Yet many players do spend a great deal of time playing video games without suffering from either of these two types of addictions. They play games to avoid or put off less pleasurable activities or chores, or they just can’t resist the lure of playing “just one more turn”.

This phenomenon is called “flow”. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When players experience flow, time stops, nothing else matters and when they finally come out of it, they have no concept of how long they have been playing.

Video games are indeed designed to be sufficiently engaging to create a state of flow for players, and players can become so engaged in video games that they ignore their other responsibilities. But players can become engaged in an activity, even to the extent that it may be harmful to other aspects of their lives, without games being addictive in a psychological or physiological sense. In such cases, players may say that they are “addicted” to games, whereas “obsessed” is a more accurate term.

When someone is so obsessed with video games (or anything else for that matter), that their relationships with family or friends, obligations at home or work, opportunities for growth or self-fulfillment, or health begins to suffer, that’s when it’s time to put down that controller or push back that keyboard and spend your time doing other things.  There is nothing inherently wrong with playing video games, but too much of anything can be bad for for you.