The Pleasure Paradox of Big Buffs

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When your character gets something great in a game –something like a buff, a new piece of gear, or even a compliment from another player– do you enjoy it more and for longer if you can’t figure out why you got it? Would you want to hold on to that uncertainty to make the most out of your enjoyment?

Those are the kinds of questions addressed by an article I read recently. In it, the authors explore what they call the “pleasure paradox.”1 The idea is that while uncertainty is usually seen as an undesirable state that should be reduced, once we understand things we tend to find them kind of boring and predictable. But as I have written about before, the surprises are fun and attention grabbing and exciting precisely because they defy our expectations and desires to make sense of the world. As the authors say:

People may be driven to understand the causes of positive events in order to make them more replicable, but understanding them may also make them less enjoyable. We call this the pleasure paradox.2

To test and explore this idea, the researchers set up a series of field and lab experiments where they made a person happy, then either left them a little confused or more certain of the reason. In some of the experiments they performed a random act of kindness by giving strangers dollar coins with either enigmatic or informative notes attached. The note accompanying one person’s gift might tell them exactly who their benefactor was and why they were getting the dollar. Another person might get a much less informative note that doesn’t explain any why or who.

Taken from Wilson et al. (2005).

In other cases they did a little matchmaking exercise where subjects were put in a group and some of the other people supposedly said nice things about them and said they could see themselves being friends with that person. Some subjects were told it was that said such nice things, while for others the exact source of their warm fuzzies remained a mystery.

Across these studies the researchers measured people’s moods and found what they expected: everyone was happy about the gifts and compliments they received, but those who were perplexed by them or didn’t know from whence they came reported being happier for longer. Everyone in the experimental conditions of uncertainty said they would prefer to be less uncertain, but the results show that their happiness would have been diminished.

Why? Because that curiosity and wonder about a positive experience feels good. Having our expectations blown away for something better is a nice surprise. Once we move on past curiosity into certainty, though, it no longer has that interesting and captivating mystery to it.

It’s interesting to consider this in the light of video games, since I have discussed the random nature of rewards as a source of our fascination with loot, loot boxes, and rewards in general. But the two ideas aren’t contradictory. Rewards, random or fixed, can be either shrouded in uncertainty or understanding. As such, it would be interesting to see some games experiment with this prolonging of happiness by withholding some information from the player for a while.

What if you get an unexpected experience point buff from entering a certain area or meeting some conditions that aren’t spelled out until the buff expires?

What if you get a loot box or an in-game item for completing some challenge, only the game didn’t tell you what the challenge was or what you did to meet it until the next day?

What if you don’t know how many votes you got to win MVP in a match until the start of the next match? Or who voted for you?

What if you could randomly gift players with extra lives, gear, or gold and they didn’t know exactly which person on their friend’s list or in their guild was their benefactor?

A lot of these ideas from the pleasure paradox fly in the face of conventional thinking about drawing straight lines from player behaviors to outcomes. The concept of input -> outcome is really fundamental to most game designers. Not understanding what’s happening is usually seen as anathema to good game design. But that’s why the concept is interesting to me. I would love to see some researchers or game developers test these ideas and see if letting uncertainty drape over at least part of a player’s experience would actually improve it. Though the caveat is in order as the authors of this paper point out: the pleasure paradox probably works best when the person eventually figures out the truth and reduces their uncertainty. True randomness and a intractable lack of understanding will probably wear out.

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1. Wilson, T.D. et al. (2005). The pleasures of uncertainty: Prolonging positive moods in ways people do not anticipate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (1), 5-21. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.1.5.
2. ibid, page 5.

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