What do basketball free throws, Modern Warfare 2, and murdering 11 people in a row have in common? Read on to find out.
In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called “the hot hand fallacy” (a.k.a., “the gambler’s fallacy” or “the hot streak fallacy” or “the clustering illusion”). The seminal work on this kink in the human mind was done by thee guys named Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky and published in a 1985 edition of the journal Cognitive Psychology. 1 These fellows weren’t much into online shooters, but they had noticed something about basketball. Specifically, a belief among fans and players in the “hot hand” phenomenon, which dictates that a player’s success in sinking one basket is determined in part by his making the previous shot –success feeds on success and creates a type of momentum or streak.
The problem, though, was that when the researchers studied records of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia ’76ers making shots, they found that the idea of a hot hand was a fallacy. In fact, if anything, a player’s success on a previous shot slightly predicted the failure of a subsequent shot, perhaps because overconfident players were taking riskier chances. So the idea of a hot hand was all in your hot head.
What does this have to do with video games without “NBA” in the title? Enter Modern Warfare 2 (MW2), Infinity Ward’s military first person shooter. The multiplayer side of MW2 has a feature called “kill streaks” that, as far as a player motivation tool goes, is fairly reminiscent of the hot hand phenomenon. In short, killing a certain number of opponents in a row without dying yourself rewards you with powerful perks like dropping supply crates, calling in heavily armed gunships, or at the extreme end bringing down a nuclear strike to cut the match off at the knees.
To be sure, some players get lots of kill streaks because they are tiny, radiant gods of destruction whose skills at the game put every last member of the Boston Celtics to shame (who prefer Halo 3, after all). But skill aside, does the kill streak system in MW2 work in the sense that it gives players some momentum that propels them towards otherwise unreachable acts of virtual carnage? Is a player who has 10 kills in a row any more likely to get the 11th one needed to unlock a kill streak reward than he is to get the first kill?
Nope, says the science of psychology and basic probability theory. It’s all in their head because splash damage and javelin glitch abuse aside, each shot is basically an independent event. For any given player, any perception of kills clustering together more than usual is just a product the human brain’s tendency to see patterns where there are none –a phenomenon called “apophenia” by psychologists trying to win at Scrabble.
In fact, I’d wager that MW2 players are less likely to get those capstone kills than they are to get the first few in a streak. Interestingly, Microsoft, Activision, Infinity Ward, or someone else connected with the game probably has the data to directly test this kind of thing –they track everything these days. It’s be really neat to recreate Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky’s 1985 study of basketball shots using data from Modern Warfare 2 to see if someone is more likely to kill or be killed as they approach the killstreak payoffs. Heck, somebody get me the data and I’ll do the analyses myself!