Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Reciprocity Fallacy

People will return favors without thinking much about it. A vague sense of justice pervades how people behave in society. It’s not the justice of law, though—it’s a more abstract justice that only has one rule: if someone does something for me, I must do something for them. The values of these two actions need not balance, though usually action and counter-action are not vastly disproportionate.

You can harness this fallacious tendency when designing guild, party, and other team play systems. Encourage players  to give gifts to other players—you may even want to make generosity an advantageous strategy by rewarding guilds and players who help out non-aligned players and newbies. When players receive gifts or favors from other players, the receiver will feel a subconscious (if not conscious) sense of being beholden to continue playing so that they can return the favor. This is the positive side of the “revenge” motivator in games. Even if players don’t remember who their benefactors are, they will have a quiet sense of responsibility towards your game world in general.

Harnessing reciprocity  in design encourages players to make the game world more alive. Players will interact more if interaction yields positives for all sides. When interaction is a beneficial experience, players that would otherwise keep to themselves will willingly reach out and become part of the community. Breaking the tunnel-vision of solo play results in a significant increase in time spent in-game. When you have other people with whom you’ve developed these positive relationships, you are going to work to keep those relationships up more than you would if you were purely thinking rationally of the risk and reward of solo play.

The effect of reciprocity is dulled somewhat by anonymity, but it is a powerful force—it’s the intangible force that binds guilds and keeps people logging on every night.

(Thanks go to Raph Koster and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini for highlighting the Reciprocity Fallacy.)


Verilazic said...

I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical. Well, I believe that it exists and works. I just don't think it works in all cases, and that many people tend to remember the negative cases much more readily than the positive cases.

And how do you harness this? More importantly, how do you encourage it?

evizaer said...

You don't encourage the reciprocity itself, you encourage activities that engender reciprocity. You facilitate gift-giving. You give people bonuses for being in groups. You reward guild membership through guild crafting and guild-wide XP gain from certain behaviors. You can even force people to find a player who is a master at a craft in order to rank up that craft.

Atlantica Online does this well.

Verilazic said...

Ah. I was looking at it 1-dimensionally. I thought you were only talking about instances of straight gift-giving, when you're talking more about encouraging interactions that aren't equally beneficial in the strict sense. That makes more sense to me now.

Dblade said...

Your mileage may vary on this. I have helped many a newbie who did not stay to play the game to pay it forward, instead they left for reasons unknown. The desire is real, but by the time you can repay you usually either are invested in the game or quit it for other reasons.

Tesh said...

Atlantica Online has a handful of mechanics that encourage this sort of "angel veteran" gift giving. Of course, vets get something for their efforts (XP or loot, usually), but the rewards to the newbie are good enough to make it "better" in their eyes. (The relative worth is higher, even if the absolute worth isn't; in WoW terms, 10 gold goes a long way for a new player, while it's pocket change for a veteran.)

It's proven to be a decent way to get players interacting and foster positive exchanges and a habit of magnanimity.

Wolfshead said...

Nice article! I've been reading Robert Cialdini's book in the past month while doing research for a project I'm working on.

I think designers should be utilizing this trait to help encourage more cooperation in MMOs. The more cooperation we have, the more social interdependence we have, the more that the player bonds with the MMO creating a cohesive experience for all.

The challenge for MMO designers is to find some way to quantify and reward "niceness", "generosity", etc. It's surely in their best interest.

For example outside of the intrinsic benefits of leading a guild what does a guildleader get out of the experience for all their hard work and heartache?

MMO designers really need to find more concrete ways to appreciate the contribution of good players. Seems to me that the current crop of MMO devs don't bother to think outside of the box. They turn their noses at the thought of "community" as a "social experiment" (Jeff Kaplan's words). Yet they are quick to claim that their MMOs are some kind of uplifting "social networking phenomena" (Mike Morhaime at BlizzCon 2009.

Excellent article! Keep it up :)

Anonymous said...

How is the tendency towards reciprocity a fallacy? You can argue that it is an error of values but it doesn't seem like an error of reasoning.