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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    This is a thing that's come to my mind when reading the recent threads on agency, challenge and flaws. It touches on all of them, but I thought it's big enough subtopic to warrant its own discussion.

    Negativity bias is noted tendency of humans to weigh negative experiences in their decision-making, especially when it comes to social relations. In simple terms, a player is likely to give more weight to the one time another player screwed them over than the nine times that player co-operated without issue.

    Learned helplessness is a tendency of people to become passive when negative experiences suggests they have no control over a situation. Notably, due to the above, the amount of positive experiences required to teach a person that what they're doing is helpful can be vastly more than the amount of negative experiences causing them to fall into a funk.

    Trauma-based game design is what happens when negativity bias is allowed to write the rules. Basically imagine a metagame following thoughts like: "This rule ruined a game this one time, ergo it's a bad rule and has to be changed!", "This person ruined a game this one time, ergo they are that guy and have to be kicked out!", etc.

    Sound familiar? It should, because this is how many tables muck about with game design.

    So what is the issue?

    Many rules in tabletop games trigger unpredictably or outright randomly, by design. Often, there's a small chance, maybe one in twenty, one in a hundred or one in a thousand, of something "game ruining" happening built into the rules, accepted by the original designer because it leads to a good game experience often enough. But, when the game is distributed across a large enough player population, for some playgroups, that small chance is realized the very first time they trigger the rule. And then they decide it's a stupid rule, change it and never experience how the rules usually work. Furthermore, in a complex game, where rules interact in various way, eliminating chance of failure from one rule may lead to increasing or outright creating a new chance of failure elsewhere. So it's possible for trauma-based design to cascade through the entire ruleset, leading to a playgroup who've upended the entire original game out of honest belief that it sucks, despite never having played it for long as it was made.

    So how does this relate to learned helplessness?

    In many groups, one person, usually the game master, is given the authority to change the rules, or at least is tasked with doing most of the work. Additionally, that same person is tasked with booting players out if they cause trouble. So if players fall into the paradigm of trauma-based game design, complaining to that person becomes their preferred way of trying to control the game. They no longer try to do things within the game or solve problems within the rules, because they've learned that the rules don't give them control. It can get even worse: if that person does not enjoy full trust of the other players, any refusal to change the rules can be construed as further evidence of betrayal. They become a scapegoat for everything not working in a game: the metagame becomes "if a bad thing happens in a game, first complain of the rules, then complain of other players, then if game master doesn't change things, complain about the game master". The scapegoat at the end of the chain is then left with all the work to make the game work, because they are the only one assumed to have control.

    Sound familiar? I hope not, but I think there's at least one frequent poster to which this is very familiar.

    You might wonder, so what? Why does it matter if this happens? Well, the thing is, humans often carry metagame assumptions from one game to another. Especially in case of tabletop roleplaying games, there's a wide-spread implicit, sometimes explicit notion that it's all one thing, really. So a player who had bad experience with a game master in one kind of game, will carry that bad experience and their metagame informed by it to different games with unrelated game masters. People also teach their metagames to new players, and new players often go and absorb learned "wisdom" from older players. Especially in the internet era, it is very tempting to skip the step of learning your own way of playing and just copy some other player's. What could go wrong?

    This can lead to entire playstyles being killed off, or not even being born.

    So. What are the solutions? I have some ideas. But before I get to that, I'd like for you to ask some questions of yourself first:

    Do you think the described phenomena are real?
    If yes, can you think of good, specific examples of them happening?
    If yes, what would you have recommended as a solution?

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    Ettin in the Playground
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    I'd say this is real, but it's not necessarily irrational depending on how it gets implemented and what the people are ultimately looking for.

    If you assume the goal of game-seeking is to maximize the average experience, negativity bias is irrational. But what if one seeks to maximize the minimum experience? Or maximize the maximum experience? Or, say, maximize a complex combination of those things that also correlates with out of game stuff like 'if it's a good day, take the maximum; if it's a bad day, take the minimum'.

    There's also things like iterated Prisoners' Dilemma where tit for tat is a strong strategy to avoid bad Nash Equilibrium - punish betrayal more severely than the average cost of experiencing it so as to suppress 'testing the waters' and reduce the equilibrium defector population.

    So I don't know that'd I'd always draw the conclusion that good rules are being discarded out of fear of the one time they were bad and would be good rules if only someone gave them a chance, and that those tendencies must be overcome. Those rules may just not be good rules for a person whose perceptions emphasize extremes over means. Or rather, understanding that for some ways of counting individual bad experiences can invalidate lots of good ones is something that it makes sense to be aware of in tuning to individual groups. It can be complicated by role as well - a risk-averse player and risk-averse GM enact very different things at a table. Even a risk-averse GM whose perception of risk is 'failure to make a fun session' versus one whose perception of risk is 'losing control of the game' or 'making mistakes' or 'getting caught off guard' will all produce very different results.

    Where I think this does become more limiting is when it leads to inferences about people rather than about rules. For example, if you have a rule that can be used by one player to bully another and someone experiences that, the existence of that rule at a new table can make that person feel that the players of that table will be inclined to bully them - even (or especially) in the absence of any information about those players' behavior. Because the rule raises concerns of 'how will I avoid being bullied?' and frames relationships with the new players that way going on.

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    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    I think both phenomenons do exist.

    I can't recall a clear instance of Negativity bias from my roleplaying experience though. But is hard to recognice negative experiences and their consequences as biased. For that you would have to continue to do something you strongly suspect leads to a bad time to make sure that is really the case. Why would you do that ?

    I can recall severall occasions of learned helplessness. But those were all happening only in one adventure/vampaign. And solved by either enduring it to the end, abandoning it midways or completely reworking it after some OG discussion. I have never seen a whole group plagued by it long time.

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    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by NichG View Post
    I'd say this is real, but it's not necessarily irrational depending on how it gets implemented and what the people are ultimately looking for.
    For economic or game-theoretical concept of rationality and for some specific instances, you can go further and say the trauma-based game design is perfectly rational - and still causes an undesireable result. The basic version of Prisoner's dilemma is interesting precisely because it describes a situation where rational actors have incentive to act in an undesireable way. More on the iterated version below.

    Quote Originally Posted by NichG
    If you assume the goal of game-seeking is to maximize the average experience, negativity bias is irrational. But what if one seeks to maximize the minimum experience? Or maximize the maximum experience? Or, say, maximize a complex combination of those things that also correlates with out of game stuff like 'if it's a good day, take the maximum; if it's a bad day, take the minimum'.
    If real humans knew and were good at articulating their goals, it would make solving the problem much easier. Or, to approach this from a different angle: negativity bias likely exists in humans because it worked in the past, but individual humans don't really choose to employ it because they know it will work in their current situation. They just do it. So, the goal may vary, but the strategy for pursuing it is set.

    Quote Originally Posted by NichG
    There's also things like iterated Prisoners' Dilemma where tit for tat is a strong strategy to avoid bad Nash Equilibrium - punish betrayal more severely than the average cost of experiencing it so as to suppress 'testing the waters' and reduce the equilibrium defector population.
    This is true. However, it is also well-known that if two agents both following tit-for-tat strategy end up interacting when they have both been primed for defection due to earlier interaction with different agents, there's a potential for unending chain of defection. This is, arguably, the simplified game-theoretic model for the overall issue I'm trying to outline. The question then becomes - how we get the two agents to resume co-operation and break from the chain of defection? In simulations of iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, the simplest solutions revolve around forgiveness - or, randomly unilaterally resuming co-operation anyway. The obvious human equivalent behaviour would be to occasionally start over with original rules and see how they work in the new playthrough.

    Quote Originally Posted by NichG
    So I don't know that'd I'd always draw the conclusion that good rules are being discarded out of fear of the one time they were bad and would be good rules if only someone gave them a chance, and that those tendencies must be overcome.
    The rules discarded due to trauma-based design can be good or bad - the real issue is that once trauma-based design is embraced, the chosen strategy prevents encountering the evidence that the rule might've been good.

    For the social example: if a player who was bullied under the pretense of some rule starts actively avoiding games with that rule, how do they find out it wasn't about the rule? Trust can be broken and turned into distrust, but distrust cannot be broken and turned into trust. This is why basic tit-for-tat in iterated Prisoner's Dilemma always opens with co-operation - if it didn't, it would end up in unending chain of defections when encountering another agent with the same strategy. A more complex situation gets back to the point about forgiveness, above.

    ---

    EDIT:

    Quote Originally Posted by Satinavian View Post
    I can recall severall occasions of learned helplessness. But those were all happening only in one adventure/vampaign. And solved by either enduring it to the end, abandoning it midways or completely reworking it after some OG discussion. I have never seen a whole group plagued by it long time.
    Do you remember what caused a player to abandon it? Or what arguments were used in the discussion when reworking it?
    Last edited by Vahnavoi; 2021-07-14 at 05:22 AM.

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    Ettin in the Playground
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    For economic or game-theoretical concept of rationality and for some specific instances, you can go further and say the trauma-based game design is perfectly rational - and still causes an undesireable result. The basic version of Prisoner's dilemma is interesting precisely because it describes a situation where rational actors have incentive to act in an undesireable way. More on the iterated version below.



    If real humans knew and were good at articulating their goals, it would make solving the problem much easier. Or, to approach this from a different angle: negativity bias likely exists in humans because it worked in the past, but individual humans don't really choose to employ it because they know it will work in their current situation. They just do it. So, the goal may vary, but the strategy for pursuing it is set.



    This is true. However, it is also well-known that if two agents both following tit-for-tat strategy end up interacting when they have both been primed for defection due to earlier interaction with different agents, there's a potential for unending chain of defection. This is, arguably, the simplified game-theoretic model for the overall issue I'm trying to outline. The question then becomes - how we get the two agents to resume co-operation and break from the chain of defection? In simulations of iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, the simplest solutions revolve around forgiveness - or, randomly unilaterally resuming co-operation anyway. The obvious human equivalent behaviour would be to occasionally start over with original rules and see how they work in the new playthrough.



    The rules discarded due to trauma-based design can be good or bad - the real issue is that once trauma-based design is embraced, the chosen strategy prevents encountering the evidence that the rule might've been good.
    Well again, this may not be a real issue depending on the utility curve of the players. You're describing an exploration vs exploitation tradeoff here. If you can bound how much of a positive difference in your utility a rule could possibly be, and you know how negative it could be from experience, it makes sense to say at some point 'if I got more information, this might turn out to be a positive, but it's not worth checking'. That might not be an asymptotically zero regret strategy, but if your experience of games isn't Markov (e.g. past events have permanent costs) then it can make sense.

    For example, if there's a lottery where the chance to win is unknown, if the cost to measure that chance (avg tickets until the first winner) prevents you from placing money in exponentially growing investments, you can't generally recoup the opportunity cost of checking the win rate if it turns out to have been a bad proposition.

    Or in RPG terms, maybe on average including critical fumbles as a GM would give you a 1% increase in utility over 20 years of play. But if the rare but large negative events risk poisoning your relationship with the finite pool of locally available players, you might go bankrupt before you can cash out that margin.

    Anyhow, I do think the inferential leap of 'this group plays with a rule that was abused against me, so I suspect they are abusers too' is an issue. I'd suggest a way around that is to give veto control to the affected player - at any time, even as it's being evaluated against them, they can unilaterally remove the rule from the game. In the IPD example, that would be like having a guarantor who subsidizes cooperation by paying off the consequences of defection. Or another way to look at it is like the role of escrow in large transactions where the immediate risk is larger than the long-term opportunity cost of not participating.
    Last edited by NichG; 2021-07-14 at 05:46 AM.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    This reminds me of 2 common philosophies:
    1) If it is not broken, don't fix it.
    2) If something is wrong, adjust it in the next iteration.

    It also reminded me that RPGs are generally fun. It is generally a good time. Some good times will be better than others, but it is generally a good time. So if something "ruins it" and makes it a bad time, then that will stand out as an outlier (generally speaking). The rational satisficer will focus on removing the negative experiences rather than optimize anything beyond the "good enough" threshold.

    So it sounds like initially the trauma-based game design is a naïve version of a good satisficer game design strategy.
    Last edited by OldTrees1; 2021-07-14 at 11:08 PM.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    This is a really, really, insightful and helpful post.

    I almost missed it though, I wish you had linked it in my thread to draw attention to it.

    Thanks for writing this, I will ponder it deeply and give a more in depth response later.
    Looking for feedback on Heart of Darkness, a character driven RPG of Gothic fantasy.

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    MindFlayer

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Yes, very real. This is something I have dealt with from my first days of rolling dice.

    My default game is hard for most players, and even very hard or impossible for many players. Though it is most often because of past game experiences that they had and the trauma scars run deep. When a player sees an encounter that does not have a simple, easy and direct solution...they will just give up. After all, their old GM used to do that all the time and no matter what the player tried or did the GM would just laugh and say "you fail".

    I run a very much Old School style game, no matter what system we use. Simply put: a character can try anything, and anything might have an effect or even work.....and most of all a character is not bound by the metagame rules for actions they can take.

    A great example is a character is in a cave and comes to pit in the passageway. The character does not have the offical rules skill jump and does not have the spell fly.....so the player just gives up. "The pit is impassible, my character just goes home." They player has been conditioned that they must use game rules to take any action in the game. Worse is when they think they must expend resources to take any action in the game. I'll ask the player "Well, how about thinking of some way across the pit", but they just look down with loss: their character has no game rule ability to use. Even when I finally say "Um, maybe you can use your 50 feet of rope to help you get across?', then will still just look down with a blank: the game does not have 'rope rules' for that action.

    And it does not help at all that they had a GM that ONLY allowed characters to get over the pit by making jump skill checks and NOTHING else and/or had the GM that forced characters to use a resource to take any action in the game....the ONLY way across the pit is to drink your potion of flying.

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    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    Do you remember what caused a player to abandon it? Or what arguments were used in the discussion when reworking it?
    Well, usually it leads to the game becoming really slow because no one takes any action that would move anything forward. After some time people realize that this isn't about to change by itself. Then it gets questiones OT.

    Then either people explain how they don't see a way forward and and are not that invested anyway and don't really have fun -> it gets abandoned

    Or the GM explains gow he thought it would work out, the players explain why that didn't happen or why they don't like the intended direction, people decide they are interested enough to make it work and change things, sometimes via retcon. Then the game restarts under different constraints that allow the players enough things they find reasonable for their characters to do.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    I suspect a great deal of this comes from the fact that GMs can very easily lose track of the constraints the players work under. A single PC tool set. Limited information. Having to coordinate their actions with the other players. Social expectations between players causing different character actions. All the usual drivers of poor human decision making, spread across three to five people and where any one of them might bring about group consequences.

    If we went with raw game theory, this would already be a problem set that made any “fair” game a losing proposition for The Party. But guess what? This is really the realm of behavioral economics, because the players are rarely conducting detailed and quantifiable analysis that might drive rational-self-interest-maximizing decisions.

    So now you have a dangerous blind spot where one party - the one with ALL the power - believes he is being fair, and reasonable, and giving the players all the options because he is not only addressing it from his view point, he is running a far more “rational” framework than them, and ultimately the entire rule set of the game is not just his to manage, it’s also his to communicate. On the other side we have a bunch of mostly behaviorally driven people with virtually no power and who are dependent on the GM for virtually all information, who are living in a world where the entire definition of “fair” is set by the same guy who has a very different view point.

    Run on the down side of that enough times, and a certain degree of victim hood and the resultant backlash are inevitable.

    As an example, once many years ago a friend asked me to guest-NPC a game of rolemaster. Basically the PCs were ambushing another party of roughly equal composition and less raw power. I got to be the other party, starting out riding down the road into the ambush, waiting until the PCs fired first (in this case with magic). It was a slaughter: one unified party acting with a single purpose like a war game, completely aware of how the GM visualized the situation, able to simply declare my intent and have it translated into mechanical ruling by the GM (I had never played role aster) versus four independent minds trying to figure it all out, wonder if this or that would be allowed or how the rules would be interpreted….

    It ended with me finding a reason for the remaining three standing NPCs to negotiate the recovery of their one downed member and being paid off in the PCs horses and caravan supplies while most of the PC party lay bleeding. But it wouldn’t have taken much at all to TPK them, and everyone at the table knew it.

    And the first thing they said was “well, those enemies were obviously way too powerful”. Even after being shown the NPCs weaker sheets, there was no getting around that at some lizard brain level, they all thought the GM must have been unfair.

    And the secret is, he was. He had approached a bunch of variated people with a few minutes to observe, orient, and decide as if they were a single monolithic perfectly rational entity. And they got butchered for it, because his mathematical fairness meant very little in the context.

    He got better about that very quickly, but had he played just two or three more “fair” encounters, learned helplessness would have been quickly on the horizon

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Time Troll View Post
    Even when I finally say "Um, maybe you can use your 50 feet of rope to help you get across?', then will still just look down with a blank: the game does not have 'rope rules' for that action.

    And it does not help at all that they had a GM that ONLY allowed characters to get over the pit by making jump skill checks and NOTHING else and/or had the GM that forced characters to use a resource to take any action in the game....the ONLY way across the pit is to drink your potion of flying.
    Must not comment ... but this makes me sick to read.
    Quote Originally Posted by KineticDiplomat View Post
    He had approached a bunch of variated people with a few minutes to observe, orient, and decide as if they were a single monolithic perfectly rational entity. And they got butchered for it, because his mathematical fairness meant very little in the context.

    He got better about that very quickly, but had he played just two or three more “fair” encounters, learned helplessness would have been quickly on the horizon
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malifice View Post
    (paraphrased) Rulings are not 'House Rules.' Rulings are a DM doing what DMs are supposed to do.
    Quote Originally Posted by greenstone View Post
    Agency means that they {players} control their character's actions; you control the world's reactions to the character's actions.
    Gosh, 2D8HP, you are so very correct!

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    I can't speak to this directly, but I have seen the reverse a bit, especially when it comes to people who were familiar with video games first.
    Teaching players to think outside an established framework can be time consuming. Some players need a right answer, or mechanics to visualize the problem, or have paralysis when skills don't apply in concise ways. A thing that has causes some problems in my current play group is the more well defined parts of the game taking priority when thinking of solutions, like combat. But with the exception of one player, this has mostly gone away.
    I think the only problem that has come up has been my gratuitous use of 5e's optional rule to mix and match skills and abilities for rolls. Like Cha (investigation) to ask for directions and such. I remember one that threw the player off where he wanted to use acrobatics for climbing, which I allowed but required him to apply his strength instead of dex, (It was a weird day) but that has mostly gone over well.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Witty Username View Post
    I can't speak to this directly, but I have seen the reverse a bit, especially when it comes to people who were familiar with video games first.
    I have seen something similar and I often have a hard time articulating just what it is that changes base assupmtions. The video game being a larger cultural influence, rather than books, stories, movies, comic books, pulps, magazines as the "what informs the game system" (as it was in the origin of RPGs) is bound to have an effect. The current generation of RPG players has an added and voluminous point of reference in stories and media that did not exist when RPGs were formed. Thus (by they I mean any RPG player who was born after the September that Never ended) they bring different core assumptions to the table based on what they've been immersed in since childhood _ which is a different bundle of inputs than the previous generations of RPG players was exposed to with some overlap. (There's the whole Arcade game craze of the 80's to include, and Nintendo and such, in the interim, and the recursive effect of D&D - MUDS - to SSI Pools of Radiance - text based adventures and so on that would be a great masters thesis to work on some day).
    Teaching players to think outside an established framework can be time consuming.
    But it's time well spent. Anecdote for you. When I was DMing for pre teens/teenagers in the late 90's, the two most imaginative players were both Boy Scouts. Not sure if there's a correlation there, but that's what I observed.
    I remember one that threw the player off where he wanted to use acrobatics for climbing, which I allowed but required him to apply his strength instead of dex, (It was a weird day) but that has mostly gone over well.
    I love what you did there.
    Last edited by KorvinStarmast; 2021-08-05 at 02:46 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malifice View Post
    (paraphrased) Rulings are not 'House Rules.' Rulings are a DM doing what DMs are supposed to do.
    Quote Originally Posted by greenstone View Post
    Agency means that they {players} control their character's actions; you control the world's reactions to the character's actions.
    Gosh, 2D8HP, you are so very correct!

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    There are a variety of issues that can lead to negative reaction.

    To give the mirror to the idea that players need a specific tool (spell, skill, item) to pass certain things has always been a problem in D&D (I call it the Kings Quest problem personally...please insert disk 6) and it has always been one of the biggest killers of fun tables for and the only thing I can think of that has repeatedly caused the "learned helplessness reaction. Which sorry, mate, I just don't necessarily think just like you do...and i can not tell the difference between flavor and clues because if you have something in the game it implies a ton of other things and I will see those as tools on my menu and usually figured you meant to hint at those solutions.

    To an extent those people who started playing in the pre 3.5 rules may have an easier time as many actions were basically outside of the metagrame rules just to do normal stuff. So people became trained to think outside the regions defined by rules of the game.


    Some DM's are very bad at dealing with that and it doesn't take much to see a DM trying to create specific solutions as the only path.

    And heck railroading in general causes this problem...it leads to the collaborative storytelling becoming the DM story and so why should the players care or really participate?
    Last edited by sktarq; 2021-08-05 at 01:33 PM.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by sktarq View Post
    (I call it the Kings Quest problem personally...please insert disk 6)
    Laughed, I did, but I also remember some frustrating times.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malifice View Post
    (paraphrased) Rulings are not 'House Rules.' Rulings are a DM doing what DMs are supposed to do.
    Quote Originally Posted by greenstone View Post
    Agency means that they {players} control their character's actions; you control the world's reactions to the character's actions.
    Gosh, 2D8HP, you are so very correct!

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    One solution problems are the worst, part of the reason why I always allow attempts to break puzzles in my games (sure, it is not always the most fun solution. But if the player's cutting the knot solution is clever, let them have it).
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    An old friend of mine had a gaming group they played with growing up. I met those people, and it turned out to be the most toxic, gridlocked group I'd ever met.

    A single instance of bad luck was enough to make most of them shut down for the rest of the session. A single instance of someone else's good luck was enough to make them lament how hopelessly overpowered the options they had chosen were.
    They deliberately and maliciously ignored every plot hook and--in every single game they told me about or I witnessed--they went to the nearest tavern, started a fight, burnt the building down and were arrested and/or killed by the local law enforcement. And then they would complain to the GM that the game wasn't very good, and that they just ended up doing the same thing they always do.
    So then someone else would have an idea for a game. Pirates or rebels in the revolution or a flying city of giants--and they'd set up game, and the other players (often spearheaded by the GM of the previous game) would run that game into the ground as well.
    Then there was all the other stuff, like making fun of Player A's stutter or mocking Player B for being slower at math than the others...it was just this tangled, dysfunctional web of insecurity and resentment where they all seemed determined to keep each other down.

    I ran a game for them, just to show them something that might be actually fun, and it went pretty well. They didn't really engage with the setting or anything, but I didn't allow then to run it into the ground or hen-peck each other bloody. One of them told me that the 5-session game was the longest any of them had ever played, and how amazed he was that he had a character concept...and I helped him realize it, and even make it cooler. The other players were largely silent, some of them even going as far as outright ignoring my questions about their characters and the game, and when the game concluded they all said it was a very good game thanked me for their time and never asked me to run another. They went back to their one-session-per-campaign sabotaging and I never hung out with them again.

    It really made me grateful for the people I'd grown up playing with, and even those I'd found later on. The number of learned behaviors and subconscious fears that seemed to be holding those guys back was both baffling and depressing. I hope they eventually realized that the best thing they could do was never talk to each other again.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    Negativity bias is noted tendency of humans to weigh negative experiences in their decision-making, especially when it comes to social relations. In simple terms, a player is likely to give more weight to the one time another player screwed them over than the nine times that player co-operated without issue.
    I've always been perplexed by this claim... my experience is that most people tend to filter out or downplay the bad results -- and fixate on when things turned out well or worked or were enjoyable.


    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    Many rules in tabletop games trigger unpredictably or outright randomly, by design. Often, there's a small chance, maybe one in twenty, one in a hundred or one in a thousand, of something "game ruining" happening built into the rules, accepted by the original designer because it leads to a good game experience often enough. But, when the game is distributed across a large enough player population, for some playgroups, that small chance is realized the very first time they trigger the rule. And then they decide it's a stupid rule, change it and never experience how the rules usually work. Furthermore, in a complex game, where rules interact in various way, eliminating chance of failure from one rule may lead to increasing or outright creating a new chance of failure elsewhere. So it's possible for trauma-based design to cascade through the entire ruleset, leading to a playgroup who've upended the entire original game out of honest belief that it sucks, despite never having played it for long as it was made.
    There is a game I generally like, made by people I respect whose work I enjoy, but... it includes a "yes, and..." / "yes, but..." mechanism that kicks in on a successful-enough role to create a random often crazy event, bonus, or complication.

    Thing is... that doesn't encourage me to roll, that encourages me to contrive character actions and solutions to avoid rolling as much as possible, because the odds of pulling a card that makes things go sideways, though not high, are there. And yes, that means I do tend to emphasize possible negative outcomes in my thinking... but to me, that sets me apart from others, who all too often seem to think either "What could go wrong?" or "Look at all the cool stuff that could happen!"
    Last edited by Max_Killjoy; 2021-08-13 at 01:14 PM.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Severity of negative or positive experiences is a factor. As I understand it, negativity bias starts in when the Severity is about the same. Most games with random factors deliberately put overwhelming positive with more weight than overwhelming failure.
    D&D is a good example of this, a roll of one is always a failure, but has no additional features, a roll of 20 is an automatic success and a critical hit.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Or . . .

    Sometimes a bad rule is just a bad rule and should be removed. It makes game play not function or frustrating.

    Sometimes a player is untrustworthy and you should not play with him, or rather, that player's play style is not compatible with yours. That player can play among others who share his playstyle, and they have a grand old time. You get to enjoy your game without that player and enjoy playing with people you can rely upon.

    You can call it "negativity bias", but that doesn't justify the rule must exist nor you must play with someone you cannot trust.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    @Max_Killjoy: it is interesting you can spot the behaviour in yourself but not in others. Rest assured you are not special in that regard. A partial explanation to your perceptions is simply: negative experiences are weighed more, but positive experiences can still occur more. Weeding out negative outliers from a generally positive set is rational behaviour.

    As for aversion to rolling dice, there was an entire design movement in both wargames and roleplaying games rooted in idea of "randomness bad" and determined to do away with dice. Have you encountered this mindset and what's your opinion on it? Obviously, you don't need dice for a functioning game. I'm more asking about whether you think their motives fall in line with trauma-based design.

    ---

    @Pex:

    Me: "Here's a specific failure mode of human thinking that causes them to make incorrect decisions."

    You: "B-but sometimes, people are correct!"

    I hope you see the problem. Nobody's claiming people are always wrong. You aren't making a counterargument to anything.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    ---

    @Pex:

    Me: "Here's a specific failure mode of human thinking that causes them to make incorrect decisions."

    You: "B-but sometimes, people are correct!"

    I hope you see the problem. Nobody's claiming people are always wrong. You aren't making a counterargument to anything.
    I disagree with the premise of the thread. If you agree with it that's fine, but I still don't have to.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    You haven't explained which premise you disagree with or why.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    You haven't explained which premise you disagree with or why.
    I did. You just didn't like the answer. Is just is tautology. A rule can be bad because it is a bad rule. A player can be not fun to play with because he isn't. They just are, no psychiatric analysis of bias needed as to why. A person who thinks a rule is bad or he doesn't want to play with another person is not wrong to think that because you think he has a bias of thinking caused by negativity.

    Others rules of a game being good doesn't make a bad rule good. A player who does something nice doesn't make his not nice thing irrelevant. Doesn't matter how many positive things there are. The negative still matters. The bad rule can be ignored. As for the player, it is personal whether one can let it go to play with someone despite the bad thing whatever it is, but it's possible the bad thing is serious enough someone won't let it go and not play with that person. He's not wrong to do so no matter how many positive things the player in question has otherwise.

    I've chosen not to play with people. Other people have chosen not to play with me. It's not a happy moment either way, but we were all better off.
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    Default Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    @Max_Killjoy: it is interesting you can spot the behaviour in yourself but not in others. Rest assured you are not special in that regard. A partial explanation to your perceptions is simply: negative experiences are weighed more, but positive experiences can still occur more. Weeding out negative outliers from a generally positive set is rational behaviour.
    Since the intention of play is to have a positive experience, of courses the negative experiences will stand out more - positive experience is assumed. It's kind of like going to a pizza parlor and biting into a cigarette butt on your third bite of a slice (happened to me about 40 years ago, and you'll note that I still remember it). The expectation of the positive experience, with each bite of pizza, is heavily overwritten by that cigarette butt. (Yes, I kvetched to the manager and our pizza was on the house, but our beer wasn't). None of that stopped me from getting pizza again, at that place or at any other.
    Why?
    My answer would probably violate forum rules, sorry about that.
    As for aversion to rolling dice, there was an entire design movement in both wargames and roleplaying games rooted in idea of "randomness bad" and determined to do away with dice. Have you encountered this mindset and what's your opinion on it? Obviously, you don't need dice for a functioning game.
    Diplomacy is a great diceless game, but some people have negative experiences with that game since betrayal and deceit is baked into it. My wife won't play it. My sister won't play it.
    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    Negativity bias is noted tendency of humans to weigh negative experiences in their decision-making, especially when it comes to social relations. In simple terms, a player is likely to give more weight to the one time another player screwed them over than the nine times that player co-operated without issue.
    Glass half empty attitude. Fix that, and you fix the alleged problem.
    Learned helplessness is a tendency of people to become passive when negative experiences suggests they have no control over a situation. Notably, due to the above, the amount of positive experiences required to teach a person that what they're doing is helpful can be vastly more than the amount of negative experiences causing them to fall into a funk.
    It is not necessary to fall into a funk when one has a negative experience, but the frustration that comes with a feeling of powerlessness (example, traffic jams) is a part of life. It's nothing special to gaming.
    Trauma-based game design is what happens when negativity bias is allowed to write the rules.
    People write rules, abstractions don't.
    Basically imagine a metagame following thoughts like: "This rule ruined a game this one time, ergo it's a bad rule and has to be changed!"
    That's the reaction of an immature mind; rather than examine for root causes, using a knee jerk response like that is a symptom of a different problem than you assert - and that problem is between the ears of (x) members of your hypothetical game table.
    "This person ruined a game this one time, ergo they are that guy and have to be kicked out!", etc.
    Bogus. This case, to be resolved, is to be first attempted to be mitigated by active engagement with that player. You skipped some steps before the 'kick out' choice. Some people are oblivious to their own grief play until someone else points it out to them. Some will change, and some won't. It's only the latter who need to be sent packing.
    Many rules in tabletop games trigger unpredictably or outright randomly, by design.
    A few are the wand of wonder in D&D, which cursed eye you might find in Empire of the Petal Throne when the GM rolls on the table using percentile dice, and some of the extreme critical hit and critical fumble results in various crit and crit fumble tables dreamed up over the years. With you so far.
    Often, there's a small chance, maybe one in twenty, one in a hundred or one in a thousand, of something "game ruining" happening built into the rules, accepted by the original designer because it leads to a good game experience often enough. But, when the game is distributed across a large enough player population, for some playgroups, that small chance is realized the very first time they trigger the rule.
    Edge cases aren't why you change your design model
    And then they decide it's a stupid rule, change it and never experience how the rules usually work.
    See above: knee jerk responses aren't the sign of a healthy table.
    Furthermore, in a complex game, where rules interact in various way, eliminating chance of failure from one rule may lead to increasing or outright creating a new chance of failure elsewhere. So it's possible for trauma-based design to cascade through the entire ruleset, leading to a playgroup who've upended the entire original game out of honest belief that it sucks, despite never having played it for long as it was made.
    Complex games have a host of problems, and you have identified one of them. The way to fix that in game design is by using optional/additional rules to increase complexity. The layered approach. Avalon Hill did this with some of their war games like D-Day, Battle of the Bulge and Blitzkrieg. The players could, once they got a feel for the game, add complexity to their taste by adding optional rules. That's smart game design, IMO; make the game a little bit customizable for the players where you can. Various editions of D&D have done that - add optional rules and features for the players and DM to use, or not use, at their option.
    So how does this relate to learned helplessness?
    Learned helplessness, in the case you are presenting, is cultural; I disagree with your assertion that it is an artifact of game design.
    They no longer try to do things within the game or solve problems within the rules, because they've learned that the rules don't give them control.
    Time to go back to computer games. The 'control freak' attitude is toxic at the table, in either a GM or a player, and very much so when present in both.
    It can get even worse: if that person does not enjoy full trust of the other players
    Trust relationships are interpersonal dynamics, and specifically in the case of the TTRPG, small group dynamics. Rules can't fix any of that, but they will amplify any problems that are present if they are ambiguously written.
    Sound familiar? I hope not, but I think there's at least one frequent poster to which this is very familiar.
    They are playing a home brew and using their players as play testers, more or less. The game, as narrated to us, is unstable. Not surprised that there is friction, and frustration on the part of the players.
    You might wonder, so what? Why does it matter if this happens? Well, the thing is, humans often carry metagame assumptions from one game to another.
    Then don't. Problem solved. Treat each game as its own thing.
    This can lead to entire playstyles being killed off, or not even being born.
    There's a dire, sky- is-falling, vague pronouncement of doom that I am not sure is supported by the text above it. Play styles are informed by a hell of a lot, to include 'out of the table' fictions and genres. I disagree that you can kill off or abort a play style by having one game have one narrow case of bad rule interaction that destroys an entire play style. The population of TTRPGs is well over 4,000, and that number is likely way too low (been a few years since I saw that number in an article somewhere). The sky is not falling.
    So. What are the solutions?
    Learn healthy small group dynamics and trust relationships, and no rule can harm your fun to the extent that you assert. And then, find a game that fits your group. It's OK not to like a particular game, but I'd suggest not giving up as a better attitude than the asserted knee jerk reactions that you posit. Trying out a game for multiple sessions is how a bunch of us got into TTRPGs when the hobby was quite new. We tried a lot of them, and some of them broke up due to high school and college aged males getting into arguments and not having the social skills to solve that problem of small group dynamics. (The most cohesive Traveller game I was in died for that very reason - bad small group dynamics).
    Last edited by KorvinStarmast; 2021-08-14 at 08:40 AM.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    @Max_Killjoy: it is interesting you can spot the behaviour in yourself but not in others. Rest assured you are not special in that regard. A partial explanation to your perceptions is simply: negative experiences are weighed more, but positive experiences can still occur more. Weeding out negative outliers from a generally positive set is rational behaviour.

    As for aversion to rolling dice, there was an entire design movement in both wargames and roleplaying games rooted in idea of "randomness bad" and determined to do away with dice. Have you encountered this mindset and what's your opinion on it? Obviously, you don't need dice for a functioning game. I'm more asking about whether you think their motives fall in line with trauma-based design.
    On the first, I still view humans as a whole as a species of irrational optimists, who will keep going back and trying things that have repeatedly turned out badly, on the assumption that it has to go right eventually -- and who will look askance at anyone who openly says that things that turned out badly aren't always worth trying again.

    On the second, I don't think their motives are about trauma, but about a couple other things.
    * Dice violating deterministic expectations -- they expect a certain result given a certain set of circumstances, and don't like it when things don't work out that way.
    * Dice violating narrative or "coolness" expectation -- they have some great scene in mind, and don't want the dice "ruining" it.
    Last edited by Max_Killjoy; 2021-08-14 at 09:37 AM.
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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    You haven't explained which premise you disagree with or why.
    To be fair your opening post is not written in a way that makes your premises or argumentation logic clear. Starting at paragraph 4 (where you define the topic) you become more casual with your language and start making linguistic shortcuts. Especially when you use an extreme example as your baseline example in contradiction/clarification of the definition you are making. Then in paragraph 7 you continued with the exaggeration/catastrophizing. This lead me to believe you only meant to be talking about these extremes and that I should treat the exaggerations as clarifying your imperfect initial definition.


    However let me lay out some premises:
    1) The Negativity Bias exists.
    2) It is common to find groups where the members remember enjoying most/all of the sessions.
    3) Some sessions are not enjoyable.
    4) A satisficer would view all enjoyable sessions (above a threshold) as equal. So they would focus on addressing the non enjoyable sessions.
    5=1+3+4) A rational satisficer would be focusing on addressing the same sessions that the Negativity Bias is focusing on addressing.

    Remember, while a bias is a bias, it does not always mean the conclusion is wrong. Fallacious reasoning negates the argumentation for the conclusion and leaves the conclusion with an unknown truth value. If we can reach the same conclusion with non fallacious logic, then we can discover the unknown truth value of the original conclusion.

    In this case if we trust the strategy of "a rational satisficer" to be valid logic for our case, then we would conclude that addressing non enjoyable sessions is the rational response.

    Now the least exaggerated form of your topic definition is "X ruined this session, let's change X for future sessions". How would a rational satisficer approach this context?
    1) Sessions are more likely to be enjoyable than non enjoyable according to the group's rule selection process.*
    2) The element X was accurately identified as having made the session non enjoyable. This might be due to the Negativity Bias, but the fact remains that the session was non enjoyable and it was due to element X.**
    3) Rule changes are intentional and biased towards group preferences rather than random.
    4=1+3) If a rule change is intentional and biased towards group preferences, it is more likely to increase enjoyment than to decrease enjoyment.
    5=2+3+4) If element X is changed, it is more likely to increase enjoyment than to decrease enjoyment.

    Sounds like changing element X is generally a good idea to the rational satisficer assuming it did ruin a session, and assuming the group is not an exception to RPGs being generally fun.

    * This also establishes a threshold. A mere annoyance would not ruin a session. So we are talking about something that created an extreme negative effect on the enjoyment of that session.
    ** I would assume that the more accurate the root cause analysis, the stronger the argument to evaluate and possibly change it.
    Last edited by OldTrees1; 2021-08-14 at 10:13 AM.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    It's very difficult to answer your original question because it's phrased so broadly the hypothesis is unfalsifiable. Of course some subset of the player base is reacting irrationally to some generally unobjectionable subset of the rules and/or other players of some system or another because they overestimate their negative experiences. That's guaranteed simply by virtue of the sample size.

    I'm not convinced this is a widespread or serious problem. The theorized rule that is "mostly good but very rarely is game ruining" doesn't sound like a good rule on general principles, but without something more concrete to work on this seems like an exercise in frustration. You and Pex can both be right, AFAICT, which doesn't bode well for this going anywhere definitive.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Pex View Post
    Others rules of a game being good doesn't make a bad rule good.
    This is something I wish more people would appreciate. All too often people will respond to "X rule is bad" with "but I like the game X rule is in", which is so far from the point as to be on another planet. Disliking part of something doesn't mean disliking the whole thing, and liking part of something doesn't mean supporting all of it.

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    Default Re: Negativity bias, trauma-based game design and learned helplessness in metagames

    Quote Originally Posted by Mendicant View Post
    I'm not convinced this is a widespread or serious problem. The theorized rule that is "mostly good but very rarely is game ruining" doesn't sound like a good rule on general principles, but without something more concrete to work on this seems like an exercise in frustration. You and Pex can both be right, AFAICT, which doesn't bode well for this going anywhere definitive.
    The OP's implied rule sounded like something that increases overall variability - and therefore adds more options to the game overall - while also increasing overall random risk of something catastrophic occurring, like critical fumbles or wild magic.

    One thing of consideration here is that not all consequences are weighted equally and the consequences of any specific outcome may be weighted very differently for a player versus a GM. In particular any event that forces a player to generate a new character, even if that player had no emotional attachment to the character whatsoever (very rare), imposes a substantial time cost on the player, one that increases based on factors like system complexity and how long the campaign has proceeded. Time is a zero-sum resource and players tend to react very critically to anything that they perceive as wasting their time.

    This is something that can even be seen in video games, where the tolerance for character death increases as the reloading time decreases. This is significant enough that some games cross personal thresholds from unplayable to playable as system capability increases sufficiently that loading time drops to almost nothing.

    It is impossible in game design, to treat the game as a fully isolated experience. A rule that objectively makes the game better while making the player(s) more miserable is not a good rule.
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