Casual Persuasion part2

March 20, 2012 by  

if you missed part 1 click here



According to Ryan and Deci’s work from 2000 it is of great importance to fulfill the three basic needs to facilitate integration of external values. While most descriptions of persuasive games cover the informative part of rhetoric’s I believe that games can operate on a grander scale, including persuasion(ironically) and engagement. The obstacle with these last two is that the player has to align the message, or staying within the SDT jargon: internalize the message. To accomplish this the player has to be placed in a supportive social context which can be achieved through multiplayer aspects. Within this context the player’s basic psychological needs should be positively stimulated when actions are aligned with the intended message.


The example I am going to give from “Robot Unicorn Attack” is a great example of how to internalize patterns using external regulators. In the image below you see a screenshot from the game where the player avatar, the robot unicorn, leaps towards a platform to be able to cover more distance for points. When the player avatar crashes into an obstacle the game ends. To the right of the player avatar is a little faerie-like entity which, when touched by the player avatar, boosts the points. When a player touches these faeries without missing one the given points are increased accumulatively but are reset to the minimal amount if one is missed.

"Robot Unicorn Attack" by Spiritonin Media Games and published by Adult Swim, 2010

The beauty of this mechanic is that these faeries are always placed on the optimal path to approach the next platform. These faeries are usually placed on the current platform or at the beginning of the next platform so that players going for a better high-score are unconsciously made familiar with the optimal way to approach a jump. The player does not have to follow this path but it will improve their jumping skills if they do as they are taught a better understanding of the game’s patterns. Especially if we consider that the way the game’s speed goes up, as more distance is traversed, will make it impossible to get all the faeries it is essential for a truly impressive score to understand the patterns and not grab all the faeries.


Now how does this connect with the goals of persuasive games? For that we will have a look at the game “Harpooned” by Conor O’Kane and his team in which the player controls a whale hunting ship. The game is a Shoot’em up where the player is instructed to shoot and collect as many whales, even providing bonuses for species combos and such. The main method of persuasion is through its loads of blood and cynical remarks which is supposed to make the player feel bad about his actions. This contradicts one of the casual game elements; positive fiction. Did it work?

"Harpooned" by Conor O'Kane and independently published, 2008

At first I was indeed disgusted by the scenario, that I myself had created, but then something happened.. The extrinsic motivators (the points) had more impact on my psyche then the gore, the working of this is explained by Deci and Ryan in 2000. This made my brain filter out all the gore and started seeing potential bonuses, the symbols stopped being whales. This of course nullified the message that the game was supposed to persuade the player of. According to my understanding of SDT it is because there was no integration, no support for the message through any of the three basic psychological needs. Yes my sense of autonomy and competence were being promoted creating a stronger motivation. The problem is that the game mechanics forced me to be “bad” to score points meaning that the game was motivating me in the opposite direction of why this game was designed. Obviously this was not the intention of the designer…


Choosing to be persuaded?

Without stepping to far from the casual game methodology how can we promote the integration of the message? I propose adapting a bit from “Robot Unicorn Attack” and its faerie mechanic.
Instead of “tunneling” (Akmal. A, 2010) which forces players to follow a predetermined path (apparent limited autonomy) I think providing an added alternative scoring-system towards the actual ideal could improve the integration of the message. These would be the faeries. Link the scoring-system to a status symbol published on social networks so players create a supportive social context with other players doing “the right thing”. The new design would add additional, CPU controlled, whale hunters and if the player thwarts the other ship’s attempts to shoot a whale the alternative score would go up.

This alternative game mode would be unlocked after a player has demonstrated an understanding of the basic game mode through reaching a certain score for example and/or when the player thwarts another ship repeatedly. The event of unlocking is a feedback on their competence and rewards them with new options which increases their sense of autonomy, especially if the person doesn’t agree with whale hunting and thus this newly gained autonomy corresponds with the players integrated sense of self. This method would allow players to be motivated towards the message through supportive game-mechanics, maintained and transferred with a supportive social context, even if this social context is nothing more then a leaderboard. Although it is important to provide a supportive social context appropriate for each player type defined by Bartle. If we were to abandon the current trend on multiplayer in casual games and allow two players to play together in real-time directly, I think this amplification would become even stronger.


The above improvements do alter two elements of the casual game framework, which are the indirect multiplayer, and most important: the set of simple mechanics as we apply a parallel set of mechanics that resemble the original or basic set. This additional set provides the player with choice and empowerment aligned with the designer’s message and hopefully also the player’s sense of self.

Looking at these improvements and how they promote the three basic psychological needs I see no reason to really augment or remove the other elements from the casual game framework. In fact I believe that harpooned could also work while using more positive fiction since the gore did not really promote the message’s transfer anyway as it was ignored.



The question whether the casual game framework is complimentary to the goals set by persuasive game designers or not, I must answer: YES! The power of casual games should not be ignored especially if the designer does not want to impose on the player’s time or force the player to go out of his or her way. Casual games allow players to enjoy themselves in short bursts on their own terms and in my opinion the persuasive game designers ‘only’ need to find game mechanics which would allow the player to literally switch sides or perspectives. Players would move from the basic set of mechanics towards the mechanics representing the message thus moving from the extrinsic side of the spectrum towards the intrinsic side within the Self-Determination continuum.


The casual game framework is a great way to get the basics but for true effectiveness I propose adding a layer so the player can actually shift their in-game allegiance together with their internal values and perspectives on subject matters.



Akmal A. 2010, “Persuasion through play: how procedural rhetoric in casual games can inform public relations“, Faculty of the USC graduate schooluniversity ofSouthern california.

Bartle R. 1996, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who suit MUDS“, Retrieved 2009-01-05 from

Deci, Ryan. 2000. The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of BehaviorPsychological Inquiry ,Vol. 11, Iss. 4, 2000

Johnny G Mills

Carbon based humanoid automaton that invents, programs and designs all kinds of things related to technology, games, society and state of the human condition. Self-Determination Theory is my main weapon of choice when analyzing or designing games and I will be the first to create a designer tool/framework using this psychology theory

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!