New study shows placebo effect can change gamers' perceptions of game difficulty and immersion

According to a new study, gamers who believe a game has adaptive AI are more likely to rate it as challenging or immersive.

It isn't a white sugar pill, but it might be just as potent.

Two researchers at the University of York have found that gamers report different gaming experiences when told the game they're playing has "extra" gameplay features. This occurs even when the game they're playing has the exact same features.

For their experiment, Paul Cairns and a colleague had a group of participants play two rounds of Don't Starve, the rogue/surivival adventure game by Klei Entertainment.

Participants were told that the first round of gameplay would feature "randomly generated" map features, including survival items and monsters. The second would instead have an "adaptive AI", and adjust the gameplay based on the player's actions and skill level (note: Don't Starve does have randomly-generated maps, but does not actually feature an artificial intelligence system).

After both rounds, participants were more likely to rate what they believed to be the AI version of the game as more challenging. Other participants rated the AI version as easier, and more helpful in how it dispensed items, and as a more "immersive" experience.

What's most interesting is that while participants rated the AI version as both less or more challenging than the regular version, no participant said that the versions were of equal difficulty. Expectations changed participants' views of the game in every instance.

Cairns states that this "changing of perceptions" about game features shows that the placebo effect, often seen in medical and drug research, applies to gaming as well.

So game devs take note: player expectations can be just as important as game features. But please don't start writing a long list of lies on the back of the box.

Featured Contributor

GameSkinny Senior Intern. Writer, Gamer, British TV nerd. Looking out for that big blue box.

Published Oct. 14th 2015
  • Autumn Fish
    Featured Correspondent
    You know, this study is extremely interesting because I've been finding that expectations definitely affect my experiences with video games.

    My perspective shifts and mutates with ease, so if someone brings up the idea that a game has adaptive AI, I'll consider it true until I've played the game enough (many many hours) to conclude that it doesnt.

    But some games I can't decide whether I believe the enemies have adaptive AI or not, and I can definitely notice a performance inpact.

    In otherwords, I agree with the study and I think its totally on to something. Just.. yeah, its hard to conduct a study like this without a few holes cropping up ^^ I hope this study evolves and takes them somewhere.
  • Stephen F. Johnston
    Featured Contributor
    This study is interesting, but it seems to have a flaw. The fact that the person reporting played both versions will mean they feel a need to differentiate since the experimenters set them up as different. This experiment is like any marketing study on the street.
  • Michael Falero
    Featured Contributor
    That is an interesting point. One part of the study ran the experiment a second time, with two groups of players only playing one version of the game (either randomized or AI-controlled). The study reported very similar findings from that instance.

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