Religion, Online Social Communities and Monetization

“Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer explores the psychology of belief systems and reveals how the nature of religion is linked to the structure of the brain (as with the design and stickiness of everything else humans create and consume).

Boyer posits that religion is a result of our need to explain the constant background processing happening in our brains. If we understood those background processes and why they lead to concepts like religion we might hijack them to create stable, religion-like societies and behaviors in and around our online social games.

Want an example of this happening in the world right now? Look no further than Apple:

“The Bishop of Buckingham — who reads his Bible on an iPad — explained to me the similarities between Apple and a religion. And when a team of neuroscientists with an MRI scanner took a look inside the brain of an Apple fanatic it seemed the bishop was on to something. The results suggested that Apple was actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith.”

In fact, we see a sort of ‘religious fanatic’ behavior with “console fan boys”, Sims Online players, and gamer clans (to name a few examples within the game industry). Same thing happens to some degree with car, clothing and other entertainment brands.

Religious concepts aren’t just random nonsense – they conform to certain expectations we have about the categories of things in the world around us. And they reinforce the subconscious responses we have to coalitions, relationships (mates), moral behavior, transactions and other things critical to survival and success in a social world.

Boyer: We have gods in part because we have the mental equipment that makes society possible but we cannot always understand how society functions.

Our brain’s “widgets” simultaneously create and handle the constant subconscious processing of information related to a functioning society, including:

• Rituals and Ceremonies (public and publicized events)
o Ordeals and initiation (systems for enforcing coalitional behavior)
• Guilds: Sects, Tribes, Clans;
o Followers, Fanatics
• Social Interaction (tournaments, challenges, mating)
o Gods, Priests/Shamans (Special Persons AKA “admins” or “mods”)
• Transaction Behavior (purchasing, lending, cheating)
• Communication (gossip, access to strategic information, forums)
• Rules/Guidelines for Behavior (moral feelings)

You’ll note that this list overlaps nicely with many of the expectations we have for the social structure of our online games. We expect to have all these elements in our designs – but we can better present and tune these things if we understand why our brains are wired to expect these sorts of things from a social structure in the real world.

Ideas we can steal from Religion
The true beauty of the borrowing from religion is that it too is a micro-transaction based socio-economic system, often with no visible output for the “buffs” and rewards being purchased (just like our games!). Keep in mind that almost every one of these ideas can be presented as a paid-for-only feature in a game; each is these is a potential revenue stream.

Rituals and Ceremonies
Rituals are “snares for thought” that activate special systems in our brains (akin to OCD behavior). They allow for stabilization of guilds, cementing of coalition bonds, access to “special power”.
• Give players (especially guilds) “loud” and “solemn” rituals.
• Initiation rites are “loud” rituals. Create hooks to allow guilds to custom craft these.
• Solemn rituals might include: Pre-game “cursing” the other team. Post-game “blessing” fallen teammates or enemies (burial ceremony) or in single player context, “coin collecting”.
• Find and emphasize “pattern” (ritual) behavior like “5x Kills in a Row”, “3x Chainsaw Kills” (this is why achievements work).
• Create rank/progression rituals – in order for an individual to “level up” or a guild member to attain new rank, link it to a ritual or ceremony (public, group action driven).
• Make the outcome of rituals and ceremonies public (visibly celebrated in-game, on forums).
• Award badges (or other significant, totem items) for successfully passing through rituals.
• Create “natural disasters” and “acts of God” to inspire the use of totems, rituals, super natural items and other communication channels to Special Persons.

Guilds are “brands”. Used to formalize coalitions and maximize political power and create stability.

Boyer: People will spontaneously form groups where a certain degree of trust ensures cooperation and mutual benefits. Biologist Matt Ridley coined the term “groupishness” to describe the human tendency to join groups.

Guilds (and their like) are probably one of the most critical aspects of any healthy online social environment.
• Give guilds discounts on access to information, resources.
• Give guilds access to guild-only items and information.
• Give guilds abilities greater than individuals. For example, a guild can vote alongside other guilds on issues critical to a game’s society.
• Offer guilds the chance to be ‘literate’ – give them space to express their differing qualities and beliefs both privately and publically. Space to display their doctrine and imagery (logo).
• Allow them access to rituals and ceremonies not visible (or available) to outsiders.
• Guilds can vote on their own leaders, follower structure.
• Guild structure is hierarchical with a ‘leader’ (or leaders) atop a pyramid of followers (of varying, guild-defined ranks).
• Allow guilds to form alliances (and make enemies) with other guilds.
• Give guild members ways to clearly announce their memberships and alliances – and to immediately see such displayed on others they encounter in the game.
• Followers and fanatics: Allow non-guild members (ostracized, rejected, splintered) to “follow” a Guild as an individual or “sect” Guild. This allows for greater expression of competing doctrines.

Social Interaction
This is the basis for organized groups, information exchange, competition and cooperation. Founded on our brain’s systems for representing what others are up to and why. The more hooks we create for social interaction the more “sticky” the game society will be.
• Create hooks for social exchange like “join this match on my team and receive a reward in exchange”.
• Focus interactions on exchange. This is critical – our brains latch onto concepts (even bizarre ones) involving exchange of goods.
• Create “trust meters” whereby social interactions can be rated (after the fact, by other players or by the system automatically).
• Allow for coalitions (see “Conditions for Coalition”, below). Critical.
• Create hooks for interfacing with “Special Persons” (admins, mods).
• Create special categories (social ranks) in hierarchical fashion – led by a ‘god’ or collection of gods (either system-based or player based god concepts).
• Give the gods (Special Persons) unique powers to arbitrate, grant wishes and deliver punishments.

Transaction Behavior
The punishing of cheaters and suckers is a universally appealing concept. The person who skips in line makes you angry even if you are standing in another line.
• Include ability to vote on punishment for repeated bad behavior.
• Include ability to rank other players for sportsmanship,
• Include ability to “curse” those we feel are cheating or simply performing too well.
• Create consequences for violating coalitional expectations (defecting, fleeing combat).
• Create an avenue for cheaters and thieves – ways for players to literally steal an item, be caught, challenged and punished (see the Chinese version of Farmville as an example of this twist in a social game).
• Create a reward system for policing of the social rules.

Communication (Gossip)
Perhaps the most fundamental of human activities – though one we tend to downplay or frown upon (when it comes to gossip). Practiced everywhere, enjoyed everywhere and despised everywhere. Only (really) interesting when focused on three things: Status, resources and sex. Information must be viewed as a valuable resource.
• Make status and resources highly visible.
• Create hooks to allow for player-to-player unions (marriage, “sex”).
• Make searching for, displaying info on and referencing other players super easy.
• Link an external, high-powered communication tool (forum) directly to the in-game world.
• Allow for “anonymous gossip” – the posting of gossip or broadcasting of a message without revealing the poster’s identity.
• Create paid-for access to gossip-worth (strategic) information for example: “Player X is especially vulnerable to shotgun attacks (dies most frequently when confronted with shotgun)” or “Clan Y is performs worst when Player F is missing from the match” (in other words, mine our metrics to come up with interesting data like this to share with interested players).

Rules/Guidelines for Behavior
As we’ve heard, games in which behavior guidelines are posted tend to have better behaved players.
• State the general expectations for behavior within the game for all players.
• Allow players to ‘petition’ for changes to the stated rules and guidelines.
• Create hooks for enforcement of rules by challenges, voting and/or appeal to Special Persons.
• Create ways for rules to be broken (inconsistent, but we’re born into just such a world) – for instance, matches where team-on-same-team damage is possible, but (obviously) discouraged.
• Encourage “precautionary rules” – i.e. the rule that one should “keep your toy clean in order to attain maximum experience points”.

Conditions for Coalition
These are the basic requirements and rules that establish a functional coalition (borrowed directly from Boyer). We should examine these conditions and adapt the concepts to our games for maximum coalitional behavior and reward.

• You behave in such a way as to enhance the benefits gained by other members of the group but not those of nonmembers.
• This behavior toward other members does not require that you receive a particular benefit for helping them.
• You expect similar dispositions and behavior toward you from other members (and of course not from nonmembers).
• As a result, whether it is a good thing for you to be in the group is computed by comparing the benefits with the costs incurred in interaction with all other members, not with each of them. (For instance, in a particular association you may be constantly helping X and receiving help from Y; if this is a coalition you will balance the two and disregard the fact that you are in some sense exploiting Y and exploited by X.)
• You represent the behavior of members of other groups as being in some sense the whole group’s behavior. (If you are a Tory and a Labour militant attacks you, you think of that as an attack from Labour, not just from that person.)
• Your reactions to how a member of another group behaves are directed to the group, not specifically to the individual in question. If the Labour militant has attacked you, it makes sense for you to retaliate by attacking another Labour member.
• You represent the various groups as “big agents.” For instance, you think what is happening in the political arena is that “Labour is trying to do this . . .” or “the Tory party is doing that . . .” although parties cannot literally be trying to do anything, as they are not persons.
• You are extremely concerned with other members’ loyalty. That is, whether the others in your group are reliably loyal to the group or not (regardless of how it affects you directly) is a matter of great emotional effects. This is manifest in several different ways. You feel a desire to punish those people who have defected from the coalition; you may also want to punish those who failed to punish the defectors; you may want to screen people

OCD, Dead Things and Contamination
Death, contamination and ritual are foundation elements for religions the world-round. OCD behavior is especially strong in relation to concepts of purity and corruption. Obsessive washing of hands, cleaning of the house are good examples.

Boyer: The condition is associated with abnormal activation of particular brain areas that mediate the combination of plans and emotions. … In those affected by the disorder, these systems seem to talk loudly enough, as it were, to drive actual motor behavior (people cannot help performing the routines) as well as emotional responses (nonperformance creates a strong feeling of fear or anguish).

I’d like to suggest this links into our nearly compulsive enjoyment of “coin collecting” and could be leveraged to activate similar behavior in our games. The “repairing” of worn toys is a great example – and knowing why it works should help us tune the effect to make it as rewarding (and addictive) as possible for Player. Same goes for collecting and crafting. Figuring out how to create a “feeling of fear or anguish” for not performing certain in-game actions takes the idea to all new (and scary) places.

Further Reading
There’s a ton more applicable thinking to be found in “Religion Explained” – check it out via the link below. Similar concepts for how the brain latches onto and accepts certain presentations and ideas can also be found in “Made to Stick”, link below.


Boyer: Taking this evolutionary stance leads us to ask very general questions, such as: What do humans need? What is special about their needs, as opposed to those of giraffes and wombats? Obviously, humans need oxygen to breathe and a complicated cocktail of nutrients to sustain themselves, but that is fairly general among animals. What humans especially need, more than any other species, are two types of goods without which existence is impossible. They need information about the world around them; and they need cooperation with other members of the species.

Boyer: The powerful gods are not necessarily the ones that matter; but the ones that have strategic information always matter.

Link to “Religion Explained”

Link to “Made to Stick”

Leave a Reply