What’s wrong with turtles?

A while ago I was reading a blog post on gamasutra about how to design a game so as to discourage players from “turtling”.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, “turtling” is a pejorative description of someone’s style of play. This type of player is focused on defence, bunkering down and rarely attacking.

What I found interesting was that, throughout the post and several of the comments that followed, I was nodding along with the author, thinking “yes, that seems sensible”. Then one comment stopped me in my tracks by asking—in effect—”why shouldn’t players turtle if they want to?”; I suddenly realised I was mindlessly following the prevailing attitude that says turtling is inherently bad; something the game designer ought to prevent.

There are several behaviours in the same (or similar) boat. Save scumming*. Pause scumming*. Cherry tapping*. Kiting*. Camping*. Some are more acceptable than others (depending on context**), but they are generally seen as being negative, “unsporting”, or “cheap”. This also seems to be susceptible to the actor-observer effect: we accept it when we do it, because of perfectly valid reasons. We condemn it when others do it because they’re just cheats.

Players Behaving Badly

So, are there ways you can design a game to prevent (or at least deter) such behaviours? Sure, but you have to be very careful that you don’t create a worse problem by doing so. To make sure the change is actually affecting the behaviour you want, though, it pays to understand why people act that way (and not just why they say they did something—what are the underlying psychological principles).

I believe all these sorts of behaviour share a common motive: people are generally risk-averse (preferring a “sure thing”) for gains, and risk-seeking (preferring to gamble) for losses. Most games are framed in terms of gains (increasing points, winning matches, etc.) rather than losses, which predisposes people towards what they perceive*** as being the best strategy. “Playing the percentages”. Not taking undue risks.

For example, imagine if in each level of a platformer (Super Mario Bros for example) there were five bonus stars you could collect. Completing the level gives you 50 points, and each star is worth 10 points. The stars are placed in locations that challenge the player—either requiring them to navigate through dangerous terrain, or defeat/escape powerful enemies. When you examine the playtest data, you find that, while some players try for every star****, most players don’t bother risking it.

So, lets say you reframe things. The level is now worth 100 points, but you lose 10 points for every star you miss. And you find that, now that they’re thinking in terms of losses, players become more likely to risk trying for the stars, and overall more stars are collected. Success! Right? Except that players are also unhappier and more frustrated with the game; no-one likes being penalised. Probably not a good thing overall. You’ve reduced players turtling, and got them exploring more of your levels, but maybe they’re doing more save/pause scumming.

Players Behaving… Badly?

Maybe we need to take a step back. Sure, there are situations in which you want to discourage [some of] these behaviours, but is it a big enough issue to expend much design effort on? To clarify my point, I want to think about why we get so annoyed at these behaviours.

This doesn’t only apply to video games; there are plenty of examples in the sporting world, too. Pick your favourite sport, and you can probably think of players or teams who are “turtlers”: cautious and attritional rather than daring. They may well be top players, with enviable records. How do fans, commentators, journalists refer to them? Dependable. Hard-working. Consistent. Making the most of their talent. But are they loved? Do fans drop everything and rush to their televisions when that player walks onto the field? Not so much. They may even be seen as selfish, and overly focused on their numbers. There are exceptions, but people seem more drawn to the audacious and flamboyant players/teams, who may lose more often, but gosh darn if it isn’t exciting either way.

And I think that’s the key word: exciting. Entertaining. Dramatic. High level sport is a physical contest, but in the modern world it’s increasingly perceived as a performance as well. Hence, of course you want your team to win, but you don’t want it to be boring. We’re distracted by our deeply-ingrained sense of stories. We’re disappointed if we don’t see aspects of the “Hero’s Journey” play out: our heroes must bravely venture out to face their foes. It’s equally easy for players to get caught up in this, and try to play in a way that doesn’t reflect their strengths or their character.

Most video games are not competitive sports. How about (within reason) we give players the space to enjoy the game however they want to play it, without judging them for not playing it “right”. Maybe, if the turtles don’t feel discriminated against, they’ll be more comfortable coming out of their shells.


* Rough definitions:

Save scumming
Repeatedly reloading save games until you achieve a desired result (even though you could have continued).
Pause scumming
Repeatedly pausing time-critical sections.
Cherry tapping
Using weak/joke weapons/attacks to defeat an opponent. Requires either excessive training (so your character is far stronger than necessary), or wearing the opponent down via “death of a thousand cuts”.
Kiting
Repeatedly attacking an opponent then running away, thus slowly defeating them. Can also refer to teasing out individual opponents from a group rather than facing them all at once.
Camping
Lying in wait at a particular location to either have a clear shot at opponents or grab resources when they arrive.

** Generally, they are considered more acceptable in player-vs-computer situations, and less acceptable in player-vs-player situations.

*** Not necessarily the actual best strategy; humans are bad at probability.

**** Known as “achievers” or “completionists”. See the Bartle Test for example.

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