How design changes behaviour
Everyone talks about how design changes behaviour, but I still think the relationship is hard to visualise. After all, ‘design’ is often is ascribed to surface things; colour, shape and texture. It’s especially hard to visualise how design could change something as subtle as the way we treat each other. When watching some friends the other day, I had a sudden inspiration about a neat way to demonstrate the impact of design on group behaviour. All I need is a shoe. Let me explain.
The shoe is one of the character pieces in a tremendously popular game, Monopoly. You may have played it, circling endlessly around a miniature imaginary city, buying up property. Hoping to deprive the rest of the players of both their property and funds, ending up as the literal and metaphorical ‘monopoly’ in the game world.
Monopoly has a long pedigree, having been built out of the fabric of an earlier game invented by Elizabeth Magie in 1903. We will return to Elizabeth in a moment.
Monopoly, as it’s currently played, tends to encourage an aggressive group dynamic. To win, you typically need to buy up as much property as you can handle, as quickly as possible. Luck of the dice will dictate when you can start the game and whether you land on the right combination of properties for your budget. Luck of the dice will also dictate if anyone else lands on a property and has to pay you rent.
This emotional cycle continues throughout the game. Rushing around the board, desperate to avoid the properties owned by others while buying up everything you can. The economic system of Monopoly is decidedly finite. Everyone must move quickly to gain property before the supply of money runs out. In this way value funnels from the open market into the hands of one or two players.
It’s interesting watching people play Monopoly. They may start as the best group of friends. That is, until the game progresses. People get desperate, especially if they land on a number of expensive properties and make succesive rounds of payments to other players. The lucky player wins it all; money, properties and the game. This is by design. The rules, tokens, monetary system and board are all designed to create this style of play.
Let’s stop here for a moment and consider a different sort of game. It’s one of the new games emerging from the powerhouse of European game design. A game called ‘Forbidden Island.’ Unlike Monopoly, it’s less familier, so let me give some context. With Forbidden Island, two or more players sit around a dynamic gameboard; a mysterious island.
The players must cooperate to rescue four tokens of achievement to end the game. As they progress, there is a constant threat. The island is constantly sinking, the rate of which can change at a moments notice. I’ve played the game and I can tell you, it is a pulse-pounding thrill. Everyone shares ideas, deploys their skills, trades pieces of the game and desperately attempts to avoid sinking with the island.
The two games create completely different experiences. Here is the crucial point. All of the differences are by design. The tokens, board, points system and rules of both games all combine to create the cognitive and emotional experiences in the players. This is not design of surface things, this is the design of how people see each other.
With Monopoly, the design of the game creates a pulse-tingling anticipation and hunger. More properties, more money and the desperate thrill of success when someone lands on one of your properties, making them beholden to you. The dynamic is opponents scavenging to own everything.
With Forbidden Island, when you win, everyone wins. By design, there is no finite monetary supply and people win by co-operating to survive a dangerous event. The social dynamic is a based on the team members struggling to survive together.
Here is a neat twist in our tale. In 1903, Elizabeth Magie did not invent Monopoly as we know it today. What she invented was an earlier incarnation known as “The Landlords Game”, which was different in one crucial way.
It came with two sets of rules; the ‘monopolist’ rule set (which we still use for the game today) and a second ‘anti-monopolist’ single-tax-inspired rule set (which lasted in the sets until 1924), where all rent was paid into a public treasury and there were no taxes on utilities. When one player benefited, all players benefited. Using this set of rules no player could be declared a winner and the game would finish after just five rounds.
The original game was intended to teach, through stark contrast, the downfalls of rentier capitalism and benefits of the single-tax approach; to demonstrate that extracting rents provide no real value to society as a whole, that it makes some people very rich, while driving others to bankruptcy. It was meant to promote Georgism (courtesy of Henry George), a tax approach that people should gain value from what they make, but not land; which should be owned by everyone.
That would have been a different game. I think it’s a little tragic that whoever made those design choices for the version of Monopoly we know, created something that inspires such a greedy outcome. So the next time you think design is just what something looks or feels like; think again.
L. J. Magie (1904) The Landlord’s Game, US Patent: US748626A (Expired).
Monopoly Shoe by Mark Strozier under Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).
Forbidden Island by Ferinancat under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.