Jelly Beans in a Jar: Hot Hands, Game Design and Social Games

The following is a guest post by Vancouver’s Michael Fergusson, CEO of Ayogo Games. Ayogo creates innovative gaming experiences enjoyed on social networks and mobile platforms. This post is part of an ongoing series that discusses the business side of casual social games. Make sure to check out Ayogo’s blog and join the conversation.

To recap the last few weeks, we have posted articles about the psychology behind gameplay, and how using engaging game mechanics can motivate people to play your games. Thanks for all you comments and follows on Twitter, we appreciate it! One of the reasons we started this series was because we think that whether you are making games, funding the process or just playing them, games are a meaningful part of our everyday lives. So, let’s continue on…we think this next concept of “hot hands” is really fascinating and says something interesting about the relationship between play behaviour and evolutionary adaption.

Perceptions of Randomness

Some studies have found that when it comes to events that have randomness in them, like most games, rather than seeing them as such, people will impose patterns on the events by default. Why? According to evolutionary psychology, humans have an uncanny ability at predicting under conditions that are similar to environments that existed in our hunter-gatherer days, millions of years ago. The idea is that objects and events that ensured survival–natural resources like berries or hiding places–were clustered. Randomness was the exception. The conclusion? Our brains evolved to see patterns in most events even if there were none present.

Hot Hand Phenomenon

The hot hand phenomenon derives from this evolutionary kink that I described above, (our tendency to perceive patterns) and how this innate mechanism can be fooled in artificial environments. Hot hand refers to the expectation of “streaks” in sequences of hits and misses (when a person succeeds at something once, they’re more likely to do it again).This concept was first presented in the journal of Cognitive Psychology in 1985. A few researchers, Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky used this research as evidence against a belief they noticed in basketball fans. The fans believed that a player had a better chance of making a basket after having made shots than after missing shots–hence the term “hot hands.” The problem? This was in fact, not true.

Implications for Game Design

So what does this have to do with social games and game design? Based on some recent studies, it was proven that “hot hands” existed even in contemporary events and artificial environments. For example, lotto games, stock markets, basketball games etc., and that this phenomenon was triggered when there were implied patterns associated with the events. As an example, we built a lottery game (a game of pure chance) and noticed how in the forums, the players were describing their “strategy” of predicting winning combinations to other players. In fact, their success could not have been influenced by strategy. For a game designer, (or a business) knowing the human brain’s tendency to see patterns is not a bad thing. You can build these implied patterns of uncertainty and chance to influence the meaning and the intensity of games.

PS. Some have suggested that the hot hand fallacy only applies to statistically independent probabilities, which might not apply to most games. It’d be great to recreate the 1985 study using data from popular Facebook games.

Until then, what are your thoughts about hot hands? Contact us or leave a comment.