Book Summary: The Proteus Paradox

Proteus Paradox

Game development is really as much of a science as it is an art form. You’re not just expressing a creative vision and telling a story, but you’re also identifying and manipulating psychological triggers. This is much more the case in the F2P (free to play) genre of mobile games than in traditional console games because players have to willingly elect to spend money before you have any revenue.

To do this effectively requires considerable psychological examination and comprehension. This is often done using a technique called cohort analysis, which is a kind of behavioral analysis done on different demographic groups within a player base.

This is all to ask the all-important question: what kind of behavior do the elements in your game collectively inspire players to take? How do peoples’ psychology change when they transition from the real world to the virtual world?

This is the basis of this book, which is the sum of years of work done by Nick Yee, a researcher who studies self-representation and social interaction in virtual environments.

A Protean Transformation


Proteus is a mythical sea god who’s said to have the ability to change forms as he pleases. He was first described by Homer in the Odyssey:

“First he turned into a great bearded lion. And then to a serpent, then to a leopard, then to a great boar, and he turned into fluid water, to a tree with towering branches.”

Proteus’ ability to change into any form embodies the promise of online games: the ability to reinvent yourself. In the games we play, we take the roles of interplanetary explorers, courageous kings, ruthless hitmen, and other fantastical characters.

As it turns out, entering these worlds and assuming these characters does very little to change us, and the idea of reinvention is largely a myth (hence the paradox, as alluded to in the title and described in the book).

The author describes this and explains the title of the book in a few sentences here:

“Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and cognitive baggage prevent us from changing. And where we think we are fully in control, unique psychological levers in virtual worlds (such as our avatars) powerfully change how we think and behave. This is the Proteus Paradox. Without a more careful look how these spaces do and do not change us, the promises of virtual worlds and online games are being subverted.”

Mountains of Behavioral Data

Nick Yee

I got this book after seeing Nick Yee speak at a conference, but the reason why I didn’t hesitate to purchase the book is because Yee is one of the highest authorities in the game industry on player behavior. He’s famous for having interviewed, collected, and analyzed data on thousands of online game players through his Daedalus Project, a sprawling study on the psychology of online game players.

A lot of companies, including the one which I work for, commit significant resources to learning how their players think. Some, like Riot Games (developer of League of Legends), have behavioral analysis departments which employ psychologists and neurologists to better understand the complex mechanics behind player behavior. It’s relatively easy to collect mountains of behavioral data, but drawing conclusions from the data is notoriously difficult. This is where Nick Yee’s experience in this field is unique, and what makes him one of the only people who could do this subject justice.

Favorite Passages

“A well -studied psychological principle called operant conditioning helps us understand how a system of rewards can make an inherently uninteresting task appealing. In its simplest form, the principle seems obvious. If you reward a person for performing a certain behavior, he or she is more likely to repeat that behavior. The way you provide rewards matters a great deal. Imagine training your dog. After a dog has successfully learned the “sit” command, you might use a fixed schedule and provide a treat every two times the dog follows the command. Or you might provide a treat after a random number of successful “sits.” Studies have shown that the latter schedule is best for maintaining behavior. If a fixed schedule is ever broken, even accidentally, it is easily detected, and the behavior quickly ceases. A broken variable schedule isn’t immediately obvious, and the behavior continues.”

“Statistical analysis of survey data has consistently identified three clusters of gameplay motivations; achievement, social interaction, and immersion. These aren’t separate categories that players fall into but rather the building blocks that allow us to understand individual players. Thus, most players have high scores on one or two clusters while having average or low scores on the remaining clusters. The holistic configuration of these three building blocks traces out the unique profile of each gamer.”

“In a lab experiment, we gave participants either an attractive or an unattractive avatar. They would see their new virtual selves in the virtual mirror and then interact with a virtual stranger. Within sixty seconds of being given a new digital body, participants in attractive avatars became friendlier and shared more personal information with the stranger than participants in unattractive avatars. Changing avatar height had a similar effect: people given taller avatars became more confident than people given shorter ones. Crucially, these behavioral changes followed users even when they had left the virtual world. Those recently given attractive avatars selected more attractive partners in a separate offline task. As we create and endlessly customize our avatars, they in turn influence how we think and how we behave. Virtual worlds change and control us in unexpected ways.”


If you’re interested in player behavior in online games, or especially if you’re designing online games and thinking about psychology, this is among the first books that you should read. It is the authority on the subject, and there is no better place to gain a quick understanding of the elements at play without having to go through hundreds of pages of scientific reports and analyses.

The author is upfront about the study focusing on PC-based online games like EVE Online and World of Warcraft. I would have liked for a more comprehensive look at online games, especially mobile games, which have emerged to take arguably the pole position within the online gaming space, but this is no fault of the author. If Nick Yee isn’t working on an updated version of this which includes the quickly growing mobile game market, I’m sure that someone else is.

Despite the complex nature of the subject, it was both easy to follow and filled with paradox as the title suggests. In summary, people do not act logically, but they often act in very predictably illogical ways. Learn these ways and you can do two very interesting things: identify when you’re being manipulated, and secondly, use this knowledge to guide your own players toward the actions that you want them to perform. Although this doesn’t cast a particularly wide net as far as the potential audience for this book, this is the authority on the subject.

Amazon link: The Proteus Paradox


4 Stars
2018-04-08T09:30:30+00:00Monday, September 22nd, 2014|