So, the headlines say somebody else has died due to video game addiction. Yes, it's Korea again.
What the hell? Look, I'm not saying video games are heroin. I totally get that the victims had other shit going on in their lives. But, half of you reading this know a World of Warcraft addict and experts say video game addiction is a thing. So here's the big question: Are some games intentionally designed to keep you compulsively playing, even when you're not enjoying it?
Oh, hell yes. And their methods are downright creepy.
If you've ever been addicted to a game or known someone who was, this article is really freaking disturbing. It's written by a games researcher at Microsoft on how to make video games that hook players, whether they like it or not. He has a doctorate in behavioral and brain sciences. Quote:
"Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players."
Notice his article does not contain the words "fun" or "enjoyment." That's not his field. Instead it's "the pattern of activity you want."
"...at this point, younger gamers will raise their arms above their head, leaving them vulnerable."
His theories are based around the work of BF Skinner, who discovered you could control behavior by training subjects with simple stimulus and reward. He invented the "Skinner Box," a cage containing a small animal that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pellets. Now, I'm not saying this guy at Microsoft sees gamers as a bunch of rats in a Skinner box. I'm just saying that he illustrates his theory of game design using pictures of rats in a Skinner box.
This sort of thing caused games researcher Nick Yee to once call Everquest a "Virtual Skinner Box."
So What's The Problem?
Gaming has changed. It used to be that once they sold us a $50 game, they didn't particularly care how long we played. The big thing was making sure we liked it enough to buy the next one. But the industry is moving toward subscription-based games like MMO's that need the subject to keep playing--and paying--until the sun goes supernova.
Now, there's no way they can create enough exploration or story to keep you playing for thousands of hours, so they had to change the mechanics of the game, so players would instead keep doing the same actions over and over and over, whether they liked it or not. So game developers turned to Skinner's techniques.
This is a big source of controversy in the world of game design right now. Braid creator Jonathan Blow said Skinnerian game mechanics are a form of "exploitation." It's not that these games can't be fun. But they're designed to keep gamers subscribing during the periods when it's not fun, locking them into a repetitive slog using Skinner's manipulative system of carefully scheduled rewards.
Why would this work, when the "rewards" are just digital objects that don't actually exist? Well...
Most addiction-based game elements are based on this fact:
Your brain treats items and goods in the video game world as if they are real. Because they are.
People scoff at this idea all the time ("You spent all that time working for a sword that doesn't even exist?") and those people are stupid. If it takes time, effort and skill to obtain an item, that item has value, whether it's made of diamonds, binary code or beef jerky.
I have easily 500 hours in Zelda bottles.
There's nothing crazy about it. After all, people pay thousands of dollars for diamonds, even though diamonds do nothing but look pretty. A video game suit of armor looks pretty and protects you from video game orcs. In both cases you're paying for an idea.
Happy anniversary, honey.
So What's The Problem?
Of course, virtually every game of the last 25 years has included items you can collect in the course of defeating the game--there's nothing new or evil about that. But because gamers regard in-game items as real and valuable on their own, addiction-based games send you running around endlessly collecting them even if they have nothing to do with the game's objective.
It is very much intentional on the developers' part, an appeal to our natural hoarding and gathering instincts, collecting for the sake of collecting. It works, too, just ask the guy who kept collecting items even while naked boobies sat just feet away. Boobies.
As the article from the Microsoft guy proves, developers know they're using these objects as pellets in a Skinner box. At that point it's all about...
So picture the rat in his box. Or, since I'm one of these gamers and don't like to think of myself as a rat, picture an adorable hamster. Maybe he can talk, and is voiced by Chris Rock.
If you want to make him press the lever as fast as possible, how would you do it? Not by giving him a pellet with every press--he'll soon relax, knowing the pellets are there when he needs them. No, the best way is to set up the machine so that it drops the pellets at random intervals of lever pressing. He'll soon start pumping that thing as fast as he can. Experiments prove it.
They call these "Variable Ratio Rewards" in Skinner land and this is the reason many enemies "drop" valuable items totally at random in WoW. This is addictive in exactly the same way a slot machine is addictive. You can't quit now because the very next one could be a winner. Or the next. Or the next.
"Holy shit! We almost won."
The Chinese MMO ZT Online has the most devious implementation of this I've ever seen. The game is full of these treasure chests that may or may not contain a random item and to open them, you need a key. How do you get the keys? Why, you buy them with real-world money, of course. Like coins in a slot machine.
Wait, that's not the best part. ZT Online does something even the casinos never dreamed up: They award a special item at the end of the day to the player who opens the most chests.
And that's hardly the most ridiculous aspect of the game.
Now, in addition to the gambling element, you have thousands of players in competition with each other, to see who can be the most obsessive about opening the chests. One woman tells of how she spent her entire evening opening chests--over a thousand--to try to win the daily prize.
She didn't. There was always someone else more obsessed.
So What's The Problem?
Are you picturing her sitting there, watching her little character in front of the chest, clicking dialogue boxes over and over, watching the same animation over and over, for hour after hour?
If you didn't know any better, you'd think she had a crippling mental illness. How could she possibly get from her rational self to that Rain Man-esque compulsion?
BF Skinner knew. He called that training process "shaping." Little rewards, step by step, like links in a chain. In WoW you decide you want the super cool Tier 10 armor. You need five separate pieces. To get the full set, you need more than 400 Frost Emblems, which are earned a couple at a time, from certain enemies. Then you need to upgrade each piece of armor with Marks of Sanctification. Then again with Heroic Marks of Sanctification. To get all that you must re-run repetitive missions and sit, clicking your mouse, for days and days and days. Boobies be damned.
Once it gets to that point, can you even call that activity a "game" anymore? It's more like scratching a rash. And it gets worse...