Monday, June 29, 2009
Achieving happiness in MMORPGs
Happiness, chemically speaking, is the release of certain chemicals in the brain. One of them is dopamine, which is related to rewards. If you get an reward, dopamine is released, and that in turn increases the happiness you feel when you get the next reward. So one way to be constantly happy is to be on a constant dopamine high, fueled by frequently receiving rewards. Which is exactly how MMORPGs work.
Basic MMORPG gameplay consists of setting yourself a goal, and then achieving it, which leads you to the next goal, the next achievement, and so on. As achieving a goal is coupled with a reward, that makes you happy, especially if there isn't too much time between the achievements. Ideally, of course, the gameplay between the rewards should be fun by itself, or at least not frustrating. But very often players are more attracted by the constant stream of rewards than by the gameplay leading to it.
With developers eager to give the players what they want, getting from one reward to the next has constantly become quicker. While in earlier games you still needed to set your own goals, now in most games the goals come pre-packaged as quests, easy to do, and with a reward at the end. And often you don't even have to explore or think any more, as Larisa noticed even World of Warcraft will soon patch in an official "Questhelper", showing you where to go to do your quests. And of course because other players could cause delay and possible failure, soloing went from an emerging gameplay to being the norm.
Thus the standard gameplay of a modern MMORPG consists of you accepting a solo quest, performing a trivial task, and then being rewarded for it. After which the next quest starts, and the cycle repeats over and over. The "ding" of gaining another level adds another dopamine rush. Being constantly rewarded is what makes playing MMORPGs so addictive, although the drugs involved are produced by our body itself, and not some controlled substances. Still, taking that drug away can have consequences.
Dopamine's function in the brain is related to learning, and acquiring new behavior. We learn through carrots and sticks, and dopamine is the brain's carrot. Thus getting constantly rewarded in a MMORPG also changes our behavior, especially our expectations towards rewards. There is a certain danger involved in that. Not only that sooner or later the effect of receiving the same type of reward over and over dulls, and we get bored with MMORPGs; but also in that life is not a MMORPG, and is usually handing out rewards a lot less frequently, so there is a mismatch between our expectations and reality. MMORPGs teach us the wrong things about life, that success is easy to achieve, and anything you do gets rewarded.
But because it makes us happy, the MMORPG game design with ever increasing rewards in shorter and shorter intervals is going to remain with us for some time more. Until one day we collectively get bored of the virtual rewards, and they stop making us happy any more. Then maybe one day MMORPG design goes back to include other things that can make us happy: Social contacts, interesting gameplay, having to think to overcome challenges. I still have hope that one day we'll wake up and realize how dull a gameplay of constantly getting rewards for nothing much is.