Friday, August 21, 2009
Why do we play? - Summary
I'm wrapping up my why do we play series of posts here with a short summary. After an introduction of the subject, I covered a range of possible factors of why we play MMORPGs so much longer than single-player games: Storytelling, gameplay, challenge, character development, rewards, social interactions, and finally learning.
What I think evolved from these posts and the various comments is that the reasons why we play MMORPGs are very different from the reasons why we play single-player games. Factors that are very strong in choosing a single-player game, like whether it tells a good story, or whether it has the right level of challenge, or whether the gameplay is just fun, are much weaker when choosing a MMORPG. Social interactions are much more important, but not necessarily direct social interactions. The indirect social interaction of just sharing a virtual world with other players appears to make character development and rewards much more powerful motivational factors than if similar character development and rewards were available in a single-player game.
There are different theories for that effect: One is that the rewards are treasured more in a multi-player environment, because the rewards serve as status symbols. Another is that how far you can develop your character, and equip him with rewards, is part of an indirect competition with other players. The fact that character development and rewards do not depend 100% on the player's skill, but can all be achieved with sheer determination and effort, is not a disadvantage, just the opposite: Being able to achieve everything if you just put enough effort into it is a definitive plus for motivation.
For the developers of MMORPGs, the motivational factors have consequences on how to produce better games. Of course improving storytelling and gameplay are always important. But if player behavior is mostly influenced by rewards and the social effects of these rewards, it is important to well balance these rewards to encourage social cohesion and to make sure that all areas of gameplay are equally desirable. By controlling what sort of activity gives what sort of rewards, developers engage in some sort of social engineering, whether they want to or not, with potentially catastrophic consequences if this is done badly.
There is no single answer to the question of why do we play, and the same answer might be true or false to different degrees to different people. The matter is further complicated by the observation that what players say they want on game forums and in surveys does not always correspond to what they really do in the virtual world of the game. The sometimes excessive chase after rewards, and conflicts arrising from a group effort resulting in group members not all being equally rewarded, is very visible inside the game, while players tend to downplay greed and jealousy as motivational factor when asked about it in a survey. Overall it appears that MMORPGs provide their players with a sensation of success of some sort, and that it is this which is one of the strongest reason of why we play.