Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 03, 2007
Are MMOs just Skinner boxes?

MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are often being compared to a Skinner box. A Skinner box, or "operant conditioning chamber" is a laboratory apparatus to test behavior of small animals, like rats. For example the rat is presented with two levers, a green and a red one, and pressing the green lever provides the rat with a food pellet, while pressing the red one gives it an electric shock. With such a box you can see whether a rat can learn to distinguish between the two levers, and press the green one to be fed while avoiding the red one. The interest lies in the fact that pressing levers is not something you'd assume a rat would have in it's genes, thus you can distinguish learned behavior from inherited behavior. Skinner's theory was that the frequency of a given behavior is directly linked to whether it is rewarded or punished. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed.

The comparison to online games comes from the observation that players in a game like World of Warcraft learn to perform activities which are as unnatural to a human as pressing a lever is to a rat, to get some reward. You kill a mob, you get a reward in the form of experience points and treasure. Your behavior is rewarded, thus you repeat it, you to go out and kill more mobs. As every further kill is further rewarded, you end up getting "addicted" to the game, playing just for the virtual rewards. Somebody watching you from the outside of the game, usually a spouse, won't understand why you would want to repeatedly perform the same sequence of clicks for a reward that exists only virtually. But although this behavior isn't really useful, it is self-reinforcing through the instant gratification with rewards. The previously discussed Chore Wars is trying to use the same principle, by attaching instant gratification rewards to household chores, and thus reinforcing a different sort of behavior.

Instant gratification and rewards are certainly an important part of MMORPGs. But I don't think that this is the only factor. While the Skinner box concept can explain part of what we do in the game, it doesn't explain why we did start to play the game in the first place. Unlike the rat nobody forced us into that Skinner box, we entered it voluntarily, before receiving even the first reward. I believe that MMORPGs have always to be considered as a form of entertainment. We have disposable time, we are bored, and we play games because that is more interesting than watching the paint dry. And just like a book or a movie, we consume the entertainment contained in the game, the stuff we call "content". Once we consumed all the content, we get bored and leave the Skinner box, although the rewards are still available. It would be easy enough to create a MMORPG with infinite levels, no level cap, by simply making random dungeons with random monsters and treasures, whose power just scales with the level of the player. Such a game would never run out of rewards or things to do, but we still wouldn't play it forever. To paraphrase Raph Koster in his Theory of Fun, the fun is in learning that the green lever gives the food pellet, not in receiving the same food pellet over and over. Raph knows what he is talking about, because he was the creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, which actually has scalable random quests. That turned out to be far less attractive than hand-crafted quests, because although the random quest has the same activity and the same reward as the hand-crafted quest, is lacks the content and entertainment value of the latter.

Giving rewards is thus a necessary, but not sufficient condition to make a MMORPG work. After all, humans do have more complex needs than a lab rat.
Correct to a point. What makes mmorpg addictive is the same thing that makes gambling addictive = random rewards.

Think of rare loot drops off mobs in EQ. That's no different than a slot machine. It's the randomness of the reward that promotes the addictive behavior.

Let's use EQ wisp as an example. You never knew if the wisp had a burned out light stone, a regular light stone, or a greater light stone. That's a text book example of the skinner box.

For people who've never played EQ, wisp were little balls of light. Any low level character with a magic weapon could kill them. A light stone is worth a few silver, but a greater light stone is worth several gold, and a burned out light stone is worth one copper.

Now imagine sprinkling Westfall and The Badlands with them, and you can imagine how WoW players could become quite obsessive about hunting them.

There's always that urge to kill just one more wisp, because the next wisp you kill might have a greater light stone, but of course it's a burned out light stone, so you curse the Gods and wait for another )
To Tobold: "That turned out to not be far less attractive than hand-crafted quests" - confused here - were the random quests less attractive than normal quests, as this text seems to say they were not less attractive - i.e. more attractive?

To =##=: Surely the Skinner box view of wisps would involve one of the options punishing you. Would players keep taking the gamble if there was the possibility of pain - e.g. slight xp loss - as one of the options?
To Kris: Fixed

I'll pretend I'm intentionally adding small mistakes and spelling errors to check whether my readers are really reading all of what I write. ;)

Skinner's result that random rewards work better than predictable results is only one part of his work, not the whole thing. But yes, that is something he observed on rats.
Wisps with lightstones or greater lightstones emitted light -- you could always tell if you hunted them at night. They were great xp, though, so you always wanted to kill them anyway. They also had spiders as placeholders... so you had to kill THEM, and THEY had poison (yuk!).

It's no secret MMOs are based on giving random rewards and then slowly decreasing their frequency after they have you hooked. It is demeaning, and if MMOs were more focused on providing fun than keeping you hooked, they would (and are, in many cases) move away from this.
Why aren't more people talking about this?

I couldn't agree more.

The same elements that make gambling games addictive are present in MMO's. I think people with a certain pyschology are more susceptible to becoming addicted than others, in the same way some people are attracted to drugs/alcohol. I think this is related to the whole "are games addictive" issue. I don't think there is a yes or no answer.

I doubt there are many that are many people who are addicted to WoW who haven't been addicted to other games at times in their life. You can read thousands of posts from people online about their problems quitting the game they are paying for. They talk about their lack of enjoyment and how the thrill is much less than it used to be. They also talk about their increasing isolation from friends, family, jobs, hobbies and personal care. Why does this talk sound exactly like people who are struggling with alcohol, drugs or gambling? Why do game reviewers and developers often use language that includes the words "addictive gameplay" but when researchers claim games are addictive, the internet communities let out a collective outcry of defiance?

Love the blog.
I think in order to really understand the relation between MMOs and operant conditioning you need to realize that everything we do in life is done for these same reasons. Its not as if the rest of our lives we are free from this idea of doing something for a reward. Humans pursue sex with a huge portion of their time because the orgasm is one of the greatest reinforcers. Conditioning decides everything we do in our lives, not just whether or not we play wow too much.
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