Doone, ever the originator of interesting debates, has spurred me into writing with his latest piece on the ethics of game design. In the comments section of his post, I allowed myself to indulge in nit-picking, selecting the odd sentence here and there to question.
I would now like to engage with the spirit of the original post, which I will summarise as follows:
Video game designers have a responsibility to minimize the use of mechanics like Skinner boxes which they know to be harmful to their players
Trapped in a Skinner Box
Also known as an Operant Conditioning Chamber (link), a Skinner box is a controlled environment that rewards a test subject such as a rat, bird or primate with food in exchange for taking a deliberate action like pressing a button. Through repetition of the reward for action, the test subject is trained to make the link between cause/effect and the behavior is normalized.
In MMOs it can be argued that players are conditioned to log in every day and complete a simple action (Kill 10 rats) in exchange for a reward. Even though the reward is virtual (‘Experience’, gear or tokens, achievements, cosmetic items) the impact on the player is real, as endorphins and other ‘happy chemicals’ are released. In time, players become bored of killing the same rats every day, however the behavior has become reinforced to the point that many cannot quit.
Meanwhile other common mechanics like random boss drops encourage players to invest countless hours of their time to beat odds controlled by the casino. What could have been achieved in the time saved if Ashes of Al’ar dropped 50% of the time instead of 2%?
Developers make the rules. They have the power to encourage players to log in once a week for 15 minutes rather than every day for several hours. Is the fact that they don’t a reflection of their greed and/or reckless abandonment of their duty of care towards players?
If you look around you, you will see that rewards are a deeply engrained part of society. Infants are given lollipops if they don’t cry. School children receive stickers, green ticks on their work and ‘golden time’ if they follow classroom decorum and do their homework. Office workers are promised promotions and bonuses in exchange for meeting performance criteria and towing the company line. Advertising tells us that by purchasing a product, we will be more attractive, more successful and more loved. We are conditioned to view behavior as transactional and life’s rewards to be extrinsic.
If I do X, I will receive Y.
At the same time, we are all accustomed to the idea that what feels good may not always be good for us.
Alcohol is relaxant that reduces inhibitions and can accentuate certain flavors in food. It also has the potential to poison the body, or cause us to lose self-control and take actions that could be deeply harmful to ourselves and others.
Sugars form a key part of the Western diet and directly trigger the release of endorphins. They can also lead to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
We recognize that alcohol and processed carbohydrates are not good for us and there are many arguments to say that the industries responsible for their production, like MMO developers, have a duty of care to ensure that they do not harm consumers.
But the reality is today the public is expected to moderate their own consumption. For better or for worse, we are free to make our own mistakes.
In this way I recognize that the reward-bearing mechanics of MMOs have the potential to be addictive and that games which are not played in moderation can be deeply harmful, but I cannot ascribe this responsibility solely to MMO developers.
Players WANT character advancement. They WANT a variety of content that will support their play style, even if they are playing 3+ hours/day. Indeed the most commonly cited reason for quitting a game is that there was nothing left to do.
Developers are trying to balance their games around short-term and long-term ‘fun’ and experience has dictated that the pacing of rewards is a key contributor to this balance.
I don’t think anyone has got this balance just right yet.
Blizzard has acknowledge that Mists of Pandaria launched with too many dailies. It is worth noting that 5.1 featured considerably less daily quests to undertake and the principle reason for completing them is to experience the story, which is what motivates me to play these games.
Doone mentions Zygna, creators of Farmville, as an innovator in games that manipulate players for rewards, all the while being the darlings of Wallstreet. But the reality could not be further from the truth: Zygna shares have crashed from a high of $15 to $2.40.
This gives me faith that players can differentiate ‘fun’ from ‘addictive’ mechanics.
We all play our part in protecting the vulnerable from the harmful effects of negative behavioural triggers and addiction. Video game developers cannot be expected to make the most compelling content possible whilst constantly fearing that it may be TOO good or that they will need to police its consumption.