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.

About bernardparsnip

Gamer, Blogger, Poet
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5 Responses to Mediocritas

  1. Tyler Murphy says:

    Dailies reward you with dolors first, then gold.

  2. Doone W. says:

    First, thanks a lot for following this up with an article! It’s a good read and I see we agree on a lot of points on the subject.

    I disagree with your conclusion though, if only because there are just too many good games out there in which their designers didn’t employ devices intended to milk profit and/or intended to “hook” the player in some specific way because it’s profitable. Too many games. You likely own a bunch of them.

    But then there are games like MMOs, where the line between creating an experience for entertainment and doing it because the player will pay an extra month/buy a new avatar gets into that grey area of ethics. I don’t think it’s asking too much to make a game based on it’s own merits and not based on “this mechanic will ensure the player inserts more coins”.

    I do think it’s an interesting debate though, because MMOs and other online/downloadable games are where this ethical line is broached the most. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with paying for a service (subscription). I DO think there’s something wrong with the ways DLC have been handled lately or with the way F2P games are really pay-to-play. These are games we can take a study of and really see some of the mechanics I think are most problematic.

    Finally, I also made the point in my article that the sole responsibility absolutely doesn’t fall with developers. So we agree. But I do sincerely believe that once your game is out and you see it’s having detrimental effects, you should revisit it’s design and improve it. It’s not about making a perfect game or about never crossing lines or never doing anything wrong. It’s about what you do about it once you recognize the problems.

  3. Doone W. says:

    I forgot to add …

    …you didn’t answer any of the questions I posed to you or that you asked me in the discussion my own site. You seemed to entirely side-step the conversation by asking wild questions unrelated to the article and you never used those questions to make a point. You also never addressed any specific points in my article; you just asked questions which you never gave your own stance nor did you show how they were related at all to the discussion at hand. I had hoped you’d do that here in this response.

  4. Apologies if my questions seemed ‘wild’. Thinking back, what I was trying to do was to rephrase your examples to expose inconsistency. In the article and subsequent discussions, you make a clear distinction between games that are ‘fun’ and games that ‘aim’ to hook the player. You use Skinner box as a term to brand the latter group. You summarise the discussion as the following:

    “The question is whether these things are designed for fun and games (leisure) or something else. I conclude that in many cases, it’s something else.”

    In fact, what your article lacks is a definition of fun. You frequently reference Caillois’ Man, Play and Games but the Wikipedia article associated lacks any reference to fun. Indeed according to Googlebooks, the word ‘fun’ only appears once.

    Having played Tetris and the Civ series (Fun games?) more than WoW and Angry Birds (Games designed to hook the player?), I cannot make the distinction myself.

    My article above is attempting to treat the theme of developer responsibility and answer the question “Who is responsible for harm caused through compulsive gaming?”

    • Doone W. says:

      I see. I think the disconnect on my part was the associate of games with fun, which I take to be meaningful engagement in any form within a game. In hindsight, you’re correct that I didn’t make that clear and I apologize. However, that doesn’t break the argument one bit since it speaks to game design and the devices employed. I argue that some games break those rules and I named a few. I concluded they aren’t games at all, but something else. So I don’t see the definition of fun as inconsistent, but more of the bringing in of a personal element which I failed to define …but which doesn’t have an impact on the argument one way or the other.

      As to the final question, I think I concluded that the responsibility is shared. I tended to focus more on what devs have a responsibility to do because it gets worrisome seeing online games being handled like casino fare. I don’t like what I’m seeing in that area.

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