Monday, April 13, 2015

All Wrapped Up The Same

Time to drill down a little further into yesterday's topic. What set me off along this track in the first place was the question of whether players need extrinsic rewards to motivate them to do something that, by definition, is already a voluntary leisure activity.

My instinctive feeling is that they don't or, more properly, that they shouldn't. Nevertheless, it's evident, often painfully so, that at some point very close to the creation of the MMORPG genre a link was set between "activity" and "reward" and that supposed synergy is now hardwired into the form.

A few years back, whenever MMORPGs came up for discussion, there would often be talk of Skinner Boxes, Operant Conditioning and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's a well-trodden path but if anyone needs to get up to speed, Nick Yee, godfather of academic research on Everquest, runs through the detail here and Extra Credits do it with pictures here.

Nowadays you don't seem to hear so much about those psychological constructs that underpin just about everything we recognize as core behavior in this hobby. Latterly the discussion seems to have shifted to the uncertain dichotomy of Fun/Not Fun. As Murf points out this doesn't really help all that much.

sPvP uses the Fixed Interval Schedule. Read into that what you will.
In 2011, mainstream news outlets were hot to climb on board the fun bus and get all exercised over gamification. The BBC reported "According to research firm Gartner, 50% of companies that manage innovation and research will use gamification - the use of game-play mechanics for practical applications - by 2015 ".

Didn't happen? Well, that's because just six months later it was Game Over for Gamification. Far from predicting a gamified future Gartner had turned around to claim that "gamification is currently being driven by novelty and hype" and that by 2014 80% of gamification applications would fail to deliver "because of poor design".

So much for analysts and so much for the media's willingness to mine their never-ending stream of "reports" to feed the hungry maw of the twenty-four hour news day. Gamification never happened, for which we can all be grateful. Only no-one told the game designers about the change of plan.

Well, I guess you can't blame game designers for gamifying their games. I mean, they're games, right? What else can they do?

Suitable for Mature Players
Plenty, according to the Extra Credits crew. The second half of that video, which went up on YouTube the year after the gamification crash, mostly consists of suggestions of things developers and designers could do without dipping into the tawdry bag of psychological tricks to encourage people to play their video games.

Yes, they could do any or all of those things, couldn't they? But, why would they, when Skinner Box Logic continues to work so well? For all the negative evidence of burn-out and addiction and the positive cheerleading for fun, in the end aren't we all still pressing the buttons and popping the pellets? MMORPG's may be on the slide commercially but it's not like their replacements, MOBAs, Card Games, Match 3s and all, have eschewed the levers of control in favor of "Mystery" or "Novelty".

Getting back to core values and MMORPGs, here's J3w3l examining the issue of Reward Received vs Effort Expended as it applies in the acquisition of powerful and desirable weaponry in FFXIV and GW2. She perceives a substantive difference between Square's route to Relic weapons, which, while it involves "incredible grind", rewards "Lots of effort and Defined play" when compared to ANet's design strategy for Legendaries, which has "always been completely held up with ridiculous RNG so you often have no idea where you are in terms of progress" and "just seems a little off".

To me, as someone who would be highly unlikely to follow either path to its grim conclusion, they seem like two sides of the same coin. Indeed, they both sound like variations on Skinner's "random ratio" box, the most effective form of operant conditioning his research was able to reveal.

This all risks coming across as a criticism of the dominant mode of progression in this hobby that I spend so much time enjoying. It is and it isn't. The whole thing is horrifically complex, emotionally, psychologically, aesthetically.

On the face of it I make a very poor lab rat (or pigeon). If the reward goes any higher than the first couple of steps on Maslow's Hierarchy I tend to stop pressing the button early and turn my attention to gnawing a hole in the corner of the box.

I was playing Everquest when Epic weapons were introduced and over the next few years literally everyone I knew who played the game went out and did the often insanely lengthy and soul-crushing "quests" to get one. I never bothered. I just couldn't see where the fun was.
In that way I guess I was ahead of my time. No-one talked much about "fun" back then, not the way they do now. Gevlon, in a recent comment on Tobold's blog, put it rather astutely: "players who are capable of completing harder content are more likely mature, while those who "play for fun" are usually childish or even literally children". It's that pesky creeping infantilization of society problem again, isn't it?

That's really the point, though, isn't it? When I switch on the PC and step out into an imaginary world, I want to go somewhere that allows me to be "childish" or, to use a more positive nuance, "childlike". That's why I tend to prefer characters that look like children or anthropomorphic animals and players who would rather make juvenile puns than parse their DPS.

One of the fundamentals for me, when playing these "games", is that I don't get drawn into doing anything that feels like "work". I already have a job. I very much don't want another one on top of that. It goes some way to explain why I feel so strongly that the primary rewards for playing MMORPGs should all be intrinsic. In the end it's all about The Feels.

Take GW2. I play a lot of GW2. There are several reasons for that but the one that most matters here is the way the game looks, sounds and handles. Playing all my characters in GW2 feels natural. It's like driving a car that's right for you or wearing clothes that fit comfortably. The color palette, the saturation, the ambient soundscape, the fragmentary conversations of the NPCs, and, most especially, the fluidity of movement all come together to make being there a fulfilling and complete reward in and of itself. I don't need to do anything much when I "play" GW2 - I just need to play.

To a greater or lesser extent this is true of all the MMORPGs I really enjoy. What draws me in most of all and holds me are The Feels.

The Gift Shop is always open.
For a long time, when I heard people fretting over animations and timing, especially as it relates to combat, I found it hard to empathize. My understanding was that these things mattered only to those looking to optimize their rotations and maximize their damage output, things about which I don't generally care all that much.

Of late, though, I've come to realize that animations, combat timing, responsiveness, are as vital to the feeling of a game as the art design and lore. Playing EQ2 recently I've been thrilled by the tactility of the combat. As a berserker it's as though I can sense the impact of the blows I give and receive. Then there's EQ2's much-derided, vast selection of combat skills, almost fifty of them available to me at any time, spread across my five fighting hotbars. Far from representing a bloated mess of meaningless icons, they face me like the squares in a paintbox from which I gleefully paint my masterpieces of murder in swirling colors and crunching sound.

Meet my friend, Arfur Sixpence.
And yet, for all that, I don't mean to claim that Skinner Box rewards have no effect on me or that they have no place in the games I love. They do. They have. As Extra Credits observe, well-used, the RPG elements of item acquisition and character progression are powerful tools that we should welcome. But they aren't all, not even most, of what makes me want to play and go on playing.

We are, most of us, contradictory creatures. Despite the pre-eminent importance of The Feels it's hard to imagine keeping loyalty with a game that didn't also give me my stuff. By the Lord Harry, how I love my stuff! There's no way I could begin to claim I'd be happy playing a game, year in, year out, that gave me no material rewards, no character progression, to show for all my time, energy and commitment. I mean, you should see my Maj`Dul residence - it's a virtual museum - and when I ding a big number you can bet I'll be calling it in whatever channel is most likely to get me some validation.

It's not, then, in the end, a question of whether to have rewards.The question is how are those rewards to be delivered? As pellets from the pressing of a button or as a series of inevitable yet still surprising emergent moments within a virtual lifetime? Under the hood the machinery may be the same but the way that engine is set to purr makes all the difference in the world.


  1. I just love this post ! Thanks for clarifying my mind ;-)

    My most played game ( except GW2) is team fortress where there is virtually nothing to win... Except the match itself ( I do not care about the silly hat).

    1. Thanks and your very welcome! Can't go wrong with a good hat though...

  2. It's funny - but to me that kind of grind is like say, building the garden beds like I'm doing at the moment. It's a lot of the same same. Repetitive activities but it's enjoyable in the way you get slowly wrapped up in it and also how with each dig, each nail or post in place you can see the constant progress.

    Gw2 on the other hand is more like digging one gigantic hole in order to find lottery tickets within that hole. You have no idea how far you'll have to dig at any given moment before you find the winning ticket to buy that garden bed. It's a process too removed from the result


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