MMORPGs and Psychological Behavioral Conditioning
It is 3:30am Saturday morning and you are hunting Quagmirran the giant fungal bog lord in the Coilfang Naga cave systems. He appears once every 24 hours, so you patiently wait in the in the location that he is known to appear. This is the sixth night in a row that you have withstood the temptation of sleep to pursue the thrill of defeating him and reaping the rewards that he defends in the form of loot. This behavior is not unusual for MMORPGs players. In fact, typical users “spend 20-30 hours per week”, while “power users spend every available moment” inside this virtual fantasy world (Castronova, 2005). This behavior of obsessively playing MMORPGs does not go without its implications. In one such case “a school boy collapsed and went into convulsions after playing a new version of the World of Warcraft computer game for 24 hours straight” (Brown, 2008). In a tragic case involving a thirteen year-old boy who died after jumping from the 24 story building after playing too much World of Warcraft, the parents are making “plans on filing class action suits against the whole game industry” (Snow, 2005). Are players being conditioned to obsess over these games? It is important for us to understand the answer to this question. It is also important for us to understand what motivates MMORPG players to spend so much time in these virtual environments.
What are MMORPGs?
Author Edward Castronova (2005) writes, “MMORPGs [are] places where thousands of users interact with one another in the guise of video game characters”. However, these are much more than just games, in fact they resemble real worlds and fairy-tale cities at the same time. The term MMORPG was coined by Richard Garriott the creator of Ultima Online which debuted in September 25, 1997 as the first graphical MMORPG. In MMORPGs players interact with each other in the virtual world through a customized character, which is also referred to as an avatar. In MMORPGs, players “assume the role of a fictional character (often in a fantasy world), and take control over many of that character's actions” (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game, 2009, para. 1). MMORPGs are different from standalone or single player games by the number of simultaneous players, and by the game's “persistent world”, which continues to “exist and evolve while the player is away from the game” (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game, 2009, para. 1). An example of an evolving virutal world would be holiday such as Christmas being celebrated in a virtual world.
MMORPGs consist of rich 3 dimensional environments that are highly interactive and detailed to the point that trees sway in the wind, and shadows of your character are displayed onto the ground. Another aspect that distinguishes MMORPGs from other game genres is the massive quantity of activities to participate in (partly because of the persistent dynamic world), which nearly makes the game unbeatable.
Generally speaking, MMORPGs are geared towards progression or advancement in a specific set of attributes your avatar possesses. These attributes can be thought of as the foundation for the basic abilities of a character. They include, but are not limited to, strength, stamina, intellect, and agility. Increasing anyone of these attributes grants increased powers to skills that are associated with each attribute. Skills are generally categorized as either physical or magic abilities. Advancement can be achieved as players participate in a number of various activities such as questing, running tasks, participating in raids, and simply grinding (defeating NPCs or other players). Advancements and achievements translate into a stronger more robust character which generally translates into advantages in terms of navigation of the virtual world and in physical or magic capabilities also.
What Behavioral conditioning methods are used in MMORPGs?
As stated earlier, the basic premise of MMORPGs is to advance to higher levels by gaining achievements from completing quests or tasks. The incentives for advancing your avatar include, increased power, wealth, and improved equipment (all of which result in a more enjoyable playing experience). If we think about the progression and achievement systems used within MMORPGs to encourage players to pursue higher levels, it becomes clear that MMORPGs utilize operant conditioning with positive reinforcement as the means of encouraging a player’s behavior. From a progression and achievement perspective, most MMORPGs can be thought of in similar terms to a Skinner box.
A Skinner box is an experimental device developed by B.F. Skinner to test and study the behavior of animals. B.F(Coon & Mitterer, 2009). Skinner concluded that behavior and the probability of that behavior reoccurring were determined by its consequences. The basic principle of operant conditioning is to associate responses and actions to specific consequences. The thought being, responses that are reinforced with positive consequences are very likely to be repeated more frequently (Coon & Mitterer, 2009). This theory is pervasively deployed through-out most MMORPGs.
As Skinner discovered, for positive reinforcement to be effective it must be immediately accompanied by an operant reinforcer or reward(Coon & Mitterer, 2009). In MMORPGs the rewards are granted in cycles which begin the moment you enter the virtual world. For example, when you start a new avatar, everything you need to do in the virtual world is nearby and you are instantly rewarded for entering the virtual world. This creates a sense of excitement for the player and encourages them to pursue additional advancement. The first few non-player characters (NPCs – computer enemies) you attack are easily defeated in several attacks and you quickly achieve (rewarded) level 2 in short period of time. As you begin to progress through the levels an interesting transformation occurs within the MMORG player. You become increasingly conscience of your attribute points, a desire for better equipment takes hold, and the accumulation of wealth becomes important. Gradually, it takes longer and longer to get to the next level. The quick rewards disappear; they are gradually replaced by rewards that take more time and effort to achieve. And suddenly, some of us find ourselves pointing and clicking away for hours in front of the computer screen performing increasingly complex tasks, going for days or even weeks with limited interaction with the real world.
Shaping and MMORPGs
The process of encouraging an individual to perform increasingly complex tasks is known as shaping in operant conditioning. Shaping is defined as “a progressive narrowing of the definition of a reinforced response” (Howard, 1995). To illustrate how shaping works, we can review a test with a laboratory rat and a Skinner box. In this example a rat is placed into a Skinner box that contains a lever, and a food pellet dispenser. The rat is rewarded with a food pellet for facing the lever. Next the rat is rewarded with another food pellet as it gets closer to the lever. Finally, the rat is shaped to press the lever. Once the rat learns that pressing the lever is rewarded, food does not need to be dropped every time and the rat will still continue pressing the lever (Coon, 2009, Module 6.2).
MMORPGs shape players in similar ways to pursue and complete complex and time consuming tasks. For example, in World of Warcraft players can choose a profession for their character (such as cooking). In such a profession the player gradually builds their skill by learning to cook different recipes. The recipes increase in difficulty as you progress to higher levels, the difficulty lies in locating the ingredients for the recipe. In some instances the player will spend hours locating ingredients for the recipe. Once all of the ingredients are located, the player is rewarded by cooking skill level increases.
Reinforcement Schedules and MMORPGs
There are different schedules of reinforcement used with operant conditioning. The fixed interval (FI) schedule is the most basic type and also the least effective at producing a desired behavior. FI is described as being rewarded for exhibiting a specific behavior after a fixed time interval has passed. Another kind of reinforcement schedule is the fixed ratio (FR) schedule. FR is described as being rewarded at specific intervals when a specific behavior being exhibited. Fixed ratio schedules are more effective than FI schedules, however not quite as effective as variable ratio (VR) schedules. VR schedules are described as being rewarded at random intervals for a specific behavior being exhibited (Coon, 2009, Module 6.3). The thought is since we are unable to predict precisely when the reward will be given; we will be more inclined to repeat a specific behavior more consistently than in the other schedule types.
VR reinforcement schedules are used in MMORPGs to encourage players to frequently repeat certain aspects of the game. For example, in World of Warcraft players are rewarded (reinforced) with items (i.e. a magical sword that grants the player special powers) for defeating (response) certain NPCs. However, instead of reinforcing after every response, the player will be reinforced on the average of the NPCs reward table. I have personally experienced NPCs that have reward tables of 1% for certain items. In theory, this means one hundred responses must be made to obtain a reinforcer; sometimes it’s less.
The techniques used by MMORPG creators to entice, and maintain players into their virtual world certainly seem to be deeply rooted psychology. From my experience, I can say they have mastered the science of conditioning which is evident by the number of players logging on and making these virtual worlds their home away from home on a daily basis. Psychology aside, if you ask any MMORPG player why they play, you will most likely receive responses like: the graphics are beautiful, because there is so much to do, or simply…it’s fun. I guess these responses are expected, and most players will not necessarily think about the psychology behind their actions. The one thing I am certain of - there is much more to MMORPGs then just playing them for fun.