Friday, August 3, 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.

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