Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stockholm syndrome and Hecker's nightmare

I recently came across a player in World of Warcraft who was wearing a guild tag of <Stockholm Syndrome>. Now the Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people held hostage develop positive feeling for their captors. As guild tag in a MMORPG it is a rather clever commentary on the psychological reactions of players towards the game they are playing. We all know situations in which players became extremely defensive towards their favorite game, or towards a specific activity in their game. Are we being held hostage by MMORPGs, and developed positive feelings towards our captors, or are we playing because we are really having fun?

Obviously nobody is forcing us at gunpoint to play MMORPGs, so how could we be held hostage? The most likely culprit here is loss aversion: Losing something hurts more than the pleasure you had by gaining it. As MMORPGs work by showering us with constant rewards to release dopamine in our brains, we end up being unable to quit out of fear to lose all these "rewards" and "achievements". That purple sword of uberness is downright useless if you don't play the MMORPG any more in which you gained it. You can't take it with you when you leave the game. The only thing that remains once you quit is the fond memories of the fun you had while playing. But are we still playing for fun, or are we just playing for the rewards?

In the recent GDC game developer Chris Hecker gave a talk which was widely reported as Hecker's nightmare: He was afraid that developers were "designing shitty games that you have to pay people to play", the pay being virtual rewards. Basically he found that players are willing to do quite dull tasks in a game if given enough virtual rewards for it. But as the reward structure determines what players will do in a game, you can't just observe players' behavior to see what they like, and what game activity is actually fun to them. Just the opposite: Players will flock to the activity with the best reward, while simultaneously losing interest more and more in the gameplay itself. In the end it is difficult to say whether players for example actually like raiding, or are just there for the epics. It is certainly true that *which* raid dungeon is popular depends on where the best achievable rewards are, which is why for example Naxxramas stands empty now.

Another example is the often quoted trend that "players prefer to solo in a MMORPG". Do they? Some certainly do, but we actually haven't got a clue what percentage of players would rather level up in group play, if the additional reward for getting a group together would compensate for the effort of doing so. World of Warcraft was often shown as prime example of how players prefer solo play over group play, but since the introduction of additional group rewards and lowering the barrier of entry to finding a group with the Dungeon Finder, the number of people forming groups while leveling up has certainly increased dramatically. Thus virtual rewards not only hold us hostage to the games we are playing, but also to the way in which we play these games. We follow the rewards instead of just playing the game in the way which is most intrinsically fun to us.

That makes you wonder what people would do in a MMORPG if there were no rewards at all, no levels, no gear, no skill increases, no virtual currency. It is hard to imagine people grinding mobs if there is no rewards. But to what extent would they do quests? Would they PvP? Would they be willing to wipe all night at some raid boss? Or would they just not play at all if it wasn't for the virtual rewards holding them hostage?

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