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Are intentionally addictive games really so creepy?

The author, David Wong, accuses MMO developersofusing the principles of behavioral psychologyto keep players playing (and paying subscription fees) despite offering little fun or competition.

Above: Despite allour rage, are we still just rats in
an operant conditioning chamber?

He argues that by manipulating players' actionswith positive and negative reinforcement (the articledescribes the methods in detail), game designers hook them, much in the same way that slot machines keep people cranking levers (or pressing buttons,I suppose,since no one plays slots theproperway anymore).

But - to play devil's advocate for a minute - we're asking just how dangerous or "creepy" these techniques really are.

Addiction or "addiction"

Wong first mentions that he understands that victims of videogame addiction "had other shit going on in their lives." As withalcohol, gambling, weird fetish porn, and pretty much everything else that's fun - most people will simply enjoy games, and the minoritywill abuse them due to addiction.

Above: Mindless, addicted grinding, or just two guys havin'
a rollicking good time?

Very few so-called "WoW addicts" are likely clinically addicted. I drinka copious amount ofbooze, but I'm not an alcoholic (or so I keep telling myself).Like many hardcore WoW players, I may have a habit, but I'm not going to start whoring my body forshots ofcheap whiskey(or a Murloc Space Marine, in the case of WoW).

But they're still designed to be addictive - how creepy is that?

Yeah, well, so are a lot of things.

It's not a surprise that game designers take behavioral research, especially the research of B.F. Skinner, into consideration when making games. Games require behaviors, so fundamentally, whether or nota designer considers the mechanics of those behaviors, the principles of behaviorism apply. Behavior, behavior, behavior!

Wong suggests that people play Modern Warfare 2 for the competition, because "everybody likes to win," but that they play WoW because it's a virtualSkinner box- a device designed to be addictive. But MW2 usesmany of the same principles -it offers upgrades at certain levels, and then gives you the option to scrap all the upgrades and reacquire them for "prestige." It's not less addictive than WoW because no one considered how to make it addictive.

And the same principles apply to the design of the aforementioned slot machines, and...pretty much everything else. It's common knowledge that capitalists capitalize any way they can, and psychological manipulationisn't off limits.

But can games do it more effectively?

Games do seem particularly suited to the application of Skinner-esque techniques, and perhapsMMO designers really have honed the manipulation to a point. Though essentially they're just going with what works, which is to be expected.And"Skinner box games" canbeentertaining as long as you aren't prone to unhealthy addiction.

Above: If Blizzard has done its job, he's wondering why the hell he's still playing (but continues playing anyway)

So what's the lesson?

Wong points out in his conclusion (and admits that Blizzard isn't an evil puppet master)thatmany players, even if notaddicted,are using games to fill voids in their lives left by lack of satisfaction with activities like work and school:

"As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the 'guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time' horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn't like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void."

He goeson to suggest that games are perfectly suited to fill this void, which they may be. However,plenty lose themselves in reading fictionor watchingTV, so it's not as if MMOs are the only avenue of escape.

Above: The light soothes the painsof modern living

The root of the problem is all the void-causing, life-drainingthings that drive people to escapism. If you find yourself to be overly consumed with WoW, or any game, or anything at all (obsessively collecting toenails, perhaps?), you ought to take some time to examine your life, and probably seek therapy. They're never going to stop making gameswhich canbetterdistract you from reality, so it's probably best to become comfortable enough with it that distraction isn't necessary.

And if you still haven't read the Cracked article,go do thatand tell us what your take is.

Mar 9, 2010

Associate Editor, Digital at PC Gamer