This is not a new topic: MMOs are addictive. So are lots of other things – food, drugs, sex, alcohol, TV and so on. All addictions start for a seemingly benign reason: It’s something the person enjoys doing. Who are we to deny them the pleasures of the things they enjoy?
The defining characteristic of what forms addiction is when it begins inducing irrational behavior, cravings, irritability, and disorders like insomnia. Addiction is most notable when it leads to horrible decision making in both our personal and professional lives.
The prevailing theory for why such addiction occurs is that the reward stimulates or conditions us to repeat the behavior for another reward. This is called positive reinforcement and the reward itself is called a reinforcer.
A reinforcer to one person may be stronger, lesser or even non-existent in another person. After all, not all people enjoy things equally, so the amount of perceived reward is different for all of us. This is one reason why people get into arguments about what is and is not addicting.
By design, games are intended to be fun. Like any other form of entertainment, it’s important for them to tap into our pleasure center and provide a rewarding experience. No one would play a game that they didn’t think was fun.
Prior to subscription games, the expectation when a player bought a game for $50 is that the more fun we got out of the game, the better we felt about that $50. If we liked it enough, we would spend another $50 on that developer’s next game. A game developer only needed to be concerned about making that game experience the most fun possible.
With the introduction of subscription-based MMOs, that dynamic changed. Now it wasn’t simply about making a fun game, but making a game that would induce prolonged play. A good game design therefore protracts the fun over as long a time as possible without losing the player. String out the fun too much, and it’s not fun enough to play. Bunch up all the fun early, and the player will have exhausted all the fun too quickly. The better you can balance these two things, the longer your players will continue to pay the subscription fee.
While it’s possible to become addicted to the more traditional non-subscription games, it’s unlikely any such addiction would be severe due to the fun eventually wearing out. You might become addicted to games in general, but not consumed with a specific title. There are exceptions of course, but these games don’t have the addictive power of MMOs because they lack the same longevity.
MMOs by contrast, are purposefully designed to offer a reward system at intervals that induce continued play. I’ll stop short of claiming MMOs are actively seeking addicts, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that the design conditions players to perform tasks they would otherwise avoid for reward incentives. This environment, intentionally or not, is ripe with positive reinforcers that are ideally suited to encourage addictive behavior.
The ethical dilemma that MMO developers face is a simple one. Do they have an ethical responsibility to act in the best interest of their players?
Many recovering alcoholics will tell you that there are no degrees to alcoholism, you either are or are not an alcoholic. I’ve never believed it’s that black and white. It’s important for ex-alcoholics to take that stance because it eliminates the possibility of rationalization. If you either are or are not, there is no room for the gray and ambiguous “one drink won’t kill me” thinking that leads to relapse. However, I would argue that addiction is really gray if for no other reason than we all don’t share the same reinforcers or psychological conditioning.
I have always believed that MMO developers try and cater to this gray area. They want their players “hooked” but not to the degree that they exhibit a lot of irrational behavior (like losing their jobs or family). It’s a thorny issue because each individual exhibits different reinforcers, so what’s highly addictive to one person may not be remotely addictive to another. In some degree all of us are MMO addicts. I am. And if you are reading this blog, so are you. We may not be junkies willing to sell our soul for a fix, but we have certainly devoted an incredible amount of leisure time to MMO games.
Many of us have struck some kind of life balance around MMOs. We know they are addicting, we know perhaps we spend too much time playing them, but we also know that we enjoy playing them. At some subconscious level we have come to terms with the nature of MMOs and found that despite getting stringed along, we still find it an enjoyable enough experience to keep playing.
The issue I raised in my last article was that I felt Achievements are blatant exploitation. I have always believed that Blizzard devs are at least a little concerned about the best interest of their players. That while they live in this gray area, they also understand they have a moral obligation to treat their players ethically.
The reason the Achievements pissed me off is because it made me realize that this was just an illusion. Introducing Achievements with no new content is entirely unethical and motivated by greed. They don’t have any such ethical consideration for their players. The motivation is profit and keeping you hooked. Am I bitter about that? You bet I am.