Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ethics of MMO Addiction

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.


Ruur said...

Have my babies

Max said...

Well written! It should come to no surprise that Blizzard is doing this. WoW is now only a huge cash cow for them. It's not their main focus anymore when it comes to development and improvement of the game.

You can clearly see the different amount of effort that was put in the game in the first two years (up to BC release) compared to now.

They only need to keep it good enough to maintain most of the current subs until their next MMO is ready (2010/2011?). The result of this is more content and expansions which are "more of the same".

noonien said...

This post is so well-written, well-thought-out and dead on that it earns you a spot on my blogroll. Nothing fancy, nothing fancy.

Thank you, though... I really enjoyed the article! :)

Dave said...

I came across your post linked off a blog.

Very well written!

I might add, though, that this isn't solely the purview of MMOs. Have you ever played a little game called Civilization? :-) That's a great example of a game that asked for one up-front fee to purchase it and then...blam!...all your time is sucked into playing!

I just recently got into MMOs...Champions Online & Star Trek Online. I really enjoy them, but they don't have the same grip on me that the Civilization series had...all the way back to the first one.

I dread this fall...Civ V comes out!

Anyway, I love your post! Have you seen this link:

It was linked from the same article as yours.

Cheers & happy slaying!

CSteward2778 said...

I agree with Dave 100%. I've never fell for the Just...One...More...Time, but there are so many ways to progress thru the game that it literally sucks the time away. I fear I will fail school this fall due to Civ 5. And while I am aware of my possible pitfall, I know it will not stop me from purchasing it. I've never played a paid MMO, but I can really see your point. Great article.

Jesse Jones said...

Exactly on point. I also found this linked @ and I'm glad they linked it.

A bit of a tangent:

Wouldn't it be nice if all the knowledge and planning that goes into making a game addictive were used to 1. Educate children interactively, 2. Make useful (like resource gathering, not price speculation) jobs more engaging, 3. Make violence and extreme ideologies seem boring compared to helping our human civilization grow...?

Kind of a fat question but it makes me wonder.

Jesse Jones said...

Exactly on point. I also found this linked @ and I'm glad they linked it.

A bit of a tangent:

Wouldn't it be nice if all the knowledge and planning that goes into making a game addictive were used to 1. Educate children interactively, 2. Make useful (like resource gathering, not price speculation) jobs more engaging, 3. Make violence and extreme ideologies seem boring compared to helping our human civilization grow...?

Kind of a fat question but it makes me wonder.

WTHenry said...

That's why I never pay to play MMO's, I only play the free (most of them, generic) ones and don't ever buy cash items, mainly the ones who are P2W. Hell, I don't buy even the items from tf2! I won't even talk about DLC's and all that stuff...

But I did get addicted to Ragnarok online (only played on private servers), I think I've spent over 2 years playing that game, but always in a healthy manner. Most of the time I've spent there was because of friends that were contactable only through the game, I barely played it, actually... Most of my logins consisted in sitting somewhere, sending pm's to people and talking with the guild.

I don't really like MMO's, and the 3D ones are pretty generic, like I said, most of them are exact the same thing, only with a few differences here and there, but the gameplay is the same. When I play one, it's because of some friends, or it has a slightly different gameplay, like C9 or Vindictus. Even so, I still play casually, with small logins along the week.

About the WoW achievements, I don't really think it's bad, I mean, achievements are good for those who like to push themselves (although many games have ridiculously easy and simple achievements like "complete chapter X"), but in a game like WoW, that you pay for a subscription, it's obvious exploitation. C'mon, a MMO doesn't even need to have achievements! Those are for offline and competition-focused multiplayer games!

WTHenry said...

I don't really like playing MMO's, most of them are really generic nowadays. I got addicted to Ragnarok Online sometime, but it was on a private server. I don't like the idea to pay a subscription fee to play an endless game, or I rather say, I don't like the idea to pay more than the usual price for a game, like buying DLC's and microtransactions. Those alone are exploitation for sure. Hell, I don't even buy items for tf2.

But back to what I was saying, I got addicted to RO mostly because of my friends that were contactable only through it (most of them didn't even use MSN and etc. because were playing), my playtime consisted in sitting somewhere and talk to my friends, either via pm or guild chat. Sometimes I'd help someone out with some quest or whatever. I've spent over 2 years like that.

Sometimes I do play some MMO nowadays, mostly because a friend wants to play with me, or because it has a (slightly) different gameplay, like C9 or Vindictus, but I never buy anything from the cash shop, mainly if it's a P2W game. I prefer to stick with the multiplayers like tf2 and Castle Crashers.

About the achievements, I don't really think they're bad, they are a good thing, mainly for those who like to challenge themselves (although a bunch of games would have ridiculously simple and easy achievements like "complete chapter X"), but putting some in a paid MMO? Really? C'mon, MMO's don't even need achievements, they already have a multitude of things to do, they should have put actual new content. Achievements are for offline and competition-focused multiplayer games only.