Monday, February 28, 2011

Virtual Rewards and Mortality

Tobold has a post about the "trap" of virtual rewards which I posted a medium-sized comment on. Of course these rewards could be achievements, gear, titles, gold, high scores or whatever else a game gives you, and the topic is obviously quite relevant - if not specifically directed at - WoW.

I commented because I wasn't quite sure what he was trying to say. I don't put much stock in the idea that virtual rewards are impermanent, because we are impermanent and everything we do is impermanent. If that disqualified things from having value then nothing would have any value.1 I think, though, the phenomenon that he is concerned with is the following. Please bear in mind this that I don't mean to put words into Tobold's mouth, but just that this is what I understand the problem with virtual rewards to be:

When we first start playing a game, we get really excited by the gameplay, the graphics, the world, or whatever it is we like about the game. Most games quickly start giving us some kind of reward for playing. Our character levels up or we get a new weapon or we unlock an achievement, for example. The reason we like the game is because we actually like playing it, but the rewards we get serve as a point to crystalize our enjoyment around. In order to easily attach value to an activity as a whole, we like to be able to give that activity a beginning, a middle and an end and the end is what gets top billing. This, of course, all has something to do with dopamine, apparently, but whatever the chemical explanation, we do seem to have a fascination with conclusions.

So though we liked exploring the game, we affix all of that like to hitting level 2 or getting a new weapon or whatever. Then we affix a bunch more like to hitting level 3, and so on. We create for ourselves the mythology that we are enjoying the game because of the rewards it gives us. At some point we will have ceased enjoying the actual gameplay, but we will have long since convinced ourselves that the rewards are good, and so we will continue to trudge through gameplay in order to get to the next reward.

Humans, being terrible at knowing what makes them happy, will not realize that this is not making them happy, and will continue doing it, expecting it to make them happy despite the fact that reality has stopped supporting that expectation.

The fact that there are undoubtedly tons of people playing WoW who fall into this category, and tons of people playing other games as well doing this same thing, certainly seems like a problem. Perhaps less of a problem than marrying someone you really don't like or spending your entire life addicted to a damaging substance - two other things that can be caused by the same phenomenon - but a problem nonetheless. People are doing something for fun, and not having fun doing it.

Of course I think Tobold is also concerned with the other effect that this has. The longer a game like WoW exists, the more people are playing it who don't actually like playing it. Those people think that they'd be happier if they got more stuff, so they tell the developers they want more stuff. The developers put in more stuff. The game ends up being all about getting this stuff and it loses the reasons why the people liked it in the first place.

But here's where I think things get a little weird. Yes, the developers eventually start taking out the things that made those games popular in the first place. But no one actually likes those things anymore. People may have come to the game because it was hard as hell, because there were insane grinds, because there was massive travel time and forced grouping. Those are the things I was talking about at the beginning - the things they liked that ended up getting lumped in with the virtual rewards. The whole reason, however, that the virtual rewards became the desired thing was because none of that stuff that originally attracted people to the game is enjoyable for them anymore. If they still loved all that stuff then they'd be getting the same satisfaction out of the game they were in the first place. The reason they are on the virtual rewards treadmill is because the game isn't fun for them anymore. So what value are all those things that have been taken away to make the virtual rewards grind faster? Who wants those things anyway? Just because people liked a game for reason X when they first started playing it doesn't mean they will ever want to play any game for reason X again.

Virtual rewards trapping people into games is more of a function of how people are than how games or virtual rewards are. The real problem here is that our love for games, like everything else, dies.

And this is why the reams of blog posts saying that WoW sucks or that it has gone completely wrong or that it is dying are so depressing. It's like looking in on a eulogy - an angry eulogy all about blaming the person who died. Of course this has nothing really to do with the Tobold post I started off talking about, since it isn't a "look at where WoW went wrong" post.

A lot of people are still genuinely enjoying playing WoW. It is quite possible to do so. Lots of people like getting virtual rewards, not because they've fallen into a trap, but because they are fun to get. If you don't like doing these things anymore, then maybe it's time to give up the game, or at least cut back on it. As long as you actually like doing those things, there is no problem.

Game designers can make better decisions that will help games have more longevity and that will make them better games, but they can't do anything about the fact that the individuals who play their game will stop wanting to play one day. They also can't make a new good game by just resurrecting all the things that made an old game good.

1. The fact that I am personally troubled by the idea of affixing value to impermanent things is a major contributor to me needing drugs to be able to function in society. I don't recommend this, and if you can manage it, I'd go with accepting that impermanence is okay instead.

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