Do MMOs Purposefully Exploit Human Psychology?

Rorschach Test

I see Tier 9 epic loot gear

Back in “the day” (read: late 80s & 90s), video games were simple things. You bought them, you played them, you moved on (unless you were an obsessive nutcase or Japanese). There was no such thing as downloadable content and the concept of achievements and trophies was rare. Today though, we’re flooded with it. You can barely look at a game on either the PC or a console and not see adverts for DLC or the billions of things you can accomplish inside it. It seems to be happening in every genre of game but it seems most prevalent and heavy handed in MMOs.

Aside from our natural instincts to compete and socialise (things which MMOs dish out in spades), most of us have a real basic calling to collect and complete. Old MMORPGs sucked us in through the idea of levels, gear and even Alternate Advancement points yet new and/or updated games offer these factors in even more abundance. Everquest 2 has player housing and collectible shinies (I’ve witnessed entire groups wiped out by the cursed call of “ooh look, a shiny!”) , Lord of the Rings Online has Deeds, Warhammer Online has the Tome of Knowledge, EVE has hundreds of skills and World of Warcraft has more of these sort of achievements than you could shake a Chinese gold farmer at. And they’re constantly on the increase too. Every expansion, every patch, every new MMO brings more and more achievements, tradeskills, trophies, unlocks and meta games, all designed to give us more things to do and accomplish in an attempt at endless entertainment.

The great irony of it all is that most MMOs now claim to be more “accessible” and “casual” than ever before. Sure, 10 years ago it took 2,000 hours to hit the level cap in Everquest and three years to travel between continents whereas now in WoW you can hit level 85 in a day and instantly teleport pretty much anywhere. But what all about of those little “extras” a game like Warcraft offers? My guess is that if you totalled up every little achievement, guild level, tradeskill (I’m looking at you Archaeology), heroic item, faction reputation and anything else I’ve probably missed out, you’d be looking at a far, far greater number of hours to “complete” WoW than the original EQ.

The big difference between MMOs now and those of yesteryear is, in fact, not the time it takes to complete everything but rather the time it takes to complete a single thing. Instead of taking a week to gain a single level, we can knock them out in a matter of hours (or sometimes even minutes). Yet, we are also presented with an utterly vast number of alternative tasks, goals and collections, many totally meaningless and each appealing to our desire to collect, complete and feel the twang of pleasure from that nano-second of synapse firing.

Strangely enough these simple tasks seems to grip many of us more than the main focus of a MMO ever could and I’m continually astounded at just how many people will willing invest the magnitude of hours it can take into fulfilling a collection of shinies in EQ2 or obtaining some meaningless reputation Achievement in WoW that no one else will ever even know about. Indeed it seems often that we become caught up and obsessed with the endless variety of extras that plague these games.

So the question is, do developers take advantage of this fact on purpose? I mean, are they just honestly giving us more, optional content or are they actually trying to exploit the human condition in order to make us play more? After all, the more we play the more we pay and if a game never ends we have less motivation to unsubscribe. Where is the line drawn between giving us fun, worthwhile and value-for-money content and setting us up purposefully with mindless, repetitive activities that result in artificial synapse dings that enthrall each of us like we’re gibbons in a cage with a Rubik’s cube?

Truthfully, it’s probably a very melodramatic question and I don’t really believe that MMO creators are actively trying to manipulate our subconscious into enslaving us to their game. However, there is no doubt in my mind that they have unwittingly tapped into a very powerful and compelling combination of facets which appeal to the human psyche and attract us like bees to honey. And, if that truly is the case, who’s responsibility is to monitor and limit it all? Should we be free to allow ourselves to be enthralled by a never-ending achievement culture or should there be restrictions in place to protect us from harm?


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  1. Ttrinity says:

    Aye but the devil is in the details. All the ‘things to do’ grows with each ‘expansion’. I think there is a method to their madness. After all, why would continue to shell out monthly RL gold if we beat the game and moved on? Keeping us entranced in achievements and goals is what keeps us playing and playing. You are not mellow dramatic. You are calling it like it is.

  2. rowan says:

    I don’t think it’s sinister per se, but I do believe it is intentional as a way to keep players entertained/subscribed.

  3. Rivs says:

    Of course their taking advantage of us. Doesn’t any business that wants to make more money. Doesn’t things like advertising try to tap into our banal desires (The term sex sells didn’t come from the thin air) MMO’s and games have tapped into us, and we are now like rats that get rewarded with cheese when they finish a puzzle.

  4. Naithin says:

    I wouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss the possibility it’s done on purpose. I can’t remember the source now… *does a quick google search* Ah here we go. A somewhat comical yet still at least brushed with a light seasoning of research is the Cracked article on the matter which can be found here.

    Perhaps a better source though than a comedy site is some of the public research of John Hopson, a games researcher with Microsoft Games Studio. You can find his research here.

    And if I hadn’t already destined this comment straight for the spam bin with two links, here’s a third to balance out the perspectives a little, a rather good article arguing for the fact that designing things to be ‘addictive’ (games or otherwise) is not really creepy or entirely unusual. That article can be found here.

    Now for something a bit of my own rather than the hopefully interesting links, I more or less agree with your idea that all the additional fluff can be addiction inducing, particularly to certain mind sets, and even though it might even be designed to appeal to these mind sets… I dunno, I still don’t see it as being particularly malicious.

    I mean it’d be far worse if they didn’t include these extra fluff things, really. I don’t particularly partake in a lot of the extras myself, but I appreciate that they’re there to be dabbled in.

    I like game worlds to be rather fleshed out and multi dimensional. I’m not saying that achievement points are necessarily the best way to reach this end, but it’s one way. The more the merrier!

  5. leah says:

    its most definitely done on purpose, to keep getting subscription fees. all games, even single player games do something about making the game play out longer, so that customers feel like they got their money’s worth. games did go up in price significantly too, and then of course MMO’s tried subscription models. I remember my very first computer game addiction, heroes of might and magic 2. it had endless re-playability potential, because once you ran out of campaigns and single levels, you had a very convenient editor where you could design your very own maps…or just randomize one and play it. god, I played that game for months.. rpg’s with dungeons did that too, with randomized side dungeon layouts and random monsters/loot. MMO’s just do it on a larger scale, but instead of randomizing the terrain, they randomize loot drops and add a lot of fluff to pursue (not that there’s anything wrong with fluff :P ).

    though I have to say I much prefer the way games like Fallout, Mass Effect etc are doing it – making the game re-playable, by changing outcomes and consequences, and with it, parts of the story, depending on which choices you make. you are still playing the same game, but it feels like a different game :)

  6. Jason S says:

    Your posts just keep getting better and better. I agree with you that I really don’t think developers do this on purpose. What I think causes it though is EXACTLY WHAT YOUR POST IS ABOUT. Remember, the people making these games are human to… Naturally they’re going to want to add features that appeal to the “human instinct” inside of them. Achievements are as much for them as they are for us.

    Everquest was great in its simplicity. Achievements were principally based upon leveling and taking down raid bosses (which btw – is the reason it was and still is, the best raid PvE MMO to date). Other than that, nothing else was important. Even “low-level gear” remained important at higher levels, so progression by itemization, while present, wasn’t a real end all, be all element of the game.

    Personally, I don’t completely enjoy achievements as a game mechanic yet, I can’t stop always wanting more. Like you said, “Aside from our natural instincts to compete and socialize (things which MMOs dish out in spades), most of us have a real basic calling to collect and complete.” It the human condition to always want more and developers have found a way to give us just that with minimal effort.

    With newer MMOs (even EQ now), progression has seeped into the psyche of the average gamer. We see it in WoW with “PUG Forming – Send Achievement if you want to come!” We see it in EQ2 with shinies. We also see it in EVE with (as you said) the hundreds upon hundreds of items one can buy/sell or learn. Achievements have gotten to be such a large part of MMOs that you can even see tangible in-game items from some. “Without so-and-so achievement you wont be allowed in this raid” or even EQ2 shinies now offering raid quality rewards. Love it or hate it, achievements are here to stay.

    • Gordon says:

      That’s a very good point, Jason. It’s entirely likely that the creators of MMOs are just has heavily “enslaved” to the game as the people who play it and never want it to end either and thus willingly create content that will keep us playing for vast amounts of time.

  7. Michael says:

    Call me simplistic, but I think humans live for three main goals: Survival, Love and Worth.

    We eat to survive, socialize to feel loved, and play MMOs to boost our worth. Others may say, well “I play for fun.” But ask them what makes a game fun, and they’ll list activities that give a sense of achievement like completing a level or stomping on a

    It doesn’t even matter that no one else sees these Worth activities, as proven by the popularity of console videogames before. Public trophies just blows up the Worth factor with the prospect of having admirers, some real and most imagined.

    • Gordon says:

      “Survival, Love and Worth.”

      Beautifully put. I think people look for worth in all sorts of aspects of their life, sometimes business, sometimes hobbies. MMOs do appeal quite nicely in that degree don’t they? :)

  8. The Necromancer says:

    Of course they exploits these details, if not how would they make the millions they do, and get so many people on the planet to play MMOs. I have a friend, who’s an achievement hogger he spends more time gaining reputation and achievements and all this other crap, rather than actually playing the game. Some people are just like that, and they control certain aspects to make it more “enjoyable”. Of course it’s not all entirely their fault, as video game culture has evolved we are not just satisfied with playing a game, we want it to be online, we want achievable items or trophies, we want titles to prove our worth, we want immersion and the list goes on……

    Simple games of yesterday won’t cut it for the new generation of gamers. They wan’t always wan’t more. When more mature players will feel less is more.

  9. Stabs says:

    Interestingly Raph Koster is posting about the same thing today:

    I think designers are aware of the psychological tools that addict people, “Brain hacks” as Raph sometimes calls them. But as Raph says good gamification is not just skinnerisation, the awarding of points for nothing. When designers do that, as arguably they did with WoW’s Tol Barad recently, I think they’re pretty aware of what they’re doing – addicting people with treats and shinies rather than with interesting gameplay.

    It can be a fine line. At their best games are seen as “compelling” which is really just “addictive” seen in a more positive light.

    • Gordon says:

      It definitely brings to light the whole question about game addiction, in my mind. I had never really considered something like WoW addictive until I started to appreciate just the sheer amount of constant achievements and forms of meta-progression it offers.

  10. To answer your question: Yes, duh. We certainly do exploit human psychology, even if we don’t put it in those terms. At a very basic level, we design games to be pleasurable to players so that they will have a positive experience and think more highly of our game.

    The more interesting question is to what end is it done, and if it is done with malicious intent. In general, I think that game developers aren’t interested in maliciously affecting people. Most of the time their intent is to provide a good experience and keep rent paid. Of course, when you’re a large corporation sometimes “keeping rent paid” leads to questionable policies. But, I don’t think you can often point to the developer as the problem.

  11. [...] less time, once you add in all of WoW’s faction grinding and achievement hunting, the two games are pretty comparable time investment. If you don’t count the thousands of Alternate Advancement levels you need to earn in EQ, at [...]

  12. Rebecca Judd says:

    Yes, they exploit what people are naturally drawn to. The central point though is that a lot of people don’t actually like the additional content. I’ve read and spoken to many folks who say they don’t see the point of achievements, of collecting, of doing anything other than [insert primary game feature like raiding or PvP here].

    I guess those folks just aren’t wired like that. Maybe they don’t have so much of a draw to the additional content, maybe they just feel that collecting mounts doesn’t fulfill the same integral needs others get from said mount collecting as much as, say, racking up their arena rating while decking themselves in hard to get PvP gear.

    Either way, doesn’t matter. In offering both the primary game features and the additional content, game developers are catering for as many people as possible.

    It’s when games reach a point that they’re trying to do too much, cater for too many, that they’re going to fall over. Question is, how close are MMOs to that point already?

    • Jason S says:

      In terms of casual vs. hardcore… We are already there. I know people hate when someone mentions it but the current crop of MMOs just don’t appeal to most hardcore players anymore… myself included. Gaming companies have 10+ years of experience in MMOs now and all data suggests that their profit is maximized through catering towards the casual gamer.

      Easier content = More Achievements = More Gear = Happier Customers (generalized) = MMOs becoming even MORE “accessible” in the future.

      …It’s a slippery slope.

      Now, that is not to say casual gamers don’t have their place in the MMO industry, but historically, hardcore gamers birthed the “MMORPG” and are now being left in the dark regarding new content and upcoming launches.

    • Gordon says:

      I think each of us has our own natural threshold for this sort of thing and some of us getting fed up with the endless progression offered by MMOs a lot sooner than others. And some people become utterly enslaved and addicted to it which is the scary thing.

  13. Tesh says:

    Of course these MMO things are manipulative. Games in general are to some degree, as Psychochild notes.

    In my mind the question is framed in cost; while catch all the Pokemon or maximizing levels in Disgaea is a brain numbing grind, those are single purchases. MMOs with subs and bad item shops keep demanding money to play, and that’s a different axis of comparison from looking at pure game design. When that addiction is directly monetized, it creates a bad feedback loop that quickly crosses lines of what I’d consider good game design and even ethical game design.

  14. Elliot Reeve says:

    Of course they do, humans are greedy and games feed off this. If you give someone a little something as a reward after a task they will come back for more. As it progresses they will do bigger tasks. This get into a vicious cycle and there’s no going back!!

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