Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Johnson, Koster, and Blizzard: Is WoW a Big Skinner box?

I just finished reading Stephen Johnson's excellent book Everything Bad Is Good for You (Johnson's blog), and I've restarted reading Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun (book site here). Both books take a look at videogames (or in the case of Johnson, pop culture in general, including games) through the lens of learning and cognitive theory. Johnson posits that the increasing complexity of pop culture (especially as embodied in today's interactive media, ie. games and the internet) has contributed to an upward trend in general intelligence (see the Flynn Effect). According to Johnson, games provide a cognitive workout that isn't really available elsewhere in pop culture.

Koster comes at the same idea from the reverse direction, trying to explain why we like games. He comes up with the idea that our brains constantly hunger for patterns to decipher and understand ("grok" is the word Koster prefers). Games satisfy this hunger with simplified patterns which the player groks through play. The "fun" of the game is in understanding the pattern. The best games, according to Koster, bounce between challenging and do-able, never getting impossibly hard but never becoming too easy. The joy of learning the pattern is balanced by the introduction of new patterns.

These ideas were floating around in my head as I was playing World of Warcraft the other night. WoW does a great job of introducing new patterns at a satisfying pace. Just as I get a handle on one system, another is introduced to keep things interesting. It is certainly a triumph of design in this regard, keeping players interested far beyond the lifespan of most other games. However, I was talking about this with a friend (who has some knowledge of cognitive theory), and her response was "it's just a big Skinner box." This got me thinking about some of the more insidious teaching that is going on in WoW, and the conclusions are a bit scary.

My friend is not the first person to look at MMOGs as operant conditioning devices (this article at Joystick101.org looks at Skinnerian theory in the design of City of Heroes), but her comment got me thinking about what exactly is being conditioned. The conclusion I came to is this: MMOGs condition their players to grind. Even WoW, which seems to be the most popular (at least in the West) and certainly isn't unpleasant, essentially habituates players to the constant collection of xp through almost pointless means.

In operant conditioning, one teaching technique is to sometimes give a reward for each exhibition of the desired behavior. Basically, you teach the subject to operate on the potential of a reward as opposed to the actual reward. In WoW, the further you advance, the longer it is between rewards, and the more pointless grinding you have to do in the interim. At the beginning, you are rewarded with a new item or skill or level almost everytime you kill something or complete a quest. Soon however, the items become commonplace and the skills and levels are fewer and farther between, but you're doing just as much killing and questing in between. And everytime you do level or gain a new skill, it reinforces that feeling of potential reward, and you go right back to the grind.

Is this genius design at work? Or is WoW just a big Skinner box? Or are these options really one and the same?

Am I really this predictable?

PS. Both Johnson's and Koster's respective books are great. And also, WoW is pretty good.


At 1:31 AM, Blogger Foopy said...

In my experience playing WoW for about 2-3 months, I found that I first appreciated it the same way that Koster writes about--it was all about investigating and understanding the mechanics of the gameplay. It was also about a sense of wonder at exploring this new world.

After 2 or 3 months, though, it started to become more of a Skinner box. Once I hit level 30 or so, new gameplay elements weren't being introduced very often--the new skills I got were just "upgrades" from similar, less powerful skills, so the same kinds of strategies usually applied and things got monotonous. Aside from that, though, everything just felt kind of pointless; after so much micromanagement, the whole facade of the game was lifted and I felt like I was manipulating statistics, not role-playing a character in a virtual world. This is what seems to happen with any RPG I play, and what impressed me with WoW was that the illusion lasted 2-3 months--normally it only lasts 2-3 weeks.


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