B.F. Skinner is well-known for his theory of behavioral conditioning, but one of his quirkiest studies involved inducing superstition in pigeons (1948). 8 pigeons were placed in a reinforcement contraption (i.e., Skinner Box) and were given a food pellet every 15 seconds no matter what they did. After several days, each pigeon had fixated on a particular superstitious behavior. One pigeon danced counter-clockwise, another two developed a left-to-right head-swinging motion, another attacked an invisible object in the top right corner of the cage, and so forth. This phenomenon has also been replicated among high-school students (Bruner & Revuski, 1961). And given that MMOs are a kind of Skinner Box that offer some random rewards (e.g., rare drops), it's not surprising that superstitious behaviors emerge in MMOs as well.
During our weekly meeting at PARC, we stumbled upon the issue of
superstition in MMOs. Cabell Gathman mentioned that the current "trick
or treat" event in City of Heroes/Villains has some players convinced
that there are ways to increase the odds of a "treat" when knocking on doors. Eric then
mentioned that in his WoW guild, some believe that it's best for
Hunters to be the first to enter an instanced dungeon because Hunters
supposedly have better loot tables. I was also reminded of Raph Koster's account
of the gibberish ghost language in Ultima Online and how many players
were convinced that ghost language could be deciphered and that ghosts answered player's questions.
But the incident that stuck out the most in my mind was the amount and intensity of speculation in Star Wars Galaxies as to how someone unlocked a Jedi character (before the anti-climactic truth was revealed). As in the case of the pigeons, what spurred these speculations was that the game showed system messages to certain players that they were one step closer to the truth without telling them what it was they had done that brought them closer. The sheer creativity and conviction that people had towards the main competing theories was mind-boggling. There was a very well thought out theory involving completion of a chain of specific NPC quests; another involved describing the different requirements for different professions; others focused on unique geographical landmarks that had to be visited. I thought this was actually the most interesting period in the SWG universe because of the player productivity. Unfortunately, the truth (i.e., grind levels, abandon profession, grind again, etc.) was much more banal than any of the main theories.
What's clear is that it's not that hard to create superstitions among MMO players. Several questions come to mind:
- Is encouraging superstition a good thing for an MMO (i.e., leads to player productivity and player-generated content)?
- What is the most interesting case of superstition you have seen?